Sermon - Commitment Sunday
In the Name…
A pig and a chicken were walking through a poor section of the city. The chicken said to the pig, “Look at all those hungry people. Let’s donate some ham and eggs to make them breakfast.” “Wait a minute” the pig said, “for you, that’s a donation. For me, it’s a sacrifice.”
This morning we have heard read one of the most stirring passages of the New Testament from the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians. "Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep but, we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we will be changed." These verses are read at almost every funeral because these verses encapsulate the great Christian teaching of life after death.
But, as one writer has put it, the word of God is a continuity in which every part hangs upon every other. It is rather striking then, that, just at the moment when Paul seems to have come to a dramatic theological climax, and you can almost hear the sound of the last trumpet ringing in your ears (thank you George Frideric Handel), that he suddenly seems to shift gears and come out with the jarring words, "Now, about the collections."
So, is this a contrast or a continuity?
Paul is talking specifically about the special relief collection being made for the church in Jerusalem. He mentions it in several of his letters and he tells us there were two reasons why that church needed help. First, there had been a series of famines and the general economy was in bad shape. And second, because of persecution, the Christians were suffering more than others. So, Paul exhorted the churches in Corinth, and elsewhere, to help out and, in the process, he gave them, and us, seven uniquely Christian principles to govern our own approach to giving. They're all in the reading so you may want to follow along.
First, you will note, giving is something for all Christians to do. Paul says, "Do what I told the Galatian churches to do." Galatia was a very poor rural area. Corinth was a very rich city. Everywhere Paul went he taught people that giving was an essential part of the Christian religion and something which sets us apart. In Paul’s time, no other pagan religion had a charitable dimension to it. So, this was one of the unusual things Christians did that amazed their neighbours.
The second principle is that it is to be done "on the first day of every week." This simple statement is one of the earliest indications we have that Christians had begun to gather for worship, not on Saturday - the historic Jewish Sabbath day - but, on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of Christ’s Resurrection.
That's why this paragraph follows the great passages of resurrection. St. Paul considers this whole matter of giving as something which flows out of his worship, their worship, our worship, of a Risen Lord. Giving is an act of worship, like prayer.
Then, third, giving is a personal act, "each one of you", he says. Nobody's left out, or exempt. It's not an option. It’s a necessity which grows out of our personal relations with Christ. In fact, giving draws us closer to God who is the ultimate giver. For God so loved the world that he gave…well, you know the rest.
Fourth, he says, "set aside and save." In other words, people were not asked to give nothing specific of everything in general. Saving implies a goal and Paul teaches that each church needs to have clear and specific funding goals. Indeed, in 2nd Corinthians, he scolds the church leaders because they have failed to explain why, and for what, the money is to be used.
Then a fifth principle is each should give, "a sum in keeping with his income" - in keeping with his income. That means it’s going to be different for everyone. Traditionally, that means the tithe and that's a challenge to our lifestyle choices. I once knew a couple who were having a hard time. They both worked in reasonably good jobs, yet were having trouble paying their mortgage. It turned out that a large chunk of their income went to also pay for and maintain a luxury RV that cost more than their house! St. Paul is challenging us to make responsible decisions about how we spend our income. God does not give us wealth so that we can get into debt. He gives us wealth so that we can share it. Hey, if we really can't tithe, that might mean we're living beyond our means.
Now, in the sixth principle, St. Paul makes a request which may seem to us to be unusual. Get the money together before he arrives, he says, "so that when I come, no collections will have to be made." Now why would he say that? Because he knew, modestly, he had a tremendous personality. He did not want giving to result because people were moved by his preaching, or cowed by his authority, or feel pressured in any other way. How different to modern fund raisers who go out of their way to bring in professional motivators or big name personalities to drum up support.
Actually, that tactic backfired on a California church a few years ago. They wanted to get for their Commitment Sunday the actress who had played the character Tabitha Stevens in the 1960's "Bewitched" TV series but, the agency got confused and they ended up with an actress named Tabitha Stevens whose movies aren't exactly family-rated. (I’m glad I didn’t have to explain that one to the Bishop.)
No, St. Paul wants people to give because they know their lives have been touched by God - not because Paul is persuasive or famous.
And the final principle is set forth when he says, "Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve." And what Paul is saying here is that is that the receiving of gifts needs to be carried out responsibly. Paul is accountable. He knows the danger of those who pass the hat, but, are vague about how they dispose of it.
So, here again are the seven principles of giving - 1) it's something Christians invented; 2) it's an act of worship; 3) it draws us closer to God; 4) it's for predetermined objectives; 5) it's based on the tithe; 6) there's no arm-twisting; and 7) it's got to be handled responsibly.
To St. Paul, the use of money was not separate from the great spiritual truths of the Gospel, even those about the life of the world to come. As Jesus said in the Gospel, "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also". May our hearts be where they may find Jesus and may our treasure be where Jesus may use it. Here and now.
In the Name...