Donna and I were talking this past week about what a great place we live in. No hurricanes, little flooding, no earthquakes, no volcanoes, no mudslides. And the largest supply of fresh water in the world. I mean, in terms of global disaster, we’ve got it made in the shade! Even tornadoes- okay one hit Eagles 8 years ago, and one hit Wales 34 years ago; but that’s it. Even storms just seem to go around us. It’s like we’re living in paradise! No, I take that back: we ARE living in paradise!
So what do we have to complain about? If we really apply ourselves, we can always find something to whimper about. A couple of weeks ago, it WAS awfully hot. And the mosquitoes have been wicked. Whimper, whimper.
But even in the midst of an occasional whimper, if we’re honest, the truth is this: We are blessed. We have so much to be grateful for. Life is good.
But what about those of us who really are suffering- from depression, from loss, from pain? Those times of darkness are real. And yet… There is that sunset that can move us. There is that gentle breeze that can touch us. There is that kind word that can comfort us. Despite our pain, there is still some good in the world that can touch us.
So if we have anything to be grateful for, can we say that despite our pain, we are still in some way blessed? And despite our own pain, is there some way that we can share that blessing? Because blessing, like any love, only comes to deep fruition if it is shared.
That’s what Paul was saying in his second letter to the church in Corinth. There was this church in Macedonia that was dirt poor. They were one step away from the wolf. But they had this amazing sense of being blessed by the love of Christ. And when they heard that the church in Jerusalem was struggling even more than them, they threw themselves into sending that church aid. The deepest joy they knew was to be a blessing to others.
Now, Paul isn’t writing to the church in Macedonia; he’s writing to the church in Corinth.And the church in Corinth was always a trial for Paul. Some of the members were very wealthy, and early in the day, they’d throw communion feasts when other wealthy members would be available… but the members of the community who were merchants or slaves would be at work. And so by the time these poorer sisters and brothers got to the communion feast, all the food and wine would be gone, and the wealthy Christians would be lying on their pillows with merlot dribbling down their chins! That little situation was mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
In this second letter to the Corinthians, the situation is that their sister church in Jerusalem is starving- literally.
Jerusalem was the first church ever founded, and was considered to be the mother of the other churches. But the Jerusalem Christians were desperately poor, and Paul has been going around to all the gentile churches trying to raise money to ease the Jewish Christians’ misery.
Up to this point, the church in Corinth isn’t embracing this opportunity to help anyone other than themselves. They know themselves to be utterly blessed- there is no persecution in Corinth; many of them have the opportunity to just sit around all day talking theology while eating their pomegranates. They consider themselves to be spiritually adept, because many of them can speak in tongues – the language of the angels. Their blessing is abundant… but as per usual, it doesn’t occur to them to share their blessings.
And this is so frustrating to Paul! They have so much to offer; they could be doing so much good in the world… but they’re just sitting on their laurels. Paul compares them with that church in Macedonia, which has nailed this whole blessing thing.
Like the Christians in Jerusalem, the Christians in Macedonia are poor, but they don’t see themselves as poor. They see themselves as the recipients of extraordinary blessing, given to them by Christ. They share the gospel with everyone around them, and when the opportunity to help out their fellow church in Jerusalem comes up, they jump on it. They are so excited to be able to do something for the very church that made their own blessing possible. They don’t just give what’s left over at the end of the day; they give until they actually deprive themselves… and are utterly delighted and grateful to get to give like that for someone else’s good.
The Corinthians have no concept of that kind of joy- the joy that comes from giving deeply and sacrificially to make life possible for another. And so even though they are rich in so many ways, they are actually the ones who are in poverty when it comes to the riches of God.
It reminds me of the gospel story of the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-30). In this story, a rich young man comes up to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? I have already kept all the 10 Commandments- don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal. What more do I have to do?”
And Jesus says, “What about loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself? If you want to be whole, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then you’ll have your treasure in heaven.” And, scripture says, the young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions. And to lose them to another would be too painful. It’s better to forsake joy than to lose stuff.
But that’s what Jesus’ point is: Joy cannot come if we hold our blessings to ourselves. That’s what Paul’s point is: Joy cannot come if we hold our blessings to ourselves. If we want joy; if we want that deep, abiding blessing that feels like heaven on earth, then we need to share our lives and all that is therein with others.
A long time ago there was a young boy who lived with his father in a small cottage. Almost every evening he would hear his father say the same thing: “Poor me. I will die a sad old man because you are a fool and will never amount to anything.”
But the boy was not a fool, in fact, he showed a lot of wisdom for his age, and he had a generous heart. One day, after helping a widow stack wood, he was about to go home when she stopped him. Placing her hand on his head spoke these words:
“You are a reflection of the face of God. The world is brighter for the joy you have given me this day. I bless you my child.”
The boy stepped back, amazed: “What was that?”
“Why, it was a blessing my child! Haven’t you ever received a blessing before?”
Back at home he asked his father: “Papa? Why do you curse me? Why do you not bless me?”
“What a ridiculous question. It is against my nature to bless. Poor me. I will die a sad old man because you are a fool and will never amount to anything.”
“Oh” said the boy, and he felt sorry for his father. That night he decided that no matter how uncomfortable it felt, he would become the kind of person who blessed others. And so he did.
The boy grew to be a man, left the forest and built a home for himself and had a family of his own. He was still haunted by the curses of his father, but he had decided to bless. Almost every evening, he would call one of his children to himself, lay his hand upon their head, and speak these words: “You are a reflection of the face of God. The world is brighter for the joy you give me this day. I bless you my child.”
One evening there was a knock on the front door and as he had raised his children to do, they welcomed in a blind beggar, and gave him some food to eat. The young man walked in and immediately recognized it was his own father; but he didn’t reveal his own identity.
He listened to the old man speak. The old man talked about how he had lost his eyesight, and how he’d been forced to beg in a world where life was hard. Just then his son spoke up:
“Grandfather! You’re welcome to stay here with us!”
“But I have no money to pay you.” said the old man.
“Oh, we don’t need any money; all we ask is that as long as you stay with us, you speak only blessings…What’s the matter?”
“It…it’s against my nature to bless!”
“Grandfather, I can tell by your hands that you have worked your whole life. So, begging must be against your nature as well, but see, it has brought you here to us!”
The old man couldn’t argue this point, so he agreed to stay, but it was weeks before he spoke a word – it was so against his nature to bless. When he finally did, you could hardly hear him:
“What’s that Grandfather?”
“I said, bless you for taking an old man in from the cold. I wish my son had turned out like you, but he was a fool and…”
“Ah! Grandfather, only blessings!”
“Well, I wish my son had turned out like you! Bless you!”
This wasn’t bad for a first blessing! And a week later he spoke another one and it was a little smoother. Over time, he began to bless every day — many times in a day. You could say that blessing became… second nature to him. The more he blessed, the more he smiled. The more he smiled the more his heart softened. And the more his heart softened, the more joy he began to experience; a different kind of joy than he had known before. They lived happily for years until one winter the old man fell ill and was near death. As his breathing grew labored, his son sat on the bedside and asked:
“Grandfather, is there anything I can get for you?”
“No one can bring me what I most need at this hour.”
“Please Grandfather, anything! What would you like?”
“I should like to see my own son once more to give him my blessing. As he was growing, I gave only curses.
I told him it was against my nature to bless. And, as you can see, I have learned to bless too late…”
Then his son leaned closer and whispered: “Papa! Papa it’s me, your own son… I am here! It is not too late! God has seen fit to bring us together these last years. It’s not too late! I’m here… I’m here!”
And they embraced. A moment later the old man straightened up, stretched out a trembling hand, laid it upon his son’s head, and spoke these words: “You are a reflection of the face of God. Though I cannot see you with my eyes, I see you with my heart and the mercy you have shown me these past years is like a brilliant light, dispelling all shadow as I pass from time into eternity. I will die a happy old man, because I have learned to bless and so…my son… I… bless you.”
Then his hand fell away, and he died with a peaceful smile on his face. Just then the wind became very strong outside and he got up to close the shutter. In the wind, he heard an ancient voice: “Eternity shines brighter for the joy you bring me this day. I bless you my child.” Then the wind died down and everything became peaceful in the countryside and in the heart of the young man.
Dear Friends, life becomes a blessing when we bless others. And the blessing can be giving of our time giving of our wealth, giving of our lives, giving of our kindness.
The philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Giving our attention is also a gift of blessing, for ourselves as well as the other. For it is always the heart that gives which is the heart that receives, far more abundantly than we could ever ask or imagine.
In the Name of the One who has given us all, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for June 10, 2018 2 CORINTHIANS 8:1-15
Sisters and brothers, I want to report on the surprising and generous ways in which God is working in the churches in Macedonia. Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. Their trial exposed their true colors: They were incredibly joyous, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected in an outpouring of pure and generous gifts. I was there and saw if for myself. They gave offerings of whatever they could- often far more than they could afford- all the while pleading for the privilege of helping out in the relief of other poor Christians. This was totally spontaneous, entirely their own idea. It caught us completely off guard. It makes sense when we understand that before anything else, they had given themselves completely to God, and then to God’s ministry. The other giving simply flowed out of the purposes of God working in their lives. That’s what prompted us to ask Titus to bring the relief offering to your attention as well, so that what was so well begun could be finished up. You do so well in so many things- you trust God, you’re articulate and insightful, you’re passionate and you love us. Now, do your best in this, too. I’m not trying to order you around against your will. But by bringing up the Macedonian’s enthusiasm as a stimulus to your love, I am hoping to bring out the best in you. You are familiar with the generosity of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Rich as He was, He gave it all away for us. In one stroke He became poor so we could become rich. So here’s what I think: the best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started last year and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along. You’ve got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it. Once the commitment is clear, you do what you can, not what you can’t. The heart regulates the hands. This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their need, as their surplus matches your need. In the end you come out even. As it is written, “Nothing left over to the one with the most; Nothing lacking to the one with the least.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.