Giving Hope . . .
Generosity Sermon preached by Laura Merrill
Psalm 130 Laurel Heights UMC October 11, 2020
I know that not all of us were raised in the church. But my daddy was a preacher, so I started out little; and I am of a certain age, so I remember the days when Sunday School classes took up an offering. Maybe some of you still do this. But as a little girl, I distinctly remember my mother giving me a nickel for the Sunday School offering—I think I probably carried it in the tiny purse that matched my shoes. When I got to my classroom, I would deposit my nickel in the little bank shaped like a church. I always felt like I had fulfilled my duty and that it was something special.
After Sunday School, my sister and I would sit in worship with my mother, and there we would demand that she give us both money to put in the offering plate as it passed by. We didn’t normally handle much money as little girls back then, and participating like the big people felt important. As I grew and sometimes had my own money, I think I gave some now and then. I don’t remember a lot of strict expectation around that in my home, but I would give to the CROP Walk or Trick or Treat for UNICEF or give a little on Sundays. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I actually adopted giving to the church as a regular discipline.
In the spring after I had taken my first post-college, full-time job, I had also become a member of the church where my father was pastor, and we were headed into the season of Lent. He encouraged all of us to commit to a list of disciplines for the season: meeting weekly with a covenant group, getting up early for daily devotionals and prayer, receiving weekly communion, doing a weekly act of service, fasting for at least one meal, and giving ten percent of our income. I remember thinking all of that was quite a stretch, but perhaps partly because I wasn’t alone, and partly because I have kind of a hyper-responsibility streak, I decided to give it a try. I don’t know why the giving stuck for me, even beyond that Lent and Easter, but it did. I think I was getting started supporting myself and was able and willing to work it into my monthly plan.
But a sense of hyper-responsibility and fiscal planning isn’t enough, I don’t think, for a person to continue to want to give a tenth of what she receives every month. Over time, something else has happened for me. These practices have worked with each other, worked on me to form me. I’ve done it all imperfectly; I’ve fallen off or away and had to decide to catch up, recommit. But over the years, as I’ve sat with the word of God and with writings of wise people and the reflections of my own heart, and as I’ve participated in the worship and ministry of the church, including by giving, what has emerged is a kind of weaving of these practices. They have intertwined with each other in a way that has crafted for me a fabric of identity.
When I read and sit with Psalm 130, when I let its deep-spirited prayer sing into and out of my own heart, I clothe myself in that fabric and remember who I am. I am a daughter of God who has cried out to God from the depths, more times than I can count or remember. You know if you’ve spent any time with the Psalms, what an amazing gift they are to us. They’re full of honesty and emotion, things you wouldn’t think you could or should say in church. It’s hard to have a thought or feeling that can’t be found someplace in these 150 prayers and songs.
In today’s psalm, we witness the groaning, the contemplation, the desire and hope of a person who has relationship with the living God and who finds herself in trouble. “Hear me! Hear my cry, my voice—use your ears, and listen to me!” This heart-call for relationship and connection with the Source of life, moves then to a recognition that maybe she hasn’t kept her end of the relationship bargain. If God’s gonna keep score, we are all in trouble. But in God is forgiveness, she reminds herself, she affirms aloud to God, she perhaps reminds God. She certainly reminds us. The One we follow is full of forgiveness and power to redeem.
And then in the psalm we move to the waiting, waiting for the Lord. Not the kind of waiting where the doctor is an hour late, or your spouse or kid can’t make it out of the house on time. No, this is the waiting that happens when you’re not sure what’s coming, or when you’re afraid that what’s coming will be really bad. You wait on the Lord in the middle of that. In the middle of the night, unable to let go and rest—because of the hurricane. Or the hospital room. Or the unanswered text. Or the test results that haven’t come back. Or the knowledge that you’ve messed it up big this time. We wait, down deep, and we hope, which in Spanish are the same word—esperar, waiting, hoping—and we look, in our trouble, for the sun to dawn again, for those first rays to gently dilute the darkness and then finally to overtake it entirely.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
There’s a reason that line is repeated at the center of this psalm, and it resonates in us, beyond words. Because our need of hope in this life, of forgiveness and assurance and welcome, of light in the darkness—this need is core to our identity. Especially as people of faith, people who have come to know the living God and to tap that life as our own—we can do no other than to wait upon the Lord, to hope in God’s good word, which is full of grace.
Friends in Christ, this is why I give. I owe my life, I owe any good I have ever done to the love of God, and the place where I have learned to claim and grow in that love is right here. At this table, with this book, with this community. We are flawed and learning and incomplete. But I don’t know where else I would go. I give to the church, not because it is God, nor where God lives; nor because it is perfect; nor because it never disappoints me. I give as an act of hope, to remind myself of who I am, and where my primary allegiance lies.
Because in this world, that’s easy to forget. We all know that money promises a lot of things. It certainly provides for basic survival and well-being in many ways, and in our society, it’s essential and as such it becomes a matter of justice. But money promises way more than that. “Enough” money will give you power and security, fulfillment and beauty, and a hedge against death—at least according to the line we’ve all heard since the invention of people and their invention of money. This is the promise, but the truth we know is that money won’t get you through the waiting in the middle of the night. Not having it can keep you from sleeping, to be sure. But having it cannot heal the deep wound or still the storm or make the sun come up. What it can do is allow you to invest yourself back into the source of your life. When you regularly loosen your grip on one of the biggest rivals God has in this world, it changes how you perceive yourself and your life. Giving of whatever you have to God, in an amount large enough for you to feel it, is a radical act of identity. It’s an act that helps our souls find their home.
The twentieth century Black Christian mystic, Howard Thurman, wrote:
The urge to share as an offering of the heart that which has deepest meaning is at bottom the hunger for God. It is deep calling unto deep. Offerings may be made to other human beings… But such offerings do not satisfy, nor do they bring peace to the spirit. …[O]nly when the offering is seen as being made to the Highest, to God, however crude may be the altar upon which it rests, is the deep need in us all satisfied and our spirits come into the great Peace.
I am grateful for my mother and father, who helped teach me, nickel by nickel, who I am. I am grateful for the gathered community of Christ that is the church, where I learned to recognize the sound of deep calling to deep. I am grateful for the word of God, which every day opens an invitation to new life. Today’s piece of that word, this treasure of prayer, handed down through the millenia by generations of faithful, hopeful hearts and hands, gives us a garment of identity. It’s a place where we can find ourselves and find joy in our dependence on the gift God offers us, every day. It is a privilege to give a part of our earthly treasure, not to earn or comply or be responsible, but in gratitude for the gift of knowing who we are. My offering, our offering—may it be one way we wait in love for the Lord, and there may our souls find their great peace.
Waiting for Divine Redemption
A Song of Ascents.
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.