Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon for Easter Sunday

1 Corinthians 15:12-20: The Resurrection is Central

What actually is the central and essential message of the Christian faith? Sometimes I ask people this question, and the replies are almost always about things that we’re supposed to be doing. ‘Love thy neighbour’ is the most common one (people almost always use the old form with the word ‘thy’), along with ‘Love God with your whole heart and love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘Let’s all be kind to one another’, ‘be a good person’, ‘pray’, ‘go to church’, and so on.

Now you’ll notice right away that the thing that all these sayings have in common is that they’re good advice about how to live. But the reason that these statements can’t possibly be the central message of the Christian faith is that the early Christians didn’t go into the world preaching good advice. Rather, they called their message ‘the Gospel’, and the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. It was used in the Roman world to describe the joyful announcement that a new emperor had been crowned; ‘Good news! The divine Tiberius is now our king’ (at least, Tiberius thought it was good news; whether his subjects did or not is an entirely different question!). It was used in the Old Testament to describe the announcement that the people’s captivity in Babylon was over and they were now free to return to their own land: ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news!’ says Isaiah. So when the early Christians called their message a ‘gospel’, this is what the hearers would have thought of: an announcement that a new king has been crowned, and that captives could go free. The last thing they would have thought of would have been good advice about being a nice person.

So what is this ‘good news’? In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul connects it to two events: the death and resurrection of Jesus. He says:
‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you stand…For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared…’ (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5a).
Paul then goes on to give a long list of the people Jesus appeared to after his resurrection: Peter, the Twelve, a group of five hundred followers at once, James, the rest of the apostles, and finally to Paul himself, some years later, on the Damascus Road.

So Paul focuses on two events: the death and resurrection of Jesus. The burial is confirmation of his death, and the appearances are confirmation of his resurrection. He also gives a theological meaning to the death of Jesus: ‘Christ died for our sins’. Earlier in the letter he had made this story of the Cross the centre of his message; he writes in chapter 2:
‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (2:1-2).

So Paul preaches this radically illogical message about ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. The word ‘Christ’ is not a name, it’s a title; it’s the same as ‘Messiah’ and it means the king God had promised to send to set his people free. The Jewish people assumed that this king would be a descendant of their old king David and that he would be like David: a mighty warrior who would defeat the enemies of Israel in battle and establish a just and righteous government in Jerusalem.

The Messiah was not supposed to be defeated by his enemies; he was supposed to wipe out his enemies in the name of the God of Israel. So to say that ‘Jesus the Messiah was crucified by the Romans’ was a nonsense statement. Crucifixion was a death that the Romans reserved for rebels against their empire. If Jesus had been crucified, it meant that he had failed in his task; Israel was still under the thumb of the Roman Empire, so Jesus could not possibly be the true Messiah.

Paul and the early Christians, however, have reinterpreted the death of Jesus. To them, it isn’t a defeat, but a central plank in God’s plan to bring forgiveness and healing to the world. Paul’s message isn’t just ‘Christ died’, but ‘Christ died for our sins’. Somehow, in a strange and mysterious way, Jesus took the whole load of human sinfulness on his shoulders on Good Friday and died for it. The world did the worst it possibly could to Jesus that day, and Jesus turned around and said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. The Cross tells us that right at the heart of the gospel is this story of a God who loves his enemies. We had chosen to make ourselves his enemies by throwing his love in his face and declaring independence from him, but the Cross is the story of how God rejected our rejection, and found a way to make us his friends again.

At least, that’s how we understand it today, and it’s how the early Christians understood it. But of course, this was not obvious on Good Friday. On Good Friday, all that was obvious was that Jesus had been cruelly executed and his movement was over. If that had been the end of the story, the apostles would never have gone out and preached the message of Jesus all over the world. On Good Friday, the only message that was obvious to them was that they had wasted the last three years of their lives, because Jesus was not the Messiah. A crucified messiah could not possibly be a true Messiah, or God would not have abandoned him.

And that’s why Paul puts the resurrection front and centre in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Let me spell it out as clearly as I can: if it were not for the resurrection, the only thing we would be able to say about the death of Jesus would be that it was a noble tragedy, a good man killed by a brutal government, like millions before and after him. But that’s not what Paul says about the death of Jesus; he says ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’. How does he know that? He knows it because the Cross was not the end of the story: God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead.

And so, a little later in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has this to say:
‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).

Paul is quite clear here: if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, we’re wasting our time, and we might as well give up now. Why? Because if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then we have no way of knowing that his message is true. He said that the kingdom of God was at hand, but he was wiped out by the kingdom of the Romans, so where does that leave the kingdom of God? He taught us that love is stronger than hate, but the hate of the political establishment was in fact stronger than his love. If it was not for his resurrection, that would be all that there is to say. Love your neighbour? Nice idea, Jesus, but Moses said it before you did.

That’s what Paul means when he says that if Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins. The message that Paul has been preaching all over the Roman world is that there is forgiveness for all through the Cross of Jesus, because Christ died for our sins. But we can’t possibly know that to be true unless God has raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, and it is Jesus’ victory over the worst that hate and fear could do to him. We know that love is stronger than death because of the resurrection of Jesus. If he was not raised, then hate has the last word, and love is just a nice ideal.

So Paul takes this huge risk: he pins the validity of his entire message on whether or not a dead man was miraculously raised to life again. Let’s be clear about what he means here. ‘Resurrection’, to Jewish people, did not mean that after we die, we go to a lovely place called heaven, where we wander in spiritual green fields, free forever from the curse of bodies. That’s a Greek idea, popularized by the philosophy of Plato. No, Judaism was a thoroughly physical religion: Judaism believed that this world of matter is a good place made by a loving Creator. Yes, it has been spoiled by the invasion of evil, but the Creator’s response is not going to be to abandon matter altogether and organize a lifeboat to take us to a non-material heaven. Rather, God is going to heal the world of evil and renew his creation so that we see again the glory it had before it was touched by hate in the first place.

Jewish people before the time of Jesus encouraged each other with this hope, but they were also troubled by the thought that some people might never live to see it come about. What about the righteous dead who died before the new age dawned; had they missed out on their chance? Surely not! And so later on in the Old Testament we get the first hints of the idea that when God finally frees his creation from evil, the righteous dead will be raised to life again; their bodies will be renewed, and they will once again enjoy God’s good creation in all its wonder.

That’s what resurrection meant to a Jewish person at the time of Jesus. They didn’t all believe in it, but they all knew what it meant. And the Christian church took over this belief lock, stock, and barrel, with this one important difference: instead of waiting until the end to raise everyone, God has raised one person first: Jesus the Messiah. That’s what Paul means when he calls Jesus ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’. The ‘first fruits’ is the beginning of the harvest: once the first fruits come, the rest will follow in due course. And that’s the wonder of the resurrection, Paul says: because Jesus has been raised, you can know that one day you will share in his resurrection – which doesn’t mean that you’ll go to ‘a better place when you die’, but that God will make this world into a better place and raise you from the dead so that you can enjoy it forever.

But all this is entirely dependent on the truth of the resurrection message. Paul says,
‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished’ (vv.17-18).

In other words, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we die, and we rot in the grave, and that’s all we can know for sure. But if he has been raised, then death takes on an entirely different meaning for us. Paul calls it ‘falling asleep’, and it’s not hard to see why. Sleep is temporary; the person who is asleep is going to wake up again. And Paul wants us to know that for those who fall asleep in Jesus, death is also temporary: one day Jesus will wake us up again to share in the glory of God’s new creation.

So this is the good news that we Christians announce on this Easter morning. Christ died for our sins, but that’s not the end of the story. On Good Friday Jesus’ enemies defeated him, but on Easter Sunday God turned the tables, defeating the power of hate and violence and vindicating Jesus’ message of love.

And because God raised him from the dead, we can look back on the Cross and see what was happening there in a completely different light. We can remember Jesus words at the last supper: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27). We can see that far from being the defeat of the Messiah, the cross was actually a central plank in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself, as Jesus poured out his blood for the sins of the whole world and poured out mercy and forgiveness on all who turn to him.

The resurrection is God’s great victory over the power of hate and death, and it also assures us that through the Cross we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. And lastly, it gives us hope for the future as well. Hate and evil will not have the last word. The new creation is coming, and when it comes, we and our loved ones will not be forgotten in our graves; yes we may sleep for a long time, but not forever. God will raise us up on that resurrection morning; we will have new resurrection bodies as Jesus did on that first Easter Sunday, and we will live with him forever. And so, Paul says,
‘Then when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-58, New Living Translation).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Were You There? (a sermon for Good Friday by the Rev. Susan Ormsbee)

Were You There?
29 March 2013 (Good Friday)

Many years ago, when I was living in Ottawa I went to a concert at the National Arts Centre.  The only part of the concert which I remember is of hearing an arrangement of the spiritual “Were you there?”  The song moved within me at a deep spiritual level.  The words which have remained with me through all these years are: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  What would it have been like to be present, to witness the crucifixion?  Where would I be?  Who would I be?

Have you ever noticed how we will retell or replay an important event over and over to make sure that we remember?  We retell family stories about how the snow was so deep that we had to help each other shovel out; how a sibling was almost born at home; how grandfather died.  We also remember stories which form us as a people, where we were when John Kennedy was shot; what we were doing when the towers collapsed on 9/11.  The Israelites were told to celebrate the Passover every year to remember how God had brought them out of Egypt, a practice that they have continued for over 2000 years.  As Christians, every year on Good Friday, we hear how Jesus completed the mission that his Father had sent him to do.  This mission was not completed alone but in the community in which Jesus lived.  We remember the story of the crucifixion but we also struggle to find our own place in the story, where are we in this event?  How does this event shape us as a people?

The chronology of events starts with Jesus being betrayed by Judas, a disciple.  He is taken to the house of the high priest, Peter and another disciple followed.  It is in the courtyard that Peter three times denies knowing Jesus.  Jesus was then taken in front of Pilate who tried to avoid condemning him to death.  But the chief priests incited the crowd to have Jesus crucified.  The soldiers then followed their orders and took him out to a hill and crucified Jesus.  Mary, the mother of Jesus watched from the foot of the cross.

So, first there was the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Judas believed that Jesus was a warrior Messiah who would fight the Romans and free the country from this foreign government; Jesus was the political Messiah that they had all been waiting for.  The problem was that Jesus wouldn’t start the revolution, Jesus needed a strong push and then the fight would begin.  Judas thought that he would give that strong push; he was impatient.  We know that Judas was wrong; that God had not sent a political Messiah but Judas was caught in the moment thinking that he knew best.  Have you ever pushed someone to do something because you thought you knew the best solution?  Have you ever insisted that someone move forward, start something new before they wanted to and then stood helplessly by when they failed?  Were you there when they betrayed my Lord?

Then we have Peter who publically denied that he knew Jesus.  Simon Peter who had such a strong faith, remember he got out of the boat and walked on the water towards Jesus; now he denied even knowing Jesus!  Peter, who in private, in the comfort of the disciples that he knew said that he would never fall away from Jesus, Peter denied him in public.  Have you ever said one thing in private but then said or acted differently in public?  Have you ever said, we should do this and then when someone starts the new initiative stood back because you were afraid of what might happen?  Maybe your survival instinct took over?  Were you there when they denied knowing my Lord?

Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death.  He went back and forth between Jesus and those accusing him, trying to find the easy answer.  Pilate knew what he should do but he wanted someone else to make the decision; he didn’t want to act on his own initiative.  How often have I listened long beyond the time when I knew what decision I needed to make, I knew what should be done but it was not easy and it was not what others wanted.  I kept looking for an “out”, maybe someone else had the answer?  How can you decide when the majority has spoken?  Were you there when they condemned my Lord?

The Chief Priests rejected Jesus and his teachings and led the crowd in asking for Jesus to be crucified.  The priests were afraid of what Jesus would do if he was allowed to live; their positions might change or even be eliminated!  Change would happen, better to stop it now before their lives got too difficult.  Have you ever wished that someone who was making your life difficult would just go away?  Maybe it is a co-worker who is always whining and trying to get you to do their work; maybe it is a friend who asks for more than you can give; maybe it is a family member who is just difficult to be with.  Have you wished that they would just disappear?  Have you ever done something to make that departure more likely?  Were you there when they rejected my Lord?

The soldiers tortured Jesus and nailed him to the cross.  The soldiers were doing what they were told to do as they did every day; this was their job, to follow orders.  Sometimes innocent people would be hurt.  Have you ever done something even though you knew it was wrong?  Have you ever told a joke that was belittling a particular cultural group?  Have you ever covered for a person who was acting unethically?  Have you been afraid to stand up for what you know is right?  Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?

Mary loved Jesus her son through it all.  She stood at the foot of the cross and watched as Jesus died.  She stood in solidarity with others who loved Jesus, giving comfort and receiving it.  Maybe you have done this in your family when a loved one is dying; sat by the bedside, speaking quietly, hugging each other; wiping tears, telling stories, finally saying our goodbye to the loved one.  I think that this is where we can enter the story of Good Friday.  We don’t enter at the betrayal or the denial or condemnation or rejection but we enter by standing with others who love Jesus.  If we are in community with others who follow Jesus, who model their lives on his then we can watch and begin to understand that the Lord, our shepherd willingly gave up his life for us, his sheep.  We can begin to see that God wins the victory over death even as it appeared that death had won.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Services for Holy Week and Easter

Holy Week Services at a Glance:

Maundy Thursday (March 28th) 7.00 p.m.: Holy Communion, washing of feet and hands, and stripping the church for Good Friday.

Good Friday (March 29th) 10.30 a.m.: Good Friday service with Sunday School.

Holy Saturday (March 30th) 3.30 - 5.30 p.m.: Spaghetti Church.

Easter Sunday (March 31st):
9.00 Holy Communion
109.30 Holy Communion and Sunday School
Note: there will be no 4.00 p.m. service on Easter Sunday.

About the Services:

Maundy Thursday (March 28th).
This is the day on which we remember Jesus’ gift of Holy Communion, and his command to love one another (‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’ which means ‘commandment’). We will meet for Holy Communion at 7.00 p.m. The service will include an opportunity to participate in a symbolic washing of feet or hands (this is optional), and will conclude with the stripping of the church for Good Friday.

Good Friday (March 29th).
Our Good Friday service will be at 10.30 a.m. It will include a children’s component, after which the children will go downstairs for their own Good Friday program. As part of this service we join together in reading the story of Jesus’ death from the Gospel of John (with different people reading the parts of the various characters); later, we bring in a wooden cross and gather around it to remember Jesus’ death and to pray for the world for which he died.

Holy Saturday (March 30th):
Spaghetti Church 3.30 - 5.30 p.m. Spaghetti Church is an opportunity for families with small children to do crafts and to sing, hear the Easter story, pray, and eat together. Note: you need to call the church (780-437-7231) to let us know you are coming, as we need to know how much food to prepare.

Easter Sunday (March 31st)
We will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with services of Holy Communion at 9.00 & 10.30 a.m.; the 10.30 service includes Sunday School. Note: there is no 'Sundays@4' service at 4.00 this week.

Special Easter Offering: World Vision Schools Project in Darfur (south Sudan)
Three times a year our offering envelope boxes contain envelopes for special offerings, and we always give the proceeds from those special offerings away to mission work. This year we are supporting World Vision’s efforts to build new schools in Darfur in South Sudan. Fundraising is going on for this project right now, and it is hoped that building will start next year (2014). We will be fundraising for it until the end of September and hope to raise at least $7500 to help with this worthy cause.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon for March 24th 2013 (by the Rev. Susan Ormsbee)

Shouting Stones
24 March 2013 (Palm Sunday)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.
One of my earliest memories from my childhood is about seeing the queen.  It was in the late 1950’s and Queen Elizabeth was visiting Ottawa.  She was going to drive down the highway just outside our subdivision.  Everyone in the area lined the highway; we were all eager to see this important person; to see the queen!  When she got close we could hear the crowd shouting “Long live the Queen”.  Then her car was in front of us, I waved my flag and yelled too.  It was exciting to be a part of the crowd honoring the Queen.  I wonder if that was what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was like?

The first gospel passage we heard today speaking about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is present in all four gospels.  However, only Luke’s gospel passage do we hear Jesus’ comment that if the people do not praise him then the stones will cry out.  The idea of shouting stones makes me stop; pause, to consider what this means.  After some study and pondering I have developed three possible explanations for what this passage may mean.  These are: 1) That evil will not prevail in the world; 2) That the inanimate world is created by God and praises him; 3) That the disciples were right in praising God.
The idea of stones crying out is also found in the prophetic writings of Habakkuk.  This book was written to show that God was in control despite the apparent triumph of evil.  At the time of its writing Babylon was dominating the Jewish people and Habakkuk, a prophet, asks God about this.  God answers saying that even though it seems evil is triumphant eventually righteousness will prevail.  At this time even the stones of the wall will cry out against the evil.  Through this prophet’s writings it is shown that truth may be temporarily silenced but eventually it will be heard; evil will not prevail. 
Is Jesus now saying that the stones would cry out against any of his followers who would remain silent when then know the truth?  Is he saying that nothing can stop a person from proclaiming his kingship?
Another possibility is that Jesus was saying that all of God’s creation can praise Him. 
The world that we perceive as inanimate was made by God and is permeated with his divine presence.  Psalm 139 tells us that God can not be confined by our human boundaries; that where ever we are God is also.  God is never absent. 

I think about the different types of stones I have experienced.  The mountains immediately come to my mind; they speak to me about the greatness of God’s creation.  I have seen piles of stones, cairns marking a place of significance.  The Inuit build Inukshuks to serve as guidepost, to tell them where to go.  Sand, containing many small stones, reminds me that I am not the centre of the universe.  Stones can have many different voices. 

I wonder if we are being reminded to spend time listening to all the voices which make up our day?  Are we to listen more to the voices of other people and also to the voices of creation?  Is Jesus saying that all of creation has a voice to praise God?

Finally I wonder if the people in the crowd had it right?  They were praising Jesus calling on him to save them.

The Pharisees are troubled by this entry into Jerusalem.  The disciples and the crowd are proclaiming the kingship of Jesus, telling about the miracles that they had seen.  The Pharisees are concerned that Jesus will take away their power and authority.  They don’t want this new group to cause change in their area.  They tell Jesus to keep his followers quiet.  Jesus responds that if my followers don’t praise me then all of creation will.  It sounds like the disciples have finally realized that Jesus is their king, the messiah who will free them. 

Is this what we are being told, to proclaim the gospel, to praise God?  If the stones know how to praise Jesus why do we not praise him? 

In looking at the three possibilities I realize that they are all saying that we, as followers of Jesus, are called to proclaim his story and to praise God at all times.  Like the stones we are to cry out  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Selfish Generosity (a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15: March 17th 2013
‘Selfish Generosity’

Our theme this Lent is the joy of Christian generosity. Our text is two chapters from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – chapters eight and nine. In these chapters Paul is writing to his Christian friends in the Greek city of Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. If there is one phrase that sums up the theme of these two chapters, it would be ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (9:7). We’re sinful human beings and so our natural tendency is to be grudging givers; Jesus, on the other hand, is working on renovating our hearts, and so he wants us to learn that one of the great secrets to a joyful and happy life is generosity. That’s been our theme all through Lent.

We started on the first Sunday of Lent by looking at Jesus as the greatest example of gospel generosity. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the grace 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’. Grace means unconditional love, and so as we follow the example of Jesus, our giving will be unconditional, not dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. We also noted that Jesus’ giving to us made him poorer, and so we should expect as Christians to have a lower standard of living than others who make the same income we do, because we are learning the joy of generosity.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Susan helped us look at giving as a part of the balanced Christian life, of Christian commitment. Paul talks about his Christian friends in Macedonia who were poor themselves, but who were also very generous. The secret was their commitment to Christ: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5).

On the third Sunday of Lent, we talked about the principle of Kingdom equality. In chapter 8:13-15 Paul reminds us that equality is what God wants: a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much.

Last week, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, our theme was poverty and generosity. Paul used the example of the Christians in Macedonia who were very poor, but their joy in Jesus led them to be generous in giving to help the Jerusalem Christians. From this we learned that if we wait until we’re rich before we give, we’ll probably never start, because we’ll always be able to find a good excuse why we need ‘just one more thing’, and all the time the false god of wealth will be wrapping his chains more securely around our hearts. No: the time to learn the joy of generosity is always now.

Today our series comes to an end, and I want to focus on the payoff of Christian generosity. I’ve called this last sermon ‘Selfish Generosity’, and my tongue is only partially in my cheek! There’s an obvious payoff for the Jerusalem Christians in the Corinthians’ generosity, but is there a payoff for the Corinthians, too? Is their giving for their benefit as well as Jerusalem’s? Paul thinks it is, and he spells out that payoff in our passage for today.

Look with me at the first few verses from today’s reading, verses 6-9:
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor, his righteousness endures forever’.

Now I would suggest that this is not the normal way we think of ‘giving to charity’. Suppose I get one of those phone calls from STARS ambulance or cancer research or whatever, asking me for a donation of $100. Now I’m a selfish human being like anyone else, so my first thought is going to be ‘What had I planned to spend that $100 on?’ I’m in competition with the charity, you see? If I keep the money, it can be of benefit to me. If I give it to them, it will be a benefit to them, which will probably be a good thing, but I won’t get anything out of it.

Paul challenges this way of thinking. The farmer who plants seed in the ground isn’t making a donation, he’s making an investment. The food he’s able to grow will be a benefit to others, yes, because they’ll be able to eat and so not starve. But it will also be a benefit to the farmer, because it will bring him an income. Paul is challenging me to rethink my perspective on generosity. My gifts to the poor are not a donation; they’re an investment in the work of God’s kingdom. That work will benefit others, but it will also benefit me. I’m not just giving gifts, I’m sowing seeds, and in good time I’ll be able to reap a harvest.

So what exactly are those benefits? Paul points out three things. First, he promises that if we are generous to others, God will provide for our needs as well. In verse 8 he says,
‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.
And in verses 10-11 he goes on to say,
‘He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’.

Note carefully what Paul says here. He doesn’t make an unconditional promise that God will give us everything we want. In fact, in other places in the New Testament Paul works hard to reduce the list of things we want; in 1 Timothy he says that godliness with contentment is great gain, and defines contentment as being happy with food and clothing (I think if he’d lived in Alberta he would have added ‘a warm house’ as well!).

So Paul isn’t saying, ‘If you give generously God will reward you by pandering to your materialistic lifestyle’. Rather, as the New Living Translation puts it in verse 8, ‘God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others’. Do you see God’s priority here? It’s not that I’ll be able to buy an even nicer and more expensive Larrivée guitar! It’s that I’ll always have enough to provide for my basic needs, and then to continue to be generous to the poor. So it’s not an extravagant payoff, but it is a payoff! I mentioned last week the couple in our first parish in the early 1980s whose net income for the year was about $1600, but who told me ‘We can’t afford not to tithe!’ Their attitude was that this promise of God was worth more than any worldly wealth. God is no one’s debtor; he will always honour generosity and make sure that we aren’t the losers for it.

So the first benefit is a promise that God will provide for our needs too. The second benefit is the enduring benefit of a righteous character. In verse 9 he quotes from Psalm 112, which talks about the righteous person:
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever’.

The Bible has a lot to say about the difference between a benefit that is only temporary and one that lasts forever. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out with us – nothing material, that is. You’ve heard the story of the two millionaires who were discussing a friend of theirs, also a millionaire, who had died recently. One of them said, “I wonder how much he left?” The other replied, “Everything!” When we stand face to face before our maker, the size of the bank account that our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. What will make a difference is our righteous character.

And what does righteousness mean? This quote from Psalm 112 makes it clear that it includes generosity to the poor. ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. It’s not just about doing our best never to harm anyone; a fence post can be a good Christian by that standard! It’s about practical love for those who really need it. If we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the kind of people whose greatest joy is to be generous toward those who are in need, that is a benefit that will be with us forever.

Think about it for a minute; everyone thinks that when they die, they want to go to heaven. But what sort of a place is heaven? Heaven is a place where there is no selfishness, no greed, and no ownership of any kind. What kind of person can enjoy that sort of place? Can a selfish and greedy person enjoy it? Isn’t it more true to say that a selfish and greedy person who went to heaven would find it to be hell? So shouldn’t we consider it to be a matter of urgent priority to ask God to change our hearts so that we can be the kind of people who will find heaven to be heaven, and not hell?

Are you beginning to see how generosity can be a real benefit to us? I hope you are!

Paul has pointed out two benefits to us: God will provide for our needs, and we will have the lasting benefit of a righteous character, which will make us the kind of people who can arrive in God’s eternal kingdom and actually enjoy it! But there’s a third thing: the benefit of the prayers of those we have helped. Look at verse 14:
‘…while they (that is, the Christians in Jerusalem) long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

Actually, there are two sides to this. In verse 12 Paul refers to prayers of thanksgiving, and in verse 14 to prayers of intercession. It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind. This wonderful gift arrives in Jerusalem, and the poor Christians there are filled with joy, because they realize that they aren’t going to starve after all. “Thank you, God, for those wonderful Christians over in Corinth!” they say; “Thank you for their love and generosity. Please bless them, and give them all they need, and help them to grow as followers of Jesus too”.

That’s the most wonderful gift anyone can give to us, you know - to pray to God for us, to constantly bring our names before the heavenly Father. As I sit at the front of the church week by week, I listen to our intercessors leading the prayers of the people, and they all do such a great job. I’m especially grateful to those who pray for me and for my family as part of their prayers. And I’m grateful for my Mum and Dad, who pray together every night; I send them my calendar every week, and I know they use it in their prayers and ask God to bless the specific things I’m doing. You can’t put a dollar value on that; it’s priceless.

So, here are three benefits Paul points out to us: this is the payoff for our growth as joyful givers. First, God will provide for our needs too, so that we can continue to be generous. Second, we’ll be growing in righteous character, so that when we finally arrive in God’s Kingdom we’ll be the kind of people who can enjoy it, rather than finding it to be hell on earth! Thirdly, when the poor receive our gifts their hearts will overflow with thanksgiving to God and with prayers for us, and those prayers are worth more than a million dollars in the bank.

So, sisters and brothers, what is our response? Let me close by pointing out to you the three things that Paul recommends to us.

First, he recommends that we give generously. Verse 6 says, ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. This is obvious: if the farmer wants a big crop, he has to scatter a lot of seeds; if he only plants a little, he’s only going to have a small crop.

A word of caution here, though – let’s remember last week’s passage. A rich person may give more dollars than a poor person, but the gift is no sacrifice to them, because they’re still giving from their spare change. The point is not how much we give, but how much we have left over. Generous giving is sacrificial giving, giving that means there are things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of it. That’s what Paul is recommending.

The first guideline is to give generously. The second is to give freely. Verse 7 says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’. It’s possible to give generously with the hand but to continue to grasp the gift with your heart, and to wish you’d never given it. That sort of generosity may be a benefit to the recipient, but it won’t be a benefit to the giver. Note what Paul is saying here: no one can judge another Christian for how much they give. It’s true that in the Old Testament 10% is the standard, but what’s important is not a legalistic attachment to percentages: what’s important is that my heart is transformed so that I become the sort of person whose greatest joy is generosity. When that happens, percentages will be unimportant; I’ll be giving all the time, because I love it, because it brings me joy.

And that leads to the third guideline: give generously, give freely, and give cheerfully. Verse seven says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. That’s what this entire Lent series has been about. God isn’t trying to make us all into miserable people who can’t even buy an ice cream cone for ourselves without feeling guilty about all the poor people who could have been helped by that $3.50! No – God is longing to increase our joy! He wants to make us happier, more cheerful people, and he knows that generosity is an infallible way to do that!

Do you want to have more joy in your life? Do you want a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to be able to go to sleep at night with a sense of joy in having made a real difference in the lives of people? Well, sisters and brothers, God wants that for you as well. Here’s an infallible rule: misers are miserable (funny how the two words are related!), but generous people are full of joy. So not just for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit too, let’s pray that God the Holy Spirit will change our selfish hearts into generous hearts. Will you pray that for me? I’ll pray it for you, too, and then we can continue to work on it together!

Friday, March 15, 2013

March 18th - 24th

Weekly Calendar

March 18th, 2013
Office is closed.
March 20th, 2013
7:15 pm  VestryMeeting
March 21st, 2013
7:00 am Men and Women’s Bible Study at the Bogani Café.
11:30 am Lunch Bunch Lunch at St. Margaret’s
2:00 pm Women’s Bible Study at M. Rys home.
7:30 pm Lent Course #3
March 24th, 2013   Palm Sunday
9:00 am Holy Communion
10:30 am Holy Communion with Sunday School
4:00 pm Sundays@ 4 Holy Communion with Sunday School

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Poverty and Generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1-3) (Sermon for March 10th)

Our theme this Lent is the joy of Christian generosity. Our text is two chapters from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – chapters eight and nine. In these chapters Paul is writing to his Christian friends in the Greek city of Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. As I’ve already said in this series, we don’t know why the Christians in Jerusalem were going through a time of such extreme poverty, but we do know that Paul obviously felt it deeply and wanted the Gentile Christians all over the world to come together as the Body of Christ and help out.

So we’ve been exploring different themes in these two chapters as we’ve gone through Lent. We started on the first Sunday of Lent by looking at Jesus as the greatest example of gospel generosity. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the grace 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’. Grace means unconditional love, and so as we follow the example of Jesus and give of our time, our talents, and our money, our giving will be unconditional, not dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. We also noted that there is a ‘downwardly mobile’ element to Christian giving; Jesus’ giving to us made him poorer, and so we should expect as Christians to have a lower standard of living than others who make the same income we do, because we are learning the joy of generosity.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Susan helped us look at giving as a part of the balanced Christian life, of Christian commitment. Paul talks about his Christian friends in Macedonia who were poor themselves, but who were also very generous. The secret was their commitment to Christ: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5). It’s our commitment to Christ that leads us to embrace generosity as a way of life; we know how much he has given for us, and in our gratitude we long to learn the same joy of generosity.

Last week, the third Sunday of Lent, we talked about the principle of Kingdom equality. Paul says in chapter 8:13-15 that this is not about the Jerusalem Christians taking unfair advantage of their Gentile friends, but rather it’s about a fair balance. At the moment, he says, you Corinthians have plenty and the folks in Jerusalem have little; in the future it might be reversed. But God’s ideal is that there be equality: that everyone has enough and no one has too much. This is a revolutionary idea in our modern world where there is such glaring inequality, but we looked at a couple of Old Testament stories that confirmed that yes, this is indeed what God wants to see, and so we need to think carefully about what that might mean for us in practice as modern Christians.

Today, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, our theme is poverty and generosity. This is a little counter-cultural, because modern fundraising techniques tend to lean heavily on wealth and generosity. Professional fundraisers tend to stress the importance of finding a few potential ‘big givers’ early in a fundraising campaign – people who can give big dollar amounts that impress other potential givers and so serve to ‘shake more donations loose’. But as we’ll see in this passage, Paul doesn’t follow this fundraising philosophy; the examples he uses are in fact people who are quite poor, but who are generous anyway. In this, of course, he’s following the philosophy of Jesus, who told us that the poor widow woman who put two copper coins in the collection box gave more than all the rich folk, because they gave their spare change, while she gave all she had to live on.

An interesting fact that researchers have discovered is that when it comes to Christian giving, wealth is not a reliable indicator of how much people will give. We might assume that rich people will give more generously than poor people, and in terms of dollar amounts they often do, but when giving is worked out as a percentage of total income, the poor often come out surprisingly well. And if we think of sacrificial giving, as Jesus did in his story of the widow and her two pennies – in other words, if we ask the question ‘What has the giver had to give up in order to give this gift? – then we often discover that the poor are miles ahead of the rich.

My personal experience bears this out. Over the years, many Christians have told me that they couldn’t afford to give 10% of their income to God, even though I could see boats and SUVs in their driveways, and they regularly went on holidays to warm places. On the other hand, I also remember a couple in our first parish, in about 1980, whose net income for the year was around $1600, who told me that they couldn’t afford not to tithe, because God’s promise to support them was far more secure than money in the bank!

The idea that ‘I can’t afford to be generous right now, but later on, when I’m doing a little better, then I’ll be able to give’ is a myth. It never happens. Rather, the principle that we see in 2 Corinthians 8:1-3 is generosity in the midst of poverty. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 8:1-3:
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means.

Who are these ‘churches of Macedonia’? They are the Philippians and the Thessalonians, the residents of the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica. Geographically, if you remember that Greece is west and north of the Aegean Sea and modern Turkey is east of it, Macedonia is north of the Aegean, and Corinth is west, just southwest of Athens. When Paul and the early missionaries brought the gospel to Greece they had travelled from Turkey by land, and so they had come to Macedonia before Athens and Corinth, so the churches there were slightly older than the Corinthian church, but only by a few weeks.

What we know is that comparatively speaking the Christians in Macedonia were poorer than the Corinthians. In fact, Paul uses the term ‘extreme poverty’ to describe them. Also, they were apparently going through some sort of persecution because of their Christian faith – that’s what ‘a severe ordeal of affliction’ means.

Now this is very interesting. Here we have a group of Christians who are experiencing extreme poverty, and are also being persecuted for their faith. Paul apparently comes to them, tells them about all the sufferings of the Jerusalem Christians, and asks them to give generously to help out. What do you think would be their natural reaction? I would think it would be quite reasonable for them to respond by saying, “Sorry, Paul, but we’ve got troubles enough of our own – do you think you could add us to the list of people you’re fundraising for?” Isn’t that what you would expect? In fact, if Paul had contracted with Corinthian Fundraising Services, Inc., to do a feasibility study for a fundraising project in Macedonia, they would probably have said, “Don’t waste your time – those folks can’t afford to help!’

But this is not, in fact, what happened. Paul says that there were two things that came together in the experience of the Macedonian Christians, with the effect that they gave generously to the Jerusalem relief fund. These two things were their ‘abundant joy’ and their ‘extreme poverty’.

‘Joy in Christ’ is obviously what Paul means here. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians tells us that the story of how the Thessalonian Christians turned from idols to serve the true and living God has been told all over the Christian world – their conversion story was real and dramatic. In Philippi there wasn’t even a Jewish synagogue, but Paul and Barnabas preached at a place of prayer by the river, and God opened the hearts of a few people to turn to faith in Christ. Obviously the Holy Spirit had been at work in them, because ‘joy’ is listed in Galatians as one of the ‘fruits’ of the Spirit. And here’s the thing: you can’t be joyful and stingy at the same time. Scrooge was not a joyful person! Mean spirited people who are always trying to protect their wallets from scroungers don’t tend to be joyful people either! Joy and generosity go together, but misers don’t tend to be very joyful.

But the other decisive element in the experience of the Macedonians was their own poverty. They knew what it felt like to have very little. When Paul told them the story of those Jerusalem Christians and all the sufferings they were going through, it wasn’t hard for the Macedonians to sympathize with them. Their love leapt across all the barriers of geography and race, because they were parents trying to feed their kids, and Paul was telling them about other parents in the same situation. And what was the result? Paul says, ‘they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means’. I find it very interesting that Paul says very clearly that the Macedonians could not afford to give, but they did so anyway, and God honoured them for it.

How much did they give in actual money amounts? We’re not told. I’m guessing that if Paul had persuaded four or five of his rich Corinthian friends to give generously, those four or five might have given more than all the Macedonians, but they would still have been giving out of their spare change. But Paul chose to use the Macedonians as an example, because they gave not only joyfully, but also sacrificially.

So what do we learn about Christian generosity from this passage? Let me conclude by pointing out four truths.

First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Why is this? Because the fundamental Christian experience is the experience of the unconditional generosity of God. ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’, wrote John Newton. He knew himself to be a sinner – he was very conscious of all the evil things he had done – and yet God had loved him anyway, had drawn him into a living relationship with Christ, had poured out his love on him. What an act of amazing generosity! And we too, if we’re honest, are well aware of how far we fall short of what God wants us to be. And yet God continues to love us and be patient with us, and we are aware of his presence and his help, despite our many failures. God is so generous to us! How can we be aware of that and fail to be transformed into generous people ourselves?

First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Second, people who have themselves suffered can more readily sympathize with those who are suffering. This is so obvious that I don’t really need to comment on it. Obviously, if you’ve had the experience of wondering where your next meal is going to come from, you can more readily sympathize with people in that situation. And if you’ve been helped in your suffering by the generosity of others, you can more readily appreciate how vital that generosity is.

Third, it’s a myth that we’ll start giving generously when we can better afford it. When will that day come? What actually happens, in practice, is that the more my income increases, the more my lifestyle expands, and I still won’t have enough! I’ll need two cars and an RV and a newer computer and so on, and I’ll always be able to find a good reason for why I need them. If I wait until I can afford it, I’m never going to start. Because do you know what’s happening here? What’s happening is that the false god of wealth is quietly wrapping his chains around my heart, and the richer I get, the more surely I’m going to be hooked. The truth of the matter is that if I don’t give generously when I’m poor, I probably won’t give generously when I’m rich either.

And that leads to the fourth thing: the time to start learning the joy of Christian generosity is always now. The biblical principle is this: “Those who are faithful in small things will be faithful in big things”. The time to learn to give to the poor is now - no matter what my level of income may be. If I consider myself poor, then I should rejoice that I can learn the joy of Christian giving before the love of money has me hopelessly hooked. And if I’m rich - and remember, in terms of the whole world, every one of us here is rich - then I need to get started as quickly as I can, before money chains my heart to the earth even more securely. It’s not a question of what I can afford. It’s a question of my priorities, of who comes first in my heart. If I wait until I can afford it, I’ll never start. Start now. That’s the fourth principle.

Let me go round that one last time. First, the joy of Jesus melts hard and ungenerous hearts. Second, people who have themselves suffered can more readily sympathize with those who are suffering. Third, it’s a myth that we’ll start giving generously when we can better afford it, and therefore, fourth, the time to start learning the joy of Christian generosity is always now. This fourth week of Lent, let’s think prayerfully about these things, and ask the Lord what the next step is for us in learning the joy of Christian generosity.