Saturday, July 16, 2016

“Holy, Holy, Holy: Worship as Countercultural Activity” (Revelation Series #2) - July 17, 2016

Text: Revelation 4:1-11

We had a fantastic week of Music Camp.  We had 42 campers from at least 15 different schools from Ames and all around the area – Boone, Roland-Story, Nevada, Gilbert, Marshalltown, Des Moines and more, not to mention campers and counselors from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Indiana.  We had great guest musicians including the Parkinson’s Disease singing group that Elizabeth works with.  It was wonderful to see the campers interact with members of the group.  The campers not only sang along with them but asked some very good questions.  Other activities included painting a piano that will become a public piano that will go on either Main Street or Welch Avenue here in Campustown.  We had our usual fabulous Campers Talent Show, and then some of you were able to come to the closing program on Friday where our campers presented the musical they learned through the week – we heard some of the music from that musical a few minutes ago.

It was a wonderful week, but it was a very busy and very full week, and with a funeral and various and sundry near-emergencies and other matters popping up, time was at a premium.  Last week we started a series from the Book of Revelation, but when I looked at our text today, from Revelation chapter 4, I admit that it did cross my mind that maybe we could just make it a one week series on of Revelation and call it good, and go on to something else this morning.  But that would be the easy way out.

As I read our passage for today, dramatic and rather strange as it may be, one thing in particular stood out.  We get a lot of our hymns and worship music and other worship material from the Book of Revelation, and a good deal of it comes from this chapter.

“Holy, Holy, Holy.”  It was hymn number 1 in the hymnal I grew up on, and it was sung a lot.  There was a time when it had to be among the top 2 or 3 most commonly sung hymns in America.  There is a reason it was number 1 in that hymnal we had at my home church.  The words come largely from Revelation 4.  “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”  And “All the saints adore thee – casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea.”  If that part about casting down crowns along the glassy sea ever struck you as odd, well, this is where it comes from.  The imagery is straight from our reading today.

Chapter 4 of Revelation is a vision of worship that goes on in heaven.  And it is interesting the way it begins.  Last week, we had an introduction of sorts to the book of Revelation and to John’s letters to the seven churches.  We looked particularly at his letter to Ephesus, a church that had lost its passion, had lost the love it once had.  John continues with letters to six other churches, in one way or another calling for faithfulness from these churches, whether it is Smyrna - encouraged to be faithful in the face of persecution and even martyrdom; Thyatira, which tolerated a false prophet; to Sardis, which seemed to be more dead than alive; to Philadelphia, a church with little power but great faith; and to Laodicea, which was neither hot nor cold but lukewarm – it made God want to spit them out.  Pretty striking imagery.  And toward the end of the letter to Laodicea there are those frequently quoted words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.”  That is used as an evangelistic kind of verse.  We just need to open the door for Christ.

But while the Laodiceans are told that Christ is knocking and asked to open the door, just a few verses later, in chapter 4, we don’t have to open the door; a door to heaven has been flung wide open.  John sees through this open door to heaven and we can see with him a scene of heavenly worship.

How is John to convey this vision?  The limits of human language make it impossible to convey the infinite realities that John is privileged to see, so he uses earthly analogies with the understanding that the glory that he sees far surpasses the earthly symbols that he uses.

Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger wrote about the symbolic meaning of this passage.  In accordance with Jewish sensibilities, John avoids descriptive detail of God and in fact does not even mention the name of God – God’s name is too holy to be mentioned casually - but John speaks of One seated on the throne who appeared like jasper and carmelian, surrounded by a rainbow that looked like an emerald.  John perhaps has in mind a translucent form of jasper that was clear as crystal and when polished sparkles and flashes.  This is John’s way of describing what other writers refer to as the holiness and glory of God.  Carmelian is a semi-precious dark red stone; when you hold it in your hand it can appear that a fire is smoldering within the stone.  This may refer to God’s burning judgment against sin.

The rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood – a reference to God’s mercy.  And of course John knows that a rainbow is made of all the colors of the spectrum, but says that it is like emerald – green - like a meadow, like a forest, a soothing color.  Altogether, John may be saying that after being exposed to the brilliance of God’s holiness and the heat of God’s wrath against sin, he was comforted by the overarching reality of God’s love and mercy.  And then, around the throne is lightning and thunder and flaming torches.  The power of God is obvious. 

The point of all this, says Metzger, is that John is using poetic language to describe the nature of God in a way that is altogether in keeping with what we read of God elsewhere in the scriptures – a God of glory and holiness, a God of power and majesty who stands in judgment of sin and is yet merciful toward humanity.  (Breaking the Code, 48-50).

Around the throne are four living creatures – one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a human being, and one like an eagle.  These might represent what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in creation.  Or, this might represent wild animals, domestic animals, human beings, and birds – together, all of creation, and it is notable that the human does not have preeminence over the others.

Later, the Church was to associate these creatures with the four gospels – the man with Matthew, the lion with Mark, the ox with Luke, and the eagle with John.  These were fanciful designations, but they are commonly seen in sacred art.

Then moving outward, as the scene unfolds, there are 24 elders surrounding the throne.  It is unclear what or whom the elders represent; some suggest the 12 tribes of Israel along with the 12 apostles.  Maybe more important that who they are is what they are doing.  They take off their crowns and cast them into the crystal sea in front of the throne.  There is no mistaking the fact that glory belongs to the one seated on the throne, not to the elders themselves.  The scene in its entirety is one of adoration and worship.  The four creatures sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”  And then the elders continue with, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you have created all things.”

It is a scene of endless heavenly worship described poetically.  This is only one vision of heaven, and it is a broad and sweeping vision, a magnificent vision, but I have to admit that in the end, it is not all that appealing to me as an activity.  Not that I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t get me wrong, but singing the same thing over and over for all eternity doesn’t do that much for me.  I mean, we switch our offering response every couple of months, and we only sing that just once a week.  And a lot of songs just don’t have legs – don’t have staying power.  “Pass It On” was cool when I was in high school; now it’s kind of a cliché.  Our black hymnal, which was actually published as a supplement to the Methodist hymnal, containing newer music, is already dated as far as new music goes.  They have already published another supplement with a good bit of even more recent music.  And for a lot of churches, having any kind of hymnal is a relic of a bygone era.  It’s like doing the Macarena – it had its time and now it’s gone.

I am not trying to be irreverent here; the point is that latching on to a vision of heaven from Revelation and taking it literally as the future that awaits us in not that helpful and not what this vision was intended to do in the first place.  This is not a sneak preview of coming attractions.  For John and for those to whom he wrote, particularly those seven churches, this is a vision of the reality of the universe, a reality greater than what they might see playing out in their communities and within the Roman Empire.  In as grand and glorious a way as human language might describe, the vision that John sets before us says that ultimate power on earth and throughout the cosmos belongs to God, the Creator of all that is, and that God alone is worthy of our worship.

Now, what 21st century readers such as ourselves might not realize is that the vision that is described here held up an unmistakable contrast to the power of Rome. 

Craig Koester described the situation in the Roman Empire at the time that John wrote:

Public appearances of the emperor often featured him sitting on a throne and accompanied by a crowd of friends, advisors, and attendants.  When the emperor traveled, communities would send representatives, sometimes dressed in white, to greet him and present him with golden crowns to show their recognition of his sovereignty.  Those who approached the throne would prostrate themselves, sometimes even bowing before the throne when the emperor was absent.

Toward the end of the first century, the emperor Domitian apparently demanded that people address him as “Lord and God,” but such blatant compulsion seemed to be the exception.  Emperors preferred to cultivate the impression that people sang their praises because their virtues were universally recognized and made them worthy of such honors.  (Revelation and the End of All Things, 75.)
Koester went on to say that admirers of the emperor could keep up a thunder of applause day and night, and did so not so much out of coercion but in the hope of winning favors from the emperor and advancing their social position.

John gives his readers a vision of the heavenly throne room that makes such worship of the emperor seem feeble and pathetic by comparison.  The power of Caesar was no match for the ultimate power and authority of God.

Knowing this, we understand that this vision of the heavenly court is meant not as a preview of the afterlife but as a vision to give hope and meaning in the here and now.   We live in a world in which there are sources of power that can look pretty overwhelming – political power, corporate power, military might.  We see the power of unbridled wealth, the power of the privileged and well-connected to dominate the poor and marginalized.  We see time and again the power of even very small groups to terrorize large numbers of people.  We see the power of fear used as a tool to control people.  And in many ways, we see how the hardships and setbacks and frailties of life can bring us all to our knees.

All of this would have been painfully familiar to John’s readers.  And so this soaring vision of the heavenly throne room, where real power, ultimate power, belongs not to Caesar but to God served as a vision of hope and strength for believers.

In a sense, this is what worship is about.  In worship, we remember who we are and who God is.  We remember our place in the world and we remember and celebrate the power and love and grace and mercy of God, which is stronger than any power in this world.  When you think of it in this way, worship can be a countercultural activity.  The purpose of worship is simply to offer praise to God, but it is nevertheless something that profoundly affects our lives right here and now.

Many of us were here on Friday for Russ Watson’s memorial service.  Russ had been a faithful and much-appreciated member of our choir, and the choir sang at the service.  We sang “River in Judea,” a beautiful anthem and a choir favorite, and the music just soared.  Afterwards, many people commented on how much they appreciated the music, and one family member said, “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”  Now, the choir is not going to win a Grammy for it; it was far from perfect from a technical and musical standpoint, even if it was pretty good.  But those comments say something about the power of worship and the way that praise offered to God – praise offered by the four living creatures, praise offered by the 24 elders, or praise that we offer - not only expresses our love and commitment to our Creator, but can make a difference in our lives, right now.

A few minutes ago we sang along with the four living creatures, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”  We are going to continue now in worship as we sing along with the elders, “Thou art worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things.”  The hymn is “Thou Art Worthy."


Thursday, July 14, 2016

“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Revelation series #1) - July 10, 2016

Text: Revelation 1:1-8, 1:9-2:7

This past year our scriptures for worship have come from the Narrative Lectionary, which began after Labor Day and ended with Pentecost, in the middle of May.  Summer seemed like a good time to maybe do a couple of sermon series and look at books of the Bible that may not get so much attention, or at least that we don’t read much and don’t get preached on that often.

Well, we began back in September with Genesis, the first book of the Bible, so it only seems fair that we should end this church year with Revelation, the last book of the Bible.  And if we want to look at a part of the Bible that we maybe are not that familiar with – or maybe more to the point, a part of the Bible that we downright avoid, then Revelation certainly fits the bill.

Revelation is a weird book, a bizarre book.  I looked in my files and I have only preached a handful of sermons from Revelation.  There are those people who just love Revelation and those preachers who can’t get enough of it – but not me.  A lot of this book can leave us bewildered, shaking our heads, or maybe squeamish at all the blood and violence. 

You’ve got beasts with ten horns and seven heads and ten diadems on their horns. There are bowls of wrath.  You’ve got seven angels with seven plagues, the number six-six-six of the beast, five months of torture, four horsemen, 3 foul spirits, 200 miles of blood, one whore of Babylon, and contrary to popular thought, zero mention of a rapture.

Now, we typically avoid those strange and gory passages because we don’t want to dwell on how the world is going to end in chaos and fire and death and destruction.  We really don’t want to hear a confusing narration of the annihilation of the world.

Well, guess what: we don’t have to.  This book contains strange and disturbing imagery, to be sure, but the purpose of Revelation and the theme of Revelation is not what a lot of people think. 

When I was in grade school, in the 1970’s, I remember how popular Hal Lindsey’s book was – The Late Great Planet Earth.  Some of the youth at our church were reading it.  I owned a copy but I didn’t actually read that much of it (unfortunately that’s a tradition I have carried on to this day).  Using Revelation as a roadmap, Lindsey explained how the end of the world was near, and with startling precision (not necessarily accuracy, but startling precision) he identified the various creatures in the book of Revelation with current movements and events.  For example, he identified the ten-horned beast of the sea from Revelation 13 as the European Common Market.  At the time it had ten members - one for each horn of the beast.  Clearly, this was the start of one world government in which everyone would be forced to bow down before the Beast.

Well, there were a couple of problems with that interpretation - probably more than a couple.  There was only a brief period when the Common Market had 10 members.  Today’s European Union has 28 countries (I guess it is 27 now with Brexit).  Ten horns seems like a poor symbol for it.  I might mention that Lindsey wrote a sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  I don’t think it sold as many copies as his first book.    

This all seemed so random and arbitrary.  If the number 10 signifies the Beast, I could argue for the designated hitter rule in the American League as a much more likely candidate.  We all know that baseball is meant to be played with 9 players, but the American League sees fit to add a tenth player – the designated hitter.  This might be a sign that the end is near.  Could the designated hitter be the tenth horn on the beast?  I’m just asking.

I’m being facetious, but throughout history people have tried to identify a current figure or movement as the Beast or the Anti-Christ (a word that doesn’t appear in Revelation, by the way), or who have taken current events as a sign that the end was near.

Interpretations of Revelation have been key to numerous groups in history.  There was William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return in 1844.  When Christ did not return, it was called the Great Disappointment, and the Seventh-Day Adventists arose out of Miller’s followers.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses, founded by Charles Taze Russell (no relation) base their theology on their unique interpretation of Revelation, including the idea that 144,000 people will make it to heaven.  There were 19th century postmillenialists who thought the world would get better and better until Christ returned, until that belief was finally crushed by World War I.  There are premillenialists who published the Scofield Bible and charts outlining dispensations in history and when the rapture would happen.  And you probably remember David Koresh and the tragedy of the Branch Davidians in Waco.  What happened was a result of Koresh’s interpretation of Revelation.

You may or not be familiar with very much of this, but here’s the thing; to believe that Revelation was written to predict what would happen 2000 years after John wrote the book is to render it meaningless to the people to whom he actually wrote.

Do we really believe that John, exiled on the island of Patmos, writing to the early Christian churches, wrote a letter warning them about the European Common Market in the 20th century?  Or that John was writing so that the churches of Asia could figure out what date Christ would return, two millennia into the future?

Now I’ve mostly been talking about what Revelation is not.  In the way of introduction, just a few more things.  First, this is a good time to think about the nature of prophecy.  We sometimes think of prophets as predicting the future – one commentator said that we like to think of a prophet as a spiritual meteorologist - but that is not really the prophet’s role.  A prophet is one who tells the truth about the way things are so that the future might change.  A prophet is more of a forth-teller than a foreteller.

Second, it is important to understand something about the type of literature Revelation represents, because it is different from most of the Bible.  This book is apocalyptic.  We hear the word apocalypse and we think of death, destruction and the end of the world, but the Greek word apocalypse is “revelation” in English.  It means a revealing, an unveiling, pulling back the curtains so we can see. 

Apocalyptic literature is written in times of persecution and oppression in order to give hope.  And you can’t just come right out and say things.  You can’t write that the Roman Empire is evil and of Satan – that might get a person in a heap of trouble.  So instead you talk about Babylon and you talk about beasts.  Insiders understand the imagery, but to outsiders it may all sound strange.

James Blevins, one of my old New Testament professors, wrote a book called Revelation as Drama.  He makes a fairly convincing argument that the book was intended as a play, a drama.  You might imagine it being presented on stage.  It’s not just straight reporting.  Somewhat similarly, pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson comments, “If John’s Revelation is not read as a poem, it is virtually incomprehensible, which, in fact, is why it is so often uncomprehended.”

And then, finally, the writer and purpose of the book.  The writer was traditionally thought of as John the apostle, but many scholars are unsure.  There are other Johns in the Bible, and this writer is not necessarily any of them, but John of Revelation is clearly a known and beloved leader in the church.  John is writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, in what is modern day western Turkey, and he is writing to give hope and encourage these churches to keep the faith and persevere in a turbulent and chaotic time.

Now to be real honest, a turbulent and chaotic time sounds familiar.  In our nation and in our world, it feels like a turbulent and chaotic time.  Just this week, a black man was killed by police in Baton Rouge.  Another black man was shot and killed by police after being pulled over for a broken taillight in in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.  This was just a few blocks from Luther Seminary, on Larpenteur Avenue – I drove past the exact spot last month when I went to Luther for a preaching workshop.  It’s a nice area.  These were only the most recent in a series of police shootings of mostly black men captured on video.

And then on Thursday came the terrible story out of Dallas that as a crowd was protesting these shootings, and doing so peacefully, a sniper opened fire, killing five police officers and wounding several others.  The shooter said that he wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers.  There were later reports of gunfire aimed at police officers in other states.  Meanwhile there are continuing protests in many cities and, and just last night 50 protesters were arrested in St. Paul, with reports of violence toward police. 

All of this has exposed our continuing struggle with America’s original sin of racism and how fractured our society really is and how far we have yet to go.  I have heard a number of public statements that have added to the problem rather than helping.

You look around at the goings-on in the world today and it can almost break your heart.  I am getting really tired, really weary, of one terrible tragedy, one horrific incident after another.  For the last month or more, it seems that as I prepare that week’s sermon, there has been another shooting or bombing.  Orlando, then Istanbul, then Dakha, then Baghdad, then all the events of this week.  We live in a turbulent and chaotic time.

And maybe, that makes Revelation a book worth reading and worth considering right now, because it was written to people living in the midst of a fractured and violent world.

With this uber-long introduction, we come (finally) to today’s reading.  It begins by saying that this is a revelation that God gave to John, and John is writing the book as a letter to the seven churches of Asia.  At the outset we are told that the focus of the book is not so much the future and certainly not destruction, but God.  The One who is and was and is to come.  Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, the one who loves us and set us free from our sins – to him be glory and dominion forever.  God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Serving this God, John is writing from the island of Patmos, as he says, “because I had had written God’s word and borne my testimony to Jesus.”  For this, he had apparently been exiled to this remote island.  John has a frightening vision that turns out to be of Christ himself, with a message that he was to write letters to the seven churches of Asia.  These churches were getting comfortable, getting complacent.  They were adapting to the false reality of the Roman Empire, a society based on domination and power, rather than living a countercultural lifestyle as followers of Jesus.  Peeling back the curtain, John saw where this could lead, and he proclaims his vision to these churches. 

In our reading today we have the letter to the church in Ephesus.  We know of Ephesus because of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I know that some of you have visited Ephesus, in present-day Turkey.  The letter to this church is a largely positive report: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance… You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.  I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.”

So far. So good.  But the letter continues: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  The Revised English Bible continues with, “Think from what a height you have fallen.” 

Here is a church that did a lot of things right.  They had endurance, they had patience, they had faith, they had not been let astray by false prophets.  But they weren’t really feeling the love.  They had lost the passion.  They were going through the motions.

Well, it happens.  The job that we found exciting and engaging has become tedious and boring.  A hobby that used to get us excited has been put up on the shelf.  A relationship that once meant a lot to us has cooled.  A cause that got us animated and engaged somehow doesn’t mean as much anymore.  It can happen to organizations.  It can happen to churches.  The vision, the animating purpose that was so strong at the beginning, becomes a distant memory.  Instead of love and service and compassion and reaching others, the purpose of the organization, even churches, becomes staying in business, preserving the institution.

We had a karaoke night at church many years ago.  It was awesome.  Aiddy’s mom made Laotian noodles and eggrolls.  We had a guy with a karaoke machine here, and people of all ages took part.  A group who were in high school in the 70’s sang American Pie.  Michael and Marian sang a Beatles song.  Zoe, who was maybe 9, channeled Bonnie Raitt.  Bob and Jenna McCarley, who both grew up along the Red River, sang Red River Valley.  And I recall that John Anderson sang that Righteous Brothers classic, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”  Now it’s gone, gone, gone, woooaaoohhh-oh.

That song pretty well describes the message to the church in Ephesus: ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.” 

If a letter were written to the angel of the church of Ames, I wonder what it would say.  It’s worth considering.  The questions raised by the letter to Ephesus are question like: are we about love for God and love for others, or is it something else?  Have we lost sight of our purpose?  Are we just going through the motions?  Has the passion that we once felt cooled? 

My beliefs and theology and spirituality have changed a lot since I first started following Jesus.  There are ways of following Christ and ways of being church that no longer appeal to me as they once did.  That’s OK.  And in fact, I would call that growth.  That isn’t what this is referring to.  The question for Ephesus, and maybe for us, has to do with love.  Are we so busy with life – and are we maybe so focused on the difficulties of living in a turbulent and chaotic world - that we forget about love?  That we forget about the God who is love?  In a divided and fractured world, we cannot afford anything less.  Amen. 

“Life Together: Generosity” - July 3, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

This is the last in a series of a series of six sermons from 2 Corinthians, a letter that Paul wrote to a church - well, let’s say it was a church “with issues.”  Many of the themes that emerge are very timely for us today.  But I don’t actually want to begin this morning with Paul and the Corinthian church.   Instead, I want to start with - Muhammad Ali. 

I grew up in a time when boxing was big, much more a part of the cultural conversation than it is today.  And Muhammad Ali was the biggest part of that.  When I was in grade school and into high school, kids would talk about Ali’s fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman the way we might talk about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady playing in the Super Bowl, or Lebron and Steph Curry in the NBA finals. 

A controversial figure in his boxing days, there was no getting around the fact that Ali was a tremendous athlete.  But even more than that, he was a cultural icon.  He was a brash and cocky boxer who said “I am the Greatest,” but he also said it wasn’t bragging if you could back it up.  Unlike many athletes, Ali absolutely stood up for his beliefs and was willing to pay the price.  He was completely unconcerned about his “brand,” not that individuals talked about brands in those days.  Ali was stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing military service in Viet Nam, a war that he opposed as a matter of conscience.

Despite his reputation as a boxer, at the heart of it all Ali was really a gentle person with a concern for all kinds of people.  Stories of his concern for others began to emerge after his death a few weeks ago.

The Chicago Park District started a boxing program in 1972, hoping to especially reach out to kids in neighborhoods where team sports like baseball were not so popular.  (And this was before the days that American kids played soccer.)  So they started this boxing program but basically had no funds to make it work.  Then one day a truck showed up at a park district boxing center with speedbags, heavy bags, headgear, lots and lots of boxing gloves, all kinds of equipment.  The same thing happened at numerous locations.  Muhammad Ali funded the Chicago Park District boxing program, but it was kept a secret for all these years.  Likewise, he funded college scholarships.  He quietly provided scholarships in Chicago – the criteria was that the scholarships should go to smart kids in rough neighborhoods. 

Ali watched a CNN report about a home for seniors being closed because of money problems.  He asked a CNN reporter how much money they needed and he wrote the check.  It stayed open.  After retiring from boxing he moved to Michigan where he built baseball fields, soccer fields, tracks, youth centers.  He had an understanding with area schools that if they needed anything, he would take care of it, and so he provided clothes and school supplies and lunch money and paid for field trips for hundreds of children in need, who never knew the source.  He started a scholarship program there as well – it was not known as the Muhammad Ali scholarship but the Brawley scholarship, named for a principal Ali appreciated who had worked with his son.

Ali contributed and raised nearly $150 million to Parkinson’s Disease research as well as giving to causes including literacy, hunger, education, mental illness, and various kinds of medical research.  But he was not just generous with money.  Harvey Mackay was writing a book and although he was not necessarily a known writer, Ali was gracious enough to grant an interview.  The interview took up the morning and then they went to lunch.  Mackay introduce Ali to his driver, a guy named Francis.  When they got to the restaurant, Ali said, “Invite Francis to have lunch with us.”

This driver went to work that morning at the ride service and was assigned to pick up Harvey Mackay, an envelope salesman from Minnesota.  He never would have imagined that he would have lunch that day with Muhammad Ali.  The thing was, Ali was like this all the time with all kinds of people, not just generous with his money but generous with his time and with his love.

One more story: many of you know Bill Leonard, my church history professor who preached here several years ago.  Leonard recalled that in 1999, he was to preach at an interfaith Thanksgiving service at a Catholic cathedral in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown.  At this service, Muhammad Ali was to receive an interfaith award for his humanitarian and interfaith efforts.

Bill and a friend arrived early and so they went to the sacristy, where the worship leaders would prepare for the service.  There was only one person in the room - Muhammad Ali was standing against the wall.  Bill said it nearly took his breath away.  Without thinking, he extended his hand and said, “Mr. Ali, you have been a hero of mine for a long time.”  With speech difficult because of Parkinson’s disease, Ali bent down – and with Leonard, it is a long way down – and kissed him on the cheek.  You don’t forget Muhammad Ali kissing you on the cheek.  And as it turns out, Ali kissed thousands of cheeks.

Our theme this morning is generosity.  Now, we can look at someone like Muhammad Ali – rich, famous, a celebrity, someone with plenty to give – and think, well, it is easy for him.  It’s easy to give money away when you have a lot.  Or at least, you might think that it would be nice to be rich and find out.  But somehow, that is not necessarily the case.

Generosity really has nothing to do with the amount of wealth we have.  That is abundantly clear from today’s scripture.  What was going on was, the church in Jerusalem was facing severe poverty and persecution.  Adding to it all was a famine.  These brothers and sisters in Christ were in desperate need.  Paul is writing the church at Corinth, a city of great wealth.  This was a church that was capable of helping, capable of making a significant contribution.  Paul writes the Corinthian church and in his letter, he praises the churches of Macedonia. 

The region of Macedonia was itself a poor region.  It was so poor that the Romans suspended tax collection there for a time.  They had so little that it wasn’t worth the effort.  It was like getting blood from a turnip.  It was not Paul’s intention to even ask the poor churches in Macedonia to contribute to this special offering for Jerusalem, but they got wind of the collection and insisted on giving.  Paul writes that they were “begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”  And even out of their poverty, they gave an incredibly generous gift.

As he traveled, Paul learned that there was really no connection between wealth and generosity.  A poor church like Macedonia gave with gratitude in response to God’s grace.  In Corinth, a city of great wealth, where, as Paul Achtemeier says, “money called the shots,” Paul struggled to get the message of generosity across.

You might think that there would be a link between wealth and generosity, but apparently not everybody is Muhammad Ali.  Studies have shown that those below poverty level in the U.S. give a greater percentage of their income to charitable causes than any other income bracket.  Of course, those in poverty can be generous or tight-fisted, just as those who are very wealthy can be generous or tight-fisted.  But the lower the income, they greater percentage people give to charity, on average. 

The church in Corinth had apparently started to take an offering for the Jerusalem church, or maybe they had put it on the board agenda and discussed it but never quite got around to doing it.  So Paul says, last year you were on track to take this offering, but now you need to go ahead and finish what you began - you need to follow through on your good intentions and help these brothers and sisters in need. 

Paul’s concern is twofold – first, there was genuine concern for the church in Jerusalem and for their well-being.  It is ironic that the largely Gentile churches are taking this collection at all.  There had been a controversy over whether Gentiles could become followers of Jesus without first following Jewish law.  A council was called in Jerusalem to answer this question.  Paul came down on the side of welcoming Gentile believers and not requiring that they follow Jewish practices, and that opinion carried the day, but you know there had to be some sore feelings.  It is hard to imagine that a lot of folks in the churches of Greece and Asia Minor, churches filled with Gentile believers, had warm and fuzzy feelings about the Jerusalem church.  Yet whatever differences they had and whatever had happened in the past, these churches were nevertheless taking a collection for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

Paul is concerned for the folks in Jerusalem, suffering from poverty, from persecution, from famine.  He is concerned about the future of the Jerusalem church.  But maybe just as much, Paul is concerned about the spiritual condition of the church in Corinth.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists generosity as one of the fruits of the Spirit.  Those who are in tune to the spirit of God will have generous hearts.  The Corinthian church seemed to be lacking in this area.  They were too worried about being right and being in charge and looking good and furthering their own interests to expend very much effort toward others.  Reading between the lines, you get the sense that they are too self-absorbed to be truly generous.

And yet, there was so much potential in this church, in these people, in this city.  Paul writes, “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you (Did you catch that? They apparently didn’t excel in love but in being loved) - so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

To break through their preoccupation with themselves and with all of their internal conflicts, Paul was not above shaming them a little.  He is not above lifting up a poor church, filled with folks who are in need themselves, as an example of generosity.

Look at the Macedonians, he says.  It is like telling the sprawling megachurch, “Look at this little storefront church. Be like them.”  Look at this little country church.  Look at this congregation where most everybody is just barely making it on Social Security.  Look at the Macedonians – we weren’t even going to ask them to give and yet out of their poverty, they took a collection and gave a big old offering to help the saints in Jerusalem.

You can be Muhammad Ali, with a ready checkbook and a generous spirit, or you can be a poor church in Macedonia, opening your hearts and your wallets to believers in Jerusalem.  Generosity is not about how much you have.  It is more about who you are.

Since we are celebrating our nation’s birthday tomorrow, I’ll share a quote from Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr.  Jefferson wrote, “…above all things lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane…”  There were many like Jefferson who risked life and livelihood for the sake of something greater than themselves, and that in a sense is an act of generosity.   

In our scripture today, it seems to me that generosity is first of all about trust – about faith.  Despite their need, the Macedonians were able to give out of trust in God.  They had faith in God’s goodness and grace, and so they did not need to hoard what they had but were able to share it.  They had experienced God’s grace poured out on them, and so even in their own need, they were able to respond with grace and generosity toward others.

And then, generosity is about joy.  Paul writes, “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.”  Their joy has resulted in great generosity. 

In their joy, the Macedonians were able to recognize God’s abundance.  So often we focus on what we don’t have, on what we lack.  But joy enables us to recognize and celebrate what we have.  Out of joyful hearts, the Macedonians showed great generosity.

And then, generosity is about connection.  I was driving home this week listening to the news on the radio.  A reporter had been to one of the first funerals after the terrorist attack in Istanbul, for four young women.  Three sisters aged 24, 18, and 14, and their niece, who was 8 years old.  The reporter spoke with the father of the 8-year old.  This distraught man was standing at the side of the coffin, and as he spoke, he rubbed his fingers over the coffin, the way you might rub your daughter’s shoulder.  The reporter said he wasn’t sure the man even knew he was doing that.  I felt myself tearing up.

I live halfway around the world, I am from a different country, I speak a different language, I practice a different religion, and yet I felt a connection with this man who has suffered unspeakable loss.  Generosity is about the fact that we are all connected.  We give to meet the needs of those with whom we share a common humanity.

The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem had been skeptical about Gentile believers.  And yet for the churches of Macedonia, God had so transformed their lives that they gave, even out of their need, to Jewish believers.  Whatever differences there may have been, they felt a connection, a fellowship, a kinship with these brothers and sisters.

And in fact it was this spirit of generosity that made the church grow throughout the ancient world.  Christians were known for caring for the poor, the sick, the needy without regard.  They took in people.  They fed people.  And that spirit of compassion and generosity was stronger than anything the Roman Empire or anyone else could do to stomp out the fledgling church.  Because they felt this connection, this shared humanity with people everywhere, and because this connection led to acts of service, the church grew by leaps and bounds.

Generosity is not about wealth.  We can be rich and generous, or we can be poor and generous.  Generosity is about trust, and about joy, and about connection.  And it comes by the grace of God, who has given so much to us.  We are able to be generous because God has been so generous towards us.  Amen.