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Filled With Blessing

Sermon 6/26/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 15:23-29

I'm reading from Paul's letter to the Romans, the fifteenth chapter, versus 23 through 29.  Paul has shared from the various places where he has served in his ministry, and then he says: 

23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while. 25At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; 26for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things. 28So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain; 29and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.

We don't often think of charity work as being a dangerous profession, but we have seen those examples in Iraq and Afghanistan recently where charity workers working for a variety of organizations have been kidnapped and in some cases killed.  As we saw in decades past in many countries in Latin America during disputes and civil wars there.  Priests and nuns who were assassinated by troops under control of the government.  

There was a group of 20 of us or so that went to the Hult Center Thursday night to see La Pasion', and we got to hear Glorystar and the other choir sing.  But to see that premier piece that opened the Bach Festival that tells the story of the passion of Christ with a Latin American character and 'meat' to it was something special.  Friday morning I had the opportunity to meet with Osvaldo Golijov, the composer of that piece as he met with religious leaders and faculty from the University.  And in the course of discussing with us why a Jew (Osvaldo is Jewish) from Argentina would want to write a musical about precisely this story, the passion of Christ, he told us of his experience growing up in his native Argentina watching the bishops of the church bless the weapons of the Argentine government as they paraded by.  The very same weapons that then were used to oppress and in some cases kill the priests of the church who were involved in that work on behalf of the poor, working for the justice of the poor in Argentina.

And so he said that for him, as for most people in Latin America, not just for Christians, that they can easily identify with the suffering of Jesus as a peasant and itinerant preacher who was persecuted by his own religious leaders.  And thus Golijov's passion is told from the experience of Latin America and it is that experience's perspective that gives it such incredible power.

In preparation for attending that Thursday night, I read some about it, I read of the thunderous response it had received in Stuttgart where it premiered, and in Boston, and so I was prepared for the end of the performance, for this outpouring of applause.  If you didn't know about it, he chose to end the piece with the kaddish, the traditional prayer of Jewish tradition for the dead that is a prayer of life, a blessing of life.  And so it ends on that note.

And it didn't end the way I expected it to.  Instead of thunderous applause, there was this thin moment.  A thin moment where you feel this presence of the divine, where you are touched by something not of this world.  And there in that secular place, at least I felt that thin moment that was not filled with thunderous applause but was filled with complete and total, absolute silence.  Nearly 2,000 people there in the Silva Concert Hall on Thursday night, and no one moved.  No one even blinked, no one coughed.  It was total and absolute silence.  And it was one of the most sacred experiences I've had in a long time, there in that very secular place.  Incredibly powerful.

No one dared move, not even, and especially not, the cloth-covered Jesus who had acted out the crucifixion in a dance, and laid there on the stage in between audience and performers in absolute stillness.  Until, like that early morning ages ago, not just Jesus, but the entire auditorium burst into life with its applause.  I suppose that the silence lasted maybe 30 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity.  And then it came to life, and you see that is precisely the meaning of the resurrection -- that the entire community comes to life.  But that's another story that I'm not going to get into this morning--I'll save that for Easter.

Here's the point:  just as Jesus' trip to Jerusalem cost him his life, so too for Paul, for it is in Jerusalem where Paul is arrested and taken in chains to Rome, where, according to sources from the 2nd century, he was executed by Nero (along with other Christians), blamed for the burning of Rome.  Thus had it not been for this charitable work on behalf of the poor in Jerusalem, Paul would have been merrily making his way on to Spain as he desired to do.  And to add to that terrible irony, it was at a conference with church elders in Jerusalem where the decision was made that he should take this offering among the Gentile converts and bring it to Jerusalem.  Thus his fate, in a sense, was sealed decades earlier at that conference.

By the way, those of you familiar with that little bit of church history and your Bible are aware, I suspect, of the reason of that conference in Jerusalem -- it was to decide what to do with these Gentile converts.  A resolution was presented at the assembly, all the delegates came to vote on that resolution, Paul and Barnabas and the like were there, and the proposal was that they would have to become Jewish in order to be followers of Jesus.  Of course Paul was opposed to that effort and it failed, thus setting the stage for the emergence of Christianity as a separate tradition from Judaism.

And Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that the only requirement placed upon him and the converts in his church was that they should take this offering for the poor and the saints in Jerusalem.  By the way, in the story told in Acts 15, there is a slightly different version of the outcome of that conference, you can read about it there, but again, that's another story.

Typical of Paul, he takes to this task of collecting the offering with incredible zeal -- making it not just something he does on the periphery of his mission, but central to it.  And he tells the Romans that this offering is a physical blessing given by the Gentiles in response to the spiritual blessing they have received from there Jewish counterparts.  He uses even stronger language in his second letter to the Corinthians, in chapters 8 and 9, where he offers 5 reasons for this offering.  He says first of all 'this offering is a test of the genuineness of their love'.  Secondly, it is the 'model for our generosity is no less than Jesus who though rich became poor for our sakes that by his poverty we might become rich', spiritually speaking.  And third, 'as a matter of basic fairness that those with abundance should assist those in need'.  And fourth, that 'God will enrich each person in return for their generosity'.  And then lastly, fifth, that 'such generosity not only glorifies God, it shows obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ'.  So now our deacons will wait upon us J.

You almost get this sense from Paul in reading his letters that it has that kind of importance, that how much you put in the plate is going to determine whether or not you get into the realm of God.  Now we wouldn't put it that way, but that emphasizes the centrality of this effort.

It teaches us, I think, that giving in the church is not about about humanitarian deeds.  It's not about paying the light bill.  It's not about meeting the budget.  It is about no less than being a faithful, loving follower of Jesus.  For Paul, the purpose of Jesus, summed up in Philippians 2, is this:  that Christ Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of the slave and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross, and therefore God has exalted him above every other name.

It is this emptying of one's self that describes for Paul the central character of Christian life.  And thus even though he could send others to Jerusalem, and he knows it is dangerous (he writes later in this passage in Romans to pray that he will be rescued from the unbelievers), even though he could have easily avoided that risk, he goes to Jerusalem to personally deliver this offering because to do anything less would be to go back on everything he has said the Christian faith and life is about.

And in so doing, Paul empties himself, taking the form not of a slave but of a prisoner and becomes obedient unto death, even death as a martyr.

Interesting thing, as a little historical footnote, we don't know what happened to the offering.  There's no record of it.  If there was any contribution report made to the givers, it didn't make it into the New Testament.  Paul doesn't talk about it again.  Luke, who tells the story of Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and transportation to Rome never mentions it.  So we don't know how many orphans are clothed, how many widows are fed.  It would be nice to know those things, but ultimately now, 2,000 years later, that really isn't what is important.  It makes us feel good, to know where our offerings go, and what is done with our money, but it is much more important to know that in our giving we are being faithful to God.  And that's the point.

Our resource ministry has decided that our theme for our stewardship campaign this Fall will be 'generations of generosity'.  Which calls to my mind Tom Brokaw's best-seller "The Greatest Generation", that tells the story of everyday people who made enormous sacrifice at home and abroad during World War II.  Like the apostle Paul, it was a generation that emptied itself even unto death that we might be filled with the blessing of life.  We will be reflecting more on the generations of generosity in the months ahead as we reflect upon that theme.  So I'll just say one thing now for the moment about this:  that those who grew up in the great depression, I think, understand better than anyone else the true meaning of generosity and blessing.  Paul could have been writing about them when he wrote in 2nd Corinthians 'for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part'.

It is the generosity of past generations which enables us to be here.  From Abraham on down.  Whether or not future generations will also be here depends on the generosity of this generation.  Paul says that only when he has completed his task, he has delivered that collection to those impoverished saints in Jerusalem, that it's only after he has emptied himself will he then be able to complete his journey in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  

And this is the paradox of our blessing in Christ.  That in emptying ourselves we are filled.  As Saint Francis said in that beautiful prayer:  'it is in giving that we receive'.  The greatest blessing is not what we get but what we give.  And those filled with blessing are those who share their blessings with others.  Such is the true test of Christian love and faith.  

Thus the most important measurement of our blessing is not how much we have received, but how much we have shared with others.  That is what determines the extent to which we are filled with the blessing of our Lord.


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