Sermons That Work

Have You Ever Thought…, Proper 8 (B) – 1997

June 29, 1997

Have you ever thought about holy temples? A temple is usually understood to be a place where religious services are held. The Bible is full of references to the temple in Jerusalem. Most of us know of synagogues today that are called temples. Some Protestant churches are occasionally called temples. The Mormons use the term temple for their place of worship. So we know about temples.

Holy is a word we use to describe sacred places and things. Holy things are things set apart for God. A holy place is one set apart for God.

Therefore, a holy temple is a sacred place set apart for God where often-times we worship God. This church is holy.

We, at times, talk about people we know as being holy. Sometimes it is saints and martyrs who we refer to as being holy. Other times it is people in our own times, people we know, whom we refer to as holy, since we believe they are truly people of God; people in whom Christ is present.

In today’s collect, we pray that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to God. Have you ever thought what that means? As we prayed the collect a few moments ago, we prayed that, being joined together in unity of spirit through the teachings of the apostles, prophets, and of Jesus Christ himself, we might be made a holy temple acceptable to God. Have you ever thought about yourself as being a holy temple of God? Do you ever think about whether you are acceptable to God? Do you ponder if you have a right relationship with God or not? Do you ever wonder if God will find you to be a holy person?

All of us would like to be found acceptable to God. Maybe that is why we come to church. We know we are on a journey. We are striving to find a right relationship with God. We come to church, to worship God in hopes God will answer our prayers and help us find answers to our questions; to help us grow into a right relationship with God.

All of us would like to think that God would make us into a holy temple. But many of us may struggle to figure out what we need to do to bring it about. Perhaps today’s readings point the way.

In the old testament lesson from Deuteronomy, we hear Moses tell the people they are to open their hand to the poor and needy people of the land, giving willingly, liberally and ungrudgingly. When we give in that way, Moses tells us, we will be blessed.

The laws of the land, in the time of Moses, provided that all debts would be canceled every seven years. Therefore, a wise lender would make sure his loan would be paid back before the seven years was up so he would not have to cancel the unpaid balance of the loan.

But, there was more to it than that. In those days, a lender could seize a creditor for non-payment of a debt and force the borrower to work for him as compensation for the unpaid balance of the loan. The law of release meant not only that debts were canceled, but that those who were working off unpaid loans for non-payment would also have to be freed.

Naturally, such an arrangement discouraged prosperous lenders from any loans at all as the seventh year approached. But if those with the ability to loan money did not make loans to those who needed them there would be hardships on the community. Moses is saying the prosperous have a responsibility to lend to the poor without limit, even if this might result in a loss of capital due to the imminence of the year of release.

There were other rules about lending in Israelite law. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, we can read that no interest was to be charged to fellow Israelites. The rich were not to increase their wealth at the expense of those less fortunate than themselves.

This seems like a radical law for us in our times. But these laws illustrate a fundamental principal of ancient Israelite law: the needs of people override the rights of property. These laws stem from the belief that all wealth is the gift of God. Recall the words we often say when our offerings are brought to the altar, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, of thine own have we given thee.”

If one really believes all wealth is a gift of God, then people have no absolute claim over it. The gift is God’s, and God has absolute claim over it. It is from this belief that our understanding of stewardship comes. If all we have is a gift from God, we are stewards of God’s gift. We responsible for the gift while it is in our possession. But it is never ultimately and completely ours. It always remains ultimately God’s. We are stewards. Therefore, we are to enjoy all the gifts God gives to us, the gift of land, the gift of property, the gift of material wealth, as stewards. We are to care for the gifts as stewards care for what ultimately belongs to the Master.

What I am suggesting is that one of the keys to becoming a holy temple acceptable to God is to live into the belief that what we have tended to call ours is really God’s. Perhaps the key is to stop thinking that we have what we have because we’ve worked hard and deserve it. Perhaps the key is to acknowledge that all we have is a gift from God. All we have is a gift of the generous, loving God who created us in God’s own image.

We’ve all heard the expression that we receive by giving. Today’s old testament lesson tells us the Lord our God will bless us as we give liberally to those of God’s children who are poor and in need. In other words, God’s blessing will flow to those who give generously to those in need.

The psalm reinforces this image. We heard in the words of the psalm that it is good to be generous in lending, to be merciful and full of compassion. Clearly the psalmist is saying that with the words of Deuteronomy in mind. The psalmist tells us we will achieve righteousness, we will have a right relationship with God, if we give freely to the poor.

Then we heard the words of Paul as he wrote to the Christians in Corinth. Paul witnesses to the way in which God works in the lives of those who believe. Every act of generosity, he says, is an act of God’s grace. Paul has seen this grace of God at work in the Christians of Macedonia. Paul uses their example to encourage the Christians of Corinth. He encourages the Corinthians to model their giving after that of the Macedonians.

Paul was trying to build up a fund to aid the poor Christian people in Jerusalem. In this light, Paul speaks highly of the Macedonian Christians. The Macedonians were a poor people. They seemingly did not have much to give. It seems almost as if Paul did not intend to ask them to contribute to this fund for the church in Jerusalem. But the Macedonians insisted. Their enthusiasm in giving, giving according to their means and even beyond their means, as Paul describes it, is a model he is holding up for the Christians in Corinth.

Paul says to the Corinthians, no doubt with tongue in cheek, “as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness….so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” He tells them he is not commanding them to do this, but clearly he hopes they will do it, either because they want to do it or out of guilt that the Macedonians will be perceived as outdoing them. [Garrison Keilor, the noted humorist says “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” Guilt certainly can provide short term motivation.]

But clearly Paul hopes the Corinthians will want to be generous, not out of guilt, but because of the love God and the powerful model of their savior, and our savior, Jesus Christ. As Paul says, “…. 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.” It is another of those contradictions in Christian belief. It is through giving that we receive. It is by becoming poor that we become rich. It is by giving up power that we gain power. It is by giving up control that we are liberated.

Many people witness to the fact that if they pay all their bill first, there is often not much, if anything, left to give to God, either as an offering in church or as a contribution to the poor and needy. But those same people witness to the fact that when they make their offering to God the first check they write, and when that offering is a thankful and sacrificial gift to God, their other needs seem always to be met. It does not always make logical sense. It may not even make mathematical sense. But, for those who have experienced it, who practice it, it make good sense. It makes spiritual sense.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus raising a little girl from the dead. At first, it is reported the little girl is gravely ill, and Jairus begs Jesus to lay his hands on her and heal her. But then, messengers come to report the little girl has died. Jesus asks Jairus to have faith, and Jesus gives the ultimate gift. Jesus restores life to Jairus’ daughter. Giving the gift of life is certainly the ultimate gift.

We cannot imagine ourselves being able to perform the miracles of Jesus. We don’t see ourselves as raising people from the dead as Jesus did. But, have you ever thought in offering what we have, in making sacrificial gifts to those in need, we may indeed be giving others a better life than they would have had otherwise. In offering gifts from the heart, perhaps we are giving spiritual life to those who are near spiritual death.

God has given us the gift of life. What can we give to God in return for life? What can we give God for all the many, wonderful gifts God has given and is giving us? We can make sacrificial, sacramental, loving, thankful offering to God through God’s church. We can reach out to those in need through our offerings. As we do that, we can help to bring about what Paul says at the close of today’s epistle. “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” Let us pray that we who have much will share with those who have little. By sharing from our abundance, we can indeed bring life to those with little. By sharing what we have we are being good stewards. And by being good stewards, perhaps we become holy temples of God.

Let God’s Holy Name Be Praised!

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Christopher Sikkema