Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 selected verses for November 13, 2016, Pentecost +26, Stewardship #2
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord-
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent-its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Doom and gloom seem to be a national past time. Half of the people in our country were telling and believing stories of doom and gloom before the election. The other half are telling and believing stories of doom and gloom now.
As people of faith we do not live into narratives of doom and gloom. We live into narratives of hope. This is not because we are naive. This is not because we are fuzzy headed optimists. This is not because we are blind to the really bad outcomes and harm that political leaders can do to the common good.
Rather we live into narratives of hope because we believe that there is more going on in the world than the eye can see. We believe that what is unseen is, in fact, more important than what is seen. So, we believe in unseen things like love, like justice, like goodness, truth and beauty. We believe that our lives have meaning and purpose. We believe in things like responsibility and community. We believe in God.
We do not believe in the old Superman concept of God, what Aristotle called the god of Omnipotence who stands in the heavens somewhere looking at the world, sometimes tinkering with it, but most times just watching idly. That Greek God is not the God of the narratives of the Hebrew bible, nor the God of the prophets, nor the God Jesus believed in.
Rather we believe that God is present everywhere in the created world. We believe that God is the source and substance of the entire universe, and also the “more” that we call Spirit.
What is God’s relationship to the world then? God is entirely related to the world at every level and in every moment. That includes the moments of goodness as well as the moments of pain. So, God shares our joy, and God also suffers with us. In every moment, it is God whose power is expressed by luring us, not in a controlling way, but in a persuasive way, towards goodness, towards, justice, and ultimately towards love.
We receive this hopeful vision from our wisdom tradition, our scriptures. The bible is full of narratives of hope, like the story of slaves being set free from Egypt. Think of all the stories of unlikely births, of babies born to old or barren couples. There are stories of hard times in the wilderness, but also stories of crossing the Jordan into the promised land. There are stories of the pain of exile, but also of return from exile.
Our text, from the prophet Isaiah, of a new thing that God would do, was not given after an election in which the “right” candidate won and everyone was feeling hopeful. This text from Isaiah came from days of discouragement. The people had endured the war-loss to Babylon, the destruction of their temple, the execution of their king, a whole generation of exile in a foreign land.
At the time of this impossibly hopeful vision, they had returned to their land, but just like people coming back home after the hurricane or the flood, all they could see was a discouraging future and a lack of resources.
But the prophet could see beyond the rubble of the buildings of the past, towards a future of hope and promise. The fact that they were back in the land might be a hint that God was still with them, in their struggle, in their discouragement, willing them on to re-build, to re-create the community that had been dismantled. God had a future, if they would only believe it, and live into that hopeful narrative.
But was it true? Or was it an overly optimistic wish? The answer is not simple. By the time of Jesus, that hopeful vision of restoration had not happened – and it had been a long time. By the time of Jesus, Israel was just one of the many kingdoms that the Roman empire had swallowed up. The local elites, whose power came from the Romans with whom they collaborated, were making life miserable for most people.
The story of Jesus is a story of a game-changing revolution. Up to this time, people explained their suffering, their exile, their oppression, on one thing: they were being punished by God. Some people still tell and believe this story. Jesus didn’t!
When everyone believed that an angry God demanded blood sacrifice in order to forgive sinners, Jesus had nothing to do with the whole temple system, until the day he went to it and shut it down – at least symbolically, at least for a couple of hours. This is the story we tell.
And what did Jesus replace the angry God of temple and sacrifice with? A God who cared for his people as much, if not more, than he cared for the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. A God who, when people got off track, was not out for a sacrifice, but, like the father of the prodigal son, was waiting expectantly for his return, in order to greet him with a hug and a robe and a party.
So what was Jesus’ project? To go throughout the land, among the people, sharing this vision of God, and telling them that this was in fact what they had been longing for all along; this was in fact what the kingdom of God was supposed to be. It was what the world was supposed to look like if God were king, instead of Caesar or Herod or whomever.
Jesus’ vision had completely practical consequences. Everywhere he went he created communities of open table fellowship. For the first time, men and women together, slaves and citizens together, Jews and non-Jews together would share food together, love each other, forgive each other, and be there for each other. At least, that is what he modeled, and what he wanted.
Paul’s Vision and Context
In our New Testament reading we see Paul attempting to enact this vision in his radically different context, way outside the confines of rural Jewish Palestine where Jesus lived, out into the Hellenized urban world of the Roman cities.
Paul went around establishing groups of people, meeting in houses, who embraced this vision of a new humanity, in which the old divisions between people were now meaningless. In Christ, Paul famously said, there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.” Those “dividing walls” had been dismantled. One new humanity was possible. That is the vision.
Making the Connection Practical
In our New Testament text we find Paul telling his non-Jewish communities that they were connected with the Jewish communities because they were all one; there is only one “body of Christ.” So if one part is in need, the other parts spring into action to meet the need.
It so happened that there was significant poverty among the Christians in Israel, and the apostles had asked Paul to remember their poor. So he did. In a dramatic demonstration of their connection across lines of language and ethnicity, Paul spent two years organizing a massive collection from his gentile congregations to take back to Israel.
In Second Corinthians he is giving guidance about this collection, so that when he arrives, it will all be ready for delivery by Titus and his crew. Paul seems a bit reluctant to talk about money. I fully sympathize. So, instead of calling it a money collection, he calls it a “ministry to the saints.” He called the Jerusalem Christians, “the saints”. He also calls the collection of money a “generous undertaking”. So listen to how he describes the plan, as he asks the Corinthian Christians to be as generous as the Macedonian Christians had been:
“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”
Apparently, even though the Macedonians were poor – Paul says they gave out of their “extreme poverty” – nevertheless, they felt so connected to the even poorer Jewish Christians, they dug deep and generously, Paul calls it a “wealth of generosity”.
Paul goes on to organize the campaign and to provide a rationale for it:
“So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.
“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
This collection has become the model for us as a Jesus-following community. We believe that we are connected with each other. There is no rule, like the 10% rule of giving that the Israelites received from the Law of Moses. Rather it was a question of voluntary giving and authentic generosity.
The Kingdom in Practice
This is what the kingdom of God looks like in practice. We have hope that there a more going on in life than meets the eye. We believe that love is real, that community is vital, and that we are all connected. We believe in a “with-us God” whose vision of a restored humanity includes each one doing his and her part.
This is how our community is sustained, and this is how we join our resources together to show our solidarity and connection with people who are suffering. This is why Christians around the world have not only built churches, but also schools and clinics and hospitals. We dig wells, we send dental teams to rural areas. We have run millions of food banks and homeless shelters around the world. We have sponsored and run innumerable literacy projects. What started as a “generous undertaking” by Paul has become part of our Christian DNA.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the rendering of this ministry, which is another way of saying, financial contribution, has spiritual benefits:
“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”
Paul hoped and assumed that when Gentiles gave generously to poor Jews, this would demonstrate the seamless connection they had. That is a hopeful vision. Whether or not their gifts accomplished that vision (a story for another day) nevertheless, it was the right vision. And I believe that blessing follows faithfulness. There is something uncanny in a spiritual way about giving money away. It makes us feel good. I am glad that happens. Goodness is its own reward.
So, whether your candidate won or lost, our message is not doom and gloom. Our message is that we are people of hope, even in difficult times. We commit ourselves to work towards that hopeful vision in our inclusive community, in our generation, doing our part, practicing authentic generosity.