Sunday, July 1, 2012

Pentecost Five
Lamentations 3:22-33 or Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.

Imagine what it must have been like in Corinth. They were blessed to have received the Gospel of hope. The church in Corinth was started by Paul, who visited Corinth during his second missionary journey. He kept in touch with all the churches he founded with letters. The letters we have help us to understand our faith, the church and the doctrines that still hold us together. Unfortunately, Corinth was also visited by false apostles, those who meant to destroy the ministry of Paul. They taught false doctrine and caused the church to doubt Paul’s authority and his words. Paul wrote to encourage them, to restore them and to correct the falsehoods that had been confusing the people.

It seems that the relationship was nearly restored when Paul wrote the 2 Corinthians. His letter is written to encourage the Corinthians to be the Church that God meant them to be, to return to the way that they were going when the false apostles entered the picture. Apparently they had begun to take a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. Perhaps the false apostles suggested that there was a better way to use that money. Perhaps they convinced the Corinthians that they should have it.

What we do know is that Paul has seen the faith and generosity of the Corinthian church in action, and he’s encouraging them to continue. He has the authority to do more than encourage, but he doesn’t want to force anything. This is a call to faithfulness. This is a call to prove that they believe. “If you do this, we will see that your faith is real.” Living faith is faith in action.

Now, the situation must have changed at some point from when they began taking the collection and Paul’s letter. The money they collected is gone. Perhaps, like so many of us today, they were feeling the effects of some financial crisis. Perhaps they’d given all their leftovers, which were used for some other purpose. Perhaps the harvest was not good or some other situation in the city was causing want. Whatever happened, the offering to the people in Jerusalem was going to be a struggle. Yet, even with some fear gnawing at them, Paul knew they could still offer something.

Of course, they probably set a goal. Don’t we do that for our fundraising? We even make pretty boards with pictures of something to ‘fill up’ as we collect the money. We use a thermometer which we color red until it hits the desired ‘temperature.’ We get creative and use different pictures, often related to the focus of our fundraising. Are we planning a garden? We add pictures of flowers to a green meadow. Are we planning a building? We add brick upon brick until the building is built. Are we planning to restock our kitchen with new serving dishes? We stack cardboard cutouts of plates until we have enough to cover our costs.

Perhaps the church in Corinth had their own way of counting the offering, but in the year between Paul’s letters they lost count. They knew there was no way they could finish the work. They couldn’t color the whole board red, or add the final flowers or place the final bricks or even glue on that last cardboard plate. They were discouraged. They were probably feeling guilty, too, having abandoned Paul for the ‘super-apostles’ and for losing the gift they’d gathered. How could they send less than they intended? Wouldn’t it be better to give up?

Paul says, “No, it would not be better to give up.” He knows that even in their loss they had more than enough. They certainly had more than the believers in Jerusalem. Even though they did not have as much as they intended to give, any gift would be helpful to make things right for the believers in Jerusalem.

How many of us have thought, “If only I had more, I could share with others.” Especially at times like these, when so many of us are struggling to make ends meet, we want to give to charity but we wonder how. How can I give anything when I do not have as much as I need? We decide to wait until we have enough, both for ourselves and to give a donation that is worthwhile. What good is a five dollar bill when there are hundreds of homeless people in our town? What good will one can of beans do for a family who is hungry? What good is a ten dollar box fan?

For the elderly in San Antonio, as we suffer temperatures over a hundred dollars, a ten dollar box fan is an amazing gift. Instead of sitting in the stifling heat that surely permeates their homes they can run a fan on their legs which will help keep them cool. Yes, it isn’t as comfortable as an air conditioner set to 65 degrees, but it is lifesaving. I think about those people and wish I could make their homes as cool as mine, but I know I can’t afford it. But I can give a ten dollar box fan. Is it what I want to give? No. Is it enough? I don’t know, but it is certainly better than nothing.

Why do we do these things? I think the answer is best left to a story about Patricia Cornwell. We were in England, and I had taken a friend on a visit to Lavingham, a quaint England village. While we wandered the streets, we noticed a camera crew outside a pub. They noticed us, too, because we were Americans. The reporter came up to us, checked to make sure we were Americans and then asked us about something that happened in the pub. “The writer, Patricia Cornwell just left a tip to her wait staff of five thousand pounds. What do you think about that?” Of course, it took a little coaxing, but we learned that the reason she left the tip was because she discovered the wait staff in the pub were having a fundraising drive for an organization that helps the families of restaurant workers who need help. The reporter was pushing for the angle that she was just showing off, flaunting her money.

When asked, I answered, “I don’t know if she’s a Christian, but if she is she was simply doing what we do naturally: respond to the needs in the world. I’m impressed that she would respond so generously when she heard about the fundraiser.” That’s not what the reporter wanted to hear, and unfortunately it isn’t what was aired on the news. The report made her look like a greedy American only concerned about the publicity.

See, most of us do simply respond to the needs we see around us. We don’t think about it too much or plan how we can best serve ourselves. We see a neighbor in need and we offer to help. We hear that there is a woman who is bullied on a bus by a bunch of silly kids, and we donate to a fund to help her. We hear about a family that has lost several children in a car accident, and we give funds to help pay for a decent funeral. We hear about a tornado or hurricane or wildfires and we do whatever we can to help. We hear about all these things and we pray for those affected. We don’t think about it, we just do it. We do it naturally knowing that even the little bit we can help will make a difference.

It is when we think about it that we lose sight on the reality. When we plan a budget for benevolence and never waver from that path, we miss the opportunities God gives us to share. When we color in the chart to see the progress we are making toward our goal, we forget to spontaneously respond to the cries of God’s people in the world. When we stick to a plan, we lose sight on the reality that what we have is thanks to God and what we can give is His already, so we take the glory from God and give it to ourselves.

The Old Testament lessons, including the text from the Apocrypha, remind us that God is in control and that His love never ceases. It might seem, at times, that the suffering in the world could have been avoided, if only God had done something. The psalmist is even bold enough to remind God that his death would be meaningless and even harmful. “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?” The text from the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God did not create us for death, but for life. “...for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity.” Even the lamenter trusts that God’s love will win. God can’t ignore the needs of His people. When He hears their cry, He answers.

He answered our cry with Jesus. What Christ did for you and I gives us all we need to respond to the world with the same grace. Jesus’ response to those in need was not calculated. He gave each as they needed, no matter what it did to Him. Even when it seemed like He was being zapped of power, He had enough power to do more.

Our Gospel lesson for today is a long one, but it is necessary to read the whole thing as it has been written, to see both stories in context. Each story can be taken separately, but there is something fascinating about the way the woman breaks into the man’s story. Jesus responded to the need of the synagogue leader and then allowed His mission to be interrupted by the bleeding woman. He didn’t think about how the leader might interpret His conversation with the woman. He didn’t tell her to go away because He was too busy. He questioned the flow of power but never said that she’d taken away His ability to help the others. He simply did what needed to be done, trusting that God would provide.

That’s what it is all about, isn’t it? Trust? The Corinthians may have had reason to be concerned about the finances of their church or even their personal finances. Paul wasn’t even asking for them to give what they’d first promised. He simply asked them to be faithful. “Finish the work you began.” Jesus started the work, in both the synagogue leader and the woman’s lives. He spoke, they heard and believed. They cried out to God for help and He answered. He finished the world He began.

Now we continue that work. It is easy to believe in God, to have faith. It is much harder to trust that God will do what He has promised. It is even harder to live that faith that God will do what He has promised by responding to the needs of those around us. We might find excuses, even good ones. The Corinthians may have used their resources for something they deemed valuable. Perhaps they thought another use was more beneficial. Perhaps they thought the false apostles deserved payment. Perhaps they really were facing hard times as a congregation and as individuals. But God didn’t do what He did so that we could have a dead faith. He saved us so that we might help others. He restored the relationship with us so that we could continue His work in this world.

Paul writes, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.” God calls us to live the faith we have been given. God listens to our cries and answers our prayers. He finishes His work. Life in Christ means more than just having faith. It means responding to the cries we hear in the world with trust, knowing that God will not abandon us. His love is eternal and He is faithful. We may not be rich, but we are rich in Christ, so let us use our resources to continue the work He began until it is finished and the whole world is glorifying Him.

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