In 1989, I was in South Africa on a mission trip. The Dutch Reformed Church taught that it was God’s intent to separate people. Not a very loving thing to do, to separate, divide and conquer. Apartheid was the rule of the land. I will never forget meeting with Desmond Tutu, who spoke out that apartheid was both a social and spiritual wrong. Desmond Tutu was God’s voice of love’s selfless giving. He also told me to pray. To pray for the political leaders in his country to see the error and harm of apartheid. To pray for the spiritual leaders in his country to come together in unity for the unity of a separated people.
The texts in 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Luke 16:1-13 speak to the necessity of recognizing the slow erosion in one’s experience of Christian community and how holding on to the past will not fix anything. Holding on to the past is not selfless. It is selfish. 1 Timothy asserts that conversion moves us into “the knowledge of the truth.” Truth is a conviction that is based on evidence. Faith is a conviction that God is trustworthy regardless of the evidence. Jeremiah’s joy was gone. Grief was upon him. It was the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. Jeremiah was God’s voice calling the people back home. The people’s heart was far from God. They became more and more distant from God. A few lamented the condition. And Luke 16 delineates that only as we relinquish the hold of wealth and power upon us, are we able to be effective followers of Jesus. Wealth and power are not the balm of Gilead. The balm is when words and deeds of followers of Jesus bring light into the darkness of others experience. The right use of wealth and power invites others to find strength in believing in Jesus’ way. The manager had squandered the owner’s funds. So he went to the owner’s debtors and reduced the amount they owed so that when he lost his job, they’d welcome him. The owner affirmed the manager for his shrewd ability to get some of the money back. A strange parable indeed. But it is a lesson on grace and how the children of light must give grace to others in order for more people to be welcomed into God’s eternal home. And, as we practice grace, we understand being welcomed into God’s eternal home. Grace is often shrewd. Dishonesty is always shrewd. Both have benefits. However, the benefits of dishonesty are short-lived whereas the benefits of grace are long-term. Using wealth and power as acts of grace, the balm of Gilead, addresses the spiritual and moral crisis humans face.
Prayer taps us into love’s selfless giving. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face…is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner. This is a happy discovery for the Christian who begins to pray for others.” Prayer is the quintessential spiritual discipline. Our prayers, as a community and individuals, bind others and us to Jesus. God’s voice is heard in prayer. We and others are led to forgiveness and repentance. And God uses prayer to expose our selfishness.
Jesus told us that the Church will never die, “But churches have and are dying.” Why is that? The past becomes a powerful hero and blinds us to the reality of slow erosion. Thom S. Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Church writes,
Most of the churches in America that close don’t shut the doors over a single or few cataclysmic events. In most of the cases, the issue was slow erosion…The most pervasive and common thread…was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year…And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.”
Openness to change, however, gets us in touch with love’s selfless giving. When we recognize the slow erosion of what the church is to be and confess making the past a hero it cannot be, we are greeted by God’s selfless love.
Bishop Tutu was speaking about lifestyle evangelism, my friends, when the group I led to South Africa gathered at his residence that day in 1989. Bishop Tutu taught us that Christians are to use their wealth and power to influence others for change. Love’s selfless giving is all about using wealth and power to serve God’s purposes. My friends, God is passionate about loving people. Are you passionate about loving God and others through your wealth and power?
Recognize slow erosion. Let go of the past. The past can be an anchor. In this case, the anchor is not a steadying effect. It plunges us deeper into despair. God did for us what we could not, cannot do for ourselves. God frees us from the anchor of the past. Let’s stop trying to keep the church like it was. Let’s participate with God in making the church what it needs to be, a place where we and others, the broken, come for the healing balm of Gilead, love’s selfless giving. Jesus loves you selflessly. How are you doing with loving selflessly? Loving selflessly is when you give away your wealth and power, for the benefit of others. Let’s get at it. Let’s stem slow erosion and take the past off its pedestal.
In this paragraph, I have benefited from the thinking of Robert W. Wall, Magrey R. DeVega, Joseph J. Clifford, Allie Utley, Donald K. McKim and Lynn Japinga in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery and Cynthia L. Rigby, editors, Connections, Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 328-330, 330-331, 321-323, 323-324, 332-334 and 334-336.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), 86.
Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 7.