Sunday, December 21, 2008

A House Is Not a Home

A House Is Not a Home

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2008

II Samuel 7:1-16

See now, I am living in a house of cedar,
but the ark of God stays in a tent.

Frederick Buechner once wrote a book called Telling the Truth. It seems like a good title for a book on a religious subject, truth telling. In the first chapter he described — from firsthand experience — the feeling that most preachers know and the scenes that we see when we step behind these things called pulpits:
So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen... Fresh from breakfast ... and a quick run-through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe up at the knee so that he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else...

In the front pews, [some folks] turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation...there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand...

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence…is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening to it including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?

Let him tell them the truth.1

Telling the truth is what Nathan and the other prophets of the Old Testament were called to do. Tell the truth no matter what. Even if you had just the night before told the king to build a temple if he desired, if the truth came to you that it was not something God wanted, then, if you were any kind of prophet, you were obliged to tell the truth, even if it made you look foolish, because the truth is what counts.

Kathleen Norris recently contemplated the house-building plans of David and set them alongside the building-a-house-for-you that came to fruition at last in the person and work of Jesus:
My FAVORITE Christmas book is The Donkey’s Dream, which is about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem. Meant for young children, Barbara Helen Berger’s story is a brilliant and subtle work of theology. Or perhaps anti-theology, as it allows simple images to tell us more than words can convey about what the incarnation signifies. As the donkey ambles and dreams, we see that he is carrying a luminous city, with many gates and towers. Next we see on his back a sailing ship, rocking on the sea like a cradle, and then a flowing fountain, and then a rose. Finally we see what he has been carrying all along—a pregnant woman in a blue robe spotted with stars.

The child who trusts the wisdom of these pages has a head start on David, who had to be convinced by Nathan that it is not we who must build God a tabernacle, but God who chooses to dwell in and among us. Our job is to accept the burden. Human concepts of grandeur change—David’s cedar house might today be a McMansion of fake stone, with chandeliers, central air and cedar-scented room fresheners—but God’s designs endure forever. It is in people, and not things, that God wishes to live.2
Kathleen Norris is suggesting that if we wish to find the tabernacle wherein God desires to be worshiped, we must look inside ourselves. We, gathered in God’s name, are the living tabernacle of God.

Seems that was an idea Nathan had to return to, after he had blurted out his acquiescence to the king’s idea that it was time to build a nice stone house to hold the old ark of the covenant that had traveled with the people from Egypt to the promised land all those years ago. David the king hadn’t even gotten very specific in the idea he was sharing with Nathan before Nathan promptly awarded him a blanket blessing to build whatever it was he had in mind.

Why worry over David’s ancient plans this morning, in December, just 4 days from Christmas? Well, the most obvious of reasons is that the gospels and other writing in the New Testament point to this passage in particular when reasoning that Jesus came to earth to claim the very throne of David in a way no earthly king had done before. Remember Jesus saying to the people before his crucifixion, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days”? They thought he meant the temple of stone in Jerusalem, but the gospels let us in on the secret that he was referring to the temple of his body, which would be killed but in three days would rise again.

Never mind trying to contain me in a temple of stone, God declared, “the Lord declares to you,” Nathan reported to the king, “that the Lord will make you a house.” And that house, as we now know, was not a house of stone, but a house of generations, from which one day would come the King of kings, Lord of lords.

At Christmas time, we are witnessing the onset of the building of that house for God which would not ever be destroyed by marauding armies, because that house was the very body of Christ, by which all those baptized in his name become householders, participants in the very work and witness of God. It’s a very big story.

Reflecting on the implications of that story can be a difficult assignment for those of us who are called not only to speak the truth, but to minister year after year in a pastoral relationship with people. Want to know why some sermons can drift into blandness? It’s no mystery. Preachers love their people, and don’t want to raise a fuss. Most preachers I know can relate to Fred Buechner’s comment about the anchor in the throat, and even to the line about “the honor of the thing.” One other thing I know for sure. The old proverb says that familiarity breeds contempt, and this certainly can be the case where preaching is concerned. One of my favorite scholars once wrote a book about preaching the Gospel to those who have already heard.3 The familiarity of the faces of preachers and of their message is enough of a problem that a whole book seemed called for.

Kathleen Norris concluded her little devotion I referred to a few minutes ago, saying,
And so it goes with us, much of the time. We cling to what we know, the ordinary life that pays the bills. But God keeps calling and, surprisingly, is often answered by the least among us, the most unlikely people from the provinces. It is the barren Hannahs, the young Davids and innocent Marys who hear and believe, and further God’s reign on earth. As many times as we turn away from their witness, God has put us together on the road to Jerusalem. It is never the right time, and we are never ready. We have other, more important things to do and places to be. The burden is too great for us to carry. But once we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” the angel will depart, and the path will open before us. We can trust that even in this violent, unjust and despairing world, God’s word of hope is true, and we will sing it “from generation to generation.”4
It’s easy to affirm, year after year, “I believe one day the Messiah will come;” much harder finally to say, “This Jesus is the Messiah!” to commit, to throw our lot in with the others who have found in him the Lord of life.

When we hear of young people who have religious experiences, it is interesting, even inspiring to us. However, more often than we might think, when our own children have such experiences, we can find it threatening. It may call into question our own feeble faith. “Where did you get this ‘wisdom?’” we may ask. “Wasn’t our faith enough to satisfy you?” Hearing of churches off somewhere else that offer their buildings and budgets for ministries as soup kitchens, or counseling centers, or centers for ministry with the homeless, we are pleased. When someone suggests it for our church, we begin to raise questions.

So often, sermons are filled with great stories of success.5 These are necessary. Deeds of courage, changed hearts and lives, sacrificial acts of love, renewal, these all contribute to our courage in the faith. But what about those times when success seems elusive? What of those times when the efforts of believers are met with resistance, or marked by failure? What happens when, try as we might, now just turns out not to have been the time to begin that new ministry in our church? Faithful discipleship is not always successful. The gospels remind us not only that Jesus was rebuffed, but that through his entire ministry he was met with the small human “no’s,”which God nevertheless gathered into a final YES of resurrection.

That is the key to our hope as believing people. Even Jesus knew the sting of resistance from those he had loved as family and neighbors. Why should we know anything less painful? But with us, too, God will gather up the small and petty human “no’s” into a grand and final YES of redemption and resurrection.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 22 ff.
2 “Open Paths,” by Kathleen Norris, Christian Century, December 13, 2005, p. 18.
3 Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Persons Who Have Already Heard, by Fred Craddock, Abingdon, 1978.
4 Ibid.
5 Some material in this paragraph adapted from Thomas Long’s notes in Word and Witness , Vol. 9, No. 6, 7/7/85.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lead Gently

Lead Gently

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Second Sunday in Advent: December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Of the scripture to be proclaimed over the four Sundays of Advent, this is one passage that seems custom-made for those who may be spending their pre-Christmas days wishing they could go to sleep tonight and not wake up until December 26th, those for whom the word “Christmas” and all it brings to mind are just misery stacked on hopelessness. It is a prophecy for those who dread encountering Currier & Ives Christmas scenes of happy hearths in comfortable homes where families love each other in perfect harmony, those who want to weep for the ways in which their Christmas will fall so miserably short of that unrelenting vision.

This is a section of prophecy in Isaiah that recalls the desperate and hopeless plight of the Chosen People in exile. To give it a modem twist — since the geography is virtually the same — it is as if the prophet identified completely with suffering exiles in Iraq, in the very same kingdom where several thousand years ago, the remains of the nation of Israel withered away by the banks of the rivers of Babylon and longed for Zion.

This is the sort of desperation and hopelessness that Isaiah understood when, even as God called him to prophesy comfort to his people, he cried out what any homecoming queen can tell you when she looks at her corsage three weeks after the big event, “All flesh is grass...the grass withers, the flower fades.” The Chosen People were caught up in the temporary nature of human life, began to see their destiny as entirely controlled by the transience that governs human life in general. Just like countless nations before and after them — like once mighty Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany — they were a once-great nation that was destined to perish: all flesh is grass.

We know the feeling, most of us. And if we don’t know it yet, there will come a day when we will. Even though we may have known halcyon days when we were part of perfect families that gathered for perfect holidays — may know such days even now — we also know how true it is that such experiences do not last. Perhaps more often than we care to admit we live in fear of the day when we will awaken to realize that an end of warm and happy home scenes has come true for us. In the final analysis, the fleeting nature of happy days often does not make them seem more precious — as we might like to think — but all the more depressing for their transience. A child, once the joy of our hearts, now perished and gone; a home, which once rang with the voices of aunts, uncles and cousins, now relentlessly silent in their absence; a set of bedrooms in a home, once filled with children and pre-Christmas bustle and excitement, now silent; a career which once offered such promise, now lying in tatters as we turn in despair to see about picking up the pieces. All this while everyone around us seems to be singing “tidings of comfort and joy”. What comfort? What joy? Why not depression instead?

“Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her period of conscription has ended, her iniquity is forgiven.”

No wonder Isaiah balked at this command and tried to remind God that people are like grass, nations are like flowers that grow, blossom, then fade away. We may be so accustomed to hearing this beautiful passage in connection with Christmas and the singing of the music of Handel’s Messiah that we forget that it is a thoroughly Old Testament word. It is a word addressed to real people suffering real hardship; a people for whom the Messiah had not yet come. It is a word for people longing to regain the sort of balance John Calvin was thinking of when he wrote that there are two great sins of humanity: one is to presume too much, and the other is to despair too much. The truth seems to lie in that thin line between the two extremes.1

While we may live in an age of presumption which supposes that human wisdom and technology will overcome every stumbling block, the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah had been in darkness, had veered away from presumption and were nearly given over entirely to despair. It was the deepest darkness we can imagine. And into that darkness came the word. Though the grass withers, the flower fades,

one thing remains.

Nine words save the next fifteen chapters of Isaiah from being a despairing rehash of the suffering and laments of Job, transforming this prophecy instead into a towering testament of faith:

but the word of our God will stand forever.

I think it is marvelous that in granting this prophecy to Isaiah God did not attempt to erase the experience of the people. It nowhere says that your suffering does not exist, that your experience is not real, God does not deny the reality of the hardships we can experience, our causes for despair. Isaiah was called simply to declare that on top and underneath and all around the ever-changing realities of this world — both good and bad — there is something which stands, something which persists, something which lives on, something which cannot be defeated.

The word of God does not depend on Israel; Israel depends on the word of God. We can replace the name, “Israel” with any other name, and the sentence works just as well:

  • The word of God does not depend on Rob; Rob depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on Mountain View Presbyterian Church; Mountain View Presbyterian Church depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the good we can do; the good we can do depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the Dow Jones average; the Dow Jones average depends on the word of God...

Remember what Israel had lost: land, nation, king, temple and the worship that took place there. All of it was lost brutally, finally. Even so, without any of the physical features of that which makes a people — land, government, temple — they still retained the word of God. Not a word as merely some words collected in a book, but the living Word of God to which a book may testify, but which, like the person of Jesus, has a life of its own.

Advent moves us toward Christmas well only if it moves us closer and closer to a recognition of our complete neediness before God. We are made increasingly ready for Christmas only if Advent makes us increasingly aware that in the midst of all the transitoriness of life, all the contingencies which are forever stripping us of that which we had hoped would last forever, there stands the abiding and purposeful Word of God, which the carol says is “now in flesh appearing.” It is the sort of truth which caused John to reflect in the opening of his gospel, “In the beginning was the word....” There is something about God’s Word that goes beyond words, beyond books containing words, proceeding directly and unmistakably into life as we live it.

If it reminds us of anything. Advent reminds us that Christmas brings us not just one more nice feature among many other wonderful aspects of our faith but the single fact that saves us, the child who came in time to save the day, Jesus — word made flesh — without whom all was lost and irrecoverable. God is not silent, absent, uncaring. Quite the contrary. God is one who does for his people as outlined in the four verbs in the 11th verse: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. God feeds, gathers, carries, and gently leads.

The watchfulness of Advent implies this kind of care, the care of a nourishing, gathering, carrying, gentle leading God who provides that ultimate hope which we cannot provide for ourselves out of our own passing strength.

One last thing I remember asking of myself when I read this passage from Isaiah. I have a passing acquaintance with Old Testament history, and so I wonder why it is that Isaiah was able to speak these words before anything had happened, before the people actually returned to the Promised Land, before they were rescued from their exile, long before they could go home a build a new temple. Isaiah’s words sound as if the Word of God had already accomplished the rescue of this people from exile, as if the final salvation had already been accomplished, but I know that this is not true. How, then, can Isaiah utter these words?

The advent, the coming of God is to be proclaimed, then as it is to be today, even if its final consummation still lies in the future. In the end of the passage, praise is called for from the people as if help had already come, because the promise of God is as good as the execution of it. The promise that Jesus made to his disciples to be with them to the close of the age is every bit as good as if the close of the age were here today to prove him right. The full faith and confidence of the government of the United States is expressed in every dollar bill as a promissory note. How much more confident, then, should be the praise of the people of God upon receiving the promises of God?

A promise is to be born to us in this season, a promise like no other, a promise that will speak right to the heart of the most aching need we can lay before the throne of God if only we will have the courage to face that need and make our prayer known.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” to Las Vegas, to Henderson, to Nellis AFB, to Gene to Vicki to Martha to Rick to Joe to Helen to every single Tom, Dick and Harriett, proclaiming confidently to them all that iniquity is pardoned, that the word of God will be born among them and will stand when everything else has fallen. This is a promise. We can rely on it. We can proclaim it to others. Hope is being born in the world in Jesus Christ.

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “The Renewal of God-Confidence,” a sermon by Dr. Tom Boyd, preached April 25, 1971, First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Turning Mourning Into Joy

Turning Mourning Into Joy

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
November 23, 2008

Jeremiah 31:7-14 — Ephesians 1:15-23

Several years ago I opened a news magazine and read a brief article about a game that had been taken up by young militant fighters in the Middle East. The article made such a strong impression on me, I have remembered it for years, though the particulars of the situation these young men were facing has been long forgotten in the ongoing maze of Middle East politics. When we hear about such situations, we often focus our attention on the major players in the endless and deadly conflict there, the presidents and prime ministers and mullahs; but we don’t hear much about the lives of the ordinary young men, mostly teenagers and men in their early twenties, who populate the ranks of the various militia movements, or any of the other little splinter groups who constantly angle for leverage and power there. It is a baffling situation to most of us, to the degree that we generally just shake our heads and wonder what, if anything, can ever be done to satisfy all the competing interests. Of course, folks who live in such places do not have the luxury of shaking their heads and moving on to some other subject. The inherent difficulties of their competing loyalties and fierce differences within small population groups confront them every day.

What must life be like for these boys, so soon made into hardened men, or often dead men, by the maze of conflicts in their land? What I read those years ago was about a game that was being played by young militia members. It was an old game, really, one most folks know by the name Russian roulette. It received its name, of course, because it was first played by young officers of the Tzar in Russia before the 1917 revolution. Supposedly, the purpose of the game was to test courage. One live round of ammunition was loaded into a pistol, the other five cylinders left empty. The magazine was spun, closed, and the barrel of the weapon pointed to one’s head. The trigger is pulled. You know how it goes. It is a deeply nihilistic exercise which emerges in situations of abject hopelessness. There is a 5 to 1 chance that the weapon won’t fire, and the soldier’s life will be spared. The Russian soldiers even made wagers on the deadly game. It was a game that was even taken up in my generation by some soldiers in Viet Nam.

For the Russians it was called a test of courage. For American soldiers in Viet Nam, it was thought of as either an act of daring, or a macho display of fearlessness. But the boys who took it up in the Middle East said that for them, the reason was different. No wagers were laid, no boasting declarations followed an empty click of the hammer. They said, for them, it was simply an act of despair. Why not end your life, they wondered. Might as well be now as later. One young man spoke sadly of his desire to be married, to have a family, a career. But how? He could not afford to leave, to go to the university, to do anything but fight for pay within the ranks of a private militia, where he would probably die anyway. I wonder where that young man is today, if he is even alive, if he has found any reason for hope. They lived in a land that is claimed by so many competing interests, their chances for anything approaching what we would call a normal life were so slim, they saw no hope on the horizon. They turned instead to deep cynicism.

I say all this because of my reflections this week on our reading from Jeremiah.

The prophecy of Jeremiah in the 31st chapter was not addressed to a people living in the gentle lap of peace. It was not addressed to people who had everything to live for. It’s probably not going too far to say that it wasn’t really written for the likes of us. More likely, it was addressed to people who for all the world were much more like those despairing teenage soldiers in the Middle East. We are invited to look over their shoulders at the prophet’s words and anticipate something of their reaction.

The theme Jeremiah drove home is that God would entirely provide for his people. It is a flat declaration with no subjunctive clauses, nothing held back. A declaration that hope is possible, even present already, for those who place their faith totally in God’s providence. Remember, this was proclaimed to a people who had been carted off, body and soul, into exile, who had been tortured, killed, sold into slavery, and who were probably told to take a good look at their country when they left, because they would never be seeing it again. With that in mind, just consider the radical kind of thing that God declared through his prophet:

Who did he describe returning to the land from which they had been exiled?
  • Triumphant warriors, fresh from victories on the battlefield?
  • Legions of rich nobility who were able to buy their freedom?
Perhaps. But the only returnees that Jeremiah goes out of his way to mention specifically are not exactly the triumphant heroes that are the stuff of New York ticker tape parades. Instead, they are:

  • The sightless; those whose eyes were no longer of any use to them.
  • The disabled; in our own age, we are familiar with the wheelchair legacy of Viet Nam and current wars in the Middle East.
  • Pregnant women, even women already in labor; describing a woman, any woman, at her weakest, most vulnerable moment.

That’s it. Those are the the words Jeremiah uses for the triumphant returnees to the promised land. The weakest of the weak. What a crowd! We might expect a word of hope to be addressed to people who are in the driver’s seat of their lives, but God’s choice is a word of hope addressed to those who, without him, would be without hope. Hope for the hopeless!

How are these exiled people to return? What mood shall mark their triumphant return home?
  • With shouts of victory over vanquished enemies and slaughtered kings?
  • With triumph in their eyes and vengeance in their hearts?
No. Jeremiah said, “With weeping they shall come.” Weeping. Hardly the reaction of a people of triumph. More likely the reaction of a people so totally devoid of hope that to have received hope at last reduces them to tears.

Finally, and perhaps most telling, why are these exiled people to return?
  • Because of lives of virtue? Because they paid for their sin and are now off the hook?
No. The prophet reports that it is because God says, “I have become a father to Israel.”

Hope, apparently, rests not in triumphant armies on the march, not in dress-for-success career climbers, not in the power of the powerful, the wealth of the wealthy, the authority of the authoritarian. Hope rests entirely in God’s good wishes for us, and in absolutely nothing else. Often, only those who have absolutely nothing else are in the best seats in the house for seeing that this is so.

Think, then, of Paul’s prayer in Ephesians. This is the Sunday the common lectionary refers to as “Christ the King Sunday.” It always arrives several weeks before Christmas, just before the first Sunday of Advent. Recall that in Paul’s words today we are assured that Christ’s birth was no accident, and neither is his reign as King of kings, Lord of lords, Very God of very god. We are blessed by this king in that the source of our hope rests outside the scope of our own efforts. God has acted on our behalf, the load is off our backs, all we need to do is respond. Even the hopeless may have hope in this outpouring of good news.

I remember a tour I once took into Turkey, the now-Muslim land where once the apostles blazed trails establishing new churches on their way across the empire toward Rome. You can make you way inland there along the crooked Menderes River, the origin of our word “meander,” traveling from ancient Ephesus on the Aegean Sea – an ancient city now a ruin – all the way to Laodicea and Colossae, also ancient cities in ruin lying mostly un-excavated under mounds of earth and debris. If you look hard enough in this land you can also spot the remains of once grand old churches, built by the Byzantine Christians, and even in their ruined state, one can sometimes tell that they must have once been great indeed. There is not much left of most of them in this modern Muslim nation. Most were pillaged centuries ago, their frescoes ruined, stone taken for foundations of local homes and buildings. Sometimes you can run across an occasional old ruined church in an out-of-the-way place with a half a fresco remaining on a wall. A pastor I know1 said she saw a fresco there with a half a face of Christ remaining, and one arm, raised in blessing, Christ, still offering blessing to a church in ruins.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul claims a crown for Christ in what was then a pre-Christian land, Christ as ruler of all creation in a land that in his time was as foreign a territory to the church as that very land is again today. Somehow, in the midst of a place where the presence of Christ would be anything but apparent to most observers, Paul nonetheless sees Christ in it, and not only in it, but crowned as its King, offering a blessing to his church in the midst of a people who know him not. We may think our times are hard enough and that our church perhaps falls a bit short of the vision Paul paints in the first chapter of Ephesians, where God has placed all things at the feet of Christ and made him head of all things for the church that bears his name. Paul’s words are nothing short of dazzling to the eyes of modern Christians in churches where we can get more excited about the style of music we prefer in church or the clothes that ought to be worn, and we know on any given Sunday, many, many people walk or drive right by church doors, never bothering to look in. So where does Paul’s startling confidence about Christ, his King, come from?

Well, Paul prays, in the 15th-18th verses for two things. They are prayers worthy of every Christian, and especially any among us who exercise any kind of leadership amid this community of God’s people where Christ reigns as King.

The first thing Paul prays for is a spirit of discernment. Now that’s a churchy word, isn’t it? But it means nothing fancier than Paul’s prayer that we might be guided by the will of God. To be guided by it, we have to know what it is. That is the first part of Paul’s prayer for us. That we might know the will of God and then fearlessly do it. Presbyterians have always believed that God’s will is most easily discerned in the midst of the community of the faithful. When we are off by ourselves, puzzling over difficult aspects of our faith or of scripture, we are more likely to choose a path that is in error. When we are surrounded by brothers and sisters who are struggling with the same problems, we are more open to the work of the Holy Spirit, to the discovery of God’s will for us at this time and place. Paul prays that we may be together in our search for God’s will.

The second thing Paul prays for is the enlightenment of hope. The most comforting thing we can say to anyone, whether it is a despairing youngster on the battlefields of the Middle East, or a disabled veteran, or a backyard neighbor who can no longer see any reason for getting out to the grocery store, is that there is a source of hope beyond what our limited eyes can see. No matter how hard we try in church, we will always mess some things up; but, other things, sometimes inexplicably, will persist in turning out right. This is because, thanks be to God, we are not ultimately in charge. With our “hearts enlightened,” as Paul puts it, we see that hope is not just an arm chair comfort, but, as described by Paul, it is a calling which can thrust us into the future in confidence that Christ’s church will remain his.

I pray for all of us, that we may be enlightened by the hope we share in Christ our King, as we seek to do God’s will and work in the world.

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, in a “The Great Preachers” sermon on Ephesians 1:15-23.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This Gift of Love — Part IV: “Inexpressible Gifts”

This Gift of Love — Part IV:
“Inexpressible Gifts”

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
November 16, 2008

II Corinthians 9:6-15

Probably some of us were in communicant or confirmation classes in the days when the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession was still an actively-used teaching tool. Even if we never memorized the Shorter Catechism, we might at least know what a catechism is: a series of questions and answers to be memorized for public recitation. The Shorter Catechism consisted of 107 questions and answers — based on material from the great Westminster Confession of Faith. If we don’t know the whole of the Shorter Catechism, and I’d guess few of us do, probably at least some of us know its first and most famous question, along with the equally well-known answer:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

An old friend of mine once reflected that “man spends too much of his time sitting on his chief end as it is…” In bygone days, this series of questions and answers was considered a pretty complete statement of belief… so complete that decades ago a prize was endowed at Princeton Theological Seminary which awarded $150 to any seminarian who memorized the entire 107 questions and answers of the catechism. I am not sure if this prize is still awarded, $150 isn't what it used to be, but I'd bet it's still awarded to those who try for it.

Now, if that first affirmation of the catechism is in any way still true, if indeed the principle purpose of humanity is the glorification and enjoyment of God, then how does that get worked out in life?

It seems to me that Paul answered a related question in our passage today from 2 Corinthians. This time the question was “What is the purpose of Christian giving?” The answer is provided in the 11th verse of today’s reading and is very similar to the affirmation concerning the chief end of man. One important purpose of giving is to produce thanksgiving to God. Think about how he believed it would work. A gift sown in Corinth would reap a harvest of thanksgiving in Jerusalem.

I think I understand church giving to a certain extent. As is probably the case with most of us, I usually see it from the human point of view. I tend to focus my attention on the results of giving that lie in the human dimension: the relief of suffering, the carrying on of some great work, the creation of new programs to meet changing needs within our church fellowship, the maintenance of our church facilities and programs. But Paul, trained as a religious scholar, a Pharisee, knew the centrality of the two great commandments of the Law: [1] to love the Lord with heart, soul, and strength, and [2] to love neighbor as self. He knew these two commandments to be inseparable. So in writing to the Corinthians concerning the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, he moved freely and naturally between the subjects of collection as a response to the needs of others and as a testimony to the glory of God.

The great commandment in the law is love of both neighbor and God, not one to the exclusion of the other. In our practice of Christian stewardship, the chief end of human life — to glorify God and enjoy him — can often get squeezed out of the picture if we focus too exclusively on another purpose of Christian living: to be of service to others.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that the main reason for giving — the main reason for living — is to bring glory to God. Their gift would result in shouts of praise in Jerusalem. That was a worthy end in itself, quite apart from the relief the offering would provide.

Paul reminds us that Christ became man in order to glorify God; so we give what we can to increase that glory. If our giving loses its origin and purpose in God and his grace, both it and our faith will shrivel, perhaps even die out altogether.

I once reflected on this idea with a weekly Bible study group. We seldom think of our worship — our praise, for instance — as a worthy work of Christian life. Most often we are inclined to speak of things we did or did not “get out of worship.” We approach worship as receivers, empty vessels waiting to be filled. But another view must enter our thinking about worship, indeed about the whole of our lives as believers, if we are ever to understand fully Christian worship. Our chief work in worship — as our chief end in life — is to bring glory to God. When we stand and half-heartedly sing a hymn, or come to worship more ready to be distracted than to concentrate on our work of praise, we become poor stewards of our time before God. In Christian worship, there is but one audience, and that is God. We are the performers. Our work of praise is important, equally important as love of neighbor.

Think of all the agrarian references Paul made in the few verses of today’s reading. He spoke of gifts for the collection as a sowing, the receiving of the gifts as a reaping. He spoke of abundance, which is the word every farmer longs to use in reference to his crop. He wrote that their righteousness was like a harvest, and what was the harvest to be? All this bountiful sowing would result in produce — a harvest of thanksgiving to God. Not only would wants be supplied, but the harvest would overflow with thanksgivings. People see the good that believers can do, as Jesus said they must, and glorify not us but God.

There was another dynamic at work in Corinth and Jerusalem that we might not be so able to see because of the distance of the centuries between Corinth and our city. But the fact was that the Christians in Jerusalem weren’t so sure that the Gentile people could really be believers. They had had their doubts all along about the non-Jewish Christians. A serious rift in the church was always simmering just under the surface. Paul was acutely aware of this. What could heal the divisions?

The book of Acts describes Paul’s opposition to every effort to place the Gentile Christians at some lower level than the Jewish believers. He knew that the gift for the suffering in Jerusalem would help maintain and further the unity of the body of Christ among Jews and Gentiles.

When he wrote about the “test of this service,” he knew that folks in Jerusalem wondered just how fully the gospel might have won the hearts of the Gentiles. But in Christian love, a test is never a mere judgment. It is also an opportunity for growth. In this case, Paul could see it was an opportunity for growth on both sides of the need that was to be addressed.

The offering would result in a crop of praise from both giver and recipient, and the ultimate good would be that God would be praised.

Perhaps one more item needs to be addressed before we leave these two chapters of II Corinthians where we have spent these last four Sundays. It is the subject of tithing.

Now, we have had four sermons from these two chapters in the last few weeks. I have had a few conversations in which the message was on the order of, “Pastor, I have heard that some people may be getting tired of hearing about money each week.” I can understand that, I can. I, too, get weary of the pitches for money which seem to permeate our society. On the other hand, I have also heard from many more of you who have said, “It’s time our congregation heard sermons like this!” Such is the life of preachers! So I looked through the last three sermons — and these two chapters of II Corinthians — and do you know, I found very few uses of the word “money”? What is written all over Paul’s letter — what Pastor Linda and I have attempted to reflect in our sermons with you — is the theology of Christian stewardship. That is quite a different matter, as it describes a style of life, a form of discipleship, rather than a one dimensional begging for funds.

As one scholar put it, in II Corinthians Paul shows us “what happens when, in the name of Christ who gave himself on the cross, we learn how to give.”1 That is a worthy subject for sermons and discussions among people of faith far transcending money matters.

We know that Paul’s goal was not fund-raising but disciple-raising for one reason if for no other. That is because throughout these chapters, he never once mentions the Old Testament principle of the tithe — the giving of 10% of what one has. Isn’t that strange? Consequently, I haven’t given it much mention until just now. Here we have Paul, a Jew of the Pharisees, who would have had a full awareness of the concept of tithing, not even bringng the subject up. Why?

Some2 have said that what he says in II Corinthians 8 and 9 suggests he would have rejected tithing as a rigid rule. He was aware that for those on a bread line, tithing could mean disaster — they themselves could become the objects of charity. For someone in upper income brackets to say, “I have tithed, I have given enough” would be equally wrong. Legalism and generosity make bad companions. No rule governs God’s love for us; none should govern our love for God in return.

Paul was aware of the poverty of the Macedonians and didn’t even expect their participation in the offering, much less a 10% tithe. The wealthier Corinthians, on the other hand, were not restricted by the tithe and were free to give beyond the 10% demanded by the Old Testament principle.

When Paul said, “God is able to give you more than you need,” we are to reflect on a life directed not to amassing possessions, but to attending to needs. A life-style of Christian stewardship is one which offers itself increasingly, and is increasingly content with less. This is ample enough reason for a harvest of praise to God.

One last commercial. What are some of our dollars doing in the world? A glance at the budget sheets that our Finance committee and Session pore over every month would provide a detailed answer for any of you who care to look them over. Where our treasure is, there you will find our hearts also. And you would find that our dollars go for a host of needs within and beyond the church, both great and small.

What more can we say, other than what Paul has said to us? When we consider the gospel which we have been given, free of charge, a gospel which has saved us and provides real sustenance and hope for the world, we can join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1. This Service of Love, by Mark Landfried, © the Synod of the Trinity, 1978, p. 71.
2. Second Corinthians, by Ernest Best, John Knox Press, 1987, p. 89.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

This Gift of Love — Part III: “Not as an Exaction...”

This Gift of Love — Part III: “Not as an Exaction...”

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
II Corinthians 9:1-7
November 9, 2008

Isn’t it curious that in seeking an offering for suffering people, Paul mentioned so little about the actual conditions of poverty in Jerusalem? He was busy encouraging the folks in Corinth to do their best for the saints in Jerusalem, but never seemed to have anything to say about the nature of their suffering. What sorts of deprivation were they experiencing? Exactly how great was the need? It seemed to me that he failed to highlight something which could have increased the response of the people in Corinth. I wonder why. That certainly is not the way we go about raising money for charitable causes in our day, is it? If there is a disaster in the world, we see pictures within 24 hours. We are very much inclined to portray — as vividly as possible — the suffering to be alleviated. Everyone has seen televised programs which show the distended bellies and ghastly living conditions of people living in poverty in third world countries. We generally share the conviction of television producers that if somehow people can be made to see the benefit of what they do, they will become more generous.

If we were organizing Paul’s appeal, we could do things a lot differently. The first change we might consider could be an appeal to people’s sense of obligation.1 We could report that everyone else is doing their share. We might encourage Paul to emphasize the institutional view of obligation. After all, your name is on the role, so you should do your part. This is like a more or less voluntary taxation or per capita apportionment. Someone said to me a week or so ago, “Sure my church pledge should go up, but all my other taxes are going up and I have no say over them.” My grandfather was good about this sort of thing. He paid taxes in some depression years when others paid little or nothing, and when encouraged to find ways to avoid taxes, he usually said something like, “I never mind paying taxes, it means I’m making money.” Taxation has been called the price of civilization.

This sort of appeal focuses on giving as paying dues, doing one’s bit, being a loyal member of the organization. Some people really respond to this. Others do not. Some people will respond when we make them sense an obligation. Others will become irritated and say we are trying to lay a guilt trip on them. Unfortunately, I can’t get very enthusiastic about stewardship efforts that press the issue obligation or duty, so I’d have a hard time trying to convince Paul to use this method.

If appeals to obligation fail us we could encourage Paul to appeal for gifts so that people might find self-satisfaction. Knowing we have done something for someone else can give us a warm inner glow. Never mind that while such gifts are commendable, they are a thinly disguised way of giving ourselves a gift. It is a proven way to raise money. Some people, when made to see that a gift to our program or to others is really a gift to themselves because of all the self-satisfaction it will bring, will become extra generous, and so the gift might be larger than we even anticipated. Even so, a warm inner glow only goes so far. Some folks might need some satisfactions that are a little more public.

So, if we were running Paul’s first commitment program, we might appeal to people’s sense of prestige. That would be a stewardship program for those who care enough to send the very best. I once visited a church in the Northeast that had a large leather book on the chancel steps. I looked at the page to which it was opened and read, “Members who have pledged $2,000 or more to our Church.” And the page wasn’t blank, either! It can be good to be proud of our giving, but it always can be a danger as well: that the purpose of the gift be to advertise the greater glory of the giver. I haven’t the resources to be the most impressive giver anyway, so this sort of a fund-raising technique wouldn’t get me very excited either.

Apparently Paul had it right all along. He ignored what we might call fund-raising methods. In spite of any counsel to take such low roads, Paul persevered on the high road with the theme that he raised at the beginning. Where the world might make its appeals for funds on the basis of need, obligation, self-satisfaction, prestige, sympathy — in short, on something people have done — Paul focused his energy almost entirely on what God has done.

Paul used an important word in the first verse of today’s reading. Our translators have given us the phrase “offering for the saints”. Paul’s word was the Greek, diakonía, the root of our word deacon. We may hear “offering,” and think of a Sunday collection. But the Corinthians heard diakonía and thought of service or ministry. Paul was literally saying, “I write to you about the service — or ministry — for the saints.” Paul set the service to the poor within the context of service to God. It’s a reality the church must always keep foremost in our prayers and actions, otherwise our congregation could degenerate into little more than another fund-raising organization.

I once talked with a young girl who was busily engaged in selling some trinkets to raise money for an organization. I asked her, “What is the purpose of your organization?” She looked blankly at me for a moment. “Purpose?” Then, looking at the bag of goods she had grasped in her hand, she brightened up and said, “We make money — and then spend it!”

The church could be in danger of becoming just such an organization should the perennial temptations to find better fund-raising techniques ever overtake our calling to be faithful hearers and doers of God’s Word. Fund-raising has its place within our community. Money is needed to do good all over our world, and it must be raised or good will not be done. But our purpose is not to raise money and spend it. Our purpose is more foundational.

At the core of things, we are gathered together as a community of God’s people to preach Christ and minister in his name. Paul called the offering a “ministry,” for that is the only way in which he ever would have involved himself with it.

Our budget committee looked at the ministry which our church anticipated for the 1988-89 program year. What will we be doing? Why? What do we need to make these ministries in Jesus’ name a reality? All our budget permutations flow from that single perspective, so forcefully described in the words of the apostle.

Paul said that he hoped the gift the Corinthians had promised would come “not as an exaction but as a willing gift.” Folks in a Bible study I once led on this passage from 2 Corinthians agreed that word “exaction” sounded enough like the dentist’s term “extraction” to go ahead and use that word to make the point even clearer. Paul wanted no part of an offering that was to be coerced out of people, an offering that required a good shot of Novocain so that the people wouldn’t holler quite as much as it was yanked out of them. His interest was in a willing gift, one given in response to the gifts of God and to the need of others.

Think of the way Paul went about motivating the Corinthians to respond to God’s gift of grace with their own ministering gifts2:

1. His appeal was tactful. While saying “there is really no need for me to write,” he wrote anyway, just as pastors often say, “You’ll remember the story about…” and then tell it anyway since it is good to be reminded even of the things that are familiar. Response to God’s grace is a constant need of God’s people, and we need reminding.

2. His appeal was positive. “I know that you are willing to help…I boast about you to the people of Macedonia.” Paul was confident in the strength that God could give to the Corinthians, just as I am confident of the strength that God is ready to give us. Our church is engaged in countless acts of wonderful ministry, and I boast to my colleagues in the ministry about this church all the time. It is a foundation upon which we can build, and God is ready to give the energy supplied in our response.

3. His appeal was honest. What Paul said about the Macedonians and the Corinthians was true. Each — knowing of the strengths of the other — could be stimulated to renewed strength of purpose. The Macedonians were prepared to give in spite of their poverty. The Corinthians expressed their willingness to take part in the offering before anyone else. These were strengths worth building on. This approach was so typical of Paul.3 He would not lift up weakness in order to criticize one church to another; he lifted up strengths in order to praise one church to another. It’s not a bad idea to try as we look around our own church for the many strengths that can serve as an inspiration to others as well as to ourselves.

4. His appeal was direct. This is where pastors go from preaching to meddling. In so many churches, stewardship programming follows this pattern4: [1] the committee is organized and meets regularly; [2] assignments are made and carried out; [3] budgets are developed; [4] the ministry of the church is interpreted; [5] sermons on stewardship are preached; [6] challenges are extended. This sounds like a complete stewardship program. But one crucial element is missing. In some fashion, members of the congregation must be confronted with an inescapable decision to make regarding our personal commitment. “To inform and nurture the people of God without confronting them with the cost of discipleship is to show ourselves as poor stewards.”5 This is no less the case in stewardship than it is in our decision to follow Jesus. At some point, someone has said to us, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” Now Paul follows that call for decision with this one. Each year, when we are asked to make pledges of support to the church, we have an opportunity to declare again that we will be faithful, giving members of Christ’s church. November 23rd is our day to celebrate our commitments. I hope all of us will have prepared ourselves to respon, if we haven’t responded already.

5. His appeal called for heartfelt, not guilt-driven gifts. God accepts our gifts not as an exaction — or an extraction! — on the basis of what we have to give, not on what we don’t have. That is how it must be with our pledge commitment. The only really driving force comes from within, inasmuch as the love of Christ claims and controls us.

This day, and in the days to come, we are a called people, called to respond to the gracious love of Christ with hearts, minds, hands, and, yes, even pocketbooks that are open to the leading of his Lordship. Let us give thanks and praise to God for his inexpressible gift.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 See The Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay, Westminster Press, p. 259.
2 See This Service of Love, by Mark Landfried, Published by the Synod of the Trinity, 3040 Market Street, Camp Hill, PA 17011, ©1978, pp. 66-69.
3 William Barclay, Ibid., p. 259.
4 Mark Landfried, Ibid., p. 68.
5 Think Piece No. 2, “A Transcendent Task”, by Clarence Cave, United Presbyterian Support Agency, © 1975, p. 67.

This Gift of Love — Part II: “Give Proof, Before the Churches...”

This Gift of Love — Part II:
“Give Proof, Before the Churches...”

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

November 2, 2008
Acts 20:32-38
II Corinthians 8:16-24

This is the second in a series of sermons on Paul’s New Testament words concerning stewardship. As we survive another election cycle with much conversation about the merits or demerits of taxes, we also might remember the words of the Frenchman who learned that his government planned to impose a tax on dogs: “Poor dogs!” he said. “They want to treat you like human beings!” At times like this, we may be in a good position to recall that while it is good to have money and the things money can buy, it is good to check up once in a while to make sure we haven’t lost the things money can’t buy.1

The book of Acts describes Paul’s ministry in three distinct phases: [1] as a missionary to Jews and Gentiles, [2] as a founding pastor visiting churches on his way to Jerusalem (with the collection for the saints), and [3] as an imprisoned witness defending the gospel from prison in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome.2

Today’s passage from Acts was spoken by Paul just before embarking for Jerusalem, where he would begin the long imprisonment phase of his ministry. It was a farewell speech.

During our course of seminary studies, we were once asked to give a title and outline for a sermon we would want to preach if we realized that it was to be delivered as our “last sermon.” I have spent most of my ministry under the assumption that a long future lies ahead of me. I still entertain hopes that that continues to be the case! Still, it is a useful exercise to consider what one affirmation is of such importance to me as a preacher that I would choose to give it as a “last sermon.”

Paul was in a similar position, although for him it was no exercise. He chose to speak on a topic that I’m not sure I would want to leave behind as a farewell homily. Faced with the need to say final words to beloved friends, the 20th chapter of Acts reports that he gave them ... a stewardship sermon!

He had been summoned to Jerusalem, and he suspected that arrest, prison, perhaps even death awaited him. So he stood on the dock in Miletus, with the elders from the church in Ephesus gathered around him. And he spoke of several matters with them before the final parting tears that are so eloquently reported. I think it is more than coincidence that his very last recorded words to them were these:

In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak,
remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said,
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

This is the only place in all of scripture that we have these words from Jesus. Paul concluded his church-planting ministry with them. More blessed to give than to receive, more like the Lord Jesus to toil for others than to sit back while others toil away for us; more blessed to serve others than to seek their service; even in our age of going out in search of self-fulfillment, more blessed to lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake than to find ourselves for our own sakes; more blessed to give away than to take in.

For those people in Paul’s day, as in ours, who had become proficient at covering up their greed with religious slogans, this was a distinctive and final word from the Lord which Paul alone handed down to us. When we get right down to wondering what Jesus would have us do, when we have preached all the fine, subtle and complex sermons that a career of witnessing may have given us, when all is said and done, what does Jesus move Paul to say to the elders gathered at dockside — tears streaming down their faces and lumps as big as corn fritters in their throats? Give! Finding comes through losing, riches arrive through generosity, kings are made by being servants for others, look out for the one who may not only not strike you as number 1, but maybe not even as number 100.

More blessed to give than to receive? Easily said. More difficult to do. It’s one of those scriptural affirmations that can so easily be turned into a cliché or slogan; a bedtime admonition around Christmastime for those youngsters who are less than willing to let go of hard-earned allowance to purchase presents for brothers or sisters they aren’t sure they even like: “There, there, Junior, as the Bible says,”

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

One thing about slogans and clichés: they very seldom are compelling except to one who wants to unload a set of expectations on someone else. After Papa has told Junior about the blessings of giving over receiving, he may leave the bedroom, go back into the family room, and flip through the day’s mail. Without so much as an ounce of compunction, regret, or anything even remotely resembling a second thought, he may throw away envelopes containing financial appeals from the Heart Fund, Heifer Project, the American Cancer Society, the United Way, who knows what-all else, and, yes, heaven forbid, perhaps even a letter from the church with a pledge card enclosed — all the while muttering to himself, “All they ever do is say ‘Money, money, money.’”

More blessed to give than to receive? Well, yes, but what is a reasonable standard of giving short of pauperizing ourselves? We can only stand so much blessedness, after all!

In spite of all our pious platitudes about the blessedness of giving, honesty compels us to admit how very much like Junior we really are. Junior may feel as much excitement at the prospect of spending his money on a present for his sister as he might for a walloping case of the Asian flu, just as we sometimes feel as much enthusiasm for our own giving as a person contemplating a root canal. Oddly enough, our own reluctance is one of the keys to understanding Christian stewardship of money.

We cannot make our stewardship decisions based only on emotion; at least not reliable decisions. We live in a time when people do or don’t do things based on whether they feel like it. “I feel good about my church pledge” is a sentence more likely to be heard than “I have disciplined myself to return to the Lord a portion of the bounty God has given me.” But Jesus did not say, “It is more blessed to feel like giving than to receive.” No, it is clear that the blessedness comes from making a decision and sticking with it. Whether it feels good or not is beside the point. It is a matter of decision and discipline. We may not much like that word discipline, but it is the root of the word disciple. The two are connected.

Think of the roadblocks that the church in Corinth threw in front of Paul as he worked at collecting the gift for the saints in Jerusalem. They even accused him of taking up an offering only to enrich himself. So in our passage today we heard about “the brother” who was asked to come along from Macedonia with Paul to serve as a sort of auditor, a guarantor that there would be no funny business with the church treasury.

It is not very exciting to talk about pledges, discipline, church accounting practices. But because suspicion and human fallibility have continued to haunt the church since that first world-wide collection, it is necessary that we do unexciting planning to make certain that we discipline ourselves to give, and that our gifts eventually go to accomplish the work they are intended to accomplish.

Paul said, in II Corinthians, “for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of men.” I believe that in the Christian walk, it is important not only to try to avoid evil, but to avoid even the appearance of evil. That is why we have accounting procedures in the church office, checks and balances for financial and property decisons. It is necessary in a fallible, human world to provide assurance to God’s people that their gifts are entrusted into reliable hands, and will serve the purpose for which they were intended. Having provided for just such assurance, Paul was free give a stewardship address to the Ephesians at dockside in Miletus.

This is the boring, unexciting part of financial stewardship. Erecting the mechanisms to receive and expend money is seldom stimulating work. But when you think about it, if financial stewardship is not glamorous, neither is 90% of ministry. Most of the things accomplished in ministry are done behind the scenes, after months — sometimes even years — of planning. But part of genuine care — of the sort that Jesus desires — requires practical management. Love for others that has no concern for planning has been seen too frequently for us to think otherwise. It can lead to unintended disasters: grain intended for starving people rotting on the dock for lack of transportation to move the grain inland; or three agencies created to address a problem that would be more efficiently resolved by one; or — worst of all — gifts given in good faith finding their way into the pockets of those unscrupulous ones who consider air conditioned doghouses and large buildings with their names on the front to be part of a ministry in Jesus' name.

It is not enough to exhort the people of God to generous giving in response to the gifts God has given us. It is necessary to make arrangements. So we have a commitment committee here at Mountain View Church that is busily making plans, working at their meetings every month to let you know in the most understandable way what our stewardship plans are. You have a deeply committed Session and Session committees, laying plans for ministry in 2009. It may not be overly inspiring, it may not lead to parades in the streets, but it is absolutely essential for the health of this church that we listen to them and try our very best to respond to the needs they are laying out for us.

Stewardship is a lifestyle, not an emotion. Jesus did not tell of the Good Samaritan as one who was compassionate on impulse. He would have urged compassion as part of the discipline of believers. Compassion is more like a pledge to the United Way or the Church commitment effort than the five dollars in the plate which are given entirely on impulse. We must not rely on spasms of concern, and impulses to share. We must make them our lifestyle. It would have made Paul happy to think that just such disciplined planning is still going on in our homes and in the Church to which he gave his life, so that Jesus’ message of blessedness in giving can continue to be proclaimed to the world.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Hoover Rupert, in Presbyterian Outlook , April 7, 1980.
2 see Acts, a commentary by Gerhard A. Krodel, Augsburg Press, 1986, pp. 381-393.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Gift of Love — Part I: To Do and to Desire

This Gift of Love — Part I:
To Do and to Desire

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

Stewardship Kick-off Sunday, October 26, 2008

II Corinthians 8:1-15

There is an old joke among management people about the five stages that people go through in planning and completing any project. They are:

[1] Enthusiasm
[2] Disillusionment and panic
[3] Search for the guilty
[4] Punishment of the innocent
[5] Praise and honors for the non-participants

It’s a joke, but we are familiar with the way these things often go: At a meeting of some volunteer committee or other someone feels moved to offer a suggestion. As a group, the committee begins to catch a bit of enthusiasm for the new idea. It’s exciting. A “we can do it” attitude emerges. Everyone is carried away with the possibilities, and new ones are being listed on the blackboard as fast as they are spoken. The excitement is so palpable that when the moderator asks who would be willing to do this or that, hands go up, “count on me’s” are spoken, and a sense of satisfaction accompanies the close of the meeting. We are finally getting somewhere.

Before too long, though — people being people — disillusionment sets in. Joe promised to make several phone calls about supplies but because of his heavy responsibilities at work, he never got around to it. Now, short on supplies, Amy can’t get the volunteers together to make the posters. Pete was hoping to speak to his service club about the project and ask about some free publicity at the radio station, but called at the last minute to beg off the committee completely. The next meeting of the committee is as depressing as the previous one was inspiring. Establishing blame becomes the chief unwritten item on the meeting agenda.

Eventually one of two things happens: either the committee members throw up their hands and abandon the project, or one person says something like, “we set out to get this done, and I, for one, will do everything I can to see it through. Who is with me?” It may turn out that two or three are, so a handful of people wind up completing a project more through determination than inspiration, and in the end, they are satisfied, but exhausted.

Variations on this theme are played out all the time among people who organize themselves to get things done. Why must it be so? Could it be different? What could make the difference?

One potent answer to those questions lies in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. The words we heard this morning concerned an offering that was being collected for the poverty-stricken Christians in Jerusalem. Times were very difficult in Jerusalem, and Paul had spent considerable time and energy during the previous year working to organize what we might call “JERUSALEM FOOD AID” or “HANDS ACROSS ASIA MINOR” day.

Lots of those new, struggling little churches of Paul’s were making efforts to put some money together for the effort. The Corinthian congregation, like the other churches, caught the enthusiasm and earnestly desired to do their part. Their hearts were fully in it. They were filled with enthusiasm for a great work.

Now, a year has passed. Their enthusiasm has lagged, probably some have taken to pointing an accusing finger at others in the church, wondering if they were doing their share. Disillusionment has set in. What their hearts had desired, their wills had not been able to accomplish. Being human, falling short of their enthusiasm, they were having trouble fulfilling the pledge of support made to Paul and Barnabas.

What would be the remedy? The natural response, one I have found myself using, is to find those two or three who could be more or less willingly overworked, and get the project finished in spite of those who made promises but failed to deliver. After the enthusiasms of the many fizzle, what are we left with, after all, but the resolve of the few? That is the way organizations frequently operate. That is how we may have expected Paul to deal with this. But he recognized another way.

Once in a Bible study I was leading, one person remarked that the real heroes of this passage were the Macedonians: the Philippians, Thessalonians, and Beroeans who seem to have had access to another sort of organizing strategy than the one available to the Corinthians. Why?

Remember, Paul pointed out that the Macedonian Christians were poor. Extremely poor. In hard times, the folks on the bottom of the social ladder always suffer the most and this was certainly the case in first century Macedonia. Paul mentioned this not to promote some vague idea about the nobility of poverty, but to point out at the outset that the meaning behind Christian stewardship is never riches or poverty.

The Corinthians were busily accusing each other, wondering who had more or less material wealth to spare for the collection, choosing up sides, comparing one with the other, trying to judge to see if everyone was doing their share. Mean-spiritedness had taken charge. Meanwhile, the Macedonians, with little or no concern for individual welfare — yet sure of their place within the community of faith — were making grave personal sacrifices to contribute for no reason other than a desire to respond to the gracious love in Christ that they had come to know. Anyone who has ever read Philippians cannot help but be impressed by the overflowing expression of joy that characterized that congregation. The Macedonians gave joyfully, even though an outsider might have described them as some of the least able to give at all.

Grace is the key word here. It is perhaps an overused word today which, more often than not, refers to a few words to be mumbled before meals. But that is certainly not the way Paul thought of it. He described the collection for the Jerusalem believers as “this gracious work". When we refer to someone as “gracious", we mean that they have a full command of social niceties. Not Paul. He meant it the way the New Testament means grace. It is a gracious work because of the enabling power of Jesus Christ. Christ is the author and finisher of grace, the one whose grace is described in the hymn as “amazing!".

Paul was reasoning with them. If we first consider the grace of Christ, then quibbling about the response to his amazing and saving love seems entirely out of place. The place to begin in Christian stewardship is not with wealth or poverty, not with sales pitches and snappy flow charts, but with hearts that have been moved by the unmerited love of Christ. Once convicted of the transforming power of Christ, no response we can make seems large enough. Human measure fails us. That is why the Macedonian example seems entirely surprising only if we are still on the needy side of God’s grace. Paul said, “They gave as much as they could, and even more...” (v. 3). It makes no logical sense. Take away our tax exemptions for charitable gifts and what would happen? Not only was Paul surprised, the Macedonians surprised themselves!

Paul mentioned the Macedonians, not for comparison (“If these poor folks could give this much, why can’t you people get with it?”). Instead, he spoke of the Macedonians in order to present a picture of a church in love with its Savior. Love cannot command — Paul even said, “I say this not as a command” — love can only be demonstrated. Having received God’s grace, generous giving seems only the most normal response. No amount of pleading will make folks who have not experienced grace into truly generous people.

A pastor in Virginia once asked, “How would you motivate people to give to the church or some worthy cause when they are apathetic, or fearful, or downright hostile? ’The church is always asking for money.’ Preachers often feel insecure or ashamed, or even demeaned when they must talk about money from the pulpit.”1

Paul knew about hostility. He had a stormy relationship with this congregation in Corinth. Paul knew that no one was likely to support the collection because of the force of his personality. So he said, in verse 9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The experience of reading that verse for the first time has been compared to the experience of stepping suddenly into a deep pool while wading in a stream.2 The material and spiritual realms are lumped together without apology. To mention the lofty grace of Christ while seeking contributions for a collection of grubby old money is hardly a digression from the main point. It is the main point! It is the work of Christ that should be the beginning and ending of any discussion of Christians and our money.

This month and next you will be hearing over and over about the church’s need. I hope we’ll all have a clear idea about that need when commitment Sunday comes around on November 23rd. And as we prepare for that day, we desire enthusiasm of the sort that made the Corinthians enthusiastic. I am enthusiastic about it. We want resolve. I am resolved to do everything I can to make it work, and I know the commitment committee shares that deep resolve.

But I pray this will not be one of those human projects with the standard, depressing five stages. Why? Because the grace of Christ must be the beginning and ending of any of our talk about money. Any of us who may be lacking an experience of the grace of Christ will be enabled to give for only secondary reasons — if we give at all: noble motives (“Show how kind and good you are.”), human solidarity (“We are the world.”), personal recognition (“Get a free [hunger walk] T-shirt.”), inner satisfaction (“You will be glad you did.”), friendly competition (The “challenge” gift)...3

So, if you find the grace of Christ is lacking in your life, let’s get to first things first. Jesus loves us, died for us, was raised for us, and can save us. If that word of the gospel rings true to you in any special way today, please explore your awakening faith with a trusted Christian friend or one of the elders or pastors of the church. Once having experienced the grace of Christ, no jingles and fancy promotions are really necessary for successful church stewardship. Just a simple encouragement to respond with our lives and our wealth to the surpassing riches that Jesus has given to us free of charge. Praise be to God, who gives us this abundant gift!

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 C. Thomas Rhyne, “II Corinthians 8:8-15", Interpretation, October, 1987, 41, p. 408.
2 Fred B. Craddock, “The Poverty of Christ,” Interpretation , April, 1968, 22, pp. 158-170.
3 C. Thomas Rhyne, Ibid., p. 411.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dressed for Church

Dressed for Church

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: October 12, 2008

Matthew 22:1-14

There is a version of this banquet story in Luke’s gospel,1 and it is more often read for preaching than Matthew’s edition for some reasons that become obvious if you just read them both.
  • In Matthew, the king’s gracious invitation to a banquet is received by a unique method of making a response: the invited guests seized the messengers who sought their RSVP to the king’s invitation and killed them. Perhaps they didn’t like the menu — perhaps they’d already had too much rare beef!
  • Luke has no killing of the messengers in his version.
  • In Matthew, an enraged king sends troops upon the offending townspeople and has their city burned to the ground.
  • In Luke, the offended king merely tells his messengers to go invite someone else.
  • Matthew also has messengers inviting the rabble of the street to the great banquet, but unlike the story in Luke, the king in Matthew’s version seizes someone who was brought from the street into the wedding feast and dresses him down (!) for sporting improper attire.
  • Luke’s main point is that the gracious invitation of God is extended to everyone, regardless of merit.
  • Matthew’s point, it seems, is anybody’s guess.
So what should we do? Read only Luke’s version of Jesus’ parable and pretend that Matthew was silent on the subject? Throw away Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story? I think, if we are willing to read with imagination, we can discover additional gospel truths in the version Matthew provides us, and, in the end, there is good news.

First of all, remember parables are stories, not descriptions of historic events. This is a story meant to teach. Additionally, it is an allegory, in which the characters and situations are meant to represent things: the king is meant to be understood as a stand-in for God, the son as Jesus, the wedding banquet as the kingdom of heaven, and so forth. You can probably figure out the rest just by giving it a little thought.


Both Matthew and Luke bring us the first main point of the story. The first people invited to the banquet refused the invitation, so then the king threw open the doors and invited everyone, “both good and bad” to come in and have a seat at the table. This reminds us of something we already know about our faith, which is that God’s grace is available to all, regardless of merit, that the son in whose name the banquet is offered has come to save the whole world and everyone in it. Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself” expresses this truth about the gospel and this story:

“This is the meal pleasantly set...
this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked the same as the righteous...
I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited...
the heavy-lipped slave is invited...
the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”

For Luke, the story ends there. The grace of God is extended to all sinners equally, “both good and bad” have been invited. Here is how Frederick Buechner sees the scene:
“...the champagne glasses are filled, the cold pheasant is passed around, and there they sit by candlelight with their white canes and their empty sleeves, their Youngstown haircuts, their orthopedic shoes, their sleazy clothes, their aluminum walkers. A woman with a hairlip proposes a toast. An old man with the face of [King] Lear on the heath and a party hat does his best to rise to his feet. A deaf mute thinks people are starting to go home and pushes back from the table...”2

In other words, when it comes to inviting every sinner to the banquet, we are likely to be surprised at the cast of characters who will be there in response to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation. But Matthew takes us further into the life of the church as we know it and have experienced it. Matthew looks around his church, filled with forgiven sinners, and wonders how people, so graced and embraced by God, can then come to do the will of God so reluctantly, so grudgingly. Beyond calling people into “the banquet” — the church — as both Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of the parable do, what should happen next, how then shall we live? This is where the additional parts of Matthew’s version come to life.


Matthew knew how easily the free and forgiving nature of God’s grace can slide into permissiveness. Once we have received the invitation to salvation which Jesus offers, there is always a temptation to think that we have done everything we can do. Some people think that religious faith is a matter of affirming a certain set of beliefs. Matthew knows that beliefs which do not lead to changed lives are dead in the water. This is the gospel equivalent of the letter of James, which declares that faith without good works is dead faith, as good as no faith at all, or even worse.3 At least an unrepentant sinner has his faithlessness to offer as a reason for failure to respond to the graciousness of God, he needs to offer no excuses for his bad behavior: he never claimed a religious transformation of his life in the first place. But for believers, the transforming power of the gospel should result in changed lives, or else how will the world see the good news lived out in life?

I once heard about a female seminary student who received an assignment in a theology class to write a paper on the topic of “shame.” Inexplicably, she found the paper was too difficult to write. Personal feelings were getting in the way. One of her professors, with exceptional insight, discovered in talking with her that during the year she had been working in a church with a very charismatic pastor who also abused her sexually. It was difficult for her to write objectively about a subject which was so much a part of her present experience. There isn’t much that holds any church together apart from trust, from a shared commitment to make every effort to live by what we say, to back up what we profess to believe with behavior that seeks to match. That shared trust also presumes that when our lives fall short of our faith, we will confess our shortcomings, seek forgiveness and move on. The effort to match up our lives to our calling should always move us forward. So here, in this woman’s experience, at the center of the trust which a church needs to exist, was someone who violated trust and expected permissive grace to let him off the hook.


I’m not sure that Matthew’s gospel story is declaring that that pastor will burn in hell, but I can’t believe the love of Jesus is so permissive as to say this doesn’t matter. Someone, somewhere must turn to that pastor at the banquet and say, “What? You are in here with no wedding garment of righteousness? Get out!” That charismatic pastor had mistaken Jesus’ acceptance of all people, good or bad, as also condoning all behavior.

The parable is not meant to empower us to sit in judgment on others we deem unworthy to remain at the banquet, but rather to serve as a goad to us to examine our own worthiness, or lack of it. It is not meant to depress us with a reminder that we have fallen short, a fact of which any honest person is only too well aware, but to encourage us to press forward to ever fuller acts of faithfulness. Justification (the free grace involved in being admitted to the feast) is the first step of faith, the step that God takes toward us. The next step is up to us, and it is the process of sanctification, the goal being to aim at a life which is holy as a response to the holiness which has been given us.

When we’re getting dressed for church — in the spirit of this parable — we need to do more than put on our coats and ties, our shoes and stockings, our skirts and dresses. We also need a special wardrobe, a garment that fits us for discipleship in the kingdom, one that Paul described in Ephesians when he counseled believers to prepare a new wardrobe for kingdom living:
“Put on the whole armor of that you may be able to...stand firm. Stand firm, therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these take the shield of faith...Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.”4

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Luke 14:16-24.
2 Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, p. 67.
3 James 2:14-17
4 Ephesians 6:13-17.