The Rev. Preston B. Hannibal
Come Holy Spirit: come as the wind and cleanse; come as the fire and burn; convict, convert, consecrate our lives, to our great good and thy greater glory; in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the great joys and affirming aspects of school or college ministry is the opportunity to hear from former students. I know that I am not alone when I say that all school chaplains feel blessed to have their students contact them from time to time to give an update of life since the subsidized days of academia.
Sometimes these reunions are joyous and hopeful, other times cautious and sobering. I remember a time a few years ago when Sandi and I were living in Boston. A former student stopped by my office for a chat. After we exchanged a few pleasantries he began to tell me that he had recently come back to the university to discover what he was to do with his life. It seems that after a successful college career, what looked like a successful business career had not been quite as successful as anticipated. And what had appeared to be a successful marriage ended in divorce.
As this young man unfolded his story before me, I was struck by two things: the first was his honesty. He was not afraid to tell me, a person he had not seen or spoken with since high school, of his unrealized hopes and dreams, as well as speak of his fears and apprehensions. He was not at all shy or inhibited in his analysis of where, in his opinion, his life had gone wrong.
The second thing that struck me about this young man’s visit was that in the midst of his anxiety and despair, he had an unmistakable air of optimism. While that may seem odd or out of context, the fact was that he knew that he had to turn his life around. He knew that changes had to be made. He felt that there was a design for his life, a design that he had ignored when he was younger. But now that his life seemed to be going wrong he somehow saw that he had to turn things around. He was not at all sure what exactly he was to do, or where to begin to look for help, but he knew instinctively that he had to make a change.
One reason that change is so hard to effect is that custom becomes such a binding thing. We are all affected by the customs and norms of our community—the dictates of our family and friends, as well as the spoken and unspoken conventions of our culture. Quite often it is these “unwritten laws” of our existence that keep us in place and affect our response to the world around us.
So this young man came to my office, just for a talk. And as he talked and I listened, it was clear to me what he wanted to do. It was clear that his gifts and talents, which were many, were best suited to help those who could not help themselves. It was not due to my clairvoyance that I came to this conclusion but, rather, to his own repeated and insistent analysis of where he had gone wrong in his life and what he needed to do to change his life for the better.
At the conclusion of our conversation he got up, thanked me for my time and walked from my office.
It would be a fitting postscript to add that by the actions of this young man I knew that God was active in his life and that as a result of our conversation the light of Christ’s love was seen to be alive in his heart. As nice as that would be to say, and neat as it would wrap up the package, it’s not quite that easy.
He did not mention any kind of Christian commitment. In fact, he actually apologized for not paying more attention in his religion classes in school. He said that he had gone to our prep school not for religion but to get into the “right college.” He also said that he wanted to learn about God, having grown up in a family that took knowledge, truth, and service seriously, but was grounded in absolutely nothing, so that the talk of knowledge, truth, and service simply became pious platitudes, without root or structure.
The experience of the student who visited my office was not unlike the experience of many of us who have grown up, or are presently growing up, in an atmosphere where rootless and structureless platitudes abound. As if merely to repeat a proverb long enough without putting it into practice, or grounding it in some concrete principle, presupposes that someone will actually believe it—take it to heart—and attempt to make it so.
My text this morning is taken from the eighth chapter of the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, beginning at the seventh verse. “But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul is exhorting the church at Corinth to return to the root and meaning of their Christian commitment as expressed in the concern that they once had exhibited for the church in Jerusalem. It was a commitment rooted in love and the fervent following of the example of Christ.
Paul was writing to an obstinate and headstrong congregation, a people who, after a difficult period, were finally reconciled one with another, and with Paul. He felt that now it was vitally important for the community to continue in the good works that were, and still are, the hallmark of the faithful Christian community. He urged them to once again take up the mantle of charity as a way of completing their faith commitment. He tried to explain to them that their unselfish generosity was an essential component of their faith and a necessary element in the carrying out of the commandments of their Lord and Savior.
Their response to the needy showed the early church that their trust in God was based not on the accumulation of wealth but, rather, on the sharing of resources and the betterment of the entire community.
This portion of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth was meant to lead this community to an awareness of Christ in their midst, by leading them to understand that it was important to share their good fortune with those less fortunate than they. Paul also felt that it was important for them to realize that any community of faith, rich or poor, was equally capable of giving of their resources, if and when they saw the need, or were called on to do so.
Paul wanted to put their important contribution to the maintenance of the church in the proper perspective. He wanted to disabuse the community of the oft-held sentiment that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, so consequently the less fortunate must be suffering under the judgment of God.
If we are honest with ourselves, at one time or another we all have harbored similar thoughts, even if we are unwilling to admit it. It makes us feel superior, and therefore good, about who we are. The only problem is that after the initial feeling of superiority wears off, we are left with a gaping hole in our psyche that craves to be filled. And the only way of filling it without changing our way of thinking or acting is once again to feel superior to those we see as different from us.
I remember a trip to New York City a few years ago. One afternoon I was traveling from midtown to downtown, around city hall. I hadn’t been on a New York subway for quite some time, especially at rush hour. I chose a car with a bit of elbow room as I was likely to be standing for quite a while. Just before the doors closed, a person, who would best be described as disheveled, walked into the car carrying her life with her.
As the train pulled out of the station the mindless chatter of subway travel was broken by, “Excuse me, may I have your attention, please? My name is Mary and I am homeless and hungry.”
“I have cancer, and need medicine. If any of you good people could help me and my kids out, I would surely appreciate it.”
With that, she moved through the subway car, paper cup in hand, ready and willing to accept any change that came her way.
With Mary’s opening words, “Excuse me,” the train fell uncomfortably silent.
Riders hid behind books and newspapers, burying themselves in the text, hoping that Mary would pass by without making a scene. Those of us who had neither the good sense, or common experience of subway travel, to bring along reading materials were forced to stare blankly into space, wishing with all our collective might that this reminder of the poverty of the world would simply disappear so that we might maintain our illusion that there is nothing wrong.
As Mary passed through the car and approached where I was standing, I knew that I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
It was amazing! As she passed through the car no one had the courage to look her straight in the eye. If we had, I imagine that we would have seen great pain, but also an honesty that allowed her to confront her situation and deal with it as best she could.
As she was about to leave our car and enter the next one, the darkness of the moment was broken by a little girl, no more than five or six years old, who came up to Mary and handed her a coin. Mary looked at the little girl, looked at the people staring in disbelief, and then looked back at the little girl and simply said, “God bless you!”
With that, Mary passed to the next car and out of our lives. There was an audible sigh of relief as she made her way to the next car. Conversation picked up as the train slowed and approached the station.
As I looked around the car I noticed that many people had been jolted out of their complacency, just as I had, by the little girl who had chosen to respond to the need of another person. For her, a subway car in the bowels of New York City was the right place to come in contact with the mind of Christ.
It isn’t always easy to stay focused on the holiness and wholeness of God’s love. It isn’t always easy to focus on the reality of Christian service to the world we encounter daily. And it isn’t always easy to move toward that place where our Lord leads us. But focus we must and move we must, particularly when we see the sorrow and pain of Christ in the face of those whom we pass by daily. The simple kindness and compassion of a single soul turned that which was ordinary into something extraordinary. The holiness of God comes shining through at those times when we least expect it.
We have no hope of escaping the maze of self-doubt, or ego-building at the expense of others, unless we open ourselves to the fullness of the Christian life and the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to show us the way. It is when we arrive at this point of self-realization that we make the leap of faith that opens us to see that we in fact are stewards of God’s goodness, and as such should act accordingly, particularly when we are interacting with those around us.
“See that you also excel in this grace of giving,” is for us much more than a call for monetary stewardship, as important and needed as it is, particularly in this economic climate.
The gift of faith, the power to understand and expound Christian truth, earnestness of spirit, the bonds of mutual devotion (within one’s safe harbor) are all good; but without an interest in those outside your own experience, the finest piety is likely to become a stagnant pool. In the first epistle of John we read that “love of our brothers and sisters is the test by which we know that we have passed from death to life in Christ Jesus” (1 John 3:14).
Paul is calling for a change in attitude among the Corinthian community that will lead to right action, particularly in their response to those in need. It is an attitude that sets God’s will and purpose as the focal point of the decisions that are made as individuals, as well as a community of faith.
While it is often not easy to comprehend the will of God for our lives, it seems that we have a much easier time ignoring the road signs God sets before us as we attempt to live our lives straddling the fence, on one hand not wanting to commit totally to the world, but on the other hand afraid to commit totally to our Lord and Savior.
“See that you also excel in this grace of giving” is such a road sign. It leads to an awareness of the importance of the diversity in God’s creation as well as the need we all have to be of service as we attempt to understand what God would have us do. The giving of self without thought of repayment or reward is gracious giving. It reveals the grace of God in Christ Jesus in concrete action working out the salvation of the world.
We may not always understand what we are called to do, or how we are to accomplish our given tasks, but through the grace and power of God we must begin to believe that the giving of our time and talents as well as our treasure can make a significant difference in the lives of those that we have yet to meet.
The giving of self also transforms all who take this risk of faith to heart. It enables them to shed the convention and custom that once held them back from giving totally to the work of God in this world. The transforming power of Christ’s spirit, working for the welfare of all humanity, is a powerful agent of reconciliation and change for all those who would open themselves to accepting their completeness in Christ.
The young man who came to my office sought a change of direction in his life. He was on a search for who he really was and what he was about. He sought answers, but what he really was looking for was absolution for a life that was less than perfect, a life we all strive to obtain, but never achieve.
The little girl in the subway car gave of herself, without a second thought. She exhibited a loving concern that is the hallmark of the community of faith.
For the Christian, the answers to life’s questions come from our relationship with God and with humanity. Our direction comes from our openness to the Holy Spirit working in our life. And our absolution comes from the sacrificial life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
For us, our pattern of life is set by our attitude and action as we honestly and openly confront the world that God has given to our care. “But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (2 Cor. 8:7).
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.