Sermon Title “Indescribable Gifts” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I hope that some beautiful mid-November days and worship music about being gathered together and giving thanks have turned your thoughts toward thanksgiving. The holiday we celebrate may be more about preparing our stomachs and our tastebuds, but that is not where the impulse of gratitude begins. The title of this sermon, “Indescribable Gifts,” comes from the end of our text from 2 Corinthians chapter 9. You might think that a sermon about something indescribably would be pretty short, right? All I can say is, don’t get your hopes up; there’s a lot to talk about from this passage.
There is some wonderful imagery here, a combination of spiritual and agricultural, which makes it ideal for Thanksgiving, which celebrates harvest and gratitude. Paul writes about sowing bountifully and reaping bountifully — giving and receiving — and coins the phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver.” This melding of agriculture and faithfulness is gathered together in the phrase from verse 10, “a harvest of righteousness.” This phrase is not original to Paul; he has taken it from the Greek version of the Old Testament book of Hosea where the prophet encourages the people of Israel to “sow righteousness and reap steadfast love.” Paul is expanding on this idea by encouraging the church of Corinth to be generous in sharing the gospel of Christ. Other places in this letter, Paul offers thanks and encouragement to the folks at Corinth.
What you may know is that is a lot of sub-text to Paul’s relationship to the folks at Corinth. We have two letters to Corinth in the New Testament, First Corinthians and Second Corinthians, but we know from Paul’s own writing that there were more letters than that — at least four — and we know that these letters were not simply encouragement to “keep up the good work”; the folks in Corinth were a fractious bunch. One commentator wrote that this letter, 2 Corinthians, contains “appeals, exhortations, rebukes, threats, attacks, counterattacks, self-defense, self-praise, and irony.” (John F. Fitzgerald) That describes a complicated relationship.
From Paul’s own writing in 2 Corinthians 1-4 we know that something painful happened between Paul and someone or a group of someones in Corinth, which has made him stay away. He writes in chapter 2 verse 4, “I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love I have for you.” That is a pretty amazing statement: to have abundant love for a group of people who have caused you pain. And for me, it puts that language of “harvest or righteousness” in a bit different light. Paul is not simply, in the words of James Taylor, encouraging us to shower the people we love with love; he is modeling the grace of Jesus Christ, who loved us even when we did not love him back; who loved us when we ignored him; who loved us while we were yet sinners; who loves us when we are sinners still.
It takes a little reading to plow through Paul’s sentence structure, but there is agreement that the indescribable gift which Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 9:16 is the gift of Christ and his surpassing grace. It’s interesting that Paul would describe that as “indescribable,” because he devotes a LOT of writing and theological reflection to describing Christ and his grace. Paul was the evangelist and writer who pioneered and advanced theology around Christ and his grace.
I believe what is “indescribable” in this passage is the effect which that grace has had on Paul, and the effect he hopes it will have on the ministry of the Corinthian church, and their ability to share it with all people. And here is my question for us this morning: can we receive the grace of Christ if we are not grateful for the gift of Christ?
This question has been rattling around in my head for the past week or so. It started with an email from a first cousin of mine. She is a writer by trade, and has done research and free-lance writing on topics related to religion. She currently exploring a project on people who once professed religious faith but no longer do. Sometimes in polls on religion these folks are called “dones” as in “I’m done with that.” Since the two of us had grown up in Southern California with fathers who were brothers, she wanted to hear about my experience of growing up Brethren and how it had shaped me. It took me back — a ways. Like to the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was in Jr. High and high school. I know she wasn’t looking for a faith statement from me, but I had to tell her, I didn’t just grow up Brethren, I am still Brethren. I still believe in God and I still need Christ in my life. And I wanted to tell her why. And here’s why, or at least part of the ‘why’ for me: I cannot imagine a world without God — not in spite of the evil and suffering which I know exists, but because of it. I don’t believe God causes that, but I’m not sure I would have the hope or the strength to survive, let alone wage peace against evil if it weren’t for the presence of God and the witness of Christ. And the other reason I need a world with God in it is so that I can say, “Thank you.” Thank you for all the beauty which I did not create. Thank you for the little things — the tiny things — which I often don’t even notice. Thank you for the grace of Christ which I am in need of every day, often many times a day. And thank you — most days I am able to say this and pray this — for the opportunity to share the indescribable gift of Christ’s grace with others.
As you know, you can’t share a gift you haven’t received; or a gift you’ve been offered but disdained, or turned your back on. I believe what makes this gift of grace “indescribable” is that how we experience it depends on who we are. The need for grace is universal, in my opinion, but how we experience that need or that brokenness in our lives, and how we acknowledge and accept the unmerited love of Christ may be different, too. If profound experience leaves you at a loss for words, the gift of grace may be indescribable. But what I want to tell you this morning is that the gift of grace is inseparable from the gift of gratitude. If you have accepted Christ’s grace grudgingly, unwillingly, or angrily: you have not accepted Christ’s grace. You may still find yourself crabby or reluctant or angry — those emotions happen to all of us — but if God’s gift of grace does not make you grateful, there is a disconnect somewhere which needs to be addressed.
There are many things which we can offer to God: our good works, our human wisdom, our money, our talents. None of these are bad things, but if we claim to be offering our gifts to God and we are not giving thanks for the indescribable gift which God has given to us, our motivation is out of alignment and will run us off the road sooner or later. God wants our gifts offered with grateful hearts, not with ulterior motives. Gifts offered out of self-righteousness or spite or hostility will shape us in ways may not intend. A gift which makes the giver bitter or angry is not something God wants. A gift which is given to manipulate others is the opposite of generosity.If you have received the gift of Christ’s grace, I hope that is cause for gratitude and rejoicing, even when circumstances are difficult. This is the harvest of righteousness which Paul is writing about. If you have not received the gift of Christ’s grace, or think you might have a long time ago, but are not very happy about it any longer, I pray that you would find a way to give thanks with a grateful heart. The indescribable gift of God, Jesus Christ, is the best thing we can receive at any time of the year. This Thanksgiving may your home be filled with friends, you table heaped with good food, and your hearts filled with a harvest of righteousness. Amen