Sermons

Each week, Grace’s minister, and the occasional guest preacher, seek to connect scripture to the challenges of following Christ in the world today. A collection of recent sermons can be found below.

Rev. Dr. Amy P. McCullough   Oct. 20, 2019
Love God. Do Good. Grow in Grace: Stewardship 2020
2 Corinthians 9: 6-8 and Matthew 6: 19-21

Last Wednesday I arose around six, took a short run through the neighborhood, and returned home to rouse children, sign practice sheets, oversee breakfast, feed cats, and then get out the door in time for school. It was raining, finally, after two months of dry weather. I had jury duty, a summons that appears in my mailbox like clockwork every October. This year, based on past experiences, I did not make a mad dash toward the courthouse downtown. I knew the rush in order to wait.

The rain made traffic crawl down Northern Parkway to 83, and then inch down 83 to Fayette Street. Maybe it was just the rain, but Baltimore looked bleaker than normal. I saw a woman with an injured leg making her way toward a bus stop. Kids, just kids, were working the stoplights, hoping to earn some loose change. The radio’s news mirrored the bleakness: impeachment inquiries, bloodshed in Syria. My typical parking garage was full, and it took a few moments to find an alternate one. I hadn’t meant for everything to take quite this long. The clock read 9:02 when I walked into the jury room. You’re late, said the clerk, directing me to a different room, where I learned my tardiness would mean I’d have to do the whole routine over on another day.

Something of the morning’s experience captured the struggles of modern-day life: its frantic pace, our over-crowded schedules, the steady stream of dire news, the poverty of our city, and endless anxiety of falling behind. In contrast, today’s scriptures orient life toward its final purpose – treasures in heaven and sowing in order to reap bountifully. These texts were chosen specifically for today, the beginning of the stewardship season as we focus on loving God, doing good, and growing in God’s grace. Yet when I read them anew that Wednesday afternoon – back in my office – they provoked an uneasy dialogue, a conversation of protest.

Paul writes “The one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully,” an encouragement to dig into life, to harvest our abilities. We labor through the commute, lead meetings, visit patients, all the while answering texts, calls, and emails. We read, teach, and cook. We pray, check homework, buy groceries, and do the laundry. Sow more bountifully! How could we possibly add another thing to the to-do list, sow another seed in the land of daily life?

Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about their promised pledge toward an offering destined for the church in Jerusalem. I need you to fulfill your commitment he says, support these saints with your financial gifts. AND, he continues, I ask you to give with the right spirit. Don’t give reluctantly. Don’t be resentful or begrudging as you deposit the sum in the collection plate. Give freely.

Give cheerfully, freely. How does one offer a gift without worrying about the funds the gift will deplete? How do I discount the fact that money for the gift was earned by the sweat of my brow, or the fruit of my thinking? Furthermore, we do worry: about the balance of the bank account, the cost of college, the state of the retirement funds, or how to handle the wish-list of grandchildren. We are anxious about the impact of climate change, broken government, and fractured communities. The gap keeps increasing between the poor and the wealthy, the middle class and the ultra wealthy. If one is not getting ahead, then surely one is falling behind.

Alongside Paul’s encouragements come Jesus’ words: store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. The advice comes at the end of a long section of teaching, beginning with Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes about the blessedness of those who mourn, suffer, and are meek. Jesus tells us his followers to be light in the darkness and salt in the bland world. He instructs us to pray, fast, and remember the poor without asking for attention. Then he concludes: store up your treasures in heaven, as if all these instructions are precisely the treasures we need to cherish. Yes, yes, we might respond. We know clothes, cars, china, and jewelry will be eaten by worms one day. But what about right now? What about the enticing advertisements in Sunday newspaper, the need to dress the part or entertain the boss, the allure of the new model car, the need for a house in the right neighborhood? Can’t you see, Jesus, how important these things are to surviving the slog, maintaining my place?

And yet: As followers of Christ, we place our faith in one whose entire life was a sign of God.[1] This man of God, who was God, spent his days teaching about an upside down kingdom, eating with unexpected others, and responding to humans in need. Jesus constantly gave himself away. When the world wanted to kill him for the pureness of his love, he gave himself away to that as well. The one who sows bountifully reaps bountifully. Jesus offered the seed of his life without knowing what would come from his gift. And he invites us, his followers, to be signs of God, too. We are signs of that self-giving love. We point to God in the giving away of our skills, time, companionship with others, and our money.

Now the church in Corinth had made a pledge to support the church in Jerusalem. We don’t know exactly why the Jerusalem church required this special offering. Maybe it was poor. Maybe it was being persecuted. Maybe, by virtue of being located in the holy city, it had a particular mission to draw people to the sites of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul does affirm is that the Corinthian faith is derived from Jerusalem, and supporting this body of Christ is a way of carrying on the faith. But while the promise has been made, the check has not been delivered. There has been a gap between the Corinthians’ intentions and their actions. Perhaps the gap is born of too many demands upon their days, too much worry about their future, too many enticements from the marketplaces. Perhaps they have lulled themselves into settling for insignificance, thinking it doesn’t matter if we don’t complete our gift. Someone else will fill the need. Paul reminds them they can be signs of God’s graciousness, embodiments of God’s life.  And, he promises, their habits of generosity will awaken their own awareness of God’s provisions.

My grandparents modeled this faithfulness for me, always laying aside the first portion of their salary to be given at the altar. My parents attempted to instill the practice in their kids; asking us to tithe our allowance, a dime out of the weekly dollar to be placed into the Sunday school offering plate. Although I certainly gave to the churches while I attended in school, I didn’t really start thinking about the spiritual discipline of giving until I was serving in my first congregation. As that point, a newly appointed minister I made a pledge, one worthy of a pastor. I did so namely because that is what pastors do. In those early years of fulfilling the commitment it was easier, because I didn’t have children and I felt far too young to be worried about retirement. It was equally harder, because I wasn’t accustomed to parting with money that I, at the time, felt my hard work had rightfully earned.

That was twenty years ago. What I learned over the decades is that my original perspective was wrong. It is simply not that I am required to give. It is that I need to give, just like I need to pray, worship, and study scripture. I need to give because God is the author of all that is and giving back to God opens my eyes to the improbable ways God provides. Sometimes giving has felt like a hardship and I have been consumed by my sense of lack. In those moments, the act of giving has opened my eyes to those who were truly in need. I have come to believe giving is a practice of resistance against the incessant materialism – frankly, the outright greed – of our culture. Like each paradox of the Christian faith, giving makes me more contented, more grateful, and more generous. It is a practice through which I experience God’s gracious presence, and provision, of my life.

In the silence of this sanctuary, I invite you to think about the gospel’s promise of provision, presence, and redemption. How has God imprinted a sign of love upon your life; and how might your days become a sign of God?

[1] I am indebted to Rowan Williams for this idea of being signs of God. “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge: Cowley, 1995), 140-141.