June 25, 2018
The Proper 8B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 5:21-43 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 130 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 103 (Lord’s Day 38)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jesus was someone people wanted to touch and be touched by. But in the case of Jesus, such touches were about far more than the people’s desire to make contact with somebody famous. Jesus’ touch was said to have healing powers. As we can see in this story, some had concluded that Jesus was a type of magic object, a live wire who could give you a jolt of the divine whether he was aware of your touch or not.
It makes for a great story but notice how clever Mark was in composing it. Notice especially the role played by hands. Jairus does not simply ask Jesus to come and heal his daughter, he very specifically says, “Please come and put your hands on her.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already performed any number of miracles that did not involve a physical touch. Yet Jairus very carefully requests the laying on of Jesus’ hands to bring about his daughter’s restoration.
As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman in the crowd touches Jesus to relieve her of a hemorrhage that had clearly consumed her life. So just after Jesus walks past her position in the larger crowd, she reaches out her hand, grabs a piece of his cloak, gives it a quick squeeze, and then lets go before she actually tugs on Jesus and so draws attention to herself. And she is instantly healed.
It’s surprising, isn’t it, that this method “works.” We ordinarily resist seeing Jesus as some kind of magic charm. We’d prefer to think that the miracles Jesus worked were done deliberately and as an act of his will. Reading this story for the first time, you wouldn’t expect this anonymous touching of Jesus to be effective. Yet it is.
Jesus notices that power had gone out from him, which is a curious way for Mark to put it. Lots of people were touching Jesus and jostling him at the time. Apparently none of them was tapping any divine power, however. why the disciples are rather incredulous when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?” If you’ve ever been in a crowded elevator making room for still more people who want to get into the car, you know what this is like. Everybody is touching somebody as you all shuffle sideways and back to let someone in or out. In that situation it would seem odd to say, “Who touched me?”
However, that question would make sense even in an over-crowded elevator in case you felt that someone was making a grab for the wallet in your back pocket or in case you had reason to believe someone was molesting you sexually. When you sense something beyond a typical jostle in the crowd, you ask about it. In Mark 5 it’s the same for Jesus: someone had touched him with a purpose and that differentiated that touch from the general press of humanity that they were all enduring. So he asks about it. In 2008 I got to shake Barack Obama’s hand at a campaign event. Like others on the rope line, I had my hand extended but just as Obama got to me, he bent down to shake a little girl’s hand who was standing in front of me. Next thing I knew, my hand was right on top of the crown of Senator Obama’s head. I have a great picture of the glare a Secret Service agent gave me! Ordinary touching of the candidate’s hands drew no attention but this different (and unintended) touch got an agent’s attention! Some touches are different than others. So also in Mark 5.
The woman in question is mortified. And I am using that word “mortified” deliberately. She is literally scared to death. You see, she didn’t belong in that crowd to begin with. She, too, had been forced to jostle with lots of folks as she jockeyed for position. What those other people didn’t know, however, was that according to Jewish law, every person who came into contact with this woman had been made ceremonially unclean. When I was young, the nature of her illness would have been described delicately by my mother as “a female problem.” Back when I was a kid that was code for “Inquire no further.”
This woman had a “female problem” and according to ancient law, it made her an outcast. For the good of all, she needed to remain far away from other people because so long as her problem persisted, she carried the contagion of unholiness. Touch this woman or be touched by her, and you couldn’t go to God’s Temple for a week. n other words, if it becomes known that she was putting the community at risk, she could be stoned to death. She’s been socially dead for a dozen years now and although people might feel bad about that, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. But if she could not quietly accept her socially mortified status, the community would have no choice but to remove her forcibly before she did more damage.
So when Jesus singles her out as having touched him with a purpose, her joy at having been healed turns to instant dread. Just as her life was about to begin anew, it looked like it might end. That is why she appears before Jesus with fear and trembling. She wasn’t afraid Jesus would rebuke her mildly by saying, “Next time ask first, OK?” The trouble she was in was far more grave than having been a tad presumptuous.
But to her credit, she tells what Mark describes as “the whole truth.” She could have lied, claiming she had sought healing for a bad cold or a sore back. But no, she admits the nature of her ailment and you can be well assured that the whole crowd had a collective sharp intake of breath. Suddenly every person there was wondering if he had rubbed shoulders with this woman. “Who knows how many people she had made unclean in the last ten minutes alone!” people no doubt began to murmur to one another.
But before the imminent panic got rolling, Jesus did an amazing thing: he called this woman “Daughter” and sent her away with a benediction. Jesus restored her to the community and so conveyed to everyone that the contagion of holiness that Jesus bore was now more powerful and more important than any potential contagion of unholiness that anyone else could possibly bear. And apparently it was enough to cleanse the whole crowd of people who had, technically, been ceremonially contaminated by her, too.
But that’s Jesus for you. Wherever he went he brought not only healing but he created again and again a whole new community, a whole new way to live together as sons and daughters of God.
Some years ago following the death of Pope John Paul II, the media ran many series of videos and photographs encapsulating the late pontiff’s career. Again and again what we saw in all that was the fact that no matter where the pope went, the one constant was the fierce desire people had to touch him. The New York Times published a particularly wonderful photo that showed this. It came from a visit the pope made to this country and specifically an appearance he made at a cathedral in Newark, New Jersey. The picture had been taken from the balcony and showed the pope from above and behind as he proceeded up the church’s center aisle. John Paul had both of his arms extended outward to the side. And from the pews lining the aisle were the extended hands of dozens of people stretching and reaching so that their hands could brush against one of his hands.
Recently we somberly marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and so were reminded that RFK exuded a similar attraction. According to Bobby Kennedy’s aides, there were many times after campaign appearances in 1968 when Bobby had to throw away his shirt. So many people clutched and clawed to touch him that Bobby’s hands would be scratched and a bit bloody even as his shirt sleeves became tattered to shreds.
Far better than just seeing someone—including someone powerful or famous—is to make contact. That’s something Jesus knew a lot about, too.
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27
Author: Doug Bratt
This may, at first glance, seem like a rather odd passage to proclaim in the twenty-first century. The entirety of 2 Samuel 1, after all, mentions the Lord only twice. What’s more, David’s eulogy never mentions God.
So if this were the only or last message I was ever going to proclaim, I wouldn’t choose this one. I’m not sure why the Lectionary even appoints this passage at all. Yet here it is. So God’s people try to listen to it together.
Our text’s Israel has essentially had two kings for a number of years. They’ve clearly headed, however, in opposite directions. Saul, the rejected king, has watched his kingdom, family and mental health slowly disintegrate. David, the king-in-waiting has, on the other hand, gained strength and followers, even as he constantly flees Saul’s murderous rage.
As 2 Samuel opens, however, Saul and his three sons have died in battle. Yet while their deaths resolve the long-simmering tension over Israel’s royal succession, Israel has no king. In fact, as Walter Brueggemann (Exodus, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 218), to whom I owe much for this Starter’s structure and inspiration, points out, her future king could hardly seem farther from the throne.
Yet while, in fact, David is also far from the scene of Israel’s army’s defeat, an Amalekite messenger manages to track down Israel’s next king anyway. This bedraggled figure announces that Israel’s army has fallen, along with Saul and Jonathan. However, when David presses him for details, the messenger admits that he actually killed the dying Saul. Scholars suggest he expects some kind of a reward from a relieved David. By delivering dead Saul’s royal paraphernalia to David, the messenger, after all, essentially makes him king.
Yet instead of handing the Amalekite a reward, a grieving David hands him a death sentence. After all, he recognizes that Israel’s king deserves not treachery, but respect. David had long known that he would someday be king instead of Saul. However, he still could not approve of the killing of Saul.
Yet how can David move beyond acceptance of Saul’s death to mourning his flawed predecessor as “Israel’s glory” (19)? After all, his predecessor’s death clears the way for him to finally become Israel’s king. So how can he speak of the Saul who repeatedly tried to kill him, as “loved and gracious” (23)?
David recognizes that Saul was not just Israel’s king, but also “the Lord’s anointed” (14). He also knows that God had told Samuel not only to “give Israel a king,” but also told to anoint Saul to “govern” God’s people. Israel’s next ruler knows, in other words, that God, not Samuel or anyone else had made Saul his predecessor.
In asserting that, David foreshadows the claim made by Paul in Romans 13. “The authorities that exist have been established by God,” he writes. “Consequently he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”
Reformed and other professions of faith make similar claims about rulers. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism professes that God expects us to honor, love and be loyal to “all those in authority over us.” God even challenges us to be “patient with their failings.”
Those who have flawed parents, bosses and political leaders know that’s not always easy. Often, after all, those in authority don’t deserve our honor, love and loyalty. And when those authorities claim authority that God reserves for God alone, God expects us to obey not those authorities, but God.
So Christians may have to disobey those whom God places in authority over us when their demands conflict with God’s. However, people who recognize those in authority as God’s servants never do so lightly. And they certainly don’t kill authorities like Saul, however despotic, easily.
David’s angry reaction to Saul’s murder reveals the kind of righteousness that stands in stark contrast to Saul’s disobedience. It, after all, shows that he remains loyal to Saul even when the king’s death benefits him. David shows that he will largely be a king after God’s heart by grieving over the king who had tried to kill him.
Yet before David becomes king, he leads the public mourning for Saul and Jonathan. He poignantly expresses the grief of both the Israelite community and him. David is very generous in his praise of Saul and Jonathan. In fact, in their death, he even overlooks the tensions between them over David. David graciously remembers them as united in life as well as in death.
David also grieves for Saul and Jonathan together because of their joint defense of Israel in its desperate fight against the Philistines. These enemies have been persistent aggressors ever since Israel entered the land of promise. David mourns that Saul and Jonathan had to lay down their lives to defend their besieged country.
Yet David also pauses to remember Saul and Jonathan individually. He grieves for Saul as the one who provided for his people. David also mourns the loss of the deep friendship and loyalty of Jonathan.
However, David doesn’t ignore death’s brutality and finality. He describes the ugly details of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths with imagery of battle and blood. David’s haunting refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” both honors the dead and makes their death real. He won’t, after all, let Israel just deny its grief so that it can blithely move on.
David also recognizes that Saul and Jonathan’s death have a profound impact on their survivors. The victors will gloat the way they usually do. However, David calls the defeated Israelites to remember and grieve for their king and his son. Though the Philistines’ daughters rejoice, David invites Israel’s daughters to weep in their role as the community’s mourners.
So can we learn anything about proper expressions of grief from David’s eloquent eulogy? First, as Brueggemann notes, it reminds us that words do matter. Christians try to find the right words that will let us genuinely experience, process and even embrace life’s sometimes-jagged edges.
In a culture that struggles to express its grief, God’s adopted sons and daughters remember that words are, in many ways, at the very heart of the church’s life. Our society prefers to silence all serious speech, gloss over genuine loss and even deny all real grief. Yet when our talk about death and loss is shrunk to either silence or mere clichés, we diminish life itself. David, by contrast, is willing to talk honestly about life’s limits and violence’s cost.
Secondly, as Brueggemann also notes, David’s poem signals our need to get beyond our own fear, guilt and even enmity to speak graciously of the dead. David is able to get past his own issues to focus with and for the community on the life and death of Saul and Jonathan.
By acknowledging, respecting and voicing Israel’s grief, he asserts that Israel may not simply move on. While self-interest plagues David as much as anyone, God helps him to both think outside of and speak beyond himself.
Thirdly, Brueggemann continues, David’s elegant elegy reminds us that we live in a society that is deeply engaged in self-deception. We often prefer to pretend that everything is “all right.” Yet we remain a troubled society that has much unprocessed hurt.
As Brueggemann notes, Americans, for example, have not yet fully reconciled with the residual hurt of evils like slavery and segregation. We still haven’t fully faced the ghosts of anti-Semitism that found life in the Holocaust. We’ve not yet fully plumbed the depths of the horror of the Vietnam War.
God’s adopted sons and daughters follow a suffering Savior who graciously gave his life on the cross for us. We follow the One who suffered unimaginable pain when the authorities unjustly executed him and his heavenly Father abandoned him. Christians follow one who, in other words, knew all about suffering and death.
So outsiders sometimes celebrate death. Insiders like us largely continue to go about our daily business without noticing the heavy cost of death. So who will lament even the deaths of the ordinary saints with whom God graciously surrounds us? Who will dare to sing for us about friendships broken, loss unspoken, greatness overwhelmed by death?
When we don’t sing of our grief, as well our faith in the midst of it, we end up like the Philistines in their self-deception. When, however, we sing our grief like David did, we remember that we have lost something wherever people around us have lost.
So Christians look for ways to honestly sing the psalter’s psalms of lament, to give voice to the grief and anguish we sometimes feel. We search for ways to honestly sing, even in the midst of death. 2 Samuel 1 reminds us that death, after all, doesn’t have to render God’s adopted sons and daughters silent.
Our culture wants to pretend that the mighty never fall and that the glory is never killed. David, as Brueggemann eloquently notes near the end of his commentary on 2 Samuel 1, “knew better, sang better, and acted better. And so could we.”
In 2004 the American Friends Service Committee assembled Eyes Wide Open, its traveling Iraq war memorial. The exhibit consisted of thousands of pairs of shoes, lined up in rows, representing all the servicemen and –women killed in Iraq.
While the exhibit generated a great deal of controversy, few denied that its message about the cost of war was poignant. In a society that generally prefers not to think or talk about war’s victims, the exhibit powerfully reminded us that war kills and maims people. It, like David, gives voice to the grief that all of us should feel over the high cost of war.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 130 is famous for its opening words, “out of the depths,” from which came the name by which this Psalm has been known for centuries, “De Profundis.” It is one of the Psalms of Ascent that Jewish pilgrims allegedly sang as they made their way up to the Temple for one of their annual festivals. And it is a Psalm of Ascent in its message, “for it climbs from the abyss of depression to the high ground of steadfast hope” (Boice).
Further, it is one of the 7 Penitential Psalms in the Psalter. It was a particular favorite of Martin Luther because he thought it clearly expressed the gospel of justification by faith alone. Indeed, he called it a “Pauline Psalm,” an Old Testament foreshadowing of passages like Romans 5:1-2. Thus, this should be a Psalm that is easy to preach for any child of the Reformation. It is a cry for mercy uttered by someone with a keen sense of sin who also has full assurance that there is “forgiveness” and “full redemption” from “all our sins” because of the Lord’s “unfailing love.”
However, a sermon on this text might be a hard sell with some of your listeners because they don’t have a keen sense of sin. As my colleague Dr. Ron Nydam has powerfully argued, today’s younger generation is not plagued with guilt like older ones were. Their great felt need is a sense of disconnectedness, of not belonging, because of the fractured families from which so many of them come. For them, there is no objective law against which one might rebel, so there is no real guilt. There are only psychological guilt feelings, to which the appropriate response should be psychotherapy, not a wholehearted cry for mercy like we hear in Psalm 130.
So if you decide to preach on this Song of Ascent, you will be working uphill against the tilt of much contemporary culture. That doesn’t mean you should choose another text. Indeed, this lack of guilt is a problem that needs to be addressed, and Psalm 130 is a great platform from which to speak, in hopes of arousing and then assuaging that guilt. Just be aware that for some of your listeners, Psalm 130 is speaking a foreign language.
One way to bridge the language gap is to carefully explore the language of Psalm 130, particularly the opening verses. This cry “out of the depths” will resonate with nearly everyone; who hasn’t been down in the pits? The question is, what are the depths from which the Psalmist cries? Are these the depths of depression, or the depths caused by the threats of enemies, or the depths into which we sink when we feel alone? The other Old Testament reading for today (II Samuel 1) tells the story of David’s sorrow upon the deaths of his mentor/enemy, Saul, and his dearest friend, Jonathan. That sense of loss is a depth well known to the disconnected generation of which I wrote earlier.
What’s more, the mere fact that the Psalmist cries out to God from the depths says something important about prayer. Walter Brueggemann asks a telling question. From where should we address God—from a position of obedience, from a situation of prosperity and success, suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a deep well- modulated voice? No, says Psalm 130, we can address God from the depths of our lives, when we are a mess and we can only scream for mercy. As Brueggemann puts it, this is “the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere.” That’s an important message for those who don’t identify with the issue of guilt. This is not the prayer of some plaster saint, the kind of “holy Joe” that turns unbelievers away from the church.
Further, it is important to point to the word “mercy.” The Psalmist is not asking for something he deserves. This is not a prayer for those who think they have done just fine, thank you. This is a cry from the depths of need. Of course, we need mercy for many situations in life. The Gospel reading for today (Mark 5) tells the stories of a woman who has been bleeding for years and of a father whose little girl is dying (and then dies). We need mercy in such situations. Even the most hardened person has at least whispered, “Lord, have mercy,” as the pain of life overwhelms.
But this Psalm is a cry for mercy wrung from a person who is overwhelmed by a sense of sin and guilt, and who is convinced that God cares about such sin. Indeed, he imagines a God hunched over an accounting ledger tallying up sins with a sharp pencil. But then he says, “Not! Thank God, not!” Because if God did keep a record of sins, who could stand in God’s presence? That’s a rhetorical question to which the obvious answer is, no one. Other Psalms make it clear that access to God’s presence depends on having “clean hands and a pure heart” and so much more (e.g., Psalm 24). Few of us meet those requirements; indeed, Romans 3:10-12 say that no one does. So, if God kept a record of sin, no one could stand in God’s presence. We would all be banished forever to the depths.
But wait! Doesn’t God keep a record? Doesn’t God have a set of books in which are written all the things we have ever done, whether good or evil? Isn’t there a “book of life” in which are recorded the names of all those who will live forever? It’s hard to know what to make of those kinds of ideas and the Scripture on which they are allegedly based. What we can say for sure, based on Psalm 130 and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that every one of the sins that might be recorded in “the books” are forgiven. Think of a register of debts across every one of which is stamped the word “Forgiven,” or “Cancelled,” or “Paid in Full.”
That is the central message of Psalm 130 and the Gospel it summarizes. There may be sin in us, but “with you there is forgiveness.” Note the wording of verse 4 very carefully. That introductory “but” is the great “Gospel but” we meet everywhere in Scripture. In fact, as I have said often in these Sermon Starters, the Gospel can be summarized in those two words, “but God.” In response to all of our sins, there is this merciful “but.”
And note that the Psalmist doesn’t say God forgives once in a while, depending on the cosmic weather or on God’s mood. No, this forgiveness is rooted deep in God’s being and guaranteed by God’s covenant promises which are certain because of his “unfailing love (Hebrew hesed).” When Moses asked God for an actual sighting of the invisible God as a kind of definitive proof of God’s good intentions (Exodus 33), God responded by speaking these words that summarize the essence of God’s being. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).” If the Bible says that we habitually sin because that’s who we are, it also says that God faithfully forgives sin because that’s who God is.
That sounds like permission to just go ahead and sin the more so that God can do God’s thing. But the next words put the lie to that perpetual heretical response to the Gospel of grace; “therefore, you are feared.” That line has confused generations of readers. You would think it would say, “But with you there is forgiveness; therefore, we have joy and gratitude and love.” But it doesn’t speak of those positive responses; it speaks of fear. What’s up with that?
Well, answers usually point to the range of meanings of the word “fear” in the Bible, from abject terror to reverential awe. That is undoubtedly part of the answer to our questions about forgiveness and fear. Forgiveness means we don’t have to live in terror of punishment, but it should also evoke a reverential awe toward the God who has done this marvelous thing for us. Boice puts it with characteristic eloquence. “Those who have been forgiven are softened and humbled and overwhelmed by God’s mercy, and they are determined never to sin against such a great and fearful goodness.”
That is right, but there’s another way to say it that gets at the heart of the Gospel better. Brueggeman explains it this way. You would think “that forgiveness is the key intent of the transaction, the point on which everything in the future depends. But it is not. Forgiveness is instrumental to the real purpose: ’that thou mayest be feared.’ One might expect the reverse—fearing God should be the ground for forgiveness. But the move goes the other way. The gift goes before obedience.” Or to put in New Testament terms, we are saved by grace precisely so that God could “purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14).” If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is also the heart of the obedient life.
But again, this fear is nowhere close to that terror of future punishment we always imagine. Instead, this fear leads to hope, hope that things as they are now in the depths are not as they will be in the future. So, says the Psalmist, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.” What is the Psalmist hoping and waiting for? Not forgiveness! That is given once and for all. The clue lies in verses 7 and 8, where the Psalmist speaks of “full redemption.”
Does that refer to the fact that there is more to salvation than forgiveness? Of course! Once the guilt of sin has been forgiven, there are still the presence of sin and the lingering personal results of sin and the wreckage sin has caused in the world. We might be forgiven by someone, but still be unreconciled to that person because the damage caused by our sin has not yet been healed. Think of a victim of sexual abuse and her long-time abuser; forgiveness will not automatically or perhaps ever lead to living happily with that abuser. (If you think this isn’t biblical, carefully read the way Romans 5 distinguishes justification from reconciliation.)
The Psalmist is waiting for full redemption the way a watchman waits for the morning. Imagine a watchman perched on the city wall peering into the darkness for hours, looking for the approach of a stealthy enemy under cover of night. What a relief when dawn comes and he can see clearly and the danger is over. We are forgiven, but there is much darkness yet in life and in the world, much that threatens to ruin us. So we wait for full redemption, for all to be made well, for Shalom. This is a welcome message for a generation that refuses to simply accept all that is wrong in this world. This is a prayer you can sink your teeth into.
And it is a prayer that invites us to open our mouths and tell our compatriots about God’s unfailing love. In verses 7 and 8, the forgiven, awestruck, hopeful author addresses his fellow Israelis. “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love…. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Here’s what happened to me. It can happen to you.
This is the kind of experienced based witnessing that can move even the most uncommitted. But the Psalmist roots his experience not in himself, but in God, in his unfailing love. You don’t have to be like me. You only have to cry out to God for mercy and rely on his forgiveness. There is forgiveness for all who ask in the name of the Lord Jesus. No matter where you have wandered, no matter how you have sinned, Yahweh through Jesus will redeem you “from all your sins.”
The unabashed cry for mercy in this Psalm will seem like weakness to those who love William Henley’s classic poem, “Invictus.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In this age of 24-hour newsfeeds, we are all keenly aware of all the problems facing our country and world. And we are all very good at blaming someone else for those problems and challenging other people to fix everything. Maybe then we’ll vote for them. Contrast that spirit of blame shifting with the spirit of Psalm 130, and of G.K. Chesterton. A newspaper editorially asked its readers the question, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton, the famous and much admired Catholic author, answered that question in a letter to the editor. It read simply, “Dear Sir, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
According to Psalm 130, God is not like Santa Claus. “You better watch out, your better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town. He knows when you’ve been naughty, and he knows when you’ve been nice….” In fact, Santa has a list, and he’s checking it twice. God is more like those “Walmart Santas” who secretly pay off the debts of poor shoppers who have put gifts on layaway. When those debtors arrive at Walmart to make another small payment on their debt, they are overjoyed to hear the good news that someone else has paid it all.
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most ministers get uncomfortable where the subject of money is concerned. So we make jokes about it, like the time I was at a church where the minister said “Do you believe in the hereafter?” People applauded that they did so believe. “Good,” the minister went on “because we’re here after a good offering!” Ha ha. Or we try to avoid coming off like some high pressure televangelist and so we mumble lines about “giving according to how you have been blessed” or “please give whatever the Lord leads you to contribute.” I have even heard pastors say just before the offering is taken, “If you are a visitor here today, we do not want your money – your presence here is gift enough for us so just drop in one of those Visitor cards so we can connect with you.”
The implication: once you become a member, prepare to dig deep!
Mostly the letters of Paul in the New Testament deal with some pretty weighty spiritual and theological subjects. A lot of the subject matter is, in other words, rather lofty. But here and there in Paul’s correspondence with the early church we come back down to earth to deal with some rather mundane practical matters. Like the need to give generous financial offerings to support the poor and to help congregations that were less well off than some others.
And so we come to 2 Corinthians 8 where Paul both lays it on pretty thick and tries to be really kind and relaxed about it at the same time. To see the fuller picture, it is best to back up to 2 Corinthians 8:1 and not just jump in midstream in verse 7 as the Lectionary suggests.
First, an example: the churches in Macedonia. “Woo-Hoo were THEY ever generous!” Paul gushes. “We didn’t even want them to give too much but they loved the work of the Lord SO MUCH and so eagerly wanted to join this work that, well, let’s just say it was amazing.”
OK, so an exemplary bar has been set for the Corinthians to try to clear.
Then, “Of course, you Corinthians are RICH in every way: knowledge, giftedness, faith, earnestness, love. Wow, you are something else. So wouldn’t it be a shame if the only other area where you did not excel were in the arena of being generous? You don’t want that to happen, do you? Now . . . I am not ordering you to do this. I cannot command generosity. I just want you to see yourselves as stacking up really well against some fellow churches elsewhere. And, of course, I hate even to point this out but then there is that whole example of Jesus to ponder: you know, how he who was rich gave it all up so he can make OTHERS rich? You have heard of that one, right . . .?”
No pressure! Just want you to be like Jesus is all.
But then very pragmatically: “Look, we are not trying to make things hard for you but rather we want to make it just a bit easier for others. We want all the Lord’s people to be treated equally and have equal opportunities to minister and spread the gospel. That’s all! Do you remember hearing that old story about how God fed the Israelites manna in the wilderness and that how no matter how much anyone gathered, it all shook out even-steven in the end? Well there you go: when everybody takes care of everybody else, voila!, it all works out.”
Since Paul is an Apostle and all I won’t suggest that this manna analogy feels a little strained to me. But is point is that God takes care of his people through his people and so this business of giving and making offerings for the poor is not finally a non-theological, non-spiritual concern. This is not just some nitty-gritty and earthy business we have to attend to but that has no connection to a living faith in Christ. This is all connected: God’s provision for his people, Christ’s example, Christ’s sacrifice, and a love that abounds to all.
Even today we may feel awkward talking about money. Knowing how much any given church member makes and how much they give is often guarded with the same privacy we reserve for how married folks make love. You just don’t talk about some things. At one church I served, when it was suggested that the Elders be privy to what the members in their Districts gave to the church each year, nearly to a person the Elders said they absolutely did not want to know that because that kind of personal information carried too much of a burden with it. “I don’t want to have to look at George or Jill and have their giving information arise in my mind! I would really rather not know.”
And it’s true to a degree. As a pastor you sometimes find out that a member of your church whom you know to make a ton of money every year actually gives almost nothing to the church or he provides a few little “in kind” services for a few members and calls it good. Once you know that, it’s hard to forget—if you hear someone else praising that person, in the back of your mind you find yourself thinking “Yeah well . . .”. Conversely, sometimes you find out that a person who all things being equal can be really difficult to deal with gives over and beyond what you might have expected and wouldn’t you know it, that somehow (sometimes anyway) softens whatever feelings of frustration you might otherwise have had with him or her.
Whatever the situation, these can be dicey subjects to deal with in the church. But deal with them we must. Yes, even the Apostle Paul tap-dances a little when he has to bring this subject up in his letters—he was a touch squeamish too perhaps. But it is finally spiritual, it is finally theological, it does finally have a lot to do with Jesus whose example and inspiration should mean as much to us on the fiscal front as it does on most any other moral front you could name.
On “Money” from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized. Harper & Row San Francisco, 1988, pp. 80-81.
“The more you think about it, the less you understand it. The paper it’s printed on isn’t worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you’d get now is a blank stare. If the government declared that the leaves of trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only because there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn’t trust it around the corner. The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons even the experts cannot explain and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more concrete reality in a baby’s throwing its rattle out of the crib. There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up. Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they are kept out of the place but that they are so out of touch with reality they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.”