Sunday, March 13, 2016

Almsgiving (2016 Lent sermon series #5)

As I begin this sermon today I feel a bit like St. Paul when he was writing one of his first letters, the one we now call First Thessalonians. In chapter four he says, ‘Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we urge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to live in a way that pleases God, as we have taught you. You live this way already, and we encourage you to do so even more’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1 NLT). In other words, Paul is saying, “I don’t really have to say much to you about this – you’re already doing a wonderful job of living to please the Lord – but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it!”.

Well, that’s how I feel today as I talk to you about the discipline and habit of ‘almsgiving’. ‘Giving alms’ is an old English expression for ‘giving to help the poor and needy’, and I certainly don’t need to remind members of St. Margaret’s to do that. Over the years you’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars – I’m not exaggerating, I’ve got the records – for things like water wells in Africa, rehabilitating child prostitutes in Asia, sponsoring children, mobile medical clinics, mosquito nets, small business micro-loans, and good old goats and ducks! You’ve given clothing to Hope Mission and the Bissell Centre, you’ve filled a treasure chest for kids at the Stollery and bought colourful band aids and Lego kits for them, you’ve filled cosmetic bags for the homeless and brought recycled bottles in to support the work of Winn House. You’ve given to Habitat for Humanity and cooked meals for the volunteers on their building sites, and you’ve served meals for the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. And these are just a few of the things that you do through our parish; I know many of you have projects you support privately as well. We have three World Vision sponsor children through the parish, but at the last count there were more than twenty others being supported by members of this faith community!

So, when it comes to almsgiving, I’m saying with St. Paul, “I know you’re already doing a wonderful job of it, but I just want to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing, and to go even further with it as you have the opportunity!”

Let’s remind ourselves of where we’re going with this and why we’re talking about it today. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.

In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, we’ve come to almsgiving.

Most of you will be familiar with the famous parable of the Sheep and the Goats that Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46. He says that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats, the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then he’ll turn to the sheep and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. Then the righteous will reply, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When was it that we saw you in trouble like this and helped you?” And he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me”.

But then, of course, he turns to the goats and says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison and you did nothing to help me”. They reply, “We don’t remember that, Lord! When did we see you in trouble and refuse to help you?” And he says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it for the least of these, you did not do it for me”. Jesus concludes by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.

Now it’s important to remember that in one sense, Jesus was not saying anything new. You’ll remember another story he told, of the rich man who refused to help the beggar Lazarus. After he dies, he is sent to Hades for being so devoid of compassion. He is in torment in the fire, and he says to Abraham, “Please let me go to my father’s house, where I have seven brothers; I want to warn them, so that they don’t come to this dreadful place too”. But Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Luke 16:29). In other words, anyone who reads the Old Testament with half a brain already knows that people who want to follow God are morally obligated to help the poor and needy whenever and wherever they have opportunity to do so.

In his teaching in the Old Testament, Moses sets up structures that ensure that there won’t be a huge gap between rich and poor in ancient Israel. The land belongs to God, not to land owners; everyone is assigned enough land to support their families, but in case some people get into difficulty and have to sell their land to make ends meet, every fifty years all land is to revert to the families it was originally given to, so that equality can be preserved. At the same time, all debts are to be forgiven and all slaves set free. It’s called the year of Jubilee, and it’s right there in the Law of Moses, in Leviticus chapter 25.

But of course Moses knew that human beings will be disobedient, and in fact there’s no historical evidence that Israel ever obeyed his instructions about the year of Jubilee – big surprise, eh? And so Moses set in place other legislation to make sure that the poor and needy were cared for. If a man needed a loan to make ends meet and he had to give you his cloak for collateral, you were legally required to give it back to him every evening – otherwise he wouldn’t have a blanket to wrap himself in to keep warm at night, and he might die of exposure. In a culture where most loans were like modern pay day loans – in other words, they weren’t venture capital, they were subsistence loans so that people could avoid starvation – Israelites were absolutely forbidden from charging interest; that was seen as fleecing the poor and an abomination to God. And when you were harvesting the grain in your field, you were commanded not to be too efficient about it; you were to make sure to leave some standing on the edges of the field, so that the poor and needy would be able to come and glean some grain to eat.

That’s just a few examples of the way the Law of Moses commands people to act compassionately toward the poor and needy. The prophets reinforce this message. In a blistering passage in Isaiah 58, the prophet condemns those who observe religious fasts at the same time as they oppress the poor. What sort of fast does God really want to see, the prophet asks? And he replies in God’s name:

‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?...If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall arise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday’ (Isaiah 58:6-7, 10).

When we turn to the New Testament, of course the message is just as strong. We saw last week that Jesus assumed his disciples would practice the three basic disciplines of all godly Jews – prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. He didn’t say “If you give alms”, as if it was an option his disciples could set aside if they wanted to. He said, “So whenever you give alms…”, and then proceeded to give them instructions about how to do it sincerely, without making it into a photo opportunity for yourself. And in parable after parable, and saying after saying, he warns his followers about greed and covetousness; he tells them to sell their possessions and give to the poor instead. When you read what Jesus has to say about money, it sounds a bit like he’s talking about radioactive material: yes, it can do a lot of good, but you have to handle it very carefully or it’ll poison you! And the best way to do that, in his view, is to live a life of constant generosity to the poor.

Paul also saw this as a priority. In his letter to the Galatians he talks about a meeting he had with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, in which they discussed unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches. He says, ‘They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do’ (Galatians 2:9). And in Ephesians he talks about the transformative effect the gospel has in these terms: ‘Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their hands, so as to have something to share with the needy’ (Ephesians 4:28).

Paul actually spent a lot of time and energy organizing a relief fund so that his Gentile churches could help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were going through a time of severe hardship and famine. To him, this wasn’t peripheral, it was central to his understanding of what being a Christian meant. Listen to what he says to the Corinthians (I’m reading from the New Living Translation):

Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. As the Scriptures say,
“Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over,
and those who gathered only a little had enough”. (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

You could call this Paul’s kingdom principle: in the kingdom of God, everyone will have enough but no one will have too much. Sounds very much like the Law of Moses, doesn’t it?

So we’ve seen that almsgiving is a central and integral part of the Christian life; from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, the duty to help the poor and needy is underlined over and over again. So how ought we to apply this teaching to our daily lives?

I would argue first of all that if we want to follow Jesus, we Christians will cultivate an attitude of compassion, rather than an attitude of suspicion. You know what I mean by an attitude of suspicion, don’t you? That’s the attitude that says, “The poor are poor because they choose to be poor”. “If I give to them they’ll just spend it on drink”. “Those aid organizations are fleecing their donors and paying their employees fat salaries”. “Those refugees are just ISIS agents”. And of course, I could go on; we’ve heard the arguments many times.

The interesting thing about the teaching of Jesus is that he never capitulates to this attitude of suspicion. Please understand that this is not just my opinion! Go read the gospels for yourself, and read the things that Jesus says about giving to the poor. He never blames the poor for being poor. He never says, “Give to everyone who asks you, unless you can smell alcohol on their breath”. And Paul never says, “We’ve got enough poor people in the Greek churches; we should help them first before we give to the poor in Jerusalem”. To him, God recognizes no national boundaries: people are people are people, whether they’re Canadian or Syrian or Ethiopian or Thai or anything else. I see a Syrian or an Iraqi: God sees a beloved child, someone for whom Christ died.

Please understand that I’m not saying we don’t have to think hard about the best way to give aid to the poor and needy. I’m talking about our attitude, and I fear that for many of us, the attitude is that the poor and needy are a nuisance. Here I am, walking along the street, minding my own business, and suddenly there’s a homeless person in my face, asking me for help. How dare they interrupt my enjoyable afternoon! Or, I’m just quietly checking my email, and look – here’s another message from World Vision, or Oxfam, asking me for help for starving people living in refugee camps. Why don’t they leave me alone? They’re such a nuisance!

I don’t think a follower of Jesus can ever say that. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read the gospels again and look for any possible hint that Jesus saw it as legitimate for me to see the poor and needy as a nuisance. Yes, of course we have to think carefully about the best and wisest way to help them, and maybe in some circumstances that way won’t be a handout. But the motivation for our decisions must always be love, not a desire to get these people out of our hair.

As always, C.S. Lewis has some good advice on this subject: hard to hear, but full of truth and holiness. I can’t remember where I found these two quotes, but I do remember that they made an impression on me when I first read them.

The first is where he talks about giving some money to help a street person one day. Someone said to him, “Why did you do that? He’ll just spend it on drink!” To which Lewis replied, “Perhaps, but if I’d kept the money, I would just have spent it on drink!” A good point! I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of money on luxuries, including expensive musical instruments and cups of coffee that cost as much as desserts used to cost – and more, even – all the while reserving the right to still insist that “I’m not really rich, you know – Bill Gates is way better off than I am!” So maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to point the finger!

The other quote is where Lewis was asked how much a Christian should give? His reply was something like this: “I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we think we can afford. In other words, there should be some things that we’d like to do that we can’t afford to do, because of our giving to the poor”. I think that’s absolutely true. That’s part of what it means to “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).

Finally, let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about our attitude. We all know that politicians love photo ops. No politician ever gives to support a program secretly; they always call a press conference, and make sure everyone knows that this grant toward such and such a program is coming to you, courtesy of this political party and this member of parliament, so you’d better vote for them next time around!

Politicians aren’t the only ones, though. When I went to the symphony last week, the program notes I was handed at the beginning included the names of all the major donors who’ve supported the symphony for many years. I’m assuming those folks were given the option of staying anonymous, but none of them did! It’s the same when I go to the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. And many churches have plaques saying “Such and such a thing was given by the generosity of so-and-so”.

Jesus has a different approach. Don’t blow a trumpet to announce your giving, he says. “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). So – give to the poor and needy generously, extravagantly, compassionately, and sacrificially – and don’t get found out! That’s the way of life Jesus is teaching us! And as he said on another occasion, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”! (John 13:17).

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