LIFE THAT REALLY IS LIFE

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

November 12, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon

Psalm 16; 1 Timothy 6:13-21

“They are to do good, to be rich in good works,

generous, and ready to share, thus storing up

for themselves the treasure of a good foundation

for the future, so that they may take hold

of the life that really is life.”

1 Timothy 6:18-19

          It’s Veterans Day weekend: a time for honoring all those people who’ve put their lives on the line for our country. On Facebook, the photos have been coming fast and furious for days, now: old black-and-white snapshots of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who served in World War 2, or Korea, or Vietnam, or some more recent conflict.

This weekend we honor them for their selfless service.

When many Americans think of an example of a veteran who served with courage and distinction, a name that comes immediately to mind is Senator John McCain. A Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam, he served five and a half dreadful years in the primitive POW camp nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.”

If you follow the news, you know Senator McCain is facing a new challenge in his life. This past summer, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor. He’s had one surgery already. He’s vowed to continue serving in the Senate as long as he can, while receiving treatment.

McCain explained to Lesley Stahl, of TV’s 60 Minutes, how his doctor told him of his poor prognosis. “So I just said, ‘I understand. Now we’re gonna do what we can, get the best doctors we can find and do the best we can. And, at the same time, celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of too many other people, newly diagnosed with terminal cancer, who talk about “celebrating with gratitude.” But that’s John McCain. I suppose he learned long ago, in that prison camp, how essential it is to celebrate life — even with the prospect of death staring him in the face.

Not long after the Senator made his announcement, a woman named Jessica Morris — who has the same brain-tumor diagnosis — wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. She concluded that piece with these words:

“I imagine most people feel a surge of pity for Mr. McCain. I do, too. But I also feel something more powerful: solidarity. I wouldn’t wish membership in this club on anyone, Senator, but now that you’re a member, you’ll find the warmest of welcomes.

 My life has been changed profoundly by my glioblastoma. Mr. McCain’s life will be, too. But by finding a way to channel the terror of the diagnosis productively, I feel more alive today than ever.”

Wow. Just wow. “I feel more alive today than ever,” says the woman with an incurable brain tumor.

*****

          What is this miracle called “life,” that can rise up triumphant like that, in the face of inevitable death? What is this wonder — this super-power, for that’s what it is — with which our Creator has entrusted us, and which some of us, faced with challenges we scarcely imagined, actually figure out how to exercise?

The First Letter to Timothy supplies an answer. It shows up in the closing lines of the letter, which — oddly enough — have to do with generosity:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

“Take hold of the life that really is life,” says the author of the letter. This flies in the face of the way most of us are used to thinking — especially about money. Doesn’t wealth bring life, and doesn’t poverty lead to death?

You know what the gamblers down in Atlantic City say, don’t you, when they’re engaged in a long run at the slot machines or the blackjack table? They’ve lost a lot of money, but they’ve still got a little: just enough to keep on pushing the buttons, or ask the dealer for another hand. “I’m still alive,” they say, triumphantly — as though their little stack of chips or tokens (and the United States legal tender they symbolize) were somehow the fount of all life.

But they’re wrong, of course. So very wrong. Any sort of living that’s measured in greenbacks is not “the life that really is life.”

As the author of 1 Timothy teaches, it’s just the opposite. Those who are “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” are the ones who are truly alive. The apostle doesn’t speak here of the alternative, but if he did, he’d probably have some choice words for those who are so fearful of losing what they have that they never make an extravagant gift to anyone, or anything.

*****

          The church of Jesus Christ is especially dependent on givers who understand “the life that really is life.” These faithful disciples  know that completing an estimate of giving card is not an exercise of fear, but rather one of risky, extravagant joy!

It’s the sort of feeling many of us experience on Christmas morning — the adults, anyway. Most kids have not yet cultivated their gift of generosity: but grown-ups know what I’m talking about. On Christmas morning, sitting around and opening presents with the family, I do enjoy what other people give me, but it’s a far greater thrill to watch others whom I love open gifts I’ve carefully chosen and wrapped just for them — even though any member of my family will testify that I’m terrible at wrapping presents!

As you and I mature in our Christian faith, we discover that filling out an estimate of giving card — and fulfilling that promise week after week (or month after month) all through the year — is not a chore, but a joy. It’s a joy precisely because giving to others, to the glory of God, is a matter of taking hold of the life that really is life.

Today we’ve celebrated two baptisms. Two sets of parents have brought their precious children here, to the church, to undergo this ancient ritual of offering them up to God, so they may one day become disciples of Jesus Christ. Matt and Katie, Greg and Dana, are saying today that they want their children, Henry and Dove, to know this life that really is life. They want them, as they grow up, to become givers rather than takers.

*****

          Some of you today, I know, are new to this congregation. Maybe you’re here for the baptisms, to support your friends or family members in the promise they’re making. Or maybe you’re not, and you just happen to be here for the first time. Pardon me, but I have to spend a little time now, speaking to the members and friends of this congregation about the important work of financial giving. Maybe you’ll find something in what I say that will support you in your own spiritual life, and in your own faith-community, if you have one.

In the church of Jesus Christ, we need people with all kinds of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit sees to that, raising up men and women to fulfill particular tasks. Some of us are good at teaching young children. Others, at cooking a meal or singing in the choir. Some of us have a heart for mission beyond the walls of this church, and give of our time through ministries like Interfaith Hospitality Network or the Board of Deacons.

But this congregation — along with every other church that’s ever been — has a deep need for people whose spiritual gift is generosity. These are people who know the deep truth of the saying, attributed to Winston Churchill, that goes like this: “We make a living by what we get; but we make a life by what we give.”

If, as you sign your check for the Sunday offering, or set up your smartphone or computer for an electronic payment, you ever say to yourself, “I feel so inadequate, just giving money, when those other people who give of their time are doing the real work,” don’t ever think that again! What you do, in making generous gifts of money is of vital importance to Christ’s work.

The apostle Paul believed that. How do I know? Because he wrote about it in Romans 12:6-8:

“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation” — now, here’s the one I want you to notice — the giver, in generosity!” He goes on to complete the list: “the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”

Giving is a spiritual gift, my friends! We all have that gift to some degree. But some of us truly do have it more than others.

So, think about that — won’t you? — as you ponder your gifts to the church in the coming year. Search your heart. Ask yourself what God has gifted you to do — and, more than that, what God is calling you to do. Frank Perkowski shared last week that old joke about this church already having all the money it needs to do its work — the problem is, it’s still in our pockets! If you can step up today, in a spirit of overwhelming joy — akin to watching someone else open a present on Christmas morning — and write in an amount on that estimate of giving card that’s significantly greater than any amount you’ve given before, then you just may have that gift of generosity!

Maybe you’ve never made this kind of commitment before. Maybe it seems a little scary to make a promise to God, saying, “This is what I pledge to do for you this year, giving off the top, before I pay any other bills.” Maybe it seems a little scary to think of giving not a dollar here, or a dollar there, but a percentage of your income, dedicated to God’s work. But that’s how Christians are meant to give: systematically, sacrificially, generously. And do you know what’s the beautiful thing about giving proportionately — thinking in terms of a percentage, rather than a dollar amount? It truly is “one size fits all.” There’s no gift too small, in terms of dollars, if — according to the percentage of income on which it’s based — it’s an act of sacrifice.

For those who already calculate your giving proportionately, then the back of this year’s estimate of giving card offers a rough guide on where to go from here. Take one of those cards out now, and look at it. Take a look at the step-up chart printed there, and find the step where your giving presently is. Then, as you renew your commitment for this year, consider moving up to the next higher step. It’s that simple.

Your  Lord Jesus Christ needs you. He needs you to explore that spiritual gift of generosity, in supporting the work of this congregation. Oh, what we could accomplish together for him, if more of us discovered and deployed that beautiful, beautiful spiritual gift! What a work we could do in this community! What a difference we could make in the lives of others, by means of mission, near and far! What life we would offer to others, in Christ’s name: life that really is life!

Let us pray.

Lord, there is no one more generous than you:

offering to us the gift of life itself;

offering the gift of your son to be our Savior.

May we have not only the courage, but also the joy

to commit to your work today

a proportion of the wealth you have given us:

offered up freely, joyously, generously.

And, more than that, in that other currency of our lives —

the minutes and hours of each day —

may we make a similar commitment of our time,

living in every way the life that really is life.

In the name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.