Not In This Alone
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
We’re not in this alone. Is that good news? The Corinthians weren’t so sure. In today’s first reading, we catch part of a fundraising letter to them from Paul. One could question his rhetorical tactics – is it ever right, for example, for one person to test the genuineness of another’s love? - but undergirding all of it is a core conviction: We are all part of the same human family and, in this case, the same body of Christ. Our needs are connected by definition, regardless of distance or differences in language or culture or class. We can talk in terms of an ecosystem if we like, or of what Dr. King called an “inescapable network of mutuality.” Or we could state it more pointedly: No one is inherently more or less important than anyone else in God’s eyes. There is no first class; or maybe there’s only first class. When it comes to compassion and generosity, God at least is equal opportunity.
How can that be anything other than good news? Well, when you’re an overachieving Corinthian Gentile, it means that Paul won’t just praise you for your striving. For a year now, he has been asking the Gentile congregations he founded to support a group of Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem – people they’ve never met and will likely never meet. The Corinthians responded positively at first, but some didn’t fulfill their pledges. Paul knows they’re a competitive bunch; they always want to know who among them is wise, how they can score higher on what they see as the Christianity test. So, Paul tells them how generous the Macedonians have been; they don’t want to be shown up by the Macedonians, do they?
We might wish for Paul not to make comparisons like this, but sometimes they’re necessary. In a culture that constantly tells us we never have enough, we don’t always know what’s generous by looking at our resources alone. Another’s example can stretch our sense of what’s possible. Besides, we’re bound to make the comparisons anyway. All too often, we gauge our giving based on who we think can afford to give more.
To Paul’s credit, he realizes that our definitions of generosity vary widely. While some of us need to be reminded to give with an open mind and a non-anxious heart, others give beyond what’s reasonable to their detriment. To be clear, God does not ask for what we don’t have, and no church worthy of the name should either. Or as Paul puts it, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has.” Our abundance in this moment might be exactly what someone else truly needs. And Paul reminds us - seasons of need come to us all. The need may or may not be financial; it might be physical or emotional or social. We might be sick or scared or lonely. It’s a gift in such moments, particularly when we who have been generous have a hard time asking for help, to know that others can and should be there for us too.
The Corinthians aren’t the only ones who struggle with God’s refusal to give extra credit. Some feel that tension in today’s Gospel as well. You see, Jesus has just returned from the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. Some wondered what he was doing there with “those people” when there were plenty of his “own kind” to heal back home. We don’t know how long Jairus, a local synagogue leader, had been waiting. But as soon as Jesus steps off the boat, Jairus is there – begging for Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter. While on the way, Jesus feels someone touch the hem of his robe. He feels power going forth from him.
He could have just let it go, but he doesn’t. Whomever he just healed is just as important and valuable as the person he’s going to next. A poor, chronically ill woman comes forward. She was considered socially and ritually impure. She couldn’t touch or be touched without making others unclean. By seeking her out, inviting her voice, and making her healing visible and public, Jesus restores her not just to health but to her community. And he rightly names her courage to tell the whole truth what it is - “faith.”
All of this is great, unless you’re Jairus. You have nothing against this woman; you might be glad that Jesus healed her. But she’s not your daughter, and time’s running out. When you hear that your child has died, you have to wonder about Jesus’ ability to triage, to prioritize. In this case, it all turns out; Jesus gets there, awakens the girl to new life, and two daughters are healed that day.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, though, it’s that it doesn’t always work out so neatly. We’ve all seen unresolvable losses, and try as we might, we can’t ultimately isolate ourselves and pretend that the suffering doesn’t touch us. Our needs are connected by definition, and the millions of lives lost this past year – near and far – they diminish us all.
Not all lives are given equal value in our world, of course; but let’s be honest - we’re the ones who do the devaluing, not God. And it’s understandable to a point. While God’s resources might be unlimited, ours are not. We do have to make choices about when and how to be generous. But let’s not pretend for a moment that our criteria match God’s – or that we’re even capable of deciding another person’s value. So, what do we do? We pray, we learn from our mistakes and the wisdom of others, we partner up and pool our efforts, we give generously according to what we have – and by the grace of God, we do more together than we ever could on our own. We are not in this alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.