28 June 2015

The Call to be Generous

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

5th Sunday after Pentecost/ 28th June 2015

Preaching from Paul’s letters is always a bit of a challenge.  That’s because reading his epistles is like reading someone else’s mail.  The letters have a specific audience in mind, addressing issues or crises that were relevant to a particular congregation.  Paul knew his audience; they knew him.  Paul wrote as pastor, theologian, friend; he wrote as judge and healer, evangelist and prophet.  Paul never wrote his letters with the thought that they would be read by other churches, centuries, millennia after him.  They were never written with us in mind. He would be stunned to know that Presbyterians in Catonsville are reading and hearing his words today.  Reading the epistles is like reading someone else’s mail.

That’s the challenge.  How do we discern what applies to both Paul’s church and ours—and what doesn’t?  Paul’s understanding of the Church is in many ways alien and far removed from how we view and “do” church today, with denominations and institutions and hierarchies, professional ministers, multi-staffed congregations, choirs, congregations with enormous buildings and budgets.  Yes, reading someone else’s mail. 

 However, this is also part of the “fun”—if I can use that word—of reading Paul.  His letters, written (approximately) between 50 and 60 AD, are actually older than the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Reading Paul means we are actually closer to the historical Jesus, closer to Jesus than the gospel narratives, which were written to look and sound like histories (although they’re really not, technically, histories). 

When we read Paul, we are given a window into was life what like in the early Church.  We discover how churches are birthed and then nurtured.  We see how churches struggle and fight and get themselves into trouble.  We see how Christians wrestle with their identities, wrestle with who they are vis-à-vis a broader, alien culture/society that doesn’t understand or value its message and ministry.  We see how Christians slowly come to reflect theologically on grace and salvation, reconciliation and service.  And here, in particular, in this eighth chapter of 2 Corinthians we discover a lot about what the first followers of Jesus and their worshipping communities were like.

So, what were they like?  Generous.  They were generous because they knew something of God’s grace.  Grace and generosity always go together, hand-in-hand.  Paul’s not demanding that the Corinthian Christians need to become generous.  He’s not commanding them.  It’s something else, as we will see.

Paul wants them to know what has been occurring in other churches, in other communities of Christ.  “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:1-2).

While it’s not exactly clear what the “severe ordeal of affliction” was, the generosity that Paul is referring to here is the way they responded to the giving campaign he organized, which provided support for Christians in Jerusalem.  This is what’s known as the Jerusalem Collection, “the contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:26).

Paul spent close to ten years soliciting funds for the collection, “a collection he took up among the Gentile churches to help Judean believers who were facing harder than usual economic times as a result of a famine during the mid to late 40s. Paul and Barnabas made an initial famine-relief visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 46 and delivered a monetary gift from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30). At that time the Jerusalem church expressed the hope that the believers associated with Paul would continue to remember the Judean believers, which Paul was more than eager to do (Gal 2:10).”[1] The collection effort was successfully completed in A.D. 57.  Paul and a group of delegates chosen by the contributing Gentile churches delivered the funds.

Raising funds of this kind required enormous investments of time and energy. Why did Paul do it?  Three possible reasons.  First, “the need was genuine. The Jerusalem collection was first and foremost an act of charity. Famine on top of persistent food shortages, double taxation [levied by the Roman Empire] and overpopulation crippled an already precarious Palestinian economy. The situation was undoubtedly aggravated by a voluntary pooling of assets in the early years of the church's existence (Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37) and the constant need for the mother church to support the itinerant activities of its members and extend hospitality to visitors from other churches. Then, too, it was common, as it is today, for diaspora Jews to settle in and around the ‘holy city’ at retirement; the result was a steady increase of widows and elderly in need of assistance.”

Second, “the relief fund served as an important, visible expression of the interdependence of believers worldwide.” Finally, the collection was a tangible representation of the heart of the gospel—that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female (Gal 3:28). In particular, Paul may have had high hopes that the relief fund would allay any lingering fears and concerns Jewish Christians had regarding [his] Gentile mission.[2] "Their hearts will go out to you," he says, "because of the surpassing grace God has given you" (2 Cor. 9:14).

We could be crass and say that Paul was effectively being a fundraiser here, enticing the Corinthians to support the campaign.  It’s true; Paul wants the Corinthians to give more because he knows how wealthy they are.  He knows there’s money in that community.  And since in Christ we are part of a larger, ecclesial family, engaged in a ministry beyond the confines of a particular church, the body of Christ has an obligation to care for its sisters and brothers who are in need.  It’s a “question,” Paul says, “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” (2 Cor. 8:14).  That’s what Paul hopes for, a sharing of resources, but that’s not where he begins his appeal to the Corinthians.

Instead, he tells them about the Macedonia churches and what he saw at work in them.  He begins with a reference to God’s grace—the unsurpassable, unearned, benevolence of God, which we have come to know most profoundly in the life and witness of Jesus Christ. What is grace? The novelist Marilynne Robinson describes it as “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”  I wish to thank President Barack Obama for providing the Robinson quote.  He referred to her definition of grace in his eulogy/sermon preached at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, on Friday in Charleston, SC. Thank you, Mr. President. I, too, am a huge Marilynne Robinson fan.

“A reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind.” Grace is not what we expect. It’s never logical.  It’s the unexpected, surprising outcome that can’t be deduced or explained from the evidence or description of present circumstances.  It would be logical, rational for Paul to say to the Corinthians: “Look, you have more than you need, be generous to others in need.”  But that’s not the story he tells.  Instead, he says of the Macedonian church: “for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” 

It doesn’t make any sense.  Joy found in affliction.  Abundant joy found in “severe ordeals of affliction.”  Not despair in affliction.  Not sorrow in affliction.  Not worry, anxiety, or fear in affliction.  Joy.  Lots of it!

And poverty.  Poverty, suggesting, rationally, logically, that they have nothing left to share.  Poverty that should cause them, we assume, to be stingy and selfish, to save and horde their resources.  But, no.

Joy in affliction mixed with extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity. This is a really good description of what grace looks like and feels like.  For, “as I can testify,” Paul writes, “they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,” …so that we might “complete this generous understanding…” (2 Cor. 8:3-7).  It’s not logical.  It doesn’t make sense.  But that’s what grace does.

And that’s why Paul doesn’t demand that they be generous.  Generosity doesn’t work that way.  He can’t force them to give more.  He can’t make a command out of grace.  He doesn’t want to test them or force them.  He could have said, “Look, here’s our need.  There are 100 people in this church, let’s divide it up evenly.”  That’s too rational.  That’s too logical.

But, in a way, there is a test involved. He is testing them—or asking them to test themselves around one issue: “the genuineness of [your] love.”  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Paul is basically asking them: Where’s your heart?  Where’s your treasure? Where is the love?  Where is your love for God, for what God has done for you and shown you in Jesus Christ?  Where is the love of Christ overflowing in your lives?  Where is the grace?

Grace itself, when it’s understood or apprehended, when it’s experienced, is always generous, and abundantly so. The experience of grace yields generosity.  That’s the result.  Grace is a bottomless reservoir of goodness.  When we know this—and know it again and again—when we discover or rediscover this grace throughout our lives—or, better, when grace discovers us—generosity begins to flow like an ever-flowing stream.  That’s how we become generous.

It’s been said that Christians are generous people because we serve a generous God. We’re not the only generous people around, of course. But there’s something within our experience of God’s love in Christ that allows us to be remarkably giving. It’s a generosity that stunned the ancient world—and still amazes the world today.  Early Christians cared for their own members, within the church.  And then they did something radically new and different—they began to care for those in the wider community!  They cared for people who weren’t in their immediate family or household or clan or tribe (which was the norm in Roman society), but fellow followers of “The Way,” former strangers now friends in the body of Christ. And then the body of Christ cared for strangers and saw within the face of the other the face of God. Fast forward several years and we will see the origins of the monastic movement, communities that cared for the needs of wayfarers and strangers.  Christians could do all of these things because their hearts were changed and transformed. The pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) once said of early Christians, “The godless Galileans feed not only their poor but ours.”[3]  The Romans considered Christians (and Jews) godless because they didn’t believe in the gods.  The Romans also considered Christians “unethical,” by the standards of their day, because Christians cared for their neighbors, they cared for strangers.[4] 

Paul invites, he doesn’t command, us to “excel” in generosity, in caring for the needs of the saints. We have no excuse, knowing how generous God has been toward us.  Paul extends an invitation.  He invites us to examine the “genuineness of [our] love” (2 Cor. 8:8) for God and what God means to us, and what we mean to God, both individually and collectively as a church.  And then in gratitude—deep gratitude—with full and overflowing and open hearts he invites us to to be:
generous (or more generous) with our financial resources; 
generous with our time;
generous with our gifts and skills and talents; 
generous with grace; 
generous with our love;
generous with our hearts.

All of this was true for Christ’s people in Paul’s day and—as we all know—it’s still true in ours.


[1] For a concise summary of the Jerusalem Collection, see.
[2] For more on the Jerusalem Collection, see
[3] Cited in Dan Clendenin, “This Grace of Giving.” See also “Julian the Apostate: Jewish Law and Christian Truth,” in Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 164ff.
[4] See also Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

21 June 2015

With Hearts Open Wide

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/ 21st June 2015

This morning I feel a little like Jon Stewart.  The host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart is the anchor of a fake daily news show that reports on current events.  He’s funny and brilliant and insightful.  He has a marvelous way of giving witness to what’s happening in the news, cutting through all the fluff and lunacy and sensationalism of the 24-hour news networks, all of them.  Here’s the irony, this fake news show has become the chief way many actually get their news.  He has the courage to say what others in the media should be saying (but aren’t) and he keeps us honest and real and helps us to laugh.  Stewart is about to leave the Daily Show, which will be a very sad day for many, including me.  Stewart helped to keep me sane post-9/11 and during the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Several years ago Stewart had Jim Wallis on his show.  Wallis is the founder and editor of Sojourners, a Christian evangelical & social justice magazine.  Wallis hailed Jon as one of our contemporary prophets because he has a way of helping us see the truth and to laugh. I would agree.

On Thursday evening Stewart began the show in a somber tone.  In light of the massacre this past week at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Stewart said, “I have no jokes tonight.  I have nothing for you.  Nothing but sadness.”  That’s a little how I feel this morning. It’s how I felt Friday afternoon while I was working on the sermon.  I have nothing.  Nothing but sadness. 

What can one say?  What is there left to say that hasn’t already been said countless times before?  We’ve been down this road.  Then why are news network anchors and the politicians they interview still so shocked and appalled that something like this could happen in America?

Stewart said to his audience, “So I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend it doesn't exist… I'm confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won't do [a damn thing.]” His language was actually stronger here. “Yeah. That's us.”

Yes, we’ve been down this road before.  Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church south of Baltimore, sadly, has been down this road many times before.  Prior to this week, I wasn’t aware of this church’s extraordinary witness (to my shame).

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
Emanuel was organized in 1816 when 4,736 black Methodists left their white-controlled church in protest when the leadership decided to build a garage over a black cemetery.  One of the church’s early founders was Denmark Vesey (1767-1822).  Originally Presbyterian, Vesey left Second Presbyterian Church, “outraged by the pro-slavery message coming from the pulpits in Charleston.”[1]  White ministers were advised to lecture their black congregants on their “duties and obligations,” and avoid troublesome stories, such as Israel’s exodus out of Egypt or Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Vesey, a lay leader, taught the members of the church to read and write, which was against the law.  In 1818, city authorities raided the church, then arrested and whipped 140 “free Negros and slaves.” In 1819, the church was closed down for a time and in 1822, the minister, the Rev. Morris Brown (1770-1849), was warned not to allow his church to become a “school for slaves.”

Vesey went on to plan what would have been one of largest and most brutal slave revolts in the history of the South.  The plot was foiled. Vesey and dozens others were arrested and executed, and the city razed the church.  It was eerie to discover this week that the proposed date for the revolt and mass exodus of blacks out of Charleston was June 17.  Did the shooter this week know this or was it a coincidence?

Emanuel church then went underground and worshipped in secret.  At the end of the Civil War, missionaries from Baltimore were allowed past the Union blockade at Hilton Head, made their way to Charlestown and reorganized the church.[2] Vesey’s son rebuilt the church on the site where it stands today, dedicated in 1865. (The present building was constructed in 1891.)  The minister, the Rev. Benjamin Randolph (1820-1868), served as a chaplain in the 26th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops during the war.  Several years later he won a seat in the State Senate.  In 1868, Reverend Randolph was assassinated by three men in broad daylight as he boarded a train in Abbeville County, South Carolina.  Emanuel’s pastor who died on Wednesday, the Rev. Clementa Pickney, was the latest in a long tradition of pastors serving in public office, both in South Carolina and in Congress.

Nine people murdered on Wednesday night at a Bible study—a Bible study.  Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson, the Rev. Clementa Pickney.  Extraordinary people of faith.  Leaders, counselors, mentors. 

What do we do with this?  How do we make sense of this?  Like so many other tragedies we have faced lately, it’s beyond comprehension.  But this is different.  Truly innocent people were slaughtered in a church, in what should be a safe place.  This hits us a little too close to home.
There are no easy answers.  There will be—there already are—people who will politicize this event or direct our focus away from what really happened in Charleston.  It was a hate crime.  It was about hate.  It was a terrorist act.  And it was blatantly racist.  It was about racism.  It wasn’t an attack on faith or the church.  It’s not about treating the mentally ill; although the shooter was very ill, there’s no evidence of mental illness.  It’s not about gun violence, although this horrific act involved violence with a gun.  There’s nothing ambiguous about this.  It’s there for us to see, that “gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend it doesn't exist.” There’s no avoiding it.  And, yet, we would rather avoid it, pretend it’s not there, believe we live in a post-racial society.  That’s just delusional.  The pain of the past and present are real—and it’s more real in black than in the white communities.  The sin of our racist past is real and it continues to play itself out from generation to generation.  Racism needs to be removed out from the shadows and brought into the light of day.  It needs to be acknowledged and confessed, publicly, honestly, for what it is: sin.  Individual sin and corporate sin. Yet, why are we so reluctant to name as such? I watched a news show on Saturday morning with a panel of guests discussing what occurred in Charleston. The question was asked, “Can we say racism is sin?” One person avoided the answer. Later I discovered that he was a pastor.[3]  Why are we afraid to say racism is sin?  Confession is required in order for grace and healing, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation to occur. 

Reconciliation—that’s the backstory of Paul’s second epistle to the church in Corinth. Division and dissension, animosity and distrust torment the Corinthian congregation.  The church, the body of Christ, is tearing itself apart. When a church tears itself apart it’s always an expression of faithlessness, hypocrisy, and atheism—a-theism, because it is acting as if God did not exist, acting as if God is not in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, acting as if love and forgiveness and grace and reconciliation are all lies.  When we act and live forgetting all of this we become a-theists. If we really knew that the Reconciling God was at work in us, then our lives would reflect it, our families, our relationships, our communities, our churches would reflect it. 

Reconciliation, this is how Paul describes God’s mission in Christ.  Hear what he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, just before we get to chapter 6: “…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making God’s appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:17-20).

Reconciliation is possible, according to Paul, because we are reconciled to God.  When we know that we are reconciled to God, only then can we be reconciled to one another.  Theologically, biblically-speaking this is the only way.  How can we say that we’re reconciled to God when we are alienated from our sisters and brothers, particularly our sisters and brothers in the body of Christ?  

Back in 1967, in the throes of the Civil Rights struggle, our denomination wrote a confession, known simply as the Confession of 1967.  C-67 addressed the crisis of the church and society at that time.  The theological theme at the center of the confession is reconciliation.  We have come a long way since then, both as a church and as a society, but we still have a long way to go.  Listen carefully to these words from the Confession:

"God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess."[4]

After hearing this, it’s easy to become depressed or despondent. Yes, we have come so far and there’s still far to go.  I understand why people don’t read or listen to the news these days, because it can be so depressing.  There are days when I just want to move to a cottage on an island off the coast of Scotland and I wouldn’t care if it rained every day.  It’s easy to give up, to checkout emotionally.  

Apostle Paul, Catacomb of St. Thekla
on the Via Ostiensus, outside Rome.
Then I think of the Apostle Paul and consider the sufferings and struggles of his life and ministry.  Just consider all that Paul experienced in his life:  hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger.  Treated as an imposter and a fake, on the verge of death, yet living; punished, but not killed. He’s talking about his own experience here, about what he endured for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of knowing and telling others about the love of the Reconciling God! 

And, so, if the Reconciling God is at work in you and me, then don’t be surprised if the world is against you or if people are out to get you or stand in your way or even try to kill you to prevent you from giving witness to God’s grace and love. But also don’t be surprised, when you know that the Reconciling God is at work in you, that is a different spirit at work in you, a spirit of resilience and confidence and hope (the kind you find in so many congregations around the world, particularly the Christians of Emanuel Church that we heard from this week), a determination and energy to serve and to love and to heal and to forgive, a spirit of patience and kindness and holiness and genuine love and mercy.  That’s what happens, that’s how we know the Reconciling God is at work in our lives and in the church: when grace abounds when the world looks like it’s going to hell all around you.  There is a different Spirit at work within us.  It’s the presence of such a Spirit that allowed Paul to write these extraordinary words: we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Only a person rooted in the Spirit of the Risen Christ could claim something like this.

It’s significant, then, that after making this amazing affirmation of faith, Paul followed, twice, with an appeal to the church to open wide its hearts.  “Our heart is wide open to you,” he wrote to the Corinthians.  “There is no restriction in our affections,” he wrote to them.  The restriction was in the Corinthian church; they restricted their hearts.  And so Paul invites them, “…open wide your hearts” (2 Cor. 6:11-13).

To know that the Reconciling God loves us, to know that this is the God at work within us and within the world, this is what opens our hearts.  That’s what the love of God does.  The openness of our hearts is a pretty good indication of God’s presence in us.

Open hearts.  That’s what we need today.  More open hearts.  And in the face of so much pain and suffering and tragedy it’s critical that we keep our hearts open—more than just a crack, but open wide.   It’s so easy for us to just close off our hearts, close off the hurt and pain, shut down.  Trauma, hurt, events from the past have a way of closing our hearts, cutting us off from life, making us numb.  So we recoil, go inward (not in a good way), restrict, constrict our emotions—especially empathy—pull back, pull away, become isolated, alienated, lost.

In times such as these, especially during times of crisis and challenge, we often don’t know how to pray.  Perhaps, then, this could become our simple prayer.  This is my prayer.  This is what I have to offer this morning, a prayer to be said again and again: 
Reconciling God, open my heart.  
Open my heart, Lord.  
Open my heart—wide
And keep it open – no matter what.


[1] Douglas R. Egerton, “Before Charleston’s Church Shooting, A Long History of Attacks,” New York Times, June 18, 2015.   See also the interview with Egerton in The Atlantic, “The Fight for Equality in Charleston, from Denmark Vesey to Clementa Pickney.” 
[2] Hear Clementa Pickney narrate the history of the Emanuel church here.
[3] Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, June 21, “Defining Racism in America”.
[4] Confession of 1967, Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA), 9.44. Inclusive language text. .