Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death and the Generous Waters

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Last Sunday we observed that the lesson from Mark - in which Jesus calms the seas - has everything to do with death and the reminder that only those who lose their lives will find them. We spoke about the call for Jesus’ disciples to learn the sacrificial love of Jesus: the love that lays down life. We made these observations while the circumstances surrounding the death of Mollie Judith Olgin and the attempted murder of her partner, Mary Kristene Chapa, at a park not a half-mile from our church, were still unclear.

Now more is known, but not much more. A murderer is still at large. A young woman is still dead. Another is still fighting for her life. Our community is still shaken.

While the readings last week named the relation of death to the gospel for disciples of Jesus in ways that challenged us, this week the readings come to us with unexpected compassion in the face of unexpected death and the pit of our community’s very real grief. The psalm, for example, has been replaced with a reading from Lamentations: a song of God’s mercy in which the author exhorts us to cling “to hope even when tasting the dust.” The Old Testament lesson, from the Apocrypha, reminds us that “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” And Mark’s gospel introduces us to Jairus, who tells Jesus that his daughter “is at the point of death.” It is at the point of death, we are told, that Jesus finds her and heals her. Today we do not need the reminder that our daughters and sons are at the point of death; but we wonder how or if Jesus will touch them - how or if Jesus will touch us.

Of course we believe Jesus has touched us - has reached out to us; that wedged between thieves on a dark, Friday afternoon he reached out his arms on the cross for us. So we are reminded that Jesus did not come to save his disciples’ lives, except by losing his own. We remember this when we wear signs of the cross on our bodies: that we worship the crucified Lord whom God raised from the dead. Sometimes the cross does not seem strange enough to us, I think. Weeks like this past one can help the cross become strange again, in the best sense. But this strangeness has its cost, shattering as it does our illusions about ourselves and the unbroken lives we’d like to live. It is a terrifying and wonderful thing to find salvation through the God who dies on a cross.

What can it mean to be touched by the Lord who saves us like this? What must it mean to imitate this kind of love through the power, the help, of the Holy Spirit?

We’re talking about how the death and resurrection of Jesus shapes the response of his followers in the face of tragedies like the shooting of these two young women.

Parenthetically, much has been made, nationally, of the young women’s sexuality. Locally, I have heard a number of people voice their desire that this tragedy not draw attention to gay and lesbian agendas. Certainly the Christian Church is of a divided mind on this, with godly people abiding on both sides. What must be said, I think, is that Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am first in line. That is, those who are not able to condone Mollie and Kristene’s lifestyle find themselves most certain that Jesus would stand with Mollie and Kristene, even as he befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, and others. Those who approve of Mollie and Kristene’s lifestyle may (perhaps deeply) resent the above rationale and find themselves needing no additional scriptural warrant to stand with the victims and their families. Ultimately, we all find ourselves in the same place: in both cases, called to grieve violence - to not be robbed of the tragedy - to pray for the victims, their families, yes, the assailant - the enemy - and longing to see Christ’s peace touch the brokenness that belongs to all of us. In these times we Christians are learning to stand with those with whom God also stands.

Which brings us back to the question: how does the death and resurrection of Jesus shape the response of his followers in the face of tragedies like the shooting of these two young women?

To begin to open this question, I want to turn to the one reading this morning that perhaps least directly addresses unexpected death. In fact, it’s a stewardship letter. It’s the second letter Paul sends to the church abiding in Corinth.

You may have already picked up on some of the clues that tell us Paul is talking to the Corinthians about money in the lesson this morning: when, for example, he encourages his listeners in their “generous undertaking,” it’s not a euphemism. Paul wants them to give money. When he tells the Corinthians that he is testing the genuineness of their love against the earnestness of others, he’s talking about the Macedonians, from whom Paul also took a collection. When Paul exhorts his friends to give generously so “your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means,” it’s a Pauline way of saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” All of this you know already from the plain meaning of Paul’s words.

The additional context for our reading is a financial collection several years in the making that Paul is taking for the needs of the Church in Jerusalem.  What makes this collection particularly interesting is that the great fight that threatened to split the early Christian Church was whether the Jews were going to recognize God’s call to the Gentiles; when Paul writes the Corinthians to ask for money for the Church in Jerusalem, he is asking a community that includes Gentiles to support Christians in Jerusalem who might not recognize these Corinthian benefactors as sisters and brothers in Christ. Paul asks them anyway.

On what grounds does Paul ask these Corinthians to give?
I listen to NPR a lot, and so I know - as you might also - that this is their fundraising season, and also that there are lots of reasons one could be given to give. Reasons like matching donations. Make your $50 gift and it will be matched, making your gift worth $100. Lots of reasons, like incentives: give x amount and you will receive an autographed coaster or Neil Diamond’s greatest hits on 2 CDs. Economic reasons like you are already using public radio and not giving makes you a free-loader. Utilitarian reasons like the world is better off with alternatives to Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. But Paul doesn’t give a reason like any of these reasons.

Instead, Paul writes to the Corinthians that “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.”

Paul isn’t talking, of course, about Jesus as a socialist or communist; he’s talking about something far more terrifying: Jesus Christ, who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death—
  even death on a cross.

This is the foundation of Paul’s appeal when he asks the Corinthians to be generous.

Assistant Professor of New Testament Carla Works writes that “[h]ow believers use their resources - time, money, talents, and attention - is a reflection of what they believe about God and God’s actions in the world. Furthermore, how those resources are used preaches a message to others. Paul wants the Corinthians’ actions to be a reflection of the gospel in which they believe.”

It gets less publicity, it’s not quite as sexy, as the other fruit of the Spirit, but generosity is among them; and, if we take Paul seriously, generosity finds its foundation in the generous - gracious - God who has emptied himself to make us God’s children.

The generosity of the Corinthians is to be a reflection of what they believe about the God who raised Jesus from the dead and reconciled the world to God. Put more provocatively (and Paul was not one to shy from provocation), Paul hints that miserly Christianity denies the resurrection.

And of course we’re talking about money because Paul is talking about money, but we’re not stopping with money. We’re wondering what it means to be a generous Christian with our belongings, yes, but also with our words; generous Christians by our thoughts; generous Christians in our hearts and lives. We’re wondering how we can take the worst the world thinks about us and surprise the world: with humility, with gentleness, with forgiveness, with loving-kindness and no strings attached. We're wondering, especially, what it means to be generous in the face of death.

Karl Barth once famously wrote that “Grace exists only where the resurrection is reflected.” The resurrection is reflected, I would argue, in lives that are lived as if Jesus has conquered death: lives lived generously, open-handedly, lavishly. And this is not just a pep-talk for individual Christians to remember in the fall; this is our mission, all together, as the people called God’s Church.

And yes, this is why Christians pray for our enemies. Yes, it is as dangerous as it sounds. In his novel Chasing Francis, Ian Morgan Cron asks vicariously through his fictional character Brother Thomas, “Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it ‘the radically unprotected life,’ a life that’s cruciform in shape...It’s to live dangerously open...It’s to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?”

Our generosity, as Christians - in time, talent and treasure - also in speech, in love, in mercy, in peace, in forgiveness - is a reflection of what we believe about the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and reconciled the world to God; our generosity is a reflection of the God who invites us through the waters of baptism to die and live with him.

This morning we will baptize Wyatt Funk into the generous and Spirit-filled waters of baptism, the waters that make present for Christians the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wyatt’s parents and godparents will join us in the commitment to do all in our power to support Wyatt in his life in Christ. Wyatt’s promise will make us vulnerable because we are promising to imitate the generosity of God toward Wyatt - and one another. We are praying to be generous in the way our Savior was generous when he said, “Take, eat, this is my body.”

This morning we will promise, again, to give of ourselves when it is convenient and when it is not convenient in order that, with God’s help, we may grow to embody the love of Christ for his People. In these times, we are learning to stand with those with whom God also stands. We are learning what it means that God also stands with us.

Amen.

Sermon preached at St Christopher's, July 1, 2012.

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