Evensong Sermon preached at St Michael’s and All Angels, Bedford Park
A local United Way office realized that the organization had never received a donation from the town”s most successful lawyer. The person in charge of contributions called him to persuade him to contribute.”Our research shows that out of a yearly income of at least £500,000, you give not a penny to charity. Wouldn’t you like to give back to the community in some way?”The lawyer mulled this over for a moment and replied, “First, did your research also show that my mother is dying after a long illness, and has medical bills that are several times her annual income?”Embarrassed, the United Way rep mumbled, “Um … no.”The lawyer interrupts, “or that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and confined to a wheelchair?”The stricken United Way rep began to stammer out an apology, but was interrupted again.”or that my sister”s husband died in a traffic accident,” the lawyer”s voice rising in indignation, “leaving her penniless with three children?!”The humiliated United Way rep, completely beaten, said simply, “I had no idea…”On a roll, the lawyer cut him off once again, “So if I don”t give any money to them, why should I give any to you?”
Apparently St Paul understood long time ago that when you are asking for donations to build mutually supportive communities it is better to ask the healthier communities to help the poorer instead of relying on the “interested generosity” of the rich and aristocratic families who run the cities and used to be part of the oppressive imperial system.
Collections then were very much an essential part of St Paul’s vision from the very beginning. He realised soon that the congregations that he set up were vulnerable. Paul’s concern was: “How can I protect these ekklesiai, these Congregations from being led astray by false apostles -like the spirituals- and keeping them linked to the historical roots of our faith?” So Paul decided to start a collection for the Jerusalem community. The promised made to the Pillars at the Jerusalem council -“remember the poor”, was he told by James and the other apostles- resounded very strongly in his ears. He put the Galatian community as an example of what they should have done. Every week after the Sunday meeting, all members of the ekklesia would contribute whatever they could afford -a coin, a trinket, a piece of jewelry, or an heirloom- gradually amassing a hoard that in due course would be conveyed to Jerusalem. In Paul’s view this weekly reminder of the Holy City -the site where the Messiah’s death and resurrection- seemed to be a way of helping the Corinthians develop a new and independent relationship with Israel. It is interesting to notice that he referred to it as a “gift” (charis) from one messianic congregation to another, and in equal standing more than a sort of tribute tax paid to a superior congregation. History tells us that Paul was right while promoting and structuring the collection for the churches. We actually keep the same spirit in the Voluntarily Gift Aid Donations Scheme in the Church of England.
Now Paul did it in the hope, perhaps, that this practical project would have helped the Corinthians wean from the net of patronage in which the poor relied on handouts from the rich. He thought that the collection’s system would have allowed everyone to contribute as equal participants. Everything looked fine. The Corinthians seemed to be content with Paul’s letter and the “spirituals” were brought back into the fold. At the same time, because of their strong link with Paul, the Corinthians were very eager to begin the collection. Unfortunately Paul could not keep his promise to visit Corinth soon because his trip to Macedonia took longer than expected and he sent Titus on his behalf. Although Titus was well received in Corinth, his Corinthian disciples felt hurt and disappointed by Paul’s failure to keep his promise. In the middle of this tension between Paul and his Corinthian Congregation, a new group of missionaries just arrived in Corinth generating a big crisis in the Christian community. This time Paul’s opponents claimed to be the “godlike human” persons like Moses, Elijah, or the Messiah. They claimed to be “super-apostles”. It took Paul a great deal to defeat them and re-build his strong link with the Corinthian community. We actually know about all this story in the second letter to the Corinthians, of which we have just read the bit that talks again about the collection. What I found very important for us as a community of faith is how the early communities learn from experience and crisis to be faithful to the gospel. We also learn how Paul develop the theology of the collection while engaging with the daily problems of his congregations. This shows as well that Paul’s theology is not the result of someone’s reflection setting in the wonderful Bodleian Library in Oxford and writing an essay about the value and importance of the Collection in Church. Instead, It was, and perhaps still is for us nowadays, a response to the pastoral daily life of a congregation. It is just from this perspective that we can actually have a glimpse of Paul’s joy and delight when his project of the collection had finally become an essential part of the life of the Christian communities.
Paul saw the collection as sign of the Spirit that heralded the advent of a new world. In his view that collection was a manifestation of the body of Christ, which demonstrated the way all its members supported one another and united the entire Christianity.
We can certainly see the same spirit of gift (charis) locally in organizations like Mssada and the Upper Room, and globally in big charities like Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, The International Leprosy Mission, including United Way, the one that I mentioned in my story at the beginning of my reflection.
The worldwide network of charities like United Way -that according to their website built 600 classrooms in the Philippines, trained 8,000 people for in-demand jobs and distributed 50,000 mosquitos nets in Uganda- is overwhelming. On the one hand, we are glad they exist and do so much for the common good by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world. On the other hand, we may have to ask ourselves whether we do enough individually and in support of local and global organizations. In the spirit of St Paul’s vision we may have to honestly admit that we can always do more. It is also important to keep the spirit of collection alive in commitment to any sort of charity work reminding ourselves the root of the word: charis “gift” from one community to another. What we might call solidarity as well. The collection must always avoid the temptation to become an act of patronage in which a more prosperous community gives a helping hand to “the poor” as an assertion of its superiority. The aim is equality. At the moment, our surplus meets their need, but one day our need may be met from their surplus. If we can grasp something of this spirit, we can join Paul in his delight saying: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”