Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Cheerful? Or Courageous?

    Series: Sow Bountifully: God Loves a Cheerful Giver

    Category: Giving

    Speaker: Rev. Jenny McDevitt

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    I’m curious which part of this gospel reading most inspires your giving. Is it when Jesus looks around and says, “Everything is about to fall apart,” literally? Or when he warns his disciples against many who will lead them astray? Or—maybe this is it—when Jesus says, wars are coming, but don’t you worry; nation will rise against nation, kingdoms will battle other kingdoms, earthquakes will shake the ground beneath your feet and famine will reach throughout the land. Oh, and by the way, he says, this is only the beginning.

    You tell me—is it time to pass the collection plates?

    Now, last week we talked about the passage just before this one, the story of the widow’s mite, the story about how a woman gives everything she has to a broken institution much like Jesus himself gives everything he has to a broken world. I believe that to be a very faithful interpretation of the text. But, I also find it to be a very difficult interpretation, because it doesn’t let any of us off the hook. It insists that giving is a process, not a one-time static event.

    Giving everything, like we said last week, giving our bios, giving our very lives, that is a task that is never finished, at least not as long as we live and breathe on this earth, and it is a task completely independent of the circumstances around us. How could it be any other way?

    Our text from Corinthians, our thematic text for this stewardship season, declares that God loves a cheerful giver. But the widow, did she seem cheerful? Does Jesus, looking down on us from the cross, seem cheerful? In that context, the very idea of cheerful giving is absurd. And, I suspect we can relate to that, because let’s just name it—giving, at least, sacrificial giving on the level Jesus asks of us—it’s hard. It is a lifetime commitment and it is hard.

    Last week, going back to the Greek was helpful, and the same is true this week. God loves a cheerful giver. God loves a “hilaros” giver. It sounds like hilarious, but really, to be a “hilaros” giver is to be a “properly-inclined” giver, one who is “already persuaded.”

    In other words, it is to be someone who gives completely independent of the circumstances around them.

    In this week’s Pastoral Staff Letter, I shared with you the story of Martin Rinkart. The Reverend Martin Rinkart ministered in the walled, German town of Eilenburg in the early 1600s. The town was a sanctuary for fugitives of the Thirty Years War, because the city walls offered some protection from religious violence. Those walls were useless, however, against the plague that descended against the town. At the beginning, of 1637, there were four ministers in the town. One abandoned his post in favor of a safer and healthy area. Pastor Rinkart officiated over the funerals of the other two. As the only clergy person remaining, he officiated as many as 40 to 50 funerals a day. By the end of 1637, he had conducted more than 4,480 services for the dead. One of those services was for his wife.

    It was during that same year that Rinkart began writing a special prayer, one of deep and abiding gratitude. The prayer was written for the families of his congregation, to give them words of gratitude they could use at home, around their tables, when their own words were too buried by grief.

                Now thank we all our God, he wrote, with heart and hands and voices,

                Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;

                Who from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way

                With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

    It wasn’t long before his prayer was set to music, transforming it into one of history’s most treasured hymns[1].

    A hymn of thanksgiving and praise, emerging out of death and disease, grief and groaning, sorrow and suffering. How does this happen?

    It happened back in 1637 because Martin Rinkart was hilaros. He was properly-inclined. He was already-persuaded. He gave his life to the task before him, and at the end of it all, he could still put pen to paper and compose the hymn we know as Now Thank We All Our God.

    Properly-inclined. Already-persuaded.

    Knowing what the right thing is to do, no matter what.

    That is the very definition, not of cheerfulness in the way we tend to use it these days, but of courage. And Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, you know what it is to be courageous. It’s in your very DNA. It’s the way God made you to be.

    Do you remember how you called your very first pastor? Now, sure, none of you were actually here for that, but do you remember the story? In 1905, after a number of mergers and relocations that ultimately resulted in the emergence of this congregation on this plot of land, you called the Reverend Henry Sloane Coffin, Jr. The terms of his call were highly unusual, however—he would accept a salary of only $1 per year, if in exchange you would accept his aggressive vision to reach out to those most in need. Filled with courage, you said yes.

    Not long after that, after building a swimming pool and bowling alleys to encourage the community through your front doors, you dreamed of opening a school, making this place not just a worshipping community, and not just a community center, but also a community where education was valued and offered, where children would receive a solid, foundational start in life. This dream gave birth to the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church Day School, a ministry that would open the doors of the church even wider. As one parent from a number of years ago puts it, the Day School found a place for her energetic and sometimes unruly son, and the church made a place for his single, harried, sometimes weary mother.

    There are also the stories that don’t show up in any of our historical documents. Like the story of how you all cared so well for Marietta Bennett, a longtime member with no family in the city. When Marietta became very sick, the deacons visited around the clock. The Clerk of Session at the time, Kathy Hoffman, took on the responsibility of serving as Power of Attorney. And you cared for her throughout her illness, you cared for her even after her death, cleaning out her apartment, settling her estate and doing all the things that “family” does. This is but one example of courageous caring.

    And you never once kept your courage to yourselves. Back in the mid-70s, you sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam. The entire congregation was involved in coming alongside the Nguyen family. Agnes and Ernie Sturm, pillars of the congregation, found them a place to live, and various groups from the church took turns preparing the apartment. A number of you gathered at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to welcome the family of five and take them “home.” You did this for a group of people you could not communicate with—because for quite some time, the Nguyens did not speak English, and no one at the church spoke Vietnamese. It never occurred to you that such a detail might stand in the way.

    Not long after that, the Overnight Shelter and the Open Table Dinner and the Sunday Senior Lunch took shape, and the Phillips Talbot Global Ministry Fellowship, a bold venture that poured money and time and energy in a staff position you then sent overseas to benefit other churches, other cultures, other people. Every one of those decisions said, we know the world is so much bigger than our corner of Madison and 73rd.

    It was not very long ago at all, that you courageously considered a change in our polity, a change in our way of understanding marriage and who could be married in the church. This, of course, happened before my arrival, and I was cautioned that this might be too polarizing a story to tell on a day like today. But here is the thing—courage, Gospel-driven, Christ-centered courage…it shows up in the hardest places. When everyone agrees, when everyone is of the same mind about anything, that’s relatively easy. When there exists a variety of opinions, when any decision runs the risk of alienating or wounding someone…well, the “easy” thing to do then is to avoid making any decision at all, to pretend the situation or the circumstance simply does not exist. Instead, the Session courageously made the decision to lean on the side of love, making way for Kate and Lyn’s wedding here in the Dana Chapel.

    And, at the very same time, you collectively made the courageous decision to keep being a community together, even in the midst of differing points of view. I wonder if that might not be among the most courageous acts of all—to allow relationships to matter more than being “right” or “wrong,” when finding our way forward isn’t about getting our way, but about staying on the path together even when we aren’t sure where it’s taking us.

    Just recently, your Session again acted decisively and courageously. I invited the elected leaders of this congregation to make their pledges before today. 100 percent of your Session members responded, making pledges for 2019 that are, in total, 15.5 percent higher than their pledges for 2018. That is courageous leadership in any season, but especially so in the first year of a new pastor.

    About this, however, let me be clear. This is not about me. It is about you. All of you. Session has given at this remarkable rate, because they have a remarkable amount of faith in you.

    About a month ago, Beverly preached about the rich man, the one who approaches Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Sell everything that you have a follow me.” The man, scripture tells us, goes away shocked and discouraged.

    Peter Gomes, once the dean of the chapel at Harvard, suggests the young man doesn’t lack faith in Jesus. After all, he approaches Jesus to ask a serious question, and seems to trust the answer. His problem, Gomes says, isn’t that he lacks faith in Jesus. It’s that he lacks faith in himself. I suspect if that rich man were to have snuck into our sanctuary and found a seat today, he would find himself in good company.

    It is devastatingly easy to lack faith in ourselves, and if we don’t manage it all on our own, there is a whole world out there that is willing to give us a hand. And so here is some good news for you. You don’t have to have faith in yourself all by yourself. Your Session has already declared that they have faith in you. I am standing here today because I have faith in you. But more than any of that, everything is going to be okay—even if the walls crumble, even if the ground shakes, because God is here, and God has faith in us. God has faith in you.

    Of course, God does. God is the one who made you, after all, and to quote one of my favorite seminary professors, “God never once made junk.” Of course, God has faith in you, faith enough to send his son Jesus Christ, who will be brought down just like the temple he speaks of in today’s reading, in order that he might rise up again, in order that we might rise up with him. In us, God has been sowing seeds of resurrection and redemption from the very beginning. That is the way God made us to be.

    So, let courage be our harvest. God has done the hardest work; our job now is to trust it. So, let us be properly-inclined and already-persuaded. God loves a courageous giver. And God loves you.

    And, if you think about it…doesn’t that make your heart glad?

    Doesn’t that make you feel…almost…cheerful?


    [1] The story of Martin Rinkart and “Now Thank We All Our God” was shared with me by the Rev. Dr. Peter Bynum of Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church in Charleston, SC.