A sermon preached Sunday, June 28th, at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario.
Lections for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: 2 Samuel 1: 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5: 21-43
“For 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” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Today’s second lesson from Second Corinthians is an appeal to charity. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul calls on them to be be charitable with others, in the same way that “our Lord Jesus Christ” has been generous with us”. Paul seems to be setting up Jesus as an example. Just as Jesus was generous with you, he seems to be saying, so you should be generous with others.
We get called on to be generous all the time. Appeals to our charity come in the mail, in the Anglican Journal, and dozens of other requests to support worthy causes, from Nepal earthquake relief to the local school band program. Sometimes its hard to be charitable. We only have so much to give, and too many requests can cause compassion fatigue. Its true of us as individuals, and its true of us as churches. We know that charity and generosity are among the characteristics of the Christian life, but sometimes it can be hard to dig deep for them
If we ever wanted a lesson in what that generosity might look like, we have only to look to the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. On June 17th members of this historic black congregation welcomed a young white man into an evening bible study. He sat with them for an hour while they prayed and spoke together, and then rose and shot nine of them to death. It became clear that his motives were based on racial hatred.
Thrust into the media spotlight, the members of Emanuel mourned and buried their nine dead, but they also did something extraordinary. During the shooter’s first court appearance, relatives of the nine victims spoke to the accused killer. They spoke from their pain as they told him about their pain and grief, but they also spoke from their faith. Nadine Collier, who lost her 70 year old mother Ethel Lance in the attack, said this.
“You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to [my mother] again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Other members spoke similar words of grace. The New York Times reported, with some amazement, that “It was if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins, and turn to God.”
Sadly, this is not the first time a Christian community has publicly forgiven a killer after a mass shooting. In 2007 an Amish community in Pennsylvania made headlines for forgiving a man after he went into their school and shot ten young girls, killing five.
However, such clear statements of forgiveness after a horrific crime are rare. They are newsworthy evens because they are hard to fathom. How could anyone who has been so wronged reach through their pain, anger, and desire for revenge to find something as pure as forgiveness?
This Friday night, the US journalist Mark Shields noted that “we don’t have forgiveness much in our society. We don’t have it in Washington, D.C. We don’t have it on Wall Street. We don’t have it in faculty clubs of universities.”
“Forgiveness”, said Shields, “is a rare and – valued, but increasingly rare commodity. These people showed – I think they set aside almost a political earthquake by their demonstration.”
I myself struggle to understand how some people can be so generous, in the midst of so much grief, that they can forgive those who have harmed them and their loved ones. I can tell you honestly that I have trouble forgiving people for relatively minor offences against me.
Perhaps people on the edges of society find it easier to forgive because they know how much they are given. African American Christians have lived on the edges of society since the days of slavery. Mother Emanuel Church, as it is known in Charleston, was burned by slaveholders. Black churches were illegal in the South until after the Civil War. The oldest of the nine people shot there last week were born in the days of Jim Crow and lynchings. They came up during the Civil Rights era and stood with Martin Luther King. They were living stones in a church that had has survived because of its faithfulness. Hence its name, “Emanuel”, or “God with us”.
Those first Christians in Corinth also lived on the edges of society. Some of them may have been slaves. Most of them were likely poor. St. Paul reminds them that God gave them his Son, who took human form. “For 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.”
So here are those ordinary people, slaves and the descendants of slaves, and Paul is saying to them, Jesus did all this for you. He was born into a poor family in a world full of poverty. He died a shameful death. He did this for all humanity, for all people made in the image of God and loved by the Father. He treated all with respect and impartiality. As we heard in today’s gospel, he went to the home of Jairus, an important leader of the synagogue, but also stopped and healed the woman, considered unclean in her society, when she reached out to him. Christ’s love is given generously, and without partiality, and it changes those who wish to receive it. As Paul says, “by his poverty you might become rich”.
Here I think is the secret to understanding how some religious communities can be so extravagantly generous in their forgiveness. When Paul is talking about generousity, he uses the Greek word “charis” from which we derive our English word “charity”. But “charis” can also be translated as “grace”, a theological word referring to God’s gifts. God’s gifts are given freely. They are not rewards for good behaviour. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.
So when Paul tells the Corinthians that “by his poverty you might become rich”, he is telling them that they have become rich in God’s gifts because of God’s grace.
Paul would say the same thing to St. Columba’s, and Paul would want to now, since we have received forgiveness, love, and new life because of God’s grace, what will we do with this gift? Keeping it to ourselves is never an option with Jesus. If we choose to follow Jesus, then his grace flows into our lives. We are rich in love, rich in generosity, rich in grace. We are changed by this gift, made rich by it, or as Paul puts it elsewhere, we mature, we grow into the mind of Christ. Our calling as the church, as Christ’s representatives on earth, is to let that generosity flow through us, and into the world around us.
Sometimes generosity is about money, as you know if you’ve ever heard a stewardship sermon. For the church in Corinth, the challenge Paul gave to them was about sharing the gifts of Christ. Paul wanted these first Christians to share what they had, and it probably wasn’t that much, with the poor in Jerusalem. We know from today’s reading that they had started this project a while ago, perhaps talked about it in the way churches do. Now Paul tells them to get on with it. “Now finish doing it”, Paul tells them, “so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”
Why would the members of a church share what wealth they have with others, with people whom they have probably never met? Paul says it’s a matter of fairness, but it goes deeper than that. It goes to the heart of who they are as people who have received the generosity of Christ. If they have received this gift, how can they not share it? If they have been made rich by the gift of Jesus, how can they not be generous to others?
Sometimes generosity isn’t just measured in money. It’s easy to give a little money if you decide that you can live without it. The people of Mother Emanuel gave something far more precious than money when the spoke to the man who killed nine of their own. They gave their forgiveness and prayers. I am sure that their own identities, as the sons and daughters of slaves, who have experienced hatred and persecution, had much to do with it. They knew that because Jesus was their saviour, because his love crossed lines of race and class and wealth to be poured out on them, that they could not keep this to themselves. They saw a young man who had been warped and twisted by hatred and bigotry, and they wanted to share God’s love with him, because they knew his great need for love.
My wife’s sister lives in South Carolina, in a suburb not far from Charleston. She is a Christian of deep faith and active prayer. She told Kay last night that it is amazing to see how the people of her state, white and black, are reaching out to one another in the wake of the Emanuel shootings. Perhaps a new spirit of love and generosity will come to a place that has known hatred and bigotry for so long. If it does, it will be because the gift of God’s love and grace flowed into this black church, and just as irresistibly has flowed out of it, like water to a parched land. That’s how grace works.
So what will we do with our gift of grace, poured out on the people of St. Columba’s? “Now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” Paul tells us to get on with it. Two weeks ago, Julia preached about our parish’s evolving relationship with Lincoln Heights school. As Julia explained, there are many students there from families who do not have enough, and many opportunities for St. Columba’s to share God’s grace. That sounds like one opportunity for grace and generosity. There will be many opportunities for you to stand with Julia in this ministry that she had discerned for this parish, and to help finish the work that she has started.
Kay and I have to leave St. Columba’s, but we have every faith that God will pour his grace out on this parish, and that it will flow generously from here to those around you who need it.