I Cor. 16: 1 Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. 5 After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. 6 Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7 For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8 But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, 9 because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me. 10 When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. 11 No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.
This could be a sermon about “stewardship,” our godly and responsible use of God-given time, money and material goods as Christians. After all, Paul is talking about a financial collection he intends to take up when he finally gets to Corinth. Stewardship would be a very good thing to talk about. So I will, briefly, to say that, just as this passage implies, God has first dibs on what he has given us to manage, as his stewards, and that stewardship is not an occasional big event, like a fund-raiser, but a lifestyle, an orientation, an ongoing discipline, to be repeated, lived and sustained, month by month, week by week, day by day, just as the Corinthian Christians were to lay by their offering week by week. But this is the Sunday just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I don’t want to overlook the connection between Dr. King and this passage. There really is one, as I hope to show.
This could also be a sermon about stewardship in relation to worship. This passage is our first reference in the Bible to the fact that the first day of the week, Sunday, was important to Christians, at least to Gentile Christians like most of those in Corinth. So they must already have been gathering and worshiping on that day. That’s the day Paul tells the Corinthians to also set aside money for the saints in Jerusalem. So this act of setting aside an offering would not have been an interruption to their worship that day. It would have been part of their worship. Let’s think of it that way too whenever the offering baskets go around among us. We’re not interrupting worship for “and now, a word from our sponsors….”; the offering is as much an act of worship, as are singing and praying.
Today, religion and spirituality are all about personal, individual self-realization, through a smorgasbord of personal spiritual experiences we can shop for and buy. But Ghandi had it spot on when he said that one of the seven deadly sins of the modern world was “religion without sacrifice.” And sacrifice is one thing Paul is asking, and expecting, of the Corinthian Christians. For Jesus said, “wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be as well.” With every sacrifice of time and treasure to heaven and its causes, the more there is to pull our hearts heavenward.
And with that we’re getting closer to what I want to say on the Sunday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We could also say that this passage is about charity and charitable giving. Because the offering is destined for Jerusalem, where we read, in other passages of the New Testament, that Christians were suffering the double whammy of persecution and famine. So, an offering for poor and persecuted Christians in Jerusalem we would usually call “charity,” or, in tax code language, “charitable giving.”
But this is the Sunday just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And Dr. King had some mixed feelings about charity, especially if nothing ever changed about the situation that required that the same people always need charity. As Dr. King said in a sermon on the Good Samaritan story, “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
With that we come closer to what Paul was after with this collection: Stewardship, yes. Worship with our substance, words and time; yes. Charitable giving, so that someone starving today won’t cry in her bed for hunger tonight; absolutely. But when King called upon us to do more than just bind up the wounded along life’s Jericho Road and do something about the bandits and robbers along the Jericho Road waylaying he travelers, he was aiming beyond charity to justice and peace.
Peace and justice: two well-worn words that get tossed together so much for so many reasons, for so many different causes, so often at odds with each other, so often misused, that at times I am reluctant to use them. But there is still a robust and challenging biblical meaning to peace and justice, rooted in creation, the law and the prophets of the Bible, that endures and transcends the narrow political purposes of any one party or politician of any one time or nation. It is the stirring vision of Moses, in the Ten Commandments, that gives boundaries and definitions to what it means to love God and each other. It is the stirring economic and social vision of Moses’ laws of sabbath years and Jubilee, by which the runaway and self-perpetuating accumulation of wealth was stopped every seven years, and reversed every fiftieth, so that a few did not get to lock down all power and property for themselves at the expense of everyone else. Peace and justice are in the vision of the prophet Micah, who saw people of all nations ascending Mount Zion one day, there to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, so that no one would study the ways of war anymore.” It was the vision of Isaiah, who foresaw a day when “everyone would sit under his vine and fig tree, at peace and without fear.” Isaiah also foresaw that all the nations would gather under a good shepherd, the promised Son of David, with the kings of the tribes bringing their glory, honor and riches into one new people of God, to join them in worship, peace and righteous relationships. Finally, it was the vision of John the Revelator, who saw heaven and earth re-uniting in the New Jerusalem, where God would wipe the tears from all eyes, and where nature and humanity would be at peace.
This biblical view of peace and justice is about more than policy or politics: it involves relationships, yes, but it is as much about our relationship with God as with each other. This vision of peace and justice is of a harmonious and interdependent world in which all the necessities and dignities of life flow freely, in love, between us. Just as the sun powers the cycle of water, rising from oceans and lakes to form clouds that rain the water back to the earth, so does the grace of God power the cycle of love and sharing, flowing between people, according to their gifts and abilities, and according to their needs. And we are all both the givers and the receivers in this cycle of God’s grace.
Paul saw this mighty biblical vision of justice and peace coming to pass, with Jesus and his resurrection. And every time Paul preached the gospel of Jesus and founded a new church that united and reconciled Jewish and Gentile believers, he saw this vision moving forward into the world, until the day when “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end shall come (Mt. 24:14).”
So Paul’s intent in this passage goes beyond stewardship and charitable giving to the biblical vision of peace and justice, because, for one thing, it reverses the normal flow of power, wealth and status in an empire such as the Roman Empire, and makes restitution for all that was stolen from the poor. That’s especially crucial for the Corinthian Christians. Because Corinth was a Roman colony, where many there might think of themselves as Roman first, and Corinthian second. The nature of Empire is that power, wealth and status flow from the outside to the inside, from down to up, from the colonized people to the colonizers, like the Romans. That was certainly the case between Rome and Jerusalem. That’s what empire is for. And that’s not only a recipe for injustice and oppression, it IS injustice and oppression. The war and rebellion that would wrack Judah just a few years later only proved that without justice, there can be no peace. For true peace is more than the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice.
But with this offering going from Corinth and other Gentile churches to Judah, Paul and his Corinthian Christians are doing something tangible to reverse the normal flow of wealth, status and power in any given empire. So this offering, from Corinth to Jerusalem, wasn’t just charity. It was justice, even restitution.
There’s another reason that this offering is a matter of justice: it overcomes the boundaries, fears and prejudices dividing different people and connects them in ways that heal their broken relationships. That gives us a template for making peace and reconciling relationships between other estranged groups of people today, like Arabs and Israelis, or Northern and Southern Sudanese, or Anglos and Hispanic immigrants in south Minneapolis. Paul enlisted the Roman Christians in this same financial aid project and told them, in Romans 15: 26: “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” That’s quite a challenge that Paul has issued to the normal, run-of-the mill anti-semitism and prejudice so common to Romans of the day.
If that’s not surprising and subversive enough, Paul is not only making sure that money goes back to Jerusalem, he’s making sure that people go there too. Gentile people. The Corinthians are to choose some people to send along with their offering. From what we know elsewhere in the New Testament, some of the Jews in Jerusalem are going to find this a little hard to take, too. Those who haven’t caught the vision of Jesus and the prophets for God’s promised mission to the nations are going to have to swallow some of their ethnic pride and exclusivity, not only to receive this gift, but to receive the givers too. Having Gentile visitors along is what Paul got beaten almost to death, and imprisoned when he finally delivered this offering. But Paul is serious about peace and justice as a matter of fair and face-to-face relationships of interdependence and mutual benefit among estranged and warring people.
And that’s what I would very much like to see happen even more here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in the next few years. For example, there is a very good chance that this very year, a new Hmong Mennonite Church could get started in the northwestern part of the Twin Cities, if and when a new Hmong pastor can take Pastor Chue Vang’s place at the current Hmong Mennonite Church in St. Paul, and release him to do again what he does so well: planting new churches. When that does happen, not only would I love to see us contribute financially toward that new effort, what if we could also sponsor a send-off service and celebration in this very sanctuary some Sunday evening or afternoon, along with members of other Mennonite churches from the area and the conference, to send Pastor Chue and his wife Pang into the field with our blessing and prayers and commitments of support? Because, geographically speaking, we would be the closest church to their effort.
And another possibility: Lord willing, this year we can again host a visit by Patricia Uruena and Cesar Moya. They are Colombian Mennonite missionaries working in Ecuador, with the support of our conference. This year, they are both studying at my alma mater, the Mennonite seminary in Indiana. They would love to have people come and visit their work in Ecuador, and once or twice every year the Conference organizes service and learning trips from our churches, to meet members of the new and growing Mennonite churches there. You get to sleep and eat in their homes and learn about their lives, first hand. You don’t have to speak Spanish to join. They have no trouble finding interpreters. One such opportunity is advertized in our bulletins today. If no one from among us goes this year, how about next?
When I go to Burkina Faso next month, I also wish to make it something of a relational experience for all of us, not just myself. Already, some of the children in this congregation are drawing pictures with words of greeting that I will take along to share with children in Burkinabe churches. If they send some back, then let’s have a gallery of African art in the green room. I’ll go with the personal greetings of our church council, and will likely return with their greetings as well. The value of such opportunities is in the experiences and the relationships. Relationships like that, of dignity and interdependence for all people involved, are the difference between mere charity and true biblical peace and justice.
This week our hearts have been heavy with last week’s massacre in Tucson. The word “Massacre” best expresses the weight of last week’s events on me. I hear the calls for more civility and respect from our leaders and speakers and say, Thank You. I got all choked up this week when the president challenged us to live up to the enthusiasm and aspirations of nine-year old children. Good as that is, God calls his people to go beyond, to something even higher: a peace and justice expressed so powerfully and poetically in the visions of our prophets, demonstrated so clearly in the life of Jesus, purchased for us by his death on the cross, and guaranteed victory by his resurrection. Our calling goes beyond healing the divided and divisive politics of our day, to giving the world a foretaste of the healing of humanity and, indeed, of all creation. To paraphrase Dr. King: laws and police may forbid someone from killing his enemy, and that’s good for a start. But the grace of God can transform anyone to the point where they love their enemy and the alien, and even show such love, even in such simple ways as an offering, from Corinth to Jerusalem, indeed, from all according to their gifts, to all according to their need. Its not just charity; its a down payment from our eternal future.
To be read later:
From Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”