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.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Top Ten

Top Ten
World Communion Sunday
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Exodus 20:1-20

I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery...

We’ve all heard perhaps more than we would have liked of recent debates concerning monuments to the Ten Commandments on public property, debates that seem to me most often to generate more heat than light. Are the commandments simply common sense regulations, universally applicable across religions and cultures, which all people everywhere would do well to obey? The introductory statement suggests not. These were commands issued to a very particular group of people in a very particular time, which they then carried forward into their particular faith as a sort of standard of community behavior. What’s more, straightforward as they may seem, there is no consistent agreement even on something so seemingly simple as the proper numbering. Even Christian groups argue about whether verses 3 and 4 comprise a single command or two. The final command in Exodus places coveting a neighbor’s house ahead of coveting his spouse, while the list in Deuteronomy has it the other way around.

In the 1980s I served the Presbyterian church in Port Arthur, Texas — a town recently in the news along with Galveston because of the devastation of Hurricane Ike. During my tenure as pastor of that congregation we constructed a new sanctuary. The name of the church had recently been changed to The Presbyterian Church of the Covenant because of its history. In 1979 two formerly separated Presbyterian churches in the city were united into one— they covenanted together to become one church family. Because the name of the church included the word “covenant,” at the rear of the new sanctuary we commissioned stained-glass windows depicting the 6 biblical covenants.1 Upon exiting the sanctuary, you could see on the far left the Noah “rainbow covenant” window, then the Abraham window, and, next to the door, the 10 commandments window, known formerly and very affectionately, as the nine commandments window. You might wonder why nine commandments? The artist who designed the window — and it was a modern window for a modern sanctuary — said the Roman numeral “X” representing the 10th commandment was supposed to be there in your imagination, obscured behind a rough bunch of color that was supposed to represent the Sinai mountain. It didn’t matter, though, what it was supposed to represent. Most people who saw it said immediately, “Hey, how come only nine commandments?”

Before that window was altered by the stained glass company to include the Roman numeral for ten, lots of jokes were passed around local ministerial circles in the community to the effect that the Presbyterians were obedient to all commandments except one, and no one could agree on which one it was that we were free to ignore. My favorite explanation for the missing commandment came from the person who said it was missing because the 10th commandment was implied in the name of our church: the Presbyterian Church of the “Covet-not.”

Lots of writers through the ages have had a lot to say about the commandments, however we number them

H.L. Mencken, never a particularly religious man, once wrote, “Say what you like about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.”

Once, at a National Press Association meeting, Ted Turner declared, in his usual, shy, understated way, “... We’re living with outmoded rules ... and I bet nobody here even pays too much attention to ‘em because they are too old. When Moses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was no poverty. Today the Ten Commandments wouldn’t go over. Nobody around likes to be commanded. Commandments are out.”

Mark Twain once told of a conversation with a notoriously ruthless businessman, who said to him in passing, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Mark Twain replied, “I have a better idea; you could stay home and keep them.”

While it’s true that we may sometimes possess an uncritical desire to be free of laws and limitations, some sort of law is absolutely essential to the creation of any sort of community. Some things you have to be able to count on. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter could be expected to speak for the importance of the letter of the law, and he once wrote, “If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is law, every man can. That means first chaos, then tyranny. Legal process is an essential part of the democratic process.” On the other hand, speaking on behalf of the importance of the law’s spirit, former Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.”

Of course, biblical law is not to be confused with civil law. A God-created covenantal community was and is something new. The new thing which came into being at Sinai was a covenanting community based on trust and forgiveness because that was the way God had determined to deal with the community. Freed Egyptian slaves were to acknowledge God by granting each other freedom under the law.

The old oversimplification that the Old Testament represents oppressive legalism while the New Testament supersedes law just isn’t accurate. It is inaccurate because Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”2

What this means as we approach the Ten Commandments in search for understanding is that the law is God’s gift to liberate the human community not to enslave it. To realize the necessity of law, we only need to turn the idea around and consider the chilling alternative: a community of people in which fathers and mothers need not be obeyed, killing is condoned, adultery is permitted, thievery is not prohibited, lying is not unlawful. What sort of covenanting community of mutual trust would be possible under those circumstances?

The law provides boundaries for God’s people, while forming the very heart of Israel’s freedom. Oddly enough, it was failure to obey the very first commandment that most often seemed to be Israel’s undoing, that frequently led to failure in obeying the other commandments, that led to the re-enslavement of the people. “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the primary assertion in the law from which all the rest is derived, and the reason why placement of the 10 Commandments on public property rubs against the anti-establishment clause of the constitution in many people’s minds.

The 10 Commandments represent not only social faithfulness, as found in the last 6 commandments, but our very faithfulness to God. It is all of one piece. One cannot be faithful to God and faithless to neighbor. One cannot make an idol of bricks and sticks, or ministers, or church school curriculum, or a favorite set of hymns, or an accustomed seat in a pew, or flag, or country, or job, or even family, or school, or church, and expect to be declared an obedient servant, a free child of God.

True freedom under the law rests in obedience to the law in spirit as well as in letter. Jesus wanted to make this clear not just through his teaching, but in the offering of his life. In John’s gospel Jesus spoke of a new temple.3 As the disciples reflected later he was referring to the temple of his very self in resurrected form. Those who try to live their lives by the 10 commandments, who know that Christ is our new sanctuary, also know what the church building is and is not. And they also know that the freedom of salvation in any age is not earned by obedience to the law, but by the saving, loving acts of God.

We gather today around the table in community with each other. The word for our celebration is based in community with its name “communion.” The very community we share is possible because of the loving provision of God’s law, and the perfect expression of it in Jesus Christ. So, of course, we gather not only in community with each other here, but in community with our brothers and sisters gathered at the table down the block, across town, throughout the nation, and all across the world. The worldwide community of the faithful is possible because of the faithfulness of one man, Jesus Christ, whose perfection and self-sacrifice have saved us, and made justification through grace under the law possible for us all.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 The Covenant with Noah, Genesis 6-9; the Covenant with Abraham, Genesis 12-17; the Covenant with Moses and Israel, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5; the Covenant with Jeremiah, Jeremiah 31:31; Jesus’ covenant “sealed in my blood,” Luke 22:20, I Corinthians 11:25.
2 Matthew 5:17.
3 John 2:13-22.