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The Joy of Letting Go

posted Nov 6, 2018, 5:13 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Nov 12, 2018, 9:13 AM ]

“There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.”

Proverbs 14:12

On Wednesday afternoon the confirmation class and I were engaged in a survey of 2000 years of church history at the speed of an Indy-race-car.  I’m not sure they were getting much out of it, but in the back of my mind I was relating it to today’s sermon.

Just as a fish has no conception of life outside the water, so humans have only a very limited capacity to really grasp what life is like for those with experiences dramatically different from that of our own.  And it is especially difficult for us to grasp what life might have been like for people who lived long ago under circumstances far different from our own.  

Our survey of church history came to a breaking-point at an easy-to-remember moment for all of us – Ulrich Zwingli!  Most people have likely never heard of Ulrich Zwingli, but for members of this congregation, at least, his name rolls almost thoughtlessly off our tongues.  I’m told some of you are even descended from Zwingli!  

But how many of us really have any conception of the church in Zwingli’s time?  Remember, Zwingli was exercising his church leadership 500 years ago.  500 years is a very long time – it’s at least 20-25 generations ago!  

You and I, by the accidents of birth, live in a time when Western culture and society carry what seems a distinctly Christian flavor.  And that’s at least partly true.  Our culture and society have indeed been shaped – for good and for ill – by approximately 500 years of Protestant influence.  It’s no accident, of course, that the number 500 years is the same number of years that have passed since Zwingli led the church (and the government, we should hasten to add) in Zurich, Switzerland (and before that, in Glarus, which partly accounts for his widespread fame among Swiss immigrants in our immediate area).  

It's debated whether or not Zwingli really ran the government in Zurich, but it’s clear that he at least exercised out-sized influence over both religious and political affairs in his time.

Was that good?

That question probably has no clear-cut, yes-or-no answer, but it does demand thought.  You see, the church long before Zwingli already had experience with possessing and wielding political dominance.  For the first 300 years of its existence, the church was either ignored, or else actively persecuted by the political authorities of the day – the Roman Empire.  It had not a bit of official influence.  And nonetheless, during those 300 years of being either ignored or persecuted, the church grew at a mind-numbing rate.  We need to understand that when Constantine decided to become a Christian in 312 CE, it’s not likely that he did so because he’d had a vision of the truth of the Christian Faith – it’s far more likely that he did so because by then so many people in the Empire had become followers of Jesus that he knew he needed to get lined up with the people, because fighting the faith was a losing proposition. 

To put it bluntly, for nearly 300 years the Empire tried to extinguish Christian Faith.  By the time of Constantine, it had become crystal clear that persecution of the church as a means by which to destroy it had failed.  

What does any of this have to do with our text?  Just this:  The very things that made Christianity so amazingly attractive when it was dangerous to be a Christian began to be tamed and domesticated once Christianity was no longer an illegal faith and instead became the official religion of the government.  

I think one of our challenges as followers of Jesus in the 21st Century is to acknowledge that much of faith in our day has been tamed and domesticated.  The audacious teachings of Jesus have been watered down and/or ignored.  We think that the dominant values of society and culture are Christian, when it is far more likely that human values have seeped into the church and made us indistinguishable from what it means to be “good citizens” of the nation.

Almost 30 years ago, two at-the-time unknown American church leaders wrote a provocative little book – “Resident Aliens.”  Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggested that a devious thing had happened to the church in the United States.  That instead of making society look like the values of Jesus, the values of culture and society had leaked into the church and the church mostly looked like America rather than vice versa.  

If there is any Biblical text that demonstrates how tamed and domesticated the church has become, it is one like this one from Luke 6.  

Blessed are you who are poor.  Blessed are you who are hungry.  Blessed are you who weep.  Blessed are you when folk hate you and exclude you and defame you.  Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  If someone abuses you, turn to them the other cheek.  If someone is begging from you, give them even more than what they are asking for.  Lend generously to others and if they are unable to repay, chalk it up to God’s account.  Do not judge and do not condemn, because the standards by which you judge others will be the standards by which you will someday be judged.

The text ends with the simple point I want us to all go home wondering about:  Give just as generously as you can figure out how to do.  The image clearly presupposes that Jesus’ hearers already know that they are supposed to give.  But that when they do, they are calculating how to make their gift look bigger than it really is.  Jesus’ teaching presupposes a primitive agricultural culture.  It assumes that all his hearers know that you can measure grain generously or with a “thumb on the scale” (so to speak).  Maybe the best we can is imagine what every cook knows about measuring brown sugar.  If you want your cookies to turn out, then a cup of brown sugar means a packed cup of brown sugar.  Your cookies won’t be quite right if you stir up the contents of the canister and then fill the cup (apparently all the way) with that loosely packed sugar.  No, you need to press it down with the heal of your hand to be sure the cup is heavy and dense with the brown deliciousness of that molasses-infused material.  

That’s how God wants us to give.  Generously and with abandon.  And not grudgingly, but with joy.

But why?  What does it matter that we give?  Just this:  if we give more than what we think we can really afford, we will be pushed to wonder whether it really does all belong to God and whether God will really take care of us if we risk generously caring for others.  

When I was about middle-school-aged (we didn’t call it middle school in those days, of course), I got my first job for pay – cutting the grass of some of our elderly neighbors.  For most of those lawn-cutting jobs, I was paid the princely sum of $4.  It really did seem a lot of money to me!  I remember so clearly getting paid after the first job was completed holding those four one dollar bills in my hand and hearing my Mom remind me, “Remember, 10% of that belongs to God.”  

Now in fact, it all belongs to God, but that’s a different (if important) point.  I was (mostly) a compliant child, and so dutifully I added together my weekly earning earnings and calculated 10% and put that amount in the church offering plate.  And more or less I’ve done so ever since.  I realize you don’t see me put a check in the offering plate, but you should know that my bank and the US Postal Service are good enough to cooperate so that a contribution to the church shows up in the church Post Office box once a month.  Ruby and I have other significant giving commitments, but all told, we continue to give away about 10% of our income.  

Is 10% some sort of magic amount?  It is not.  I want to be very clear about that.  This is not about some kind of rule or law.  But when I say that, I also want to be clear that the image of giving in a way that exemplifies packed down brown sugar is important.  I think every Christian – whether more wealthy or less wealthy, needs to regularly and systematically give away enough of our income so that we notice the impact that giving has on our budget.  If what we give has no more impact on our personal finances than our coffee spending does, than it’s probably not nearly enough.  

We do so not to earn God’s favor.  That idea is obscene.  We give because God is a giver and out of love and gratefulness we want to be a bit like God.  We give because humans – you and me – are all too likely to imagine that we run the show – and when we give away just a bit more than what we think we can reasonably afford, we are pushed to wonder whether we really do trust God to take care of us.  

Give and it will be given to you.  I think this means, give and you will be taken care of.  By God.  Period.