Christian Giving: One part blesses all of it

Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost

Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal

YouTube recording of the service. The sermon begins at  18:30…

I need to tell you, my friends, before I get into the nitty gritty of this sermon, that I’m a member of the Cathedral’s Stewardship Committee. This is not, strictly speaking, a fundraising committee—finances are organized by the Corporation with input from the Treasurer and Forum—but we keep an eye on all the many ways people can participate in the life of the church, and this does include donations. I rashly promised, three weeks ago, that the next time I preached I would bring up the subject of Christian Giving. 

That was, of course, before I noticed that the readings for today are chiefly oriented towards the suffering and Passion of Christ! So I had to decide whether this coincidence was some sort of joke, or a gift. 

I chose gift.

“What is it you want me to do for you? Jesus asked.”

We are turning away from the season of Creation, which had its climax in Harvest last week. Our lessons begin to ponder last things. Jesus has been telling his closest followers that he will be put to death, and it’s in this context that James and John say they want to sit at his right and left when he comes into glory. And while the others find them self-seeking, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. After all, who WOULDN’T want to stay close to him in eternity? James and John were the ones Jesus invited to stand with Peter on Mount Tabor and see him with Moses and Elijah in a blinding light. But, Jesus tells them, this request is not his to grant.

Among the four Gospels, Mark’s most notably interweaves the themes of discipleship and suffering together, throughout Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. Luis Menéndez-Antuña points out that people who are being tortured or otherwise in the midst of extreme suffering cannot imagine a future time. Their world—past, present, future—simply collapses. He sees Jesus’ response to James and John in this light—the unknowability of what might follow.

Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant has been understood for centuries by Christians as a prophetic foretelling of the coming of Christ … who can hear the words “all we like sheep have gone astray” without the bouncy notes of Handel’s lambkins from the Messiah going astray in our ears? … yet that association carries us away from the prophet’s objective in his time, trying to make sense of the experience of exile and the suffering of the whole nation during the Babylonian captivity. 

Each of us has also experienced suffering firsthand, and has also been privy to other suffering near or far. Indeed it might be more true or at least more evident than ever before that all creation is groaning. 

If we were there with James and John, hearing Jesus ask “What is it you want me to do for you” I’m sure each one of us could come up with quite a list. And most days, don’t we want God to act in power? If not to organize the seating plan for heavenly banquet, at least to hear us… and heal us … and hold us. 

So today we find ourselves at one of the sticking points, don’t we?

What kind of authority is this, that is being claimed by the one who is said to be “crushed for our iniquities?” [Isaiah 53:5] 

Leaving aside the very difficult word “ransom” in this passage of Mark for the real theologians to work with, we nevertheless are prompted to turn the question: Instead of “What is it you want me to do for you?” this becomes “What has Jesus already done for me?” I was pondering this servant role of Jesus when the scene from John’s Gospel floated into my mind. Jesus comes to wash the disciples’ feet on the night before his arrest and ultimate crucifixion, and Peter, characteristically, balks. [And I quote:]

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” [John 13:8]

I so understand Peter’s point of view. I’d rather be in control of things than to have my entire life hijacked by the wild uncertainties of a God who is itching to serve, to suffer, and to die. 

Except that I’m trying to obey. Imperfectly and inconsistently, but repeatedly and willingly. Because, as Peter also is quoted as saying, earlier [John 6:68] “you have the words of eternal life.” So I stay with this God that I still so imperfectly understand and imperfectly trust.

Follow me for a moment here. This means, doesn’t it, that I do have a share with Christ. Forget about sitting at his side in Glory… we can’t any of us imagine what that might be like anyway. But even my little gestures of discipleship, if not worthless, are worth infinitely more than any earthly thing. 

Because God’s most amazing grace is infinite. 

We say “God’s eye is on the sparrow” but God’s eye is also on the tiniest insect … and in fact, the entirety of all that is made, to quote Dame Julian of Norwich, is as little as a hazelnut being held in the hand of God. [See note below.]

Does that thought make you dizzy? I hope so.

Now, while you are dizzy, consider your annual giving. Maybe picture your hand holding it, the size of a hazelnut. How can it be less than everything? Because I want to propose to you (and to myself) that what I offer beyond myself is not a percentage… a sort of Value Added Tax on my daily preoccupations. No, quite the reverse. It is a sign and token of giving everything I have towards God’s work in this place. Not because it is better than other places, but because it is here where I am. 

When the ancients harvested their crop or when their livestock matured, they brought the first fruits as an offering to God. Why the first part? It stood for the total. The total was blessed.

When I was so much younger than today, my dad was the treasurer of a Unitarian Church in Harrisburg, a church so small they met in two rented rooms at the Y. Thus, my first volunteer job in church life was sitting beside dad at his desk in the basement on Sunday afternoons, listening to classical music on the radio, putting the little donation envelopes in numerical order, opening them one at a time, saying the number, and unfolding the cheque or counting the contents, and then adding it to the pile in front of my dad while he wrote the amount in the ledger. I still remember the consistent generosity of two of the older members, I can picture their handwriting even now, weekly cheques each for the same amount.

I love sacraments, and, you know, that might have been as close to a sacrament as anything that little church had. Those members were planting, and others would reap the harvest. 

In the words of this morning’s Psalm [91:14-16]

“Those who love me, I will deliver: I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble; I will rescue them and honor them; with long life I will satisfy them; and show them my salvation.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 The scriptures for today are Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, and Mark 10:35-45.

Re: That hazelnut.  I was wrong when I said Julian saw it being held in the hand of God. God showed Julian the hazelnut in her OWN hand. Here’s a link to a meditation that includes her writing about this.

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