Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 1 October 2017.
I think that we all have our ideas of wasted effort.
Buying that item that we were never going to use, the food that we were never going to eat, watching the team that was never going to win, or reading that book which turned out to be unspeakably boring.
We will all have our favourites. And for some, the very idea of going to church and spending an hour and more in prayer and worship does not feed the hungry or silence the guns or still the rioters. It does not build social justice or produce wealth or security – so why do it?
And when we believe that all that is or can be is purely a matter of human effort or perspective and there is nothing else to believe in, then the whole idea of belief and worship must indeed be profoundly upsetting or even disturbing.
In that sense, it all depends on where we are starting from and going to. But in the Old Testament, the lesson is that it was God who had brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and had bestowed on them the promised land.
Yet this was not a conquest without context. It was God who had delivered them from slavery and sustained them in the desert where they had learned His ways and His law. They had learned His worship and had become a toughened people, faithful to God and yet ready for battle.
And now they were being instructed, on the verge of entering the promised land, on maintaining their worship and their faith even as they explored and tilled the land. Even as they gathered its fruits they were not to forget their God, and they were not to allow the good times to dull their memories or their faith.
And so they were to give thanks, year by year for the ingathered harvest, and they were to worship God in it, never coming before Him empty-handed. If worship was to be real, then it had to be an offering.
Indeed, the more costly the worship then the more significant it would be – so long as they did not fall into the trap of thinking that the costliness of worship was a means of buying God’s favour. That is not how it works.
But then Jesus was showing His disciples something else.
First of all, there was the warning against heedless accumulation of goods and wealth, which could be lost at any time by any kind of misadventure.
The sum of a person is not in the wealth that they have gained or can distribute. It is not in the things of this life that by definition cannot last and certainly cannot be taken through death – although some peoples’ ideas of elaborate funerals and burials suggested that they could do just that.
Rather it is in what has been done with the time, the wisdom, the relationships, and of course the money that they did have. It is the measure of eternity that they have already entered as they have used the blessings and opportunities that they already had.
But Jesus said something else, about striving after food, clothing, prominence, housing, transport, social standing, glamour and prestige. These might indeed be the aims of the unbelieving nations and tribes and peoples round about, but they would never be enough for His disciples.
For them it was the kingdom of God and His righteousness that were to be the first priorities. And that meant His gospel, His forgiveness, His life and His word.
These were things that would indeed last for ever, to be entered here and now but to be lived even more fully hereafter.
If there is to be a striving then let it be for the things that are of God and which last unto eternity. And what we worship and give first place to in our lives sets the agenda for that eternity.
This is where we enter what Paul had to say to the Corinthians.
The measure of what we sow is the measure of what we reap. And the more joyfully we give then the more fully we open ourselves to receiving.
The more we close ourselves to the needs of others, then the more we close ourselves to one another and to God.
And yes there is a definite place in this economy for giving of the wealth and the income that we have, and the more anonymously we do it then the more publicly God rejoices in it.
But there is a further dimension, for the costliness of worship is not only in the material gifts we make. There is also that sense when our own worship is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, made when do not feel like it.
It is in worshipping God when there are tears in our hearts, and in trusting Him when all we see is darkness and all we feel is despair.
It is in offering Him the impossibilities of our lives to do with as He wills. This also is the costly giving, especially when none other can see or know it.
It may be offering up an impossible memory or relationship or hurt. It may be that sin which we believe that is so far beyond forgiveness as to be unreal.
But whatever the impossible thing is: God loves a cheerful giver. Even, and especially, one with tears in the heart and soul.