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Christian Symbiosis
June 30, 1991


One Sunday morning, a little boy was given two quarters, one for Sunday School, one for candy on the way home. On the way, he dropped the quarters. One landed safely on the sidewalk, but the other fell into the gutter, through the grate, and into the sewer. The boy lamented, "Oh, there goes the Lord's quarter." And, again the Lord took second place. The treasurer of a large United Methodist Church in Texas announced, "We had our Finance Committee meeting last week and we discovered that we could handle more money than you folks are turning in." Funny thing, we have the same phenomenon in our church. According to yesterday's San Jose Mercury, all the major denominations are facing financial crises.

Many people have trouble with money. I received an announcement this past week of a workshop on Money and Addiction. I had never thought of money as an addiction illness. There are twelve step groups to help addicts deal with alcohol, sex, food, drugs and gambling, and now money.

Philip Slater, in his book Wealth Addiction, asserts, "Money is America's most powerful drug." Even more powerful than heroin or alcohol! Money addiction also causes stress, difficulties in marriage, job disillusionment, mental breakdowns. Here are some signs of wealth addiction.

1. A Closing Hand: Money addicts fear they would be unable to face life without some form of external security. They make money, accumulate it, but never want to do anything with it. They are driven to possess more and more money

2. Confusion About Goals: Money becomes an end in itself. The addict's purpose in life is to make money.

3. Tense Behavior: Devoting their lives to money tends to give such addicts a restless, driven quality. They find it almost impossible to pause and consider the long-range implications of their actions. They are impatient, nervous, stressful, tense, and afraid.

Money gets an insidious, relentless hold on people who have lost sight of God's Mighty Plan. If God did not place you and me on this earth to accumulate money, what is the role of money in our lives?

The Scripture lesson this morning from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 is an excerpt from one of Paul's several letters to the church at Corinth which have been combined into what we call 2 Corinthians. The excerpt deals with the offering being taken for the Jerusalem church. It took Paul eight years to get this offering organized and collected. It must have been a large offering, or he was encountering resistance. Even then, people hated to part with their money!

In Corinth he was meeting resistance. During one visit, Paul presented the need, and received a favorable response. He went on to Macedonia and, using leverage, challenged them to contribute by boasting about the Corinthians' eagerness to participate. But before the Corinthians took the offering, there was a rebellion against Paul. Now he found himself in a predicament. What would the Macedonians do if they found out the Corinthians had reneged on their promise to give? So, Paul wrote a strong letter urging the Corinthians to fulfill their commitment. Paul wrote, 8:10-11,

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something--now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.

Studying Paul's persuasive strategy on the Jerusalem offering gives us a theology of money, a theology of giving, and offers us a glimpse of God's Mighty Plan.

There were two reasons for the Jerusalem offering. First, response to need. Jerusalem was experiencing the effects of a famine. People were hungry. The Christians were struggling to keep their new church going. Paul urged the Corinthians to share out of their abundance. Sharing what God has given you with those in need is God's plan of caring for all of his people. 8:13-4, "It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance." Giving is reciprocal. When you have abundance, share with those in need, and then when you have need, they who have abundance will share with you. That is God's plan.

The second reason for the Jerusalem offering is found in Paul's letter to the Roman Christians, 15:25-27,

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.

Jerusalem was the mother church. Out of Jerusalem came the first missionaries. The Gentiles, non-Jews, who are now in churches throughout the Roman Empire are indebted to Jerusalem. They owe them. Out of gratitude for what they have received, they need to give. We are indebted to those from whom we have received so much. It then becomes our responsibility and our joy to continue what has been received. Sharing is mutual. What we receive, we give. What we need, we receive. What we share comes back to us in many different ways. That is God's plan.

Let's look at an example in nature. Symbiosis is a term used to describe the situation that exists when two organisms live in proximity to one another and have some relationship to each other. In general there are three cases of symbiosis: parasitism, commensalism and mutualism.

In parasitism, one organism lives off the other. Have you ever walked through the woods in Minnesota, and discovered wood ticks sucking the blood out of you? They sustain their lives by sucking the life out of you. Some people are parasites. They would take everything you have, your money, your time, your energy, leaving you drained dry. Addicts to money are good examples. They accumulate, take, but give little, if anything, in return. Let's call this group the suckers.

The second kind of symbiosis is commensalism, where there is one benefactor in the relationship while the other party is not affected one way or the other. The cattle egret is an example. It hitches rides on the backs of cows. When the cow eats grass, it stirs up insects which the egret eats. The cow is not necessarily affected one way or the other. The egret takes but gives nothing in return.

In the human world, we might call these folk the users. They are along for the ride. They let others do the giving, they come along and enjoy what others have built, what others have provided. Their motto is, "Let others do the sacrificing. Let others do the caring. I'll enjoy the fruits of their labors."

The third kind of symbiosis is mutualism, where both organisms need each other. This is God's plan as spelled out by Paul, where sharing is mutual, where we give and receive, mutually beneficial. I call this group the givers. There are suckers, users, and givers.

In 1920 a Methodist layman gave $100,000, which was a great deal of money then, to start a Methodist college in Liberia, Africa. (A new United Methodist university is currently being organized in Zimbabwe.) By 1940, 20 years later, the Liberian college had grown and was meeting the educational and spiritual needs of many Africans. The college decided to hold a special 20th Anniversary celebration and thought it would be appropriate to thank the benefactor. But, the Board of Missions had difficulty finding him. When they did, he refused to see the representative. He had lost everything in the depression of 1929.

But, the school insisted he come, and he was flown to Africa for the gala event. As the benefactor, now bankrupt, walked through the campus, admiring the buildings, meeting the happy, hopeful students, his heart swelled with joy, and he said to the college president, "The only thing I have is what I gave away." If you are a giver, and a giver to this church, for example, and you are asked to account for your wealth, you can point to this magnificent sanctuary, a growing Sunday School, ministries to children, youth and adults; you can point to the school in Japan where Judy Newton teaches, the school in India where Lillian Wallace was principal, the English speaking ministry in Vienna where Glenn and Kay Fuller worked, and say, "This is my legacy! This is what I will leave behind."

In God's plan--Christian symbiosis--both giver and recipient benefit. The one in need and the giver both benefit. In God's plan, we are blessed so that we might help those in need, and out of gratitude, continue the work of spreading the gospel which we have received.

Are you a sucker, a user, or a giver? Are you addicted to money? Who's in charge of your life? You or money? Is money, the pursuit of it and the keeping of it, in charge? Or, do you realize God gave you all you have so you can give it away? All that you ultimately have is what you give away.

© 1991 Douglas I. Norris