Sunday, June 01, 2003

A Gift On the Altar

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 17:6-19
A. Has God Acted? (A Look at the Cross)

In a few minutes we will bring our ordered hour of worship to a climactic close. Ushers will come forward out of the gathered people of God. A hymn of praise will be sung. Two of our fellows, a man and a woman, maybe a couple, a mother and daughter, two old friends, perhaps two youth, will stand before the cross, plate and bowl and towel in hand. A gift will be placed upon a high, beautiful altar. We will offer a prayer. Almost every week, as we conclude our one hour of common prayer, we do this together.

Why do we do this?

Our physical statement, a regular occurrence in most worship services, particularly adorned and beautified in the habits of this congregation, is meant to be a ringing affirmation, a yes shouted, in response to three questions. But I wonder how frequently or carefully, as a congregation, we are able to tell, to tell ourselves or others, just what we are saying, in this moment of a gift upon the altar.

Today’s reading forces us to consider this.

The cross on our altar says for all the world to hear that God has acted, done something, done something unspeakably wonderful for us. Is this true? Has God acted? This is the first of the morning’s three questions. Has God done anything? Before you answer to quickly, notice the reticence, the resistance in Scripture and in Life to such a claim.

In fact, the question of God is open to us every day and particularly every Lord’s day. More than we regularly acknowledge, issues of life and action that may not seem theological at first, at depth really are. How shall we offer our time, energy, and money? What is the Christian understanding of warfare? Is personal possession, ownership of property, a proper feature of a good life? What is the status of those at the start, children? What value do we ascribe to frail, mature life? How are women and men to relate? What are faithful uses of money?

At length, or depth, all of these questions, on which our daily lives founder or are founded or both, require a theological horizon, demand a theological response, deserve a theological assessment.

The great strength of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been a sense of limits, a sense of humility, even ignorance before the question of truth. Our time more than any other has honored the biblical and human perception that truth is very difficult to determine, nearly impossible to ascertain, as Solzenhitzyn better than most did remind us. In life there is much gray. The great weakness of our now passing post-modern, or even post-Christian era, has been this same sense of limits, sense of humility and ignorance before questions of ultimate reality. Too readily we have let the sense that truth is difficult to ascertain become a despondent acceptance of the impossibility of affirming truth. Too readily we have let the sense that truth seems nearly impossible to ascertain become a fatalistic denial that any truth at all is preferable to any other. The truth of relativity has given way to the falsehood of relativism.

Today’s Scripture lesson comes at the end of a long, inscrutable, dense set of sentences pronounced, in the memory of John’s church, by Jesus on the night of his betrayal. His voice here is completely unlike anything we find in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Here the earlier church repeats the utterance of Jesus, remembered from his earthly ministry or more probably from preaching in his name by an even earlier generation.

Hence, against all the bitter background of their suffering, the church of the Fourth Gospel drew together in communion to affirm this truth, known in a spoken word. Known only in a spoken word. God has acted. How is this known? By the cross. By the cross alone. Let all else known about Jesus go, says this four chapter mystery prayer, but let the word go forth: in him has God acted. In the cross. Let all else go, but the cross and its saving joy: “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Let go his birth, his story, his baptism, his teaching, his other teaching, his miracles, his trial, all. Let it all go. In him God has acted. This is the cross and its lasting truth. It is unmistakable, unforgettable, unrepeatable, undeniable. The one irrefutable historical fact of the gospel is also its one irreplaceable theological truth: Christ and him crucified.

Did you notice during last Sunday’s beautiful worship service the slight, haunting chiming of three little bells…God so loved the world…that he gave his only Son…It is this one haunting truth that is so mysteriously shrouded in today’s obscure reading. God has done something. God has acted. God has acted: name made known…word spoken…yours mine ours…in but not of the world…protected…made healthy in truth…

Such a claim would have been no easier to assert in Ephesus in 120ad than it is here today. Then as now, sincere voices are raised to deny any such truth. Then as now, the hard voice of bitter experience is raised. Ecclesiastes is much with us: the sun also rises, and the sun also sets and there is nothing new under the sun. What has been is what will be. The rivers run to the sea but it is not full. Things never really change very much. People never really change very much. You cannot really expect much difference, generation to generation. Biology is destiny. The same argument is behind Second Letter of Peter.

To this the word of truth responds. God has acted.

I love the creed we use regularly in our church. I love its poetry, its history in the church of Canada, its modernity. It has a weakness, however, pointed up by this passage and others like it. It does not mention the cross. Not explicitly. You have to read under the lines. Compare it to the Apostles’ Creed: conceived, born, suffered, crucified, dead, buried, descended. On Sunday, we end our service with a word of trust that God has acted. We stand for a moment before the cross, the sign that God has acted. We probably need an Isaac Watt’s hymn to recite, just here.

B. Has God Given Life to the Church? (A Look at the Altar)

It is cross, alone, that adorns our altar. The flowers are signs of life and that is good. The window is a sign of the world around and that is good. The Bible is a sign of spoken truth and that is good. The bowl and towel are signs of service and that is good. But this alabaster altar, like others but more splendidly than others, supports the cross alone.

As the cross proposes the question, Has God Acted? So this altar confronts us with a second query. Has God’s action given life to the church?

This is not always crystal clear to me. I know that the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But sometimes I see only distortion. I am sure you have those days, too.

Then a moment of sunshine comes. For me every year one is the chance to hear our retiring ministers speak.

I have known Don Hoff for thirty years—a minister, a social worker, a leader of mission trips to Guatemala, a real character. But I never knew his story until Thursday:

“I grew up as a gang member in Brooklyn. My family attended a bi-lingual church. But my friends were gang members. Some grew up to be crooks and some grew up to be policemen. And some grew up to be both. Our neighborhood had the best police department money could buy. One summer we sold guns. I was 16 and landed in jail. That night the pastor of our church came to bail me out. He said, ‘Don, we are a small church but we have emptied the church treasury for your bail, and we are putting our money on your nose’. Don’t disappoint us.” Sometimes things get very clear.

Our struggles for survival as a Christian community in upstate New York are serious but not novel. Of all the church life found in the tapestry of the New Testament, it is in the Gospel of John that we see woven the darker threads of ostracism, odium theologicum, exile, fratricide, anti-Semitism, alienation. The writers of the fourth gospel are more wounded than healers.

There is a striking parallel between the experience of the community which produces the Fourth Gospel and the experience of Asbury First over the last 100 years. John’s Gospel is written in the shadow of two departures: that of the crucified Christ and that of the beloved disciple, the primary preacher of the community and the hero of this singular Gospel. Both shadows foreshadow glory. Both shadows foreshadow joy. Both shadows foreshadow something new. At our altar, we bear a similar witness. We have the bodily shadows of Christ and a beloved disciple, the cross of Jesus and the ashes of a beloved disciple, a formative preacher, Weldon Crossland. Both shadows foreshadow glory, joy, something new.

At the close of our worship, we affirm not only that God has acted, but also that God in our seeing has given life to the church. We trust in Christ. We remember the discipleship of others. The first in the cross. The second before the altar.

Friends, we have quite a tradition to uphold here. Good intentions alone will not carry us through or see us through. We are in the shadow of a great, disciplined history. We have something to live up to. Good intentions providing starting power but not staying power.

Fosdick once told about a man who took a bus to Detroit. Or so he thought. He bought a ticket, went to the port authority, boarded and fell asleep. Hours later he descended to find himself in Kansas City. For a while he would not believe it. He even criticized the city’s residents, accusing them of joking with him. But in fact, he was not in Detroit but in Kansas City. He took the wrong bus: “something like that goes on habitually in human life. People on the whole desire good things—happiness, fine family life, competence in their work, the respect of their friends, and honorable old age. Nothing is more common in our consciously held desires and intentions than such good goals…Say your worst about us, we have fine desires for good destinations. But often we let it go at that, contenting ourselves with these unimpeachable ideals…whereas the critical question rises: Are we on the road that leads where we want to go, now, this morning, in our immediate, practical, habits and choices…Enter in at the narrow gate… Concentration is narrow (leadership)…Self-discipline is narrow (artistry)…Loyalty is narrow (friendship)…”

In a moment, we shall add, tithing is narrow.

We affirm at our altar that God has given life to the church to remind us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Having just a vision is no solution. Everything depends on execution.

C. What Will We Do? (A Look at our Gifts)

Now we come home. If God has acted as our cross says, and given life to the church as our altar testifies, what are we going to do?

Our focus moves from cross to altar to gift.

Several innocuous things might be stated at this point. I leave them aside in the interest of brevity, and truth, and honest communication.

The question of what we do with our gift on the altar depends on what we believe about the cross and the altar itself. Has God acted or is all this just a story, a good story, maybe, a story like others, but finally only fiction? Has God given life to the church or is the church just another institution, a good institution maybe, an institution like others, but finally only human? Again, I would enjoin us not to pass too rapidly by on the other side of the road of these questions. They are real. Yet if we earnestly believe what we affirm before the cross and clearly remember what we enshrine in our altar, then, over time this will affect the gift we lay before the cross and upon the altar. Theology is most carefully articulated, over time, in stewardship.

Listen once more to our reading’s theme sentence: “I am coming to you (a reference to the cross) and I speak these things in the world (a reference to the church) that they may have my joy made complete in themselves (a reference to healthy life)”.

The most lastingly critical weakness of our ministry at Asbury First over the last 50 years has been our lukewarm giving. If we do not learn to tithe in the next generation, then Asbury First will die. Many of us will be around to see it. After 8 years, honestly, it is a mystery to me how we as a community so passionately committed to excellence in virtually every other area could continue to fall short in this one. The brilliance of our music, the majesty of our architecture, the warmth of our pastoral care, the creativity of our teaching ministry, the volume of our mission ministry, the size of our apportionment, the growth of our membership, the height of our pulpit have yet to find their parallel in our habits of giving. I once had a friend who lived with a champagne taste and a beer budget. Maybe you did too.

Today, an average gift on this altar is $20/wk. Tomorrow, an average tithe, assuming only an annual income of $50,000, would be $100/wk. A tithe for a family earning $150,000/yr. would be $15,000 or $300/wk. I believe we are on the verge of a new day in stewardship at Asbury First, and as we come to altar this Sunday I want to encourage us to make some thoughtful decisions this summer. Yes, let us soon go to have wonderful summer. But while we travel or picnic or swim or read, let us carefully consider our gift on the altar.

Asbury First is on the verge of becoming a tithing church!

We know that the most benefit in giving comes to the giver. I always speak to people about giving in terms of what it will do for them. It brings joy, it brings joy.

I hear new voices for a new age:

“It is time for the baton to be passed to a new generation. It is our turn to do our part”.

“My life changed after 9/11, I really had to think about my priorities again.”

“We need to have faith, like when we decide to have a child. You don’t know exactly how it will turn out, but if you didn’t risk you would miss all the joy.”

Our intentions are more than good. But the ticket? The right bus for this destination? The narrow gate? For Asbury First, the gate is giving, the ticket is tithing, the bus is nothing short of a bequest of our being, a repeated gift upon the altar. Here is a secret: ours is a very middle class church. Our future is not in someone else’s hands or wallet: it is up to you.

We know that a gift on the altar is a pledge, an affirmation in support of God’s new creation, another world now being born. A world without hunger. A world of peaceful justice. A world of happy relations among races. A world of economic justice for women as well as men. A world for which God has acted, in the cross, giving birth to the community of the cross. A new world. A new creation. “Financial giving is one way that we say “yes” to God’s vision of the new world and our willingness to join God in helping the new world come to life” (R. Allen).

Oh, we have good intentions. And in other areas we are disciplined. We know how crucial sexual fidelity is to marriage, and so live. We know how crucial investment of time is to profession, and so we live. We know how crucial attention to education is to children, and so we live. What has happened to our financial discipline?

I tell you, if the older generation had not tithed, had not given sacrificially, we would be worshipping this morning in a pup tent.

Oh, our intentions are good. Our hopes are more than good. We just need to get on the right bus. Tithing is the ticket, heaven on the earth the destination, and you my beloved friend the traveler. I want to plead with you to think about it over the summer. You can make a gift of 2 %( $1000) a year, or a tithe of 5% ($5000). If everyone now pledging tithed, we would raise the money for our building in one year. If every member not now giving pledged at our current average, that would raise the money for the building in three years. In any case, as an early comment, you need to know that Jan and I are personally committed to making a major gift to support his church’s good building intentions. I want to challenge you, in your movement toward tithing, to do the same. In stewardship, we have no place to go but up. The summer is coming. Think about it. Pray about it.

Doug Mullins has a good story, with which to end:

Belinda was a single parent, trying to take care of herself and raise a five year old Ryan. She was a single parent because when her husband learned that the requisite surgery for her cancer would leave her disfigured, he left. One evening Belinda tucked Ryan into bed and was reading a book to him. He interrupted her to ask if she had bought that book for him.

“Yes”, she said.

He then inquired if she had also bought the bed in which he slept.

Again the answer was “Yes”.

Had she bought the house they called home?

Yes, she said.

And what about the new sweater he liked so much?

“Yes”, she said, she had bought that too.

He thought about how good she had been to him, supplying all his needs, and finally he said, “Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.”

You know, everything we have is a gift from God. Life, breath, faith, forgiveness, and hope of eternal life. Cross, altar, gift.

This summer think about tithing.

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