Archive for October, 2012

Faith. Healing.

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

Mark 10:46-52

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Many of us, after we’ve been kicking around in the Christian faith for a while, have got a little list, of sayings we just wish Jesus had not said.  Or, if he were going to say them, we wish he’d included an indestructible set of footnotes, a bibliography, and a youtube video for the body language, so that there would be no confusion at all as to what he actually meant.  “Your faith has made you well.” is one of those sayings for me.

I served as a chaplain in both an “acute, chronic, and tertiary care” hospital and a mental health facility here in Boston.  One of the hardest parts of the work was when faithful Christians, of many years standing, would recount their own struggles as they quoted Bartimaeus’ story to themselves, and as they had his story quoted to them.  They recounted their frustration as they told themselves, and as their friends told them, to just pray more, or just pray different, or just have more faith.  They would wonder why their faith wasn’t enough, why God did not heal their cancer or their blindness or their bipolar condition.  They felt that they were at fault, that they were to blame, that their condition continued.   Their spiritual distress was as difficult for them as their physical or mental challenge.  And so the particular story of Bartimaeus’ particular healing, taken out of context and universalized, became a stick with which to beat those who already suffered.

I do not think it is the purpose of this story to cause more suffering.  So, what is the context and the specificity that might give another interpretation of this faith healing?

The Gospel of Mark has been called a Gospel of conflict.  The conflicts escalate, from Jesus’ preaching and manifestation of the kingdom of God in the local settings of Galilee, to his increasing conflicts with the religious authorities and the imperial overlords that end in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ teaching and acts of power are presented in the Gospel as a renewal of the people of Israel.  They address the social, political, economic, and even physiological aspects of life, for a people and land subjugated by the collusion of religious authority with empire.  Along the way there is also increasing conflict between Jesus and his disciples.  As our readings in Mark over the last few weeks have shown, the disciples continually fail to understand what Jesus teaches and what he does.  Their discomfort and quarrels with both Jesus and each other increases as Jesus leads them to Jerusalem.  They refuse to accept his teaching that he must be rejected, suffer, and die before he is raised again.  The story of Bartimaeus comes at the end of the part of the Gospel in which the disciples’ conflicts with Jesus are made plain.  It brackets this section, along with the earlier healing of another blind man in chapter 8, vss. 22-26.  Most Markan scholars agree that here the author of the Gospel contrasts the restoration of the two men’s sight with the continued “blindness” of the disciples to who Jesus is and what he does.

Bartimaeus himself is not just blind; he is a beggar.  In the culture of the time, both physical impairment and poverty were often considered to be signs of God’s disfavor.  But Bartimaeus, though physically blind, has insight:  he cries out to Jesus as “Son of David”, the one who was widely expected to restore the fortunes of Israel as a king.  Bartimaeus is also not cowed by his

marginal status:  He shouts out to Jesus;  the people around him “sternly” tell him to be quiet; he shouts even louder.  Jesus, for his part, stops in his tracks, and calls for Bartimaeus to come to him.  Now the people around him are all encouragement.  So Bartimaeus, blind as he is, throws off what impediments he can, springs up, and comes to Jesus.  Jesus then does not make things up – he asks Bartimaeus what he wants from him.  Bartimaeus, again showing insight, names Jesus as his teacher and asks that Jesus let him see again.  Jesus then tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well.  Immediately Bartimaeus regains his physical sight and follows Jesus along the way.  Bartimaeus,  the physically blind beggar, sees with spiritual insight; whereas the physically sighted disciples remain spiritually blind.  Bartimaeus, again in contrast to the disciples,  allows himself to be taught by Jesus, so that he exchanges his old suppression for the new kingdom of God present in the midst of the people.  He also is taught by Jesus so that he follows Jesus along the way; not just the way of faith but also immediately on the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will end, not as an earthly king, but as a physically broken and executed political criminal.  If Bartimaeus’ faith has healed his physical sight, the healing of his physical sight heals his faith also, as he is given a new way of understanding his life, and recognizes Jesus for who he truly is and what his mercy truly means.

Sharon V. Betcher is a theologian and a disability activist.  At the age of thirty-seven, ordained, married with a child, teaching in university, she tripped, she fell, and she injured her leg.  Her leg became infected, and, to save her life, it was amputated.  In her book Spirit and the Politics of Disablement, she points out that with the removal of her leg, she will never be “whole” in the sense of “normal”, ever again in this life.  She describes the challenges brought by her literal “fall” from cultural and religious ideals of “normalcy” and physical perfection , the challenges that are harder to bear than her physical disability itself.     And she describes the challenges that stories like the Bartimaeus story posed and still pose for her and for many other people of faith, those who like St. Paul, receive “no” as the answer to prayers for the thorn in the flesh to be removed.

Betcher notes that the healing stories were told as witness to the visitation of the kingdom of God, over against the occupation of the Roman Empire, with its elitist rule, foreign occupation, heavy taxation for war and empire building, and the dislocations it brought to people and to the land.  Reading or hearing these stories, early believers were challenged to believe in wonder; they could fall in love with the world again, as she writes they “could again take joy in a life from which pain cannot be cut away.”  “Miracles”, Betcher writes, “get below or outside our infrastructure of tacit knowledge and may invigorate ways of thinking … may serve to break persons out of old patterns of thought.”  Jesus’ compassion – as it is free from pity, disgust, avoidance, or the assumption that he already knows what Bartimaeus would want from him  – Jesus’ compassion encourages Bartimaeus to chart a different course, encourages him to increase his faith, that faith healed and justified in Jesus’ acceptance of him, as he was, and now as he is Jesus’ follower.  Jesus’ compassion upends the normal order of things, in which the blind to not see, and are so often not seen.

Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, writes in his book Pathologies of Power:  “To

explain suffering, one must embed individual biography in the larger matrix of culture, history, and political economy … as social forces … structure … risk for most forms of extreme suffering. … Social forces ranging from poverty to racism become embodied as individual experience … translated into personal distress and disease.”  In our culture the quest for physical perfection is also one of those social forces.  In our fascination with extreme makeovers of all kinds, we forget the economic, political, and cultural forces at work behind the scenes.

Dominique Moceanu, at fourteen, was the youngest member of the 1996 United States Women’s Olympics Gymnastics Team, the only American women’s team to take gold at the Olympics.  In her riveting memoir Off Balance, she describes the behind-the-scenes cost of her physical perfection and agility:  years of emotional and physical abuse from her trainers, family discord and deceit, and physical injury and pain.  Behind the Olympic gold and the national glory was a young girl in great personal distress.  Even though her faith in her dream granted her physical perfection, for a long time Dominique was not well.  Ironically, or perhaps miraculously, it is the discovery of a sister, born without legs, given away at birth, who also became a competitive athlete and performer, it is this sister who is of great support to Dominique in her own healing.

So, where does all this leave us, here this morning, many of us bearing thorns in our flesh, none of us getting any younger, and all of us living in a world increasingly toxic to healthy living?

At the very least, we may join with Philo of Alexandria, who wrote, “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”  We may also affirm that whatever we carry, it is not the whole of who we are.  As a woman who had become blind as a result of diabetes complications once told me:  “I’m just blind.  I still love to hike, to sing, to play the piano, to get together with friends and family.  I still have my faith, even more since God has brought me through so much.  I feel very well.”

So, Faith.  Healing.  Sometimes our faith does heal us.  Sometimes our faith is not the issue, in our human condition.  And sometimes it’s just that the answer is no.  But always, Faith. Healing. the healing of our faith, is possible.  It may not come easy; it is a great challenge for us, especially in our culture of denial and suppression, to learn to live with pain and loss, of any kind.  We do experience the diseases of empire, and of the corporate empire building of globalization:  war, pollution, economic disparity, consumerism, perfectionism; seemingly impersonal forces that become very personal, often to our great distress.

Yet God wills to meet us where we are on the road, God wills to meet us exactly as we are on the road, to help us chart a different course, to find a new community of love and inclusion, and to increase our faith as we follow along the way.  As Sharon Betcher invites us to consider, we are offered a life of neither tragedy nor triumph, but of trust:  trust that expects wonder, and the expected and unexpected presence of God, even, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta notes, in “distressing diguises;  a life of trust that allows us to fall in love with the world again; a life of trust in which, even in a world in which pain cannot be cut away, we can still take joy.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

The Rev. Victoria Hart Gaskell

A Rumor of Angels

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Mark 10: 35-45

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After my dad died two years ago we began to go through his things, as families do.  Desk, tools, books, guns, clothes.  (Order, play, hope, justice, humor). We did not make much progress at first.  We still have not made that much. His desk, somewhat more ordered, is laden drawer after drawer.  The many tools, both inherited from earlier generations and purchased as needed over a life time, still lie here and there in the basement.  A doll house, made for a granddaughter and then taken in for repairs years ago, and then left unattended, did migrate to the home of the great grand daughter.  The guns—a relic of another time in the woods and deer hunting of northern New York—were carefully removed by two lawyer siblings.  The papers and records now are in boxes with little titles—an improvement of sorts. His clothes still hang in the old closet.  I was either assigned or self assigned or asked (or not) to begin to take care of the books, forty years worth of books in the lifetime library of a Methodist preacher whose preaching teacher at Boston University, Allan Knight Chalmers, for whom I was named, had admonished his pupils to read one book every day.   That is to say, there were more than a few books to look through.

I dawdled, lollygagged, procrastinated, avoided, and otherwise shirked my solemn duty.  I asked all those I could to go through the library and take at least two books.  The books are mostly signed and dated, and of course they have the personal underlining and notes which are typical for most of us.  I appropriated a few:  a set of Jacques Ellul, for a Lenten series two years ago; a few books from BU—Booth, Chalmers, Bowne; sermon collections from Weatherhead, Gomes, Tittle, Fosdick;  others.   But I found my progress slow and slower.  With each book, my willingness to skim and skip diminished.  I found my intrigue at his notes increasing, and my attention to his underlining expanding.  I dream on and off of a large oak door, heavy with metal locks and frame, unopened, chained shut:  my dad on one side and I on the other. In the lasting grief I feel at the earthly loss of my dad, it has happened that his preacher’s library has become a kind of spiritual bridge, a mode of ongoing conversation between us.

I wonder, this Parents’ Weekend, given the more limited but still mammoth separation of the move to college and the emptying of the home, what healthy conversation, and modes of conversation, may emerge among and between the parents and young adult children here this morning?  How will a new mode of conversation emerge, across a new divide, for you?  New occasions teach new duties, and also sometimes require new forms of conversation, and also, happily, new or different topics and themes in conversation.   Let me suggest something.   In a natural, organic way, I wonder whether in these four or three or two years, at least now and then, you, parents and offspring, may find ways to think together about religious experience.  Let me immediately identify though that I mean religious experience that is not so much religious as it is real experience.    There is range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience.  Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

One day this summer, on one of my less than fruitful forays into the library, I came upon a book, the title of which is borrowed for this morning’s sermon (A Rumor of Angels: NY, Doubleday, 1969—portions quoted below found therein). Published in 1969, hardly more than 100 pages, accessible to clergy and lay alike, brisk and direct in style, sprinkled with salt and light in humor and aphorism, the book, it happens, was written by a Boston University colleague and friend of mine, the premier sociologist of religion of our time, Peter Berger.  Professor Berger has graciously endured lunches and conversation, including some semi-successful jokes, with me over these last few years.  I knew of this book, both its title and its general argument, which is that God is not dead, religion is not dead and religious experience is not entirely absent from this earthly vale of tears.  But I had never read it.  I stuffed the book in my bag.

It is hard to try to recreate the context, 1968, in which Berger was writing and thinking what hardly anyone else was thinking and writing.  I will not try to do so.  1. But try to imagine, or remember, a time when Time magazine’s cover read, ‘Is God Dead?’, or 2. when the most potent religious word was ‘secular’, or 3. when administrative malfeasance led to a drug experiment on Good Friday in the basement of Marsh Chapel, or 4. when the most successful camp meeting was a mud soaked musical weekend in the Upstate New York village of Woodstock.  Just when all hell was breaking loose, Berger wrote about heaven.   Like debate participants try to do, he caused people to take a second look at something, or someone.

There is a scene in a Woody Allen movie where, standing in line at a movie theater, Allen’s character lengthily philosophizes about the work of Marshal Mcluhan.  After several minutes of blather, the person in line ahead of Woody Allen turns around.  It is Mcluhan himself!  He proceeds to say, in some fashion, ‘everything you have just said is totally bogus’.   In two weeks, over lunch, I will check with author himself about my renderings.  His book is so lastingly potent because he is writing about all of us, and he is especially writing about you.  There is transcendence—he speaks of the ‘supernatural’—all about us.  Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Parents’ weekend.  What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience?  Berger’s summary still works.  You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears…

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order. Some of you are hoarders, of sorts, and bring order by refusing to get rid of anything.  Others are the very opposite, ‘when in doubt throw it out’.   You have a desire to see things set right, one way or another.  What were those kids doing at Woodstock, in the mud, listening to Janis Joplin, fifty years ago?  They were shouting to the heavens that things were not right, that something was out of order.  Berger: A.  This is the human faith in order as such, a faith closely related to man’s fundamental trust in reality. This faith is experienced not only in the history of societies and civilizations, but in the life of each individual—indeed, child psychologists tell us there can be no maturation without the presence of this faith at the outset of the socialization process. B. Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience.  Talk a bit about it, parents and children.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play. 1. I see grown men enthralled on a green field following a wee little white ball, which seems to have a mind of its own, for three or four hours in the hot sun.  2. I see grown women shopping together without any particular need, but immersed, self forgetful, in the process of purchasing, God knows what.  3.I see emerging adults fixed and fixated, days on end, in the World of Warcraft.  4. Families were mesmerized this past summer, glued to gymnastics in England. 5.  Can you remember playing bridge in college all night long, to the detriment of your zoology grade?  Berger: A.In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood(Viewers of the recent film Moonrise Kingdom readily understand this). The experience of joyful play is not something that must be sought on some mystical margin of existence.  It can readily be found in the reality of ordinary life…The religious justification of the experience can be achieved only in an act of faith…B.This faith is inductive—it does not rest on a mysterious revelation, but rather on what we experience in our common, ordinary lives…Religion is the final vindication of childhood and of joy, and of all gestures that replicate these. One said: “I played basketball today, on the intramural team—it was awesome.”  Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Third, we sense the (my word) supranatural, the transcendent, in the experience of hope. Hope does spring eternal in the human breast.  Hope keeps us going when otherwise we would not.  1. You may have seen Meryl  Streep and Tommy Lee Jones dramatize this in the midst of their struggling marriage.  The movie title:  ‘Hope Springs’.   2. Parents hope their children will thrive in college.  Students hope so too.  So do professors and administrators and Deans of Chapels.  We hope.  Actually, every autumn, when the suitcases and duffle bags spread out on Bay State Road, I see a tide of hope.  It is overwhelmingly beautiful, and tearful given the giving up required by such hope in all directions. ( I have not yet spoken, speaking of giving up, of the tuition check payment. (J) ) There is something lasting, real, meaningful, costly and true about hope.  3. Where there is life there is hope.  Better:  where there is hope there is life.  People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence.  Berger: A. Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B.  Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas.  While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason…Faith takes into account the intentions within our natural experience of hope that point toward a supernatural fulfillment. I wonder if the generations sitting together in the pews this morning might, come Christmas, talk a bit about that most unreligious religious experience, a thing called hope, a place called hope, a time called hope, a feeling called hope?  Talk about it a bit, parents and children.

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account.  Berger uses, well, the word damnation.  I am using slightly different language because I cannot make his argument as well with this word this morning.  It is too loaded.  But the heart of the intention is true and strong.  We want people who get away with murder not ultimately to get away with murder.  E Brunner, after WWII, was asked why he spoke about the devil:  Said he:  Two reasons.  Jesus did.  And I have seen him. When we think of mass murder, of horrific injustice, intentionally and painstakingly executed, we demand justice.  There is something down deep in the human heart that just will not let things go.  This is not about forgiveness.  It is about retributive justice.  Sometimes young people have a keener sense of this than their elders.  Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions…A. There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…Not only are we constrained to condemn, and to condemn absolutely, but ,if we should be in a position to do so, we would feel constrained to take action on the basis of that certainty…B.Deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell…No human punishment is enough in the case of deeds as monstrous as these…(this is) a moral order that transcends the human community and thus invokes a retribution that is more than human. When adults talk as adults, younger with older, there arise memories and understandings, dark in hue and deep in sentiment, that call out for an extraordinary, unearthly, transcendent justice.  How shall we talk about these?  Talk a bit, bit by bit, in the years to come, parents and children.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the supranatural or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice.  1. Here I will pause to tell an ostensibly humorous story.  I was asked to pray at the start of a billion dollar campaign.  My reply:  ‘It would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure.’  2. People ask about interreligious life on campus and I say:  ‘The Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with’.  3. Phyllis Diller died this year. You remember her husband:  Fang.  You remember her mother in law:  Moby Dick.  You remember her sister in law:  Captain Bligh.  You remember her self deprecation (‘I once wore peek a boo blouse.  One man peeked and then shouted ‘boo!’).  You remember her cackling laughter.  Humor, real humor, stops time still.  ‘He who sits in the heavens shall laugh’, says the psalmist.  Berger:  There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe…A. The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…B.Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the might who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity. When you gather at Thanksgiving table, after the prayer and before the turkey, tell one funny story, or one joke, or one humorous memory.  Talk a bit, talk a bit, talk a bit, parents and children.

Here is our theme:  Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think.  But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor?  These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary.  Talk a bit about it, parents and children.  As Bonnie Raitt put it:  let’s give them something to talk about!

For our gospel today, Mark 10:45, accosts us in this very way.

Can you drink the cup that I drink?  Whoever wants to be great shall be your servant.  Whoever wants to be first shall be the slave of all.  The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Parents, Students, Community, Listeners:  Can you drink that cup?

Sursum Corda:  Things are not quite always as they seem, says the gospel.  There is more than a little difference between appearance and reality, says the gospel.  Real leaders serve others, says the gospel.  Ambition unfettered will not lead to happiness, says the gospel.  A true life is not always an easy one, says the gospel.  The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, says the gospel.   There is a mystery at the heart of life, says the gospel.  And that mystery is Jesus Christ, and him crucified, one whose life, true life, is poured out like a ransom paid to free others.  Underneath the tiny things lurk the great things.  A mystery, a ransom paid, a life laid up and laid out and laid down, lurking, waiting, present, like a breath, the eternal great things, hidden under the unlikely blankets of the littlest things.  Your calling to faith may be brewing…Under a desire for order.  Under a love of play.  Under a feeling of hope.  Under a longing for justice.  Under a sense of humor.   And all through the cacophony of a noisy world, a hint, a glimmer, an echo, a breath,  a rumor…of angels.

 

Divine Generosity

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Mark 10: 17-31

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Introduction

 

None is good but God.  With God all things are possible.

 

We savor, today, what another Scripture (Gal. 5:22) names as the Spirit’s fruit—goodness, or, perhaps better rendered, “generosity”, goodness that does some good, generative goodness, AGATHOSUNE, generosity.

 

This is the day, either literally or figuratively, in which the material world is invaded, assaulted, attacked, by Another Reality.

 

Into the teeth of congenital selfishness, cultural stinginess, communal exclusiveness, and congregational sanctimoniousness, divine Generosity marches on.

 

Several Octobers ago I did have a Sunday off—what a luxury.   We were in Pheonix, with sunshine and 100 degrees.  I got up late, skipped breakfast, went to a church service someone else had prepared, ate lunch, and then headed out to see if I could get into a major league football game—Cardinals and Giants. Scalpers had some–$100 dollars.  No thank you.  At last, the ticket booth, with a little crowd gathered.  I stood and waited in line.

 

Suddenly a Pheonix fan appeared, dressed in Cardinals hat, Cardinals shirt, Cardinals socks, Cardinals buttons.  He was a burly bloke, and not overly tidy in his attire.  He also was quite a large person.  He wore a beverage container on his back that had a tube running to his mouth. His Cardinal hat was shaped like a bird, and had wings that moved up and down “in flight” as he walked.   He wore size 13 Converse sneakers.  He stood in the ticket area and said, “I have two $50 tickets that I want to give away.  I don’t want them sold, I want to give them away.”

 

No one moved.  No one spoke.

 

“I have free tickets here.  Two of them.  They’re on the 30 yard line, 18 rows up.  I want to give them away.”

 

I don’t know why, exactly, but no one moved or spoke.  We couldn’t believe it.  “There must be something wrong—a catch.”

 

Finally, exasperated, Mr. Cardinal slammed his tickets on the counter,  and said to the taker—you give them away, at which point yours truly, not born yesterday, said, “Well, I appreciate your generosity—thanks for the tickets. May the best team win.”

 

But we don’t really appreciate generosity.  We don’t expect it so we don’t see it.  It stomps up to us and bites us and we still don’t see it.

 

I was given a place at the table, a seat at the banquet, a ticket to the game—space, entrance, inclusion.

 

 

So armed, I walked to the turnstile and realized I had two tickets but only needed one.  So, I walked over to a group nearby and said, “Listen, I have a free ticket here.  I don’t want it scalped.  Who would like it?”

 

Guess what?

 

Dead silence.

 

“Hey.  This is legitimate.  This was given to me—it’s yours for free.”

 

Nothing.

 

I turned to leave, when an older man said “OK, OK,  I don’t know what your angle is, buddy, but—hand it    over.”  Which I did.

 

So on a 100 degree Sunday off in the southwest I was given a free ticket, and also, as the game progressed, and my mind wandered, an apocalyptic insight into the nature of the fruit of the spirit known as goodness, generosity, in three particulars.

 

Divine Generosity surprises us.

 

Divine Generosity makes space for others, especially for the stranger, the outsider, the other.

 

Divine Generosity seduces us, at last, into offering our own generous gifts.

 

Our text has been variously interpreted since Clement of Alexandria in the first century.  A figurative teaching?  A word for one man only?  A command for the few not the many?

 

 

A. Divine Generosity Surprises Us

 

An elderly couple who met at Depauw University in 1926, but who never graduated, some years ago decided to leave that school their whole life savings, $128 million dollars.  75 students a year will attend that school with full scholarships.  Surprising generosity.

 

A person visits my office and late that week mails in a check for $3000, to be used “as you see fit”.  Surprising generosity.

 

A woman who does not attend our church is inspired by the work of the Chapel and leaves that ministry a quarter of a million dollars.  Surprising generosity.  May her tribe increase.

 

A family needs a place to stay for a summer trip and, hearing the need, a brother in Christ provides a home for the visit.  Surprising generosity.

 

Someone is saved from psychic hell through the pastoral care of their church, and chooses to endow the expense of pastoral ministry.  Surprising future generosity.

 

BU is raising $1B:  as the preacher said, ‘this would be my pressure—I mean my pleasure’.

 

It is in the nature of the spirit to take us somewhat by surprise, and nourish us generously.  So the Scripture teaches us.

 

Psalm 33:  The earth is full of the HESED (generous goodness) of the Lord

 

Romans 15:  You also are full of generosity

 

Galatians 6:10:  Let us be generous to all, especially to those of the household of faith

 

2 Cor 9:  “The Lord loves a cheerful giver”

 

Romans 12:  “Let love be genuine.”

 

Matthew 6:  “If anyone asks for your coat, give him your cloak as well.  If he asks you to go one mile, go a second too.

 

Galatians 6:  “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

 

Think of Jesus’ parables—of sowing and reaping, of mustard seeds exploding from tiny to great, of talents used and underused, of dishonest but generous stewards and of that haunting and joyous refrain—may it reach our ears at heaven’s door!—“Well done though generous and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, we will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of the master.”  How frightful, daunting, awesome, profound is our charge in this life to minister to one another so that we are ready to hear such a sentence pronounced:  “…well done, thou generous and faithful servant..”

 

If we have savored generous surprise, then we may also sense that this form of the Spirit’s fruit makes space for others.

 

B. Divine Generosity Makes Space for Others

 

Look at Marsh Chapel, flourishing because of the surprising generosity of hundreds of faithful people, who want the world to be a better place, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who understand that as the seedbed for wonder, morality, and future generosity, the church has a prior claim on our giving.

 

Let me push you a little here.  I know it is appealing to give to many particular causes and special projects.   But it is Another Reality, the fruit of God’s own spirit known as goodness, which ultimately feeds all giving, and to which the church alone bears full witness.  I think we run the risk of taking our Chapel for granted.  It will prevail into the new millenium only to the degree that another generation of young adults learns and chooses to reflect divine generosity with some of the human variety.

 

Five students one week reminded me so: a poet, a community worker, a preacher, an economist and a groom to be.

 

One day a veteran faithful member of the chapel commented to me about our ministry.  In conclusion she said, and the words carried a depth of meaning perhaps even beyond her intention, “we don’t want anyone left behind.”

 

But that’s it!  No one is to be left behind, left out, left off the list, left outside.   Not at least for those of us who worship the Jesus Christ of the manger, the wilderness, the borrowed upper room, the cross, and the empty tomb!  Jesus lived and died “outside”, to remind us on the religious inside of those still outside.  So that all might have space, have a seat, have a place at the table.  You and I have had seven courses of faith, when others lack even the appetizer.

 

“We don’t want anyone left behind.”

 

Marsh Chapel’s current growth and future health are fed by Generosity, goodness that does good.  Generosity makes space, in this chapel, for those who are not yet inside.  Why? Why more?  Why grow?  Because God is generous, and we believe in God.  Because the need of the world is great, and we care about that need.  Because the future health of this chapel depends on our becoming, over a decade, welcoming, inviting and generous, and we love this church.  Because when our own generosity is quickened, faith is less a dull habit and more an acute fever.

 

For we learn over time.   Sometimes the best gift you can give somebody is the opportunity for them to give themselves.  That is what this sermon is about.   We are trying today, in this season of spiritual harvest, to feast upon the fruit of the spirit known as Generosity.  And the best gift you can receive is the chance to give of yourself.

 

A while ago friends were going a trip and needed someone to watch their children.  I heard the request and did what you would have done—I referred the idea to the spiritual leader of our home.  Jan said sure.  I wondered a little about it, but the day came and all of a sudden, we had again multiple teenage voices in our home.   And what a treat they were, what a joyful presence, what a gift!  One is this term now completing a PhD across the river at Harvard.

 

But if our friends had not had the courage and taken the risk of asking, of giving us the real gift of a chance to give, we would have missed a little bit of

 

Amid surprise and extra space, the Spirit can seduce you, even on an autumn Sunday.

 

Across religious lines:  some weeks the Hindus are the most Christian people I deal with!

 

C. Divine Generosity Seduces Us

 

So in that vein I am going to ask you to risk some generosity this fall.  This chapel can prosper if you will generously support it.  It’s entirely up to you.   I invite you to give, to pledge, to pledge strongly and to tithe.   I am aware that this is a very personal decision.  You only have what you give away.  You only truly possess what you have the power and freedom to give to someone else.

 

But the world is not going to be healed by token pledges and convenient giving.

 

This is a giving community.  It needs to become a generous one.  That is your opportunity this fall.

 

Remember your forebears.  These are the people of whom Diognetus wrote in the year 130ad:

 

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.

Every foreign land is to them their native country.

And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.

They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy

Their offspring.

They have a common table, but not a common bed.

They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

When reviled, they bless.

When insulted, they show honor.

When punished, they rejoice.

What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.

What salt is to earth and light is to world, are you to this country, to this region.

 

The churches stay open for people on whom almost all other doors have closed.  For the poor.  For the irascible.  For the loony.  For the difficult.  You are sitting in the most open, and generously vulnerable public space in this county.

 

As Lorraine Hansberry wrote,

 

“When do think is the time to love somebody most?  When they done good and made things easy for everybody?  Well then, you ain’t through learning, because that ain’t the time at all.  It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in himself ‘cause the world done whipped him so”.

 

The mission may be the bit and bridle, but the great steed, the real horseflesh of life is found in vision, a vision of a healed and loving world, where there is space, real quality space, for all.  We dare not let the moon of mission eclipse the sun of vision.

 

Now we sing: Take my life and let it be, Consecrated Lord to thee. We might better sing: Take my life and let it be, Shaped by Generosity.

 

Our gospel today celebrates divine generosity, the goodness and possibility of God.  None is good but God.  With God all things are possible.

 

Jane Addams knew this.  Maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams.  She grew up 140 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide.    But somehow she discovered her mission in life.  And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen.  Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman.  Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world.  So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born.  Addams organized female labor unions.  She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety.  She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants.  She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit.  She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

 

Addams wrote:  “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent…The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

 

Can we apply this to our own very space and time?

 

Yet it was an historian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams’ fruitful generosity.  This was the historian Christopher Lasch.  Several times in the 1980’s I thought of driving over here to visit him.  But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago.  Lasch said of Addams, “Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest.”

 

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

 

I wonder, frankly, whether for some of us that part is our stewardship life, our financial generosity.

 

Is that part of you, the wallet area part, ready to be released today, and in so doing, to free up the rest?

 

I think with real happiness over the years of men and women who have, just for example, taken up the practice of tithing, and in so releasing themselves, have found the rest of their lives unleashed for God.

 

Is there, as there was for Jane Addams, some small part of your soul ready to be released today, which then will free up the rest of you?

 

Conclusion

 

Deep, real life change comes from apocalyptic insight and cataclysmic experience.  “All who enter the kingdom of heaven enter it violently”.

 

Is there a part of your soul which, once released, would free up the rest?  A catalytic experience or moment?  Is it possible, that such an experience is waiting for you, metaphorically speaking, in the lobby outside your bank?  Not in sex, or religion or nation or peril, but in…generosity?

 

Maybe we can know, in the surprise of Divine Generosity, in the space provided by Divine Generosity, in the seductive attraction of Divine Generosity, what made a man of God out of John Wesley, and helped him to live on a mere 60lbs sterling year by year for his whole adult life, and in the process build a cross continental movement for good, of which we are heirs and debtors.  Go, tithers and future tithers, and live his motto:

 

Do all the good you can

At all the times you can

In all the ways you can

In all the places you can

To all the people you can

As long as ever you can

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

A Common Grace

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Click here to hear the full service.

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Text for today’s sermon is unavailable at this time.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel