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.