Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Riches of God’s Grace” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
July 1, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am preaching on the riches of God’s grace.

Throughout our lives many of us experience an internal tug-of-war between trusting the riches of God’s grace and trusting earthly riches.  Let’s not kid ourselves; earthly riches can be very helpful.  In the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life when the angel Clarence tells George Bailey that there is no money in heaven, George retorts “Well, it comes in pretty handy down here, bud!”  George Bailey is absolutely right—money does come in handy down here.  And yet you and I know that scripture warns against putting our trust in earthly riches.

In the Old Testament we read in Proverbs, “Do not wear yourself out to get rich.  When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Proverbs 23:5-6).  In the New Testament Paul similarly cautioned his young protégé Timothy:

Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains (1Timothy 6:9-10).

Jesus himself warned, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23)—and “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

But even though we may be familiar with all these scriptures warning us not to trust earthly riches, we still do sometimes—or more than sometimes.  Along these lines, many years ago I heard a preacher ask a particularly annoying and nosy question, “Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you?”  I remember thinking, “Could you please ask me a different question?”

During the tumultuous financial year of 2008, when the real estate bubble burst and subsequently the stock market crashed, there were several parishioners at the church I served who met with me in my office—wealthy men utterly devastated and sobbing in my office, wiping their faces with their tailored, monogrammed cufflinked shirts.  And lest you think I am pointing fingers, I will confess that I have also learned the hard way the folly of trusting in earthly riches.

In comedienne Amy Schumer’s gritty but touching 2016 memoir The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, she describes what it was like when after being used to her family being extremely wealthy as a little girl her rich father lost nearly everything:

I had some extravagant, rich-person things as a little kid.  We moved out of the city to a nice suburb on Long Island when I was five, where we would eat lobster…I don’t remember how it felt to lose everything, but I do remember men coming to take my dad’s car when I was ten.  I watched him standing expressionless in the driveway as it was pulled away…My mom stayed in the house denying reality like it was her job when those men came to take away the black Porsche convertible (26-28).

In the wake of her fame and resulting riches Amy Schumer adds:

A couple years ago, before I had “real” money, I asked (writer and director) Judd Apatow if it was fun being rich, and he explained to me that once you become rich you find out all the good things in life are free.  He said you can buy a house, good sushi, and CD’s, but that’s about it.  Still, as someone who waited a lot of tables and ate off people’s plates on the way back to the kitchen, fancy sushi sounded pretty good to me (27).

But earthly riches are fleeting.  The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has a sobering piece of conceptual art by Adrian Piper called “Everything # 21,” which consists of four large blackboards each covered with the same short sentence handwritten twenty-five times in large cursive.  Here is that sentence: “Everything will be taken away.”  Over and over again, one hundred times, “Everything will be taken away.”  Adrian Piper is not only emphatic, he is right—when it comes to your riches, “Everything will be taken away.”  Of the many funerals I have led I have yet to do one for someone who figured out how to take their stuff with them to eternity.  You can’t even drive a black Porsche convertible there.

Amy Schumer’s friend Judd Apatow is right, “all the good things in life are free.”  And yet there is something that far surpasses “all the good things in life”, something that is not fleeting at all, something that no one can ever come and take from your driveway—the riches of God’s grace.

Today I am preaching today on just one verse from the passage from the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).  In this verse the Greek word translated as “generous act” is actually the word “grace”—in other words, “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Jesus left heaven for you.  Jesus became poor for you.  Scripture tells us Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).  Jesus did not have any earthly riches at all.  Jesus was born in a barn, worked as a carpenter, and as he said about himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

And on Good Friday Jesus became poor to the point of allowing everything to be taken away—even his life.  On Good Friday Jesus was himself pierced with many pains on behalf of all those who put their trust in earthly riches, including you and me.  On Good Friday Jesus “became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

The good news of the gospel is that while earthly riches are not trustworthy, the riches of the grace of God are trustworthy, forever trustworthy, no matter what.  In Jesus, scripture tells us, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7-8)—“by grace you have been saved… so that in the ages to come (God) might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5 and 7, italics added).

When I was very young I used to spend hours up in the tree in our front yard.  I do not remember what kind of tree it was, but it was big and tall, and perfect for climbing, swinging, or just sitting near the top and daydreaming.  I loved that tree.  My only bad memory related to that tree was when I was six years old and tried to jump from one branch to another in order to impress a girl who was standing below.  Her name was Virginia, my first crush.  I fell and broke my left arm—but of course that was not the tree’s fault, it was mine.  After getting a cast on my arm my mom took me to the grocery store and let me pick out any candy I wanted.  I loaded up on Fruit Stripe gum and Life Savers, so there was an upside.  Of course when I finally got my cast off, I went right back to climbing that wonderful tree.

Along these lines I remember my first grade teacher reading us the classic 1964 children’s book by Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.  As a young kid I loved this book and as an older kid I still do.  In light of today’s passage from 2 Corinthians I think it is a beautiful picture of what Jesus’ becoming poor “so that by his poverty you might become rich” looks like, a beautiful picture of the riches of God’s grace:

Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy.  And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.  He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples.  And they would play hide-and-go-seek.  And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade.  And the boy loved the tree very much.  And the tree was happy.

But time went by.  And the boy grew older.  And the tree was often alone.  Then one day the boy came to the tree and the tree said, “Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy.”  “I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy.  “I want to buy things and have fun.  I want some money.  Can you give me some money?”  “I’m sorry,” said the tree, “but I have no money.  I have only leaves and apples.  Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city.  Then you will have money and you will be happy.”  And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered her apples and carried them away.  And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time and the tree was sad.  And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy and she said, “Come, Boy, climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and be happy.”  “I am too busy to climb trees,” said the boy.  “I want a house to keep me warm,” he said.  “I want a wife and I want children, and so I need a house.  Can you give me a house ?”  “I have no house,” said the tree.  “The forest is my house, but you may cut off my branches and build a house.  Then you will be happy.”  And so the boy cut off her branches and carried them away to build his house.  And the tree was happy.

But the boy stayed away for a long time.  And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak.  “Come, Boy,” she whispered, “come and play.”  “I am too old and sad to play,” said the boy.  “I want a boat that will take me far away from here.  Can you give me a boat?”  “Cut down my trunk and make a boat,” said the tree.  “Then you can sail away… and be happy.”  And so the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away.  And the tree was happy…but not really.

And after a long time the boy came back again.  “I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree, “but I have nothing left to give you.  My apples are gone.”  “My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy.  “My branches are gone,” said the tree, “You cannot swing on them.”  “I am too old to swing on branches,” said the boy.  “My trunk is gone,” said the tree, “You cannot climb.”  “I am too tired to climb,” said the boy.  “I am sorry,” sighed the tree, “I wish that I could give you something but I have nothing left.  I am just an old stump.  I am sorry.”  “I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest.  I am very tired.”  “Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could.  “Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting.  Come, Boy, sit down.  Sit down and rest.”  And the boy did.  And the tree was happy.

On the cross, the ultimate Giving Tree, Jesus became poor in order to make you rich.  Regardless of what happens to your earthly riches, you are always welcome to return to the Giving Tree and receive anew the riches of God’s grace.