November 15, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Courage To Give, third in a series
A while back I did some research on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and if I’m remembering correctly, in the mid-nineteenth century, the library at West Point was only open to cadets for thirty minutes per week. I remember finding a triumphant note from the librarian that went something like, “All is well at the library. This week not a single book was removed or returned.” You could almost hear the sigh of relief echo through the note.
Don’t worry —not a single book is overdue, or damaged, or re-shelved in the wrong spot. All the books are in the right place and nobody’s doing any reading. If only it will stay this way, we’ll never lose a book. We’ll never have to erase pencil markings or worry about fingerprints… It’s so easy to make fun of this note because it misunderstands the very purpose of a library. At the same time, I will tell you, there’s a part of me that can empathize with this librarian.
I’m a person who finds comfort in things being well-ordered. I have great respect for chaos, for its work in sourcing creative energy, for its wild resistance to the rules. It’s just, I don’t enjoy chaos.What I enjoy is making lists. Lists stop the things from swirling around in my head.
I will confess to you that I give a lot of my life to the work of managing our family budget and my schedule. Like I have a seriously impressive system for scheduling an appointment involving not one, but two to-do lists and a color-coded calendar. If you’re thinking, “Mariah you would actually have more time if you just did the things instead of scheduling them,” yeah, you would not be wrong to think that.
I study my budget and my calendar because I want to rehearse the notion that I have enough money to live and enough time to get everything done. This means that simply having what I have has become its own activity.
I want to have enough, and know that I have enough, and maybe that means I will be enough. But here’s the thing. There are times when I do have enough. I can pay the bills at the end of the month. I have even had the experience of getting all the items on the to-do list checked off before vacation, and it’s great! I could write triumphant note like that nineteenth century West Point librarian. We made it! But then what?
Is a completed to do list really the most I can imagine? Is this really the fullness of life?
Every now and then, I get interrupted by an opportunity that doesn’t fit neatly into my plans. I don’t think I have time, or I’m not sure we can afford it, so I often decline. But once in a while, I hear myself say “Yes.” Once in while, there is a splendid moment when I let go and say “Let’s go! We’ll figure it out later!” Doing this is so reckless, so incredibly liberating, so holy. If my life is going to mean anything more than having what I have, this will be how.
Friends, today we hear a short collection of teachings from the Gospel of Luke. Matthew’s Gospel has these same teachings from Jesus, but they’re not grouped like this. So whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke put this collection together for a reason. Sandwiched in between Jesus’ teaching on prayer, we hear two short parables about asking and giving, as though giving has something to do with praying. As though, we already know how to pray, we already know the generosity of God, we already know how to give. It’s been in us this whole time.
Our scripture begins when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. You’ll notice Jesus does not launch into a lecture on the philosophical theory of prayer. He says, “Here try this” and he teaches them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. It makes a way to jump in. Now we teach this prayer to our Sunday School children, not because God insists on hearing it every single Sunday, but because we want our children to know how to pray and to know that they know how to pray. If we’re feeling nervous about praying, we can let that go and say “Let’s go,” and start with “Our Father…”
Jesus teaches this prayer, and before he gets to the Amen, he interrupts himself to tell the parable about the surprise houseguest who arrives at midnight. Two things to know about this situation in Jesus’ time and place: One, serving a meal to a houseguest was not optional; hospitality was a social requirement. Two, this responsibility belongs to the whole village. Giving a meal to a traveler is what we do because this is who we are.
Whether this person shows up at your door or mine, at midnight or three in the morning, of course we will prepare a meal. Of course we will wake up the children, and go to the neighbor’s house, and borrow a cup of honey. Nobody grumbles, “I don’t feel like helping right now. Ask somebody else!” So when this happens in the parable Jesus tells, it would sound shocking and ridiculous to his audience. Of course, the man will get up, and open the door, and find three loaves of bread.
When you go to God in prayer, remember you already know how to ask for what you need; you already know how to give. Notice the vivid mutuality between giving and receiving. These are not opposites; the opposite is holding on and having what we have. Giving and receiving go together. Giving without receiving is like trying to play an instrument in an orchestra without listening to the other parts. You’ll never know when to come in! Saying, “I’m just playing the cello part I don’t need to listen to the trumpets” is like saying, “I’m just here to give, I don’t need to be receiving any help myself.”
Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened unto you. Give when somebody’s asking, help them find when they are seeking, open the door when somebody’s knocking. You might wind up entertaining angels without realizing.
Of course, we will get up, and open the door, and give three loaves of bread. Of course, if your daughter asks you for a fish, you won’t give her a snake instead. Of course, if your son asks you for an egg, you won’t say “Sorry, no eggs. But wouldn’t you like scorpion.” That’s ridiculous! And the truth is, that’s not who we are. We human people already have the impulse to give. Generosity is our birthright. We get this from God who gives so much more.
Of course, if I’m inclined to give because my generosity comes from God, why do I still find it scary? What is the hesitation that keeps me studying my calendar and my bank account, having what I have and hoping that nobody will need a library book, or a prayer in the middle of the night, or, God forbid, an egg. I know how to manage what I have. But if I’m going to remember the generosity of my deepest truth, this is something I will keep learning that from you. We give this courage to each other, thank God.
Recently I read Ferguson and Faith, a book of interviews by Eden professor, Leah Gunning Francis. The book includes a quote by Dietra Wise Baker who is a chaplain and pastor in St. Louis. She talks about trying to get clergy involved in responding to Ferguson. And she has this to say to the clergy, “Just get on the streets. Come be on the streets. Come at least once. I’m telling you you’re going to meet Jesus there. Jesus on the street! And you’re going to be transformed… you can’t be transformed in the safety of the pew at church. I know you’re afraid,… I get it… Come to the street.” I read this and thought, God, I hope I would say “Yes.” I hope I would show up and march with the young people. Let go of the worry and Let’s go! There is so much to do.
On the days when I get this right and say “Yes,” this is something I am learning from you. Church of Peace is a community led by the holy impulse of generosity. When a member of Church of Peace is experiencing crisis, I have seen our church family rally around them in support. Will you bring meals to someone recovering from surgery? Will you help third graders who are working on their reading? Will you come fold paper cranes for the float in the parade? (Don’t worry we’ll figure it out. How hard can it be!) Our budget is underfunded, will you increase your financial giving? Will you read the scripture in church even if it makes you nervous?
There are so many chances for people to say, “No way. Ask somebody else.” Sometimes that is absolutely the best thing to say. Please say “No” when you need to, ask for help when you need to, and please say “Yes” when you can. So many times the people of Church of Peace say “Yes I can do that. What time should I be there? What can I bring?” You are teaching me how to say this too, how to give first and figure it out later —what an exhilarating expression of faith! I thank you.
This week, I invite you to go to God in prayer and ask God for help in completing the 2016 Estimate of Giving form. If you would like to talk about your giving with me or a member of the Stewardship Committee, please give me a call.
Together we will be a people who ask for help, who know the thrill of extravagant giving, a people who remember our own generosity comes from God who gives so much more. Together we can let go of having what we have. We can meet Jesus on the street, and Jesus knocking at the door, and Jesus teaching us the prayer that goes, “Let’s go!” We don’t have time to be afraid. We have so much to give. Amen.
 Francis, Leah Gunning. Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community. Chalice Press: St Louis, 2015. page 73.