For the final message of the Hidden Heroes series, I left Colossians 4 and went to Romans 16.
Some complicated but (I think) ultimately sound reasoning.
1. I knew we needed a “shero” — after six weeks of male heroes, I felt the church needed to hear about an early church heroine.
2. The only female in the Colossians 4 roll call has the name of . . . Nympha. I honestly didn’t think I couldn’t on that name in English with a straight face.
3. In Romans 16, Phoebe’s brief reference centers on generosity, and that was a subject we needed to reinforce at Good Shepherd.
So here is the Sugar Momma Hero, a message with this bottom line: Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.
One of the most gripping descriptions of what Ebola is like in Liberia comes from Aryn Baker of TIME magazine:
It is strange to be in a place where you can’t touch anything: no shaking hands, no comforting a woman whose mother has just died, no tap on the back when you want to get someone’s attention. I never thought before how much touching is a part of how we communicate, she says. I saw a little girl the same age as my daughter fall down in the street the other day, and it went against every instinct I have as a mother not to rush in and pick her up. One of the nurses at the temporary orphanage I visited told me that sometimes she puts on a protective suit just so she could hug a crying child in need of comfort.
I saw a headline that went along with it: Ebola’s cultural casualty in Liberia: Hugs. Sad, sad stuff when touch gets taken away.
Because I know you, you people of Good Shepherd. I see you with your families, with the ones you love, I see your desire to help even people you don’t know. I know that you want to help in dire situations, and I know from watching you in Kenya, India, Haiti, and Guatemala that you love to touch, you love to hold, and that children in particular are on your heart.
Yet there are a lot of ways in which you feel something like those parents and those volunteers in Monrovia: your touch only goes so far. Because of geography and circumstance and time . . . you have a life here. You have your own health to protect here. And so although you want to touch more people – maybe to comfort some, to teach others, offer water, or even do work with your hands like build a house or dig a well – circumstances prevent it. I know in my case I have a friend in prison in VA and that distance and those circumstances make speaking difficult enough, much less a strong handshake or an affirming hug. My touch is so limited.
And as we wind up Hidden Heroes, we come to a Shero TODAY. Her name is Phoebe and she is not from Friends (AV, Lisa Kudrow), nor is she from Colossians 4 where we have been parked this month. Instead, Phoebe appears at the tail end of the book of Romans, in the same kind of section of that letter – all the greetings, the names, the salutations – that we have explored on Colossians 4. Paul is writing this letter from Corinth and it will be delivered to Rome (AV map). And here at the conclusion he drops a clue as to who is the actual deliverer of the letter: READ
16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon[a][b] of the church in Cenchreae. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you
So – his words here are almost like a letter of reference for the person carrying the letter in the first place. Phoebe probably shows up unannounced at one of the house churches that make up the church in Rome, says “hi,” and all of a sudden needs some credibility, some bona fides, so that this church will trust her. Paul knows all that in advance and so he inserts this brief letter of recommendation. But you know what all that means?
Phoebe carried the letter. From Cenchraea, which was a suburb of Corinth (its Steele Creek?) and so she was given the task of undertaking that long and dangerous journey to deliver the letter. Courage, craziness, responsibility all wrapped up into one! Which brings up the whole & very interesting question about the role of women in leadership in the early church. Some NT sections advocate against it – even to the point of silence – and yet other NT sections (like here) indicate something else entirely was going on and so this is one of those conversations with the bible that continues beyond the bible and of course I would ask, “what would we do WITHOUT women who were strong leaders in the church?” And Phoebe, courageous land-traveler that she was, is among the first for sure.
But there’s more to this she-daredevil letter deliverer. Paul tells the Roman church to whom she will deliver his letter to help her when she arrives. Why? Because:
for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
So she apparently was well-off. A woman of independent means with likely an independent streak. I say that because according to the text, she has been the benefactor, the patron to many people including Paul hisself! You know what that means? She was Paul’s Sugar Momma! He needed money to finance his ministry, to underwrite his letter writing, to support his travel, to extend the churches and apparently she provided it. She must have known that Paul a unique ability with his writing and preaching and simply by the force of his personality to multiply ministry, to make the name of Jesus famous in a way she never could. She could touch dozens with her ministry; she knew Paul could touch thousands with his. We don’t know how or when she came to faith . . . all we knew is that she saw a capacity in Paul that she lacked in herself and she decided to invest in him. And her investment in him became an investment in the fame of Jesus. Supporting Paul permitted Phoebe to have an influence that circumstances (geography & gender?) prevented.
And I can hardly fathom the significance of the fact that she delivered Romans. Now it was pretty cool the Tychicus (from 10.12.14) delivered Colossians but no matter how much I love that book even I have to admit its influence does not measure up to Romans. The letter to the Romans is Paul’s version of Beethoven’s 9th, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of George Lucas’ Star Wars, of the Eagles’ Hotel California, of Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart (play clip) . . . in other words, in terms of influence it is his Best. Letter. Ever. Influenced the church massively in its history, reinforcing periodically that truth that we don’t have to DO anything to earn God’s favor; that’s been DONE for us in Christ. It’s called grace. Even for us Methodist, Romans has this enduring influence because that’s the book that set John Wesley on fire and his fire turned into to the Methodist movement. Of all the books in the biblical library this one might have the most reach of them all.
And Phoebe not only delivered it; she underwrote it. Her money made this masterpiece possible. She realized that her resources were to resource the spread of Jesus’ fame. Her own words and presence likely would not have had the same impact, but she enabled it to happen. Why? Because her money allowed her reach to exceed her touch. And that’s what’s true for us today. You’re not going to walk from Corinth to Rome. You’re not going to deliver the letter to the Romans. You’re not going to influence John Wesley. But but but you – You! Your money – whether you live in an abundance of it or you struggle to eke out an existence – your money allows your reach to exceed your touch. Because, like Phoebe, your touch is limited by geography, circumstance, and time. Yet your money given to God for the advancement of the kingdom and the fame of the king extends and exceeds all that. It has a multiplier effect. I mean look at what Phoebe’s money is still doing!
My goodness. I can’t speak for money given to all churches or all non-profits, but I can say something about here. A dollar you give her trains pastors in India and those same pastors baptize people away from the worship of local gods into the worship of the infinite Christ.
Another dollar provides those same pastors with bicycles to travel from village to village.
A dollar given here trains business leaders in Russia . . . and uses US-based training as an entrée into sharing faith. A dollar given here helps to restore the body, mind, and spirit of an adolescent girl rescued from domestic sex trafficking in the Hope House. It serves lunch at Dove’s Nest. It allows our ministries to children and students. Think of it! Some of you can’t are scared of teens and can’t talk to children. You may not do that ministry, but your generosity ensures that the ministry happens. Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.
Now is it OK if I name what’s going on in the room right now? There is some natural objection occurring. Especially for those of you who aren’t really sure where you stand with Jesus. You’ve heard that all we want is your money and now it seems as if that is the case. And others of you arebelievers in Jesus; you’re money just hasn’t gone where your faith is. And so you hold on to your money. You hold on to it so tightly that it holds on to you. You’re holding on to it with such tenacity that there’s no way it helps your reach exceed your touch. Almost like the guy in Germany who had a “friend” cut off his thumb and forefinger so he could collect insurance money. For real! But the 8 fingered crook got caught and is now serving time for insurance fraud. Oh, that’s extreme but it does show what happens when your money holds you tight instead of you holding it loosely. Because what you keep increases your anxiety but what you give produces serenity.
So . . . what? I invite non-givers here to become % givers. Find a % and stick with it all the way through Christmas. I suspect you won’t miss it because it wasn’t yours to begin with. And you’re not just a non-giver but you are a non-believer as well, please hear this: even if you don’t believe in Christ, your soul still needs for you to give your money. Somewhere. Put someone else in front of you in the line. Choose the Salvation Army or the Rescue Mission or a charity you believe in. And don’t give randomly; give with a purpose and to a percentage. 2%, 3%, whatever. Find one and stick to it. See?! We don’t want your money . . . but we DO want you to understand that giving more of it away is the key to your emotional health and we believe to your financial health as well. Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.
And to those of you who are % givers . . . man, I invite you to increase that %. Move it towards that OT standard called the tithe, which is 10% of your income. That’s where Julie and I started out as newlyweds, and we have never missed what is not ours. And if you want to move more to the realm of NT giving, listen to the Spirit but be prepared because in the NT church he almost never said that 10% was enough. They tended to give it all. Julie and I started out at that 10% as newlyweds 30 years ago but for the last 15 years or so we’ve been inching well beyond the 10%. We never miss what’s not ours to begin with. Why? Out of obligation? No! But because I want my reach to far exceed my touch. I can’t touch all the kids personally here, but I can make sure it’s done. I can’t touch all the Russians, but can make sure it’s done. Even though I go to India, I can’t touch the 36 million ppl in Orissa, but I can make sure it gets done. It’s almost like that guy who said to his pastor, “I don’t think I can give a tenth, preacher. Is it OK if I just give a fourth?” REFRAIN.
And young people, just making your way, you’d probably give anything to tithe that first million, wouldn’t you? Well you know the best way to tithe on your first million? Tithe on your first one. Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.
That’s no doubt what Phoebe, the Sugar Momma Hero, did. Her reach went much, much farther than her touch. Her money made a masterpiece possible. May yours as well.