Saturday, June 30, 2012

Preaching the Epistle: Second Corinthians 8:7-15

This morning I am going to do something different.  I am going to preach on the Epistle.  I seldom get to really preach on the Epistle.  I generally focus on the Gospel or even the Hebrew Scripture.  But today’s Gospel is about the healing of Jarius’ daughter.

I know that these parishes to which I am preaching this morning are people who have been split in the recent schism. I know you are waiting for the blessed day when you will be back in your buildings. I also know that, most likely, you have heard nearly every sermon on healing that could be preached over the past 3 years.  And while I know that there is still room for healing, I also know when NOT to preach on healing.  ‘Nuff is e’nuff.”

There is a time in a schism when we just have to get on with being Church and that iswhat the 2nd Corinthians reading is about.  In his First Letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a divided church.  They were fussing about who had the greatest gifts and who could lead the Christian community there.  We all know the wonderful chapter in that book that calls the Corinthian community to unite under the banner of love.  But the second letter is a bit of a hodge-podge.  There are some scholars who think that this is written by an author of a later Pauline school or perhaps it is an amalgamation of various letters of Paul that don’t hang together too well.  So if you have ever had difficulty reading this book of the New Testament, this is the reason why.

This passage, however, is clearly Paul and clearly does what Paul does so well—the building up of the Church.  This was written most likely near the end of Paul’s life and during the time leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in the early ‘60’s of the first century.  Paul had previously asked the congregation to give to the support of the people who were caught in the fighting in and around the Holy City.  It would be like ER-D asking us for donations for the people of Syria, today.  But because of Corinth’s fussing among themselves, they have not sent the donations they had promised. 

In this passage, Paul basically is telling the Corinthian church to get off its duff and be about generosity and quit fussing among themselves.  He is trying to raise the eyes of the people from their own problems and to regard the needs of people in real poverty.  He knew that if the people could connect with others in need most of the contentiousness would resolve.

In my 30 years of coming back to visit family here in Ft. Worth, I noticed that this diocese, because of the fortress-like mentality of the leadership became more and more isolated from the greater Church. It became more focused on itself.  If there is anything that is more prone to becoming paranoid, are those who are alone.  And that is what this diocese—at least the leadership-- became. It became focused upon itself.  But now we are different.  We are a flock that is outward looking, connected and sharing in the life of the whole of the Anglican Communion.

I had a veterinarian, a specialist on cows, sheep and llamas in my last parish who was also a lay preacher.  And on Good Shepherd Sunday she preached how sheep were herd animals and didn’t like being touched, but liked being close to other animals.  Humans are herd animals too.  We may like being touched, but more than anything we like being among one another. And when we are really under duress it is important that there are others who are sharing that stress with us.  It is what alleviates the stress.  So for a people who are recovering from division, it is important to be outward looking and outward embracing.  That is what Paul is getting at in this passage.

Paul recognizes that the people of the Holy Land needed relief, but this is NOT a stewardship sermon.  He is realizing that for wealthy, contentious, Corinth to become the Church that it could be, it needed to deal with its wealth and deal with its poverty.  It was rich in its "faith, its speech, its knowledge and eagerness", but it was not rich in its generosity.  And it was that poverty of generosity that was keeping it stuck in its quarreling.

This is not just a problem unique to the Church of Corinth in the first century.  I daresay if it had been that unique, it would never have made it into the canon of Scripture.  This is an age-old problem.  Whenever we take our eyes off the prize of Christ and helping others to focus on ourselves, we lose our place.

Paul says: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

This quote from Paul is often misrepresented by those who teach a gospel of prosperity—the idea that God wants all of us to drive Cadillacs.  But Paul’s meaning is that we too must be willing to enter our own poverty so that we too can know the resurrection.  I am not preaching communism here.  I am preaching a gospel of liberation from thinginess.  I am preaching a gospel in which we have our eyes on the prize of Christ’s love for others instead of our own needs.

Yesterday I went to the farmer’s market because I can’t grow tomatoes where I live. Now, I can eat fresh Parker Co. tomatoes until my mouth breaks out.  And those luscious globes of red are just now beginning to really show up in our market.  There was a tremendous temptation to buy pounds of tomatoes—just because I could after 9 months of tasteless pink tennis balls on the produce shelves.  But I also know that many would have  gone to waste.  I have to see my wealth of tomatoes as detrimental to both my health and to my understanding of generosity.  I have to probe my poverty in order to keep my eyes on the needs of others. Obviously, I am not abstemious by nature so I have to enter my neediness in order to become rich in generosity.

Back in my twenties, I did missionary work in Mexico as a Roman Catholic.  While there, every day I met a beggar woman on my way to Mass who would not take ‘no’ for an answer.  Over the months, she would hail me and chat with me.  Lots of times I couldn’t understand her but she demanded my attention.   Slowly I came to know that she was the sole support of a 5 year old great-grandchild and lived in a 9x9 twig hut outside of town.  She had no family other than the child.  Dona Paulina made me see her and slowly I began to understand her poverty. She forced me to raise my eyes from my own needs in order to know my poverty.  She also helped me touch my generosity in ways I would never have bothered.

I broke my hip while there and had to leave town riding on the bus.  Several of the people in the town came to see me off.  On the edge of the crowd was Dona Paulina.  As we said good-bye, she pressed 2 cintos into my hand.  Now a cinto was worth at that time an eighth of a cent in US money.  The only thing you could buy with them was a tiny pack of Chiclets.

Dona Paulina reached into her poverty to teach me a lesson I will never forget: That generosity comes not from our riches, but from our poverty.  And when we understand that, everything changes.  Paul understood that the people of Corinth needed to learn that.    Here in Fort Worth, we need to know that it is in our poverty that we become strong.  It is the fact that we have few buildings, money,  clergy, members, or whatever, that allows us to proclaim that the love we have come to know and it is what creates community in the name of Jesus Christ.  And if the Episcopal Church needs to hear any message this week before our General Convention, it is that.

Jesus healed people by touching them.  We are often healed not by touch but when we raise our eyes from ourselves, look into our poverty and offer what we have.  Paul knew that when he said:  

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."  

I would challenge you this week to enter your own poverty, individually, in your families and as a parish.  See where you are wealthy and where you are poor.  And then look to your generosity and see where you are wealthy and where you are poor.  Where do you need to improve? Where do you need to learn?  Where do you need to expand? There does need to be a balance.  AMEN

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