Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Still More Excellent Way

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15 and 2:23-24; II Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

What’s going on in that reading from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians? More than meets the ear.

We think of Paul as a man of high principles and sharp opinions. Listening in to his email to the Church at Corinth reveals him to have been also an insightful persuader, and a gifted fundraiser.

It makes the fundraiser’s job easier when there’s a high purpose at stake. The campaign that Paul is waging is not to erect a cathedral or endow a diocese. The catacombs and private upper rooms were sufficient for gathering the Jesus followers on the Lord’s Day, and there were no long-range plans to finance in this first generation of Church. The immediacy of the present drove their mission, and the trustworthiness of the Spirit of God shaped their attitudes and their theologies.

As a result, the whole enchilada—mission, attitude, theology—was being served up by a community of people who had no institutional walls to contain them. The places they met in were like safe houses: they had to be, since the emperor could be trusted to be seriously prejudiced against any religion that dared believe in and proclaim and serve a divine power higher than the emperor.

But these first-generation Christians didn’t mistake what happened within the safety of those gathering spots as being their mission. What happened in the breaking of the bread and the praying together and the reading of e-mail from other churches and itinerant apostles was joyful renewal of their powers of faith and hope and love, recharging their batteries from the risen and present Christ whom they pressed in on to but touch the hem of his clothing, the fabric of their fellowship, the table cloth of his altar, the napkins they would fill with broken bread left over, to be taken home as daily bread around their kitchen tables, and holy take-out to the sick, the frightened, the imprisoned.

All that was not so much their mission as their sabbath renewal for mission. Just as their Lord had moved about in towns and villages practicing healing touch and transformative encounter and radical sharing of food and friendship, so this first generation of church knew itself called to locate mission beyond protective walls. In a brutal and self-serving imperial culture, such generosity went far, awakening humane instincts, buffing up the image of God within, inspiring the experience of Spirit among, revealing God at work under the crust of Roman rule and right in the grind of the daily struggle.

And more: What makes grace amazing to St. Paul is how it knocks down barriers: Here he is, in this letter today, writing to a mostly Gentile Greek community in Corinth, encouraging them to follow the example of the Macedonian followers of Jesus and generously take part in the collection Paul is overseeing, raising funds for the poverty-stricken believers in Jerusalem, a mostly Jewish community of Jesus followers.

What’s so worth catching in that layer of the story is how the church’s mission is to facilitate relationship, reconciliation, between the camps of an Us and Them world: Gentile Greek Jesus-believers are being asked to support and assist Jewish Jesus-believers (and I’ll bet that included their extended families, whether Jesus-believers or not). This story is about the Spirit of God at work coaching the church to get it right for the sake of the world. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for strangers… to lay down old estrangement for the sake of new unity.

This is excellent background music on a day when we are privileged to welcome Brooke Mead, the Program Coordinator at the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield. The Berkshire Immigrant Center provides citizenship assistance, immigration information, advocacy, referrals and counseling to the growing immigrant communities in Berkshire County. Brooke has been immersed in this work for thirteen years.

At BIC, she manages a caseload of more than five hundred clients annually and her many roles range from workshop provider to immigration case specialist. She runs immigration law clinics, meets with local schools, social services and law enforcement officials, supervises student interns and volunteers, and provides assistance with resettlement issues as well as helping clients navigate tough immigration law.

We are bipolar in our attitudes towards immigrants. Nationally, the conversation appears to be set in a collision of cultures, politically an Us against Them sort of world. Locally, we seem to remember that everyone needs a hand at some point, and that each of us, through our forebears, came from somewhere else. Migration is as commonly human as birth and death. The threat of death plays its part in migration, and the hope of new life surely motivates such a risky venture. While it may be simple-minded of me to put it this way, it appears that at the same moment that the national debate is fraught and fractured, local understanding and compassion seem free to move. What the politicians in Washington don’t get (or can’t admit they do), the locals get.

And then there’s Donald Trump. He really doesn’t get it. On the other hand, there may be a silver lining in well-publicized absurdity: maybe the fear of open borders will be eclipsed by a dread of being associated with closed-mindedness.

It is St. Paul’s open-mindedness that I admire. Do you recall his most famous words? “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 1. That powerful verse follows verse 31 of chapter 12: “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

The commentator says that much of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is “devoted to countering their tendency to use every occasion to see if they can one-up each other (for example, who is wise, who has the freedom to eat what, who has which spiritual gift.” Excelling was an indoor sport for the Corinthian Christians.

In today’s portion of his second letter, notice how Paul reels them in: “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”—the collection for the victims of crisis in Jerusalem.

Generous outreaching stewardship is not peripheral to the Jesus movement. It is central to our mission of reconciling love. As Paul sings the good news today, Jesus Christ’s generosity to us gives the pitch we are to rise to as we sing his praise by our actions.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” insists our patron St. John (I John 4:18). In that spirit, Paul urges his hearers to complete (one could say perfect) their eagerness to excel and to do so according to their means. He says, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others from across borders and pressure on you here at home, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

That quotation comes from the Book of Exodus, where the Israelites, immigrants fleeing oppression in Egypt, discover an edible substance like frost on the ground, and would forever extol God’s providence in feeding them bread from heaven, manna in the wilderness, evidence that God goes with his migrating people.

But this manna could not be stored, hoarding it spoiled it. Its purpose was to provide sufficient daily bread, each person finding enough.

We celebrate today the work and witness of all who help immigrants find enough for the journey and the resettling. What roles are there for more of us to help that need-meeting, that manna-giving? And for more ways to be open to experiencing their abundance of courage, enthusiasm, and joy?

Paul teaches us to recognize the abundance we will one day find shared with us by the same people we have helped. Twenty of us had a taste of this mutuality on Tuesday, when Bishop Abraham Nhial of South Sudan visited us here. One of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan, he found his way to this country where the opportunities of college and seminary came to him like manna, like a dream made real. He was made a bishop while still in his thirties, perhaps the youngest in Anglican history.

While he does not dwell on the past, he makes his point: that crossing deserts barefoot, eluding predators on two legs and on four, swimming across crocodile-infested rivers forever changes one’s priorities, appreciation of grace, clarity of perspective, definition of excellence.

His abundance is best described by Paul’s language: faith, hope, love, the greatest of these being love. Hence his commitment to help South Sudan embrace a process of truth-telling and reconciliation like the one in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda. And love, the queen of graces, informs also his commitment to the education of girls in South Sudan, and his passion for insisting that while there are two Sudanese nations, there is one Sudanese Episcopal Church that will resist the building of walls that reinforce the paradigm of an Us-against-Them kind of world.

There is a story of what one person’s immigration may accomplish in amazing circles of grace drawn whole, complete, excellent. His story makes the point St. Paul drives home to the Corinthians, a point explained so well by commentator J. Paul Sampley that I want his to be the closing words in this sermon.

“Paul’s notion that we, recipients of God’s grace, must pass it on, that we must finish the circle by redirecting it through us to someone else, is awesome. Think about what it says about human life in its daily routine: It says that every encounter with another person is an opportunity to be a channel of God’s grace. In fact, not to think of grace that way is probably to cheat God and certainly to cheat others, because it arrogates grace to us as a sort of possession whose goal and end is us as individuals and not us as community. God’s grace is not to be trifled with or to be taken lightly. It comes into the world, finding expression through people. Grace achieves its goal, it becomes the grace it was intended to be, only as it reaches ever more and more people. That is why the collection for the saints (in Jerusalem) was not just an option that (one church or another) might choose to engage in; it was a joyful obligation…”

That is also why we give time today to learn about immigration and what is needed to welcome and assist our newest neighbors.

(J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on the Second Letter to the Corinthians is found in Volume XI of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 2000.)