“The Give and Take of Faith”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 July, 2018
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Proper 8B/Pentecost 6
In our “Introduction to the Theme” for today’s readings and service, I asked the question, “What is faith?” Hebrews 11:1 defines it this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Next, I asked about how we can help faith to grow, or get stronger. Like all relationships, and like most exercise, a strong faith is the result of give and take—it results from a healthy dynamic of sharing and receiving. Our New Testament lectionary passages for today help to make that clear. Let’s start with the “Give” of faith, as we look at Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.
Our reading opened with Paul making an appeal to the congregation in Corinth to be as generous as they could be in the campaign he was running to raise money for the impoverished church in Jerusalem. (Turns out, capital fund-raising campaigns have been a “thing” since the very beginning of the church!)
There are a few things that are remarkable about Paul’s appeal. First, he’s raising money for a church he’s never led and which probably wouldn’t welcome his leadership. The church in Jerusalem was largely led by Peter and James, who weren’t big fans of Paul’s: for starters, Paul hadn’t known Jesus personally but was out there talking as though he did. That, after he’d been actively persecuting members of the Church prior to his conversion! Moreover, as we can read about in the Book of Acts, Peter and Paul had a pretty sharp difference of opinion regarding whether Gentiles should have to become Jews before converting to Christianity. Paul wanted to welcome anybody just as they were, and Peter felt there had to be a circumcision to demonstrate faithfulness. So, there was a sort of antagonism that existed between the leaders of these churches—and no doubt, members of the different churches would probably have taken sides with their leaders.
But there was also the complicating factor that Paul had had some sort of falling-out with the church in Corinth. We can see throughout the letter we call 2 Corinthians that thing weere definitely on the mend, but because human beings have long known how to demonstrate grudges with their wallets, Paul was keenly aware that he needed to continue to be gentle with those in Corinth who were sore with him.
Given all these challenges, it’s a testament to the power of giving as it relates to a strong faith: Paul clearly understood that by giving, we not only acknowledge our relationship to every other created being, we also experience that connection more profoundly as our generosity increases. And the more closely connected we feel to all other beings, the more intimate our relationship with God—who is in all beings—becomes.
The Apostle Paul was the Church’s earliest great example of the sort of faith that is confident in Jesus Christ as God’s own Son, despite never seeing him in the flesh. And Paul knew firsthand the life-changing joy of generosity—something he learned from his encounter with the Risen Christ. Having experienced it himself, Paul wanted everyone he knew to taste it, too. Giving, Paul knew, is a demonstration of faithfulness, and faithfulness provides eternal rewards.
So, the itinerant apostle frames his appeal first by describing the generosity of the Macedonian Christians—a congregation that was decidedly less wealthy than the folks in Corinth, though they did have more than the folks in Jerusalem. Although the Macdeonians were undergoing a crisis of their own, Paul wrote in Chapter 8:2, they dug deep and “during a severe affliction, their joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” He was appealing to a core Christian experience, which is that there is great joy to be discovered in generosity that makes sacrifices.
Some would argue it’s poor form to pit one congregation against another when it comes to giving, but Paul uses it as part of his rhetorical strategy, as he challenges the Corinthians to outdo their less-wealthy counterparts. He does it in a context of encouragement and acknowledgement of Corinth’s many gifts and graces. Having described the virtues of the Macedonians, Paul swiftly moves on to detail all of the superior strengths and gifts he’s recognized in his Corinthian audience: “. . . [Y]ou excel,” he writes, “in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Cor. 8:7)
Pastors and church leadership experts will debate over whether Paul’s approach was appropriate, or even the best way to maximize the response to his fund-raising letter. But the issue that matters for us is that this letter is addressed to people of faith: and a healthy, life-giving faith entails giving, sharing generously from whatever great or meager abundance we possess. Religious leaders from the beginning of time have understood that a living, thriving faith in God is reflected in how well we share what we have—because our sharing is an implicit acknowledgement that everything we possess ultimately belongs to God and is only entrusted to us to manage well. Jesus understood this like none other, and as Paul pointed out in the most poignant and compelling part of his appeal, Jesus set the example for giving by not withholding anything, ever. He who possessed the wealth of the world assumed the life of a man who possessed nothing; he was demonstrating that while material wealth can acquire certain comforts, they are not ultimately what satisfies the longing of the human soul. Whatever he had, he shared with others ungrudgingly and without reservation. He didn’t even hold back when the cost was his life itself. Our faith in the God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ, Paul says, is revealed and strengthened when we strive more and more to give like Jesus did.
So, our faith grows and is demonstrated by our generous giving. But faith is also reflected in our taking, in the way that we receive.
This is something that a lot of us in this region really struggle with. Many of us like to give, to feel good about what we’re contributing, and knowing that we’re making a difference. But we’re not necessarily so good at receiving—especially when we suspect our receiving indicates that we’re weak, or vulnerable, or needy. After all, aren’t we taught from the cradle to the grave to be self-sufficient, independent, and strong?
But one of the things Jesus tried to make clear is that, just as we’re all gifted in a variety of ways, we’re also all needy in a variety of other ways. Part of the divine design of being connected (in the Church, we talk about being members of one Body) is that we all need each other—to give to, and to receive from.
The two vignettes in our Gospel lesson teach us things about the “take” of faith. The first character we’re introduced to—Jairus—is a leader in the synagogue. He demonstrates that there are things that money simply cannot buy. His daughter is on her death-bed, and he falls at Jesus’ feet, professing his confidence in Jesus’ ability to heal her if he will but lay his hands on her. Jairus accepts Jesus’ power as God-given—and he takes the initiative to ask the Healer for what he wants.
Jesus could have dismissed the man, especially as folks approached with the news that the little girl had died. But Jesus encouraged Jairus with one of his favorite faith admonitions: “Do not fear, only believe.” And the Jewish leader’s faith was rewarded: he trusted, and he received; his daughter was healed.
The second main character we meet, but the first one who is healed, is the woman who is never named except when Jesus calls her “Daughter”. In those days, during a Jewish woman’s menstrual period, she was isolated because of her “unclean” status until after her period was over and she’d had a mikveh, or ritually purifying bath. But if she was bleeding for twelve years straight, she would effectively have been cut off from society for those dozen years. We’re not told whether she had a husband, but the long and the short of it is that she would have been viewed with fear and suspicion; women may have come to visit her, but no one would have gotten too close. She obviously wasn’t aware that Jesus regularly reached out to and touched people who were considered “unclean” who called out to him, because her plan was to blend in with the crowd crushing in on him. She had faith—confidence despite a lack of visible evidence—that if she could just get close enough to touch his cloak, she’d be healed. And she was right!
Note that Jesus didn’t get angry when she took what she needed in faith. He just asked her to identify herself, so that he could bless her and teach the crowd about the power of faith, and the courage of faith-filled risk-taking: “Daughter,” he said, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Just imagine how the woman must have felt, being called “daughter” by Jesus: he had rhetorically adopted her, made her family, beloved even in her vulnerability and status as a mistrusted social outcast. Her hope and prayer had been answered beyond her wildest dreams. Her faith had made her well.
Of course, both of these stories have happy endings: in both instances, the healing that’s hoped and asked for actually happens. But we all know of cases when, despite fervent prayers, the individual we love is not healed of the disease. Too often, there’s disappointment, even disillusionment. We can’t help but ask questions like, “Was it a lack of faith? Why does God seem to answer prayers to heal some individuals and not others?” I don’t think there are adequate human answers to these perplexing questions, to be honest.
But that should not discourage us from boldly taking the risk, asking God for the desires of our heart. After all, prayer properly understood is not about changing God’s mind, it’s about conforming our mind to God’s. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) One thing that a faith that is practiced in receiving well comprehends is: what comes from God will always ultimately bless us.
A man diagnosed with Parkinson’s prayed to be healed of the disease. Several years later, as it continued to progress, his pastor asked him, “Do you despair that your prayers have not been answered?” And the man responded, “My prayers have been answered! I may not have been relieved of Parkinson’s Disease, but I have been healed of my fear of living with Parkinson’s and I no longer fear death itself. I now possess a depth of peace and gratitude for life I never experienced before I was diagnosed. I’ve been healed!” That is a faith that has learned how to take, or accept, with confidence in the God who will ultimately bless.
There’s a final aspect of the give and take of faith that I feel compelled to talk about this morning. Our nation is currently deeply, painfully divided over the issue of immigrants, border security, and the treatment of those seeking nothing more than to live their lives and participate in community with the same security that you and I enjoy. And as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s birthday and our declared Independence from oppression and tyranny, I cannot help but observe that our division represents a profound sickness in our society.
There is fear and suspicion at the root of it. And as people of faith, we must ask ourselves how Jesus himself would respond to this moral malaise—because make no mistake: this is not a mere political difference of perspective, there are real moral failures at play here.
For sure, Jesus would say what he said so often in situations when people despaired: “Do not fear, only believe.” Do not fear when people tell you there is not enough to meet the needs of those clamoring for attention or care; only believe what you have witnessed, that when human wills conform to the divine will, there is always an abundance. Do not fear when people tell you that there is potential danger lurking in each one standing at your door; only believe what Jesus has said about personally being present in any of these whom you choose either to care for or to reject.
Friends, do not fear. God is with us, even in the thick, sticky mess we’re embroiled in just now. Only believe. Believe that God is at work in this world in ways we cannot always see: “Faith is the assurance of things we hope for, it is the conviction of things we cannot see.” Believe that we are created to be in community—that we are meant to give generously because that connects us more deeply; to ask for what we need in prayer, and to take or accept God’s abundance even when it comes to us in the face of a desperate stranger. This is the give and take of faith. And it is by embracing our faith that we will be made well. Hallelujah! Amen.