Picture: Carmel, NY by Eugene Duffy
Let your love be genuine…
September 3, 2017
Scripture: Romans 12:9-18
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
In the closing chapters of the gospel of Luke there is a story that bears repeating. Jesus has already entered the city of Jerusalem and has been teaching there for several days his message of change and newness of understanding the nature of God. He has already aroused the ire of the Temple Authorities and there is much tension in the air surrounding him.
Standing outside of the Temple one morning, several days after his arrival, Jesus and his disciples are observing how visitors to the Temple are placing their offerings into the Temple Treasury box. Several wealthy individuals come forward and make a show of depositing what seems like a significant sum; taking pains to be sure they are seen doing so. And then, almost as if Jesus staged it, a lowly widow slowly makes her way forward as well. From the looks of it she is quite poor and has no one left to support her. She is one whose rough and pitiable appearance makes many turn away, perhaps feeling sorry as well as a bit resentful for the guilt she makes them feel inside. Reaching into the folds of her robe she brings forth two small coins, roughly the value of a single penny and places them in the box. Her actions cause those who witnessed her offering to smirk, surely thinking to themselves, ‘How can an offering such as this make any difference whatsoever? She would have done better to keep her measly pittance to herself.’
Sensing that his disciples are perhaps within the group of those thinking derisively about the poor widow, Jesus seizes the moment to teach a lesson on the value of truly giving from the heart. And what he says surprises them greatly for it is so much the opposite of what they had just been thinking. Turning to his disciples Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of those who gave much, gave out of their great abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in out of her very substance, out of what she had to live on.’
The love of that poor widow for God and for God’s house was genuine…it consumed her heart and prompted her to give, even though she could in no way afford to do so. She took from her meager resources, from what she needed to live on, and offered it up to God, who I am sure stayed true to his promise to provide for her needs if she sought first the kingdom of God.
The life we are called to live in the sight of our Lord is one that is supposed to be characterized by a love that is deep and genuine, and a life that is to be free of fear for doing what we feel we are supposed to do in faith. Our scripture from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with this very instruction. In fact it is a passage that is filled with instruction on how it is that we are to live effective, faithful, and genuine lives in the sight of our Lord. When I first looked at the passage I was amused to see that I had shared it just last week as a part of our Missionary Commissioning Service for our Young Adult Volunteers. For their service I used a different translation however the message is just as clear. If one wants to know how to live as an effective Christian as well as what the cost of doing so potentially is, then this passage from Romans 12 has much to share.
And I chose to focus on this passage this week because of all that has gone on since last week down in Houston, Texas and surrounding areas. The storm that ravaged the region was truly one of biblical proportions, and pictures and stories of people stopping everything to reach out and assist their neighbors in need have filled the airwaves daily. Thousands of people were rescued from rising flood waters that threatened to carry them and all of their belongings away. Any and all manner of vehicle or boat available was pressed into service as so many ordinary people heard the call to set aside their fears and to act selflessly in reaching out to rescue their neighbor regardless of anything, and so often at significant personal risk for doing so. And though the storm is finally subsiding as it makes its way northward even to us here in New York, the damage and extreme human hardship and loss it caused will take years to recover from.
In the meantime, while there were many who were able to physically get involved and to be a helpful presence on the ground in Texas, many millions of others lifted up the needs in prayer, while mobilizing resources and much needed recovery funds to be sent down to assist those providing on the ground services and aid. Both those involved directly, as well as those who have prayed and sought to help from afar have demonstrated a love that is truly genuine, and a witness that is breathtaking in its human kindness and compassion. What we have seen playing out so far in response to the incredible challenges presented by Hurricane Harvey is enough to make even hardened cynics as to the innate goodness of human nature sit up and take notice.
And I bring this up because I feel we had our own moment of grace this week, and I feel it is something not only to be shared, but also something to be proud to be a part of. Early on in the week during the height of the storm, I learned from my sister Ann who lives in Houston, that her church had been spared from the flooding and had almost immediately opened their doors to shelter flood victims. Ann’s house was also spared and as a result she was able to devote her time as well as her family’s to go down to the church and assist in making the growing number of those in need comfortable as well as fed and provided for.
And somewhere during that time Nan offered up to me that perhaps Ann could use some to the infant and summer clothing we had in the thrift shop that was scheduled to be on sale both yesterday and next weekend. The logistics of packing and shipping seemed daunting, particularly in the middle of the flooding, but I decided to ask Ann if such a need could be partially met through our efforts.
Before I called her however, I had an additional thought just in case shipping clothing to her was not feasible. It was a thought however that also seemed a bit daunting to me as it would require stepping out in faith in an area in which we are already challenged. I decided to ask Ann about the clothes, but failing that possibility to ask her if instead we might offer to send the proceeds from our sale of the same items down directly to her church to assist them in their continuing outreach to those in need.
And, when I asked her, she responded that local agencies and thrift shops had begun sending massive amounts of used clothing and essentials into the shelters that had been set up all around the city. She did say however that any money that could be sent would be greatly appreciated. And at that moment, my step out in faith was put to the test as I wrote out an email to our church Council asking if they would be open to such an arrangement.
And all that seems like not such a big deal, like a no brainer…of course we would want to reach out and help a sister Presbyterian Church down in Houston in their time of deep need. But in truth, I was not sure how the Council would react for we too are not so unlike the widow in terms of the relative size of our resources and in particular the amount of cash we have in reserve. And our Blue Door Thrift Shop continues to be, as it has been for years a significant source of funds for the operation of the church.
Offering to give up two weeks of the proceeds from a sale that has been very profitable in the past was a big deal, and I was not sure if the Council would be comfortable with the request. In truth, this was a question, at least for the moment of whether we were willing as well to give from our substance and not out of our abundance.
And so, I finished up the email explaining the situation and the opportunity to the Council and with some hesitation pressed the send key. And as it turns out I must now ask for forgiveness from the Council, for as soon as I sent it out I began to hear back from all of them to go ahead and put the plan in motion. In fact there were calls to do even more if there was any way we could. Your church Council acted quickly this week with incredible grace and compassion, reaching out to help our brothers and sisters in need, regardless of personal cost and without even a trace of fear. And I feel so blessed to be a part of this ministry and this small bit of God’s work in the world around us.
And I have no idea how much money we will actually take in from the sale, or if other donations will somehow make their way into the final check total we send on down to Houston…I have no idea if we will be sending a ‘penny’ or more as our faithful response to this call of the Holy Spirit upon the hearts of our Council members. However I do know that those funds, whatever they amount to, will be blessed and will be used in a way that multiplies those blessings to others in need.
A blessed community such as our church family, is built from the ground up, by being and demonstrating that we are a community of those who care and who demonstrate that care as a matter of course. By being a family for whom caring, and reaching out to address any and all needs presented to them, is a matter of habit. Like my dear friend Tino Panaci once said, ‘If there is a need, and I have the means to meet that need, then that is all the rationale I need to do so’.
For as we have said before; if you know that all you have truly is a gift from the Lord; and if you acknowledge that all you have belongs to the Lord should the Lord have need of it; and if you believe that the Lord will continue to provide all that is needed for you to do God’s will…then when the Lord asks for you to give something away there really is no question other than to whom, where, and how soon?
And sometimes, we are asked to give not out of our abundance, but willingly and without fear to give instead out of that which was intended to sustain us…to give out of our substance, fully trusting in the providence of God. Your Council demonstrated this week that they truly know how to extend love that is heartfelt and genuine.
And in closing I would like to share that this past Wednesday all of the Council who were able gathered for prayer in what was the first of many such times to come. They came together to pray for continued guidance in leading the affairs of the church and more, to seek to listen for the voice of the Spirit in response. And at some point during our prayers a request was lifted up that the Lord might guide us in how we might ‘most effectively use our limited resources’. And as the call went out, deep within my heart I heard as clear as day the words, ‘Use your limited resources to unlock the vast storehouse of the Lord’s resources’. That was all…just a few simple words…to use that which we have to further the cause of God’s will in our ministry and in our community…for in so doing we will find that we have tapped into a fountain of grace that will surely supply for the ongoing work of our Lord here.
This week, we were a part of the grace of God flowing outward from our hearts…to those in need.
…may our every day be as blessed as this…