July 1, 2012

2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle is making an appeal for financial support. It’s not an appeal for the Corinthians to support Paul personally, but to send money to the Church in Jerusalem where the Christians are in need.

The equivalent in our context would be when our Stewardship Committee gets up before the congregation and asks that we consider our gifts to Presbyterians Sharing or to Presbyterian World Service and Development. They’re not asking for donations for the general fund of our church, but they’re asking that we be intentional about the gifts that we make to the church’s mission and ministry beyond our congregation.

Since today is the first Sunday of the month, Karen has included in the bulletin a little report on the offerings made during the month of June, as well as our giving goals for the month of July. And as you can see, we did very well last month. In some of the previous months, we weren’t quite as successful in meeting our giving goals, but in June we did quite well.

In fact, I want to be clear today that the purpose of my sermon is not going to be to appeal to you in the way that Paul was appealing to the Corinthian Christians to increase their generosity and to follow through on their commitments to give. Because this congregation already does very well at giving.

Last month when I was attending the General Assembly of our Church in Ontario, I had the opportunity to catch up with the Rev. Annabelle Wallace. Annabelle was a minister here at St. Andrew’s for about 16 years, and she and I served together for three of those years. Over the course of the Assembly, Annabelle and I had the opportunity to visit with each other quite a bit. I am pleased to report that she is doing very well, and continuing to enjoy her ministry in Edmonton. She was also pleased to hear about St. Andrew’s and all of you, and upholds us all in her prayers.

At one point during a conversation, Annabelle was describing St. Andrew’s Saskatoon to someone else with whom we were speaking. And she said, “St. Andrew’s is an amazing congregation! Whenever there is a mission need, you just need to ask, and they come through and give what is needed.”

Over my years with you, I have seen that generosity manifest many times. Just recently, members of this church gave an extra $2000 to Camp Christopher so they can give camp shirts to every child and youth who attends the camp this summer. And year after year, I am amazed by this congregation’s generosity in giving to PWS&D for emergency needs and development projects around the world, as well as your commitment to support mission and ministry in Canada and around the world through Presbyterians Sharing.

So this sermon is not an appeal. But it is an opportunity, as we consider the scripture texts that we have received for this Sunday, to pause and consider our giving… to think about why and how our Christian faith calls us to give of ourselves by offering our time, our talents, and our tithes for Christ’s mission in the world.

The context of Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians is a significant disparity between the resources of the new congregations in cities like Corinth and the limited means of the older congregations in Jerusalem. There are numerous references in the epistles of the New Testament to a collection being gathered from the churches around the Mediterranean. And it’s not a collection for starting up new churches. It’s a collection to care for the needs of widows and orphans – the saints in Jerusalem who are suffering from poverty and need.

Paul, who first brought the good news about Jesus Christ from Jews to Gentiles in places like Corinth, is now asking these same Gentile Christians to financially support the Jewish Christians who are struggling. As it once took a generosity of spirit to preach the Gospel to those outside the law, Paul is now asking the Gentiles to manifest a similar generosity by offering practical help to the poor in Jerusalem.

And the model for this generosity is the life of Christ himself. Jesus, whom both Jews and Gentiles have come to love and to follow with their lives, is the perfect example of what it means to be generous. Paul reminds them that they “know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

In the case of Jesus, the riches he had were not money or property or physical resources, and the gifts he gave so generously were not financial in nature. But the Corinthian Christians would have understood the riches that he shared so fully with them.

He gave his time and energy to preaching and teaching, so that crowds of people would come to know God more fully and have their lives transformed by his words. He gave up any possibility of security or comfort, so that he could devote himself fully to the work of announcing the Kingdom of God to everyone. He gave up any desire for status or popularity, so that he could show compassion and care for the people on the margins of society – for women and children, for tax collectors and sinners, for foreigners and those who were cast out because of contagious diseases.

In the years of his ministry on earth, Jesus lived completely FOR others. And then when he was rejected by the powers of the world, he gave up his very life, so that somehow through his example, through his sacrifice, through his self-giving, the world might come to know the unfathomable love of God for each and every one of us.

Today’s Gospel reading provides an interesting picture of what Jesus’ ministry may have been like on a day-to-day basis. What I mean is that today’s Gospel story gives us a sense of the many needs that Jesus must have responded to each and every day.

Jesus has just gotten out of the boat after the storm-tossed journey across the Sea of Galilee. And immediately, as the author of Mark’s Gospel likes to say, Jesus is accosted by a synagogue leader with an urgent need. Jairus’ daughter is seriously ill – at the point of death, he says. “Come and lay your hands on her,” Jairus begs, “so that she may be made well, and live.” So off Jesus goes with the synagogue leader to provide help for the sick child.

A crowd of people follows along behind Jesus as he rushes to the aid of the little girl. Some may be interested in what he might do to help her. Others, no doubt, are staying close so that they can ask Jesus to help them too. But one woman in the crowd just can’t wait for Jesus to finish his current mission. She reaches out and touches his clothes as he hurries along. And with that simple touch, a power comes out of him and heals her of the hemorrhage that she has been suffering for the last twelve years.

And then Jesus stops. He allows himself to be interrupted, even from the urgency of a little girl on the brink of death, because a daughter of God needs his attention even more urgently. He stops to find out who and what and why… to assure this woman of God’s love for her, to commend her for her faith, and to send her forth in peace.

Some commentators on this text point out that Jairus, as a leader in the synagogue, is a person of status and importance. He’s the kind of person who would expect to have his needs met promptly. The woman in the crowd, on the other hand, was no one very important. As a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, she would have been deemed “unclean” by the religious laws. She should neither touch anyone nor be touched by anyone. And since her money for doctors had completely run out, her chances of overcoming her ailment and regaining her status in society were next to none.

I don’t know how much time Jesus lost because of the interruption, but he was willing to stop and take the time that was needed. He was willing to be unclean so that this woman could be healed. He was willing to let the rich man’s daughter die so that this poor woman could have a chance. And then, of course, he went on to help the girl as well, even though she had already died. Once again, he broke the cleanliness rules of his religion, this time by touching a dead person. He took her by the hand and said, “Little girl, get up.” And immediately she got up.

Over and over again, throughout Jesus’ ministry, he gives up his own need for status, for popularity, for security, for rest… so that the needs of the least and the lost may be filled. That is the way that Jesus gave. As Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians, “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

I wonder if you have you heard people talking about stewardship and saying that we should follow Jesus’ amazing generosity… that we should “give until it hurts, and then give some more.” I’ve heard that occasionally, but it doesn’t match up with Paul’s advice to the Corinthians.

The apostle doesn’t ask them to give until it hurts, but simply to give out of their abundance. He says that “the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” We’re not called to give until we are in debt, or to give until we are in need ourselves. We’re simply called to give out of the abundance that we possess – to give a portion of what we have to those who have less.

Paul continues to explain, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” It’s interesting that Paul is not emphasizing the absolute poverty of the Christians at Jerusalem. He’s not saying that they are starving and desperate for help. He’s not telling the Corinthians that they are homeless and without proper clothing or even blankets to keep them warm. He’s asking the Corinthians to give, not because of their poverty, but because of an inequality… because things are out of balance.

I read an interesting reflection on this text from the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University: “Asking the Corinthian Christians to give money generously to help the poorer Jerusalem church, Paul said the saints should support one another in an equalizing way… He didn’t promise them a chicken in every pot or an iPod in every pocket. Rather he invited them to live in another world – where God supplies enough and no one gathers more than they need.” He makes reference to the story back in the Exodus wilderness, in which the Hebrews gather manna every morning… just enough for the day, with no one gathering too much or too little.

“The Apostle Paul’s concern to amend inequalities may sound strange to us today… We know absolute poverty is bad; but what’s wrong with inequality?” If everyone has ENOUGH, what’s the problem with some of us having a little MORE than we need? Well, the reflection points out that “inequality – when some fall far behind others in resources – impacts the poor in three [significant] ways:

  • Prices change. If the incomes of the rich go up while the earnings of the poor stay the same, the prices for goods and services will increase. Thus, in inflation-adjusted terms, the poor actually become less well-off.
  • Consumption patterns also change. As wealthier people change what they buy, this can limit what’s available to the poor. For instance, the rise in private automobile usage in the past fifty years had a severe impact on the availability of public transportation for those without the means to buy or lease a vehicle. Similarly, the recent proliferation of cell phones has led to the near disappearance of public pay phones in many cities.
  • Finally, solidarity is undermined. No one needs a TV, but we feel left out without one. It’s about social belonging… People’s health and sense of overall well-being are more closely correlated with relative deprivation position than with absolute levels of income or wealth. Call it a “manna deficit,” if you will: we may not be starving, but we sense we’re not in community with others and they are callously leaving us behind.”

And it may also be possible that we actually have too much. Besides the problem of others who may not have enough, we may actually have too much. We own too much property, so our time and attention is taken up with taking care of it and keeping it in good condition. We own too many things, so we get focussed on our things instead of other people. And as much as most of us complain about being too busy and being short on time, we actually spend an inordinate amount of time every week entertaining ourselves. We’ve overloaded ourselves with so much television, and so many movies and games, and so-called social networks, that we hardly appreciate the gifts of art and music and culture anymore. Perhaps we simply have too much.

When it comes to giving, there are many opportunities presented to us. The Church appeals to its members and adherents to support the ministry and to give to various missions and projects for the good of the community. We do things like set goals for our giving as a church. We have a budget to meet, and a commitment to Presbyterians Sharing that we need to fulfill.

But as individuals and individual families, it’s most important that we take the time to consider carefully what we give and why we want to give. We shouldn’t feel pressured to give as much or more than others. But we should consider our own unique situation, and give out of our abundance so that, as Paul said, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

May God bless all the gifts that we have to offer, that through our time, our talent, and our tithes, the needs of our church and our community may be filled, and God’s Kingdom may come on earth. Amen.