Sermons That Work

No, This Isn’t a Sermon about Tithing…, Proper 27 (B) – 2009

November 08, 2009


No, this isn’t a sermon about tithing, so you may take your hands off your wallets.

Our television screens bombard us with offers of deals. No doubt your spam contains similar offers. From time to time we read about elderly people who have been duped out of their funds by unscrupulous people offering deals. There are even crooks who recently played with peoples’ health by offering spurious swine-flu remedies. So we build walls around our lives, taking care not to be “had.”

It is easy for us to become so protective of ourselves that we are no longer able to give or receive easily. Those of us who have been hurt badly build walls around ourselves and then wonder why we are so lonely and unfulfilled. Christians are not immune to this “natural” reaction.

Sometimes we don’t give to worthy charities, excusing ourselves by muttering that they spend too much on overhead. And yes, we get moody when the annual pledge campaign hits us in our parish. The odd thing is that we don’t feel our consciences tugged when we read the sort of lessons appointed for this Sunday.

The story of Ruth is a non-Jewish love story. Ruth takes a leap of trust and faith and decides to stay with her mother-in-law and marry Boaz rather than retuning to the safety and security of her own homeland.

In Kings, a woman left with nothing to feed her son and herself feeds the Prophet with what she has left. She may starve to death, but still she makes bread and gives drink.

In the gospel Jesus points to a widow woman, obviously without children to care for her. She gives her last penny. In the light of what Jesus says later about the scams going on in the Temple, the fact that he commends the widow for giving all she has to the Temple treasury is astounding.

Surely Ruth should have required a prenuptial contract! Surely the poor woman should have told the Prophet to go and find her son and her something to eat. Should not Jesus have rather suggested that the widow keep her few cents for herself? “Charity begins at home!”

Protecting our assets, the things we cherish, our integrity, seem to be natural reactions, survival instincts. Yet we follow a Savior who calls us to risk all in order that we may truly love and be truly whole. It would be said of Jesus, “The foxes have lairs, the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus’ mother and his relatives pleaded with him to come home, to be safe and to stop living so dangerously. The love of Jesus was extravagant, self-sacrificial, and utterly without concern for his own well being.

Well, we think, that is fine for Jesus, but he is unique. Sometime early on we absolve ourselves of commitment to follow his example, and settle for a faith that allows him to do the sacrificing, while we receive the benefits.

In the gospel, Jesus points to professionally religious people who parade their religiosity and who love the power their religious rank gives them, but who defend their institution and their place in it vigorously. When the Chief Priest decided that Jesus must be killed, he justified it as the death of one to protect the peace and prosperity of the settled religious Establishment. “It is expedient that one should die for the people.”

How often we rephrase Jesus’ command to “Go Baptize, Go Tell” with “Come through our church doors and help us maintain the building!”

Christianity calls us to love extravagantly, care extravagantly, and give extravagantly. Saints such as Francis of Assisi took that challenge to heart, to the dismay of his parents and the contempt of the world.

One of our lovely Collects contains the phrase “In whose service is perfect freedom.” Remember “service” once meant slavery. Jesus, we are told by St. Paul, gave up his equality with God, emptied himself, and became a servant, a slave.

That’s wonderful. Jesus is our servant. Just what we need.

But what of us? How do we measure up “to the fulness of the stature of Christ?” Do you remember when your parents used to put you against the wall and mark how tall you were growing? Next to Jesus we seem small in love, in caring, in giving. Yet if we are to commend our faith, our parish, our Church to a needy world and above all to our Lord, we are called to a more excellent way. We are to remember in our Lord’s chilling words, that when we have done all we are still unprofitable servants.

How on earth can we follow Jesus? He gave up life itself on the cross. On our own, as parishioners, clergy, vestry members, we fail and mutter our apologies in the General Confession. Yet “in Christ” and his love, we can grow to risk the life of love we were born to in our baptisms. Only then may we be truly free.

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