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June 28 texts:  2 Corinthians 8: 7-15;  Mark 5: 21-43

stone of grace

By Pastor Phil
By Pastor Phil

Let’s travel back in history a bit this morning. Well, more than a little bit. Let’s travel back to the first century. And let’s imagine that we are living in the community of Corinth. That’s in what’s now Greece. It was a major city, a place even then with a rich history, a cosmopolitan area with a mix of Romans, Greeks and Jews.

This was an important city in the early decades of Christianity. It was where Paul himself established its first Christian community, a place where Paul wrote letters to other communities. When he was away, he wrote letters back to the people of Corinth.

Those people in Corinth – let’s say those of us living in Corinth – were a difficult bunch. They had their own ideas about God and worship and which teacher to follow and getting along with one another. They sound a lot like Christians 2,000 years later.

Paul did not hesitate to take them to task. So relationships between Paul and the people of Corinth were somewhat testy.

Earlier, he had asked them to take up a collection to help what he would describe in another letter as “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.”

And then his relationship with the Corinthians frayed and the efforts to take up the collection seemed to falter. People had made promises but not followed through on them.

Wait, you say. There were collections and hard feelings over money even in the earlier days of Christianity? Yup.

The collection for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem really had two purposes. One was to actually help people in need. But the other was the way Paul was hoping to convince the church leaders in Jerusalem that these communities of Gentiles who were choosing to follow Jesus around the region really saw themselves as connected to the church in Jerusalem.

This was a collection, then, that had both benevolent and political dimensions.

Paul had been to Corinth, left, came back, there were hard feelings, left again, wrote a letter known as the “letter of tears.” Then word came from Paul’s companion Titus that the wounds of distrust in Corinth were beginning to heal. That’s the context for what we know as the Second Letter to the Corinthians. (The earlier “letter of tears” did not survive.)

Imagine we are gathered in someone’s home on this day and a messenger arrives with a letter from Paul. Word spreads and people gather to hear what words Paul now has for us. Someone – let’s call him Ted – begins to read.

First, Paul spends quite a bit of time explaining why he had changed his travel plans – something that had upset us here in Corinth – and then defending his ministry – something he did in response to others who tried to challenge his work among us in our city.

Then we get to the beginning of the portion of the letter that Ted just read.

“Be the best in this work of grace in the same way that you are the best in everything, such as faith, speech, knowledge, total commitment, and the love we inspired in you.”

Well, Paul must think pretty highly of us. That’s good to hear.

I wonder what he wants?

What he wants is for us to get back to meeting our pledges for the collection for Jerusalem. Or, as Paul put it: “Now finish the job as well so that you finish it with as much enthusiasm as you started.”

So Paul noticed that we had sort of let that whole collection thing lag in the midst of our unhappiness with him. And he is giving us more than a gentle nudge.

Let’s jump back to 2015 in Fitchburg. This is not going to be a reflection about pledges you have made to the church budget. Those are going fine. It’s not going to be an appeal for extra money for our latest cause. The generosity, the faithfulness of the people of Memorial UCC is not in doubt. That’s one of the many wonderful things about this congregation.

What Paul’s letter, the stories from the Gospel according to Mark and a remarkable event in the past week offer is a chance to think about the good works we do in the context of three words – generosity, trust and grace.

The generosity piece is mainly in the letter from Paul, although it’s worth noting that he opens by describing this effort to help the poor and strengthen the bonds with the wider church as the “work of grace.” Keep that in mind.

Paul sets out a helpful standard not only for the people of Corinth, but for us as well.

“A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly.”

It’s a call to look at what we have, be thoughtful about what we can share, give it out of gratitude for what we have and out of sense of the needs of others – not out of shame or obligation.

And then words that I just love:

“At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality.”

Let me tell you a story from a few years back here at Memorial.

It was in 2009, in the depth of the great recession. There were a number of people here hurting financially and they let John Hilliard, our financial secretary at the time, know that they were not going to be able to meet their pledge of giving to the church. Our church finances were getting more and more out of balance.

So John wrote a letter to the congregation that is a model of what Paul was saying here. If you are having a hard time, know that we are holding you in prayer. Don’t let this temporary difficulty come between you and knowing that you are fully welcome to participate in the life of this church. And those of you who feel you can do a little more, John wrote, “please do what you can to improve the situation.”

Or as Paul wrote: “At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit.”

At the end of 2009, the people of Memorial had exceeded the amount budgeted for pledges by $2,000 and with cuts to expenses we ended the year in the black. We trusted one another to make it workd

And that’s the second word for today – trust.

When Paul was asking the people of Corinth to help out the people in Jerusalem, he was asking them to renew their trust in him, to trust that the church leaders in Jerusalem would both use the money wisely and see these outlying congregations as part of the whole church.

It’s hard to be generous is there is not a basis for trust.

Another bit of history from Memorial. When our congregation was considering moving from the campus area to Fitchburg in the mid-1980s, the members here had to trust that not only the church leaders but also that the regional leaders of the UCC would be looking out for us. The church leaders did a fine job – and the wider church contributed financially for us to make the move successfully.

Yesterday in Cleveland, at the General Synod of the UCC, the attendees – including our own Bonnie Van Overbeke and Karin Wells who are there as delegates – celebrated the 67 new congregations that have started up or joined the UCC in the past two years. And our national leaders announced that for the first time in a long time, the national UCC ended the fiscal year in the black. The money we give to Our Church’s Wider Mission and the Strengthen the Church fund made those things happen.

And when congregations in our area have faced strains in the past year – Plymouth here in Madison, First Congregational in Watertown, Grace in Milwaukee – our Endowment Fund sent them a bit of money both to help them along and to let them know they were not alone. We trusted that it would make a difference.

Those are great examples of good stewardship and good generosity, built on the trust that resources can be used wisely.

Closer to home, one of the organizations the people at Memorial have been support in recent years is Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. This year, for the second year in a row, DAIS received the highest rating of four stars from Charity Navigator – America’s best independent evaluator of charities, Only 19% of the charities they rate have received a four-star rating two years in a row. DAIS has built a culture of financial health, transparency, and accountability that engenders trust.

That takes us to the Gospel story today.

A religious leader named Jairus has a daughter who is dying. He asks Jesus to come to heal her, trusting that he can do that. A woman with a seemingly incurable blood flow touches his robe, trusting she will be healed.

Mark tells the stories to give people a reason to believe in Jesus, to have faith. Jesus tells the woman that her faith has healed her. And when Jesus gets to Jairus’ house and hears that his daughter has died, Jesus tells him, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting.”

Those words are all related, I think – belief, faith, trust. The dictionary connects them all. Words like “belief” and “faith” can sound like we are giving intellectual assent to something, and that is indeed one dimension of those words. But in the case of Jesus, what really seems to matter is learning to trust in his way of life, to be willing to trust that by living out the message he taught, we will indeed create a better world for ourselves and for others.

That loops back to generosity, to living with a generous spirit, to be engaged in the work of grace, to use Paul’s term.

The work of grace. There’s that third word.

Many of you may have read about President Obama’s eulogy on Friday at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people gunned down a week-and-a-half ago during a Bible-study in the church that Pinckney pastored.

You may have seen video of the president leading the congregation in the singing of “Amazing Grace.”

You may even have had a chance to watch the whole eulogy – I’d recommend that you take the time to do that if you can. (You can watch it here.)

During that eulogy, Obama said, “This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.”

It was a week of tears and of words of forgiveness. It was a week when a violent, murderous act of hate gave way to amazing scenes of blacks and whites holding hands, marching together to move South Carolina and the nation a few steps away from a past of slavery and oppression and lynchings and discrimination.

In his eulogy, the president highlighted the graceful generosity of Pinckney, the grace that surrounded the horror of the murders.

Obama said, “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.”

He talked about how, like the slave captain in that beloved hymn, we can be blind, but now we can see. We can see the injustices around us and when we see them, we can act.

And then he reminded us of the theology of grace that is at the heart of our Christian tradition.

“We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it.

“But God gives it to us anyway.

“And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.”

Sarah Kaufman, a Pulitzer-Prize winning dance critic for The Washington Post, has written a book about grace that will come out in November. After Obama’s eulogy, she wrote a bit about grace in his talk, describing its essence as forgetting yourself and reaching out to others.

Here’s how she put it: “That sense of physically reaching out, leaning toward other people, is embedded in the word ‘grace.’ We get it from the Latin gratia, which came from the Greek charis, which originally meant ‘favor,’ as in a gift or act of kindness that one person extends to another, in a gesture of offering.”

It was that Greek word charis, that Paul used in the portion of the letter to the people of Corinth that we heard today. Just a little before that portion we heard, Paul reminded the Corinthians about ‘the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia” and how they responded with generosity, giving abundantly even out of their poverty.

Then he urged the Corinthians – that would include us – to “be the best in this work of grace.”

When we trust that God’s grace is there for us, when we open our lives to the way it can work within us, then being generous with our reactions to the people we encounter along the way, with our time, with our money becomes a natural response to God’s grace in our lives.

It’s an invitation. It’s an amazing invitation. It’s given in the spirit of amazing grace. It’s up to us to decide how we might respond.

As we think about that response, let’s join together in a hymn about God’s presence in our midst. It’s #293, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”