Sunday, June 30, 2013

Luke 9:51-62

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” 

In 1962, President John F Kennedy signed a proclamation establishing a national youth fitness week.  This meant that each year, every single student had to work toward receiving the Presidential fitness award.  The test was grueling and included sit ups, pull ups, running and walking.  It measured muscular strength, cardio-respiratory endurance, speed, agility, and flexibility – all the factors needed to maintain a healthy level of physical fitness.  According to the presidential proclamation, these would “assure the continuing strength and well-being of our people.”  

I admit, I rather enjoyed the challenge.  In fact, I have one of those presidential awards in my keepsake box.  Receiving it was a great accomplishment for me – something to be proud of.   I must confess though – each year when I lied on the floor while my partner held my feet and counted my sit ups, I had no idea that it was for the benefit of the country…..  if I had, I may have never have allowed this body to get into the shape it is in today…………….

Physical fitness takes a lot of work, exercising muscles in the body that we never knew we had, eating right, and following a healthy diet.  Unfortunately, I have come to like relaxation and eating too much.  And even though I know the risks of my behavior, I lack the discipline and focus I need for physical fitness.  

But physical fitness is only one aspect of a person’s well-being.  Although the Presidential fitness award focused only on the physical aspect of wholeness for the sake of our country, he also mentioned spiritual fitness in his proclamation.  Like physical fitness, it takes discipline, practice, and exercise to build the kind of spiritual discipline that makes an impact on our world.
I think Jesus would have agreed that the well being of creation is dependent on the physical, mental, and spiritual wholeness of humankind.  It just so happens that restoring wholeness was at the heart of his ministry on earth and continues to be the heart of Christian ministry today.  

Until now, the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus as the one who will bring about restoration to Israel, saving  them from oppression.  His ministry is marked by compassion and love as he casts out demons, heals people, and makes them whole again.  He associates with the outcasts, eats with sinners, and proclaims the good news of God’s love for ALL people – even those who fall short of righteousness according to the law.  

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ remarks to his followers are so harsh that one writer chose the title “Jesus the Jerk” for his essay about this text.  First, Jesus rebukes his disciples for sticking up for him against a group of unbelieving Samaritans.  Then he scorns the perfectly reasonable requests of prospective followers: one who wanted to take care of his father who is on his deathbed and the other who wishes to tell his family members goodbye before leaving them to follow Jesus.
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”


That really hurts!  Jesus’ words can feel like a condemnation, especially since most of us can relate to this request since we spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror of our lives.  

I don’t know about you, but I like to think of Jesus as always being full of grace, understanding, and extraordinary compassion for his disciples But the Jesus in this text is confusing.  His response seems to call our fitness for the kingdom of God into question.  The way he reacts to James, John, and his would be followers seems cranky and I can’t help wondering why. 

Sometimes, seeing a text from a different perspective helps to answer these kinds of questions.  So let’s take a moment and look at this story from Jesus’ point of view rather than our own. 
Although we often focus on the perfect, godly side of Jesus – we also believe that he was fully human and what he is about to experience will test every ounce of his being.  Biblical scholars tell us that our Gospel lesson today is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem.  He has just told his disciples that he is going there to be lifted up – not in glory, but in humiliation.  There he will suffer – physically and spiritually – even to the point of wondering why God has forsaken him. 
Everything that he does from here on has a sense of urgency.  His task is monumental.  He doesn’t have a lot of time to teach his disciples about faith – to instill in them a new vision of God’s Kingdom and how his journey toward Jerusalem will change every facet of their lives.  This is serious business, and so far he hasn’t made much headway.

The people who should know better don’t.  Despite following Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry, James and John have just failed discipleship 101, forgetting about several of Jesus’ key lessons, like the one telling them to shake the dust off their feet, and the other about God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.     

Those who have received the benefit of his love are now rejecting him.  Jesus spent much of his time in Luke’s Gospel with the Samaritans.  He had spent a lot his time moving from village to village, attempting to break down the barriers that separated them from his own people and building trust.  Despite his work there, one town will not receive him when they realize that he is headed back to Jerusalem, the city that embodies the roots of Samaritan enmity with Israel.  

Some people are still flocking to him.  They want to be a part this new movement or to witness the miracles.  Many follow him based on their belief that he will be the Messiah who will overthrow the Roman government and make them the great nation they once were.  But, despite their enthusiasm, they have other priorities that keep them from understanding the urgency of Jesus’ mission.  One wishes to complete the expected mourning period for his father – which by the way is one year long.  The other wants to go back to say good-bye.  Jesus makes it clear.  Life with him means giving up everything else, including security, family, traditions, duty, and old values.  

Clearly, none of them really get it, and Jesus has very little time to teach them.  Is there any wonder that his words to them are blunt and stinging?  He knows that the only way to accomplish this plan is to stay focused.  He must move ahead with urgency to spread the radical message of God’s Kingdom.  It is a message that will turn everyone’s understanding of faith and righteousness upside down.  

To those who could not fully commit, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  

Perhaps these harsh words to would-be followers are just as much for himself.  When he, like us, is tempted by distractions, these words will give him the strength and focus he needs to endure what is ahead.  Otherwise, there will be NO resurrection, NO new life, NO gift of the Holy Spirit for everyone, and NO final restoration for all people.  If HE looks back now, even he will not be fit for the kingdom of God.

Because of his steadfast journey, we have been the gift of new life, and made inheritors of  God’s Kingdom.  We have also received the gift of the Spirit to help us live into the promise of this new life.  It is a gift that comes with only one responsibility.  It cannot be kept for oneself and it must be shared.  Paul states it best saying, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

This kind of self-giving love does not come easily.  But it begins with a life of gratitude for what we have – physically, spiritually, and eternally.  

In the last three weeks, we have been challenged to think about our financial support of the ministry here at Our Savior’s.  Giving is an important part of our faith life, one of several marks of discipleship.  Just as exercise helps to make us physically fit, giving helps to make us spiritually fit to do God’s kingdom work.  

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  

These words haunted me this week as I stared at my blank commitment card.  Working toward a tithe has been extremely difficult for me and probably for most of you too.  Our physical needs are important.  It is natural that we worry about them.  There is always the threat of lost income due to things beyond our control: lay-offs or retirement, the loss of buying power due to inflation and a slow economy, health issues, unreliable vehicles, or homes that need major repairs.  Unfortunately, they can be a distraction that gets in the way of spiritual growth built on experiencing God’s abundance. 
There are also more subtle and insidious threats to our spiritual fitness.  They include the mistaken belief that we are the masters of our own destination; that God helps those who help themselves; and that most of the time, people are the cause of their own suffering.  

Even those who work hard to reach the goal of tithing can fall into a trap.  The achievement of reaching a tithe can become more important than spiritual growth through giving.  It can produce false pride that serves to judge others for their inability to move to the same place.  

If we look at all of these attitudes about giving through the lens of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, we will find that we, like the people in our text today, just don’t get it.  Unlike the President’s test that recognizes achievement based on the number of physical exercises a person can do, the amount we give does not measure our spiritual fitness.  Instead, intentionally thinking about our giving helps us to grow spiritual; it is a lifelong endeavor.  

Although we might be tempted to give up on the practices that help to support spiritual fitness, Jesus doesn’t give up on us.  He understands our struggles and his words today beckon us to keep our focus on God.  His words encourage us to filter every decision we make as stewards of God’s gifts through the lens of the Gospel, the Word that literally turns our world upside down and releases us from bondage to ourselves. 

We are lucky enough to know the rest of the story.  God loves us so much that he entered into the world to walk WITH us.  He experienced the joy, pain, and even the struggle to be faithful so that we might experience freedom from the yoke of self-indulgence in order to serve and love one another by offering God’s wholeness to a hurting and broken world. 

Today, we offer our commitments not just to the ministry of this church, but to our generous and loving God who has provided enough for the whole world.  Our commitment isn’t easy, and it requires discipline… but in the end, when we offer every part of ourselves back to God – body, mind, spirit, and gifts of time and talents, we will discover that we receive far more than we have given. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
     What would we do without them?  One day several years ago, I needed to go the main post office in Holyoke for a passport.  As I was coming home, I took a left on High Street.  The problem was, it wasn’t High St.  It was Maple St, and I was traveling in the wrong direction because I was distracted by other thoughts and didn’t see the street sign OR the one way sign on the corner.  The one sign I couldn’t miss though was the sight of all the cars coming straight at me!  
      The writer of John’s Gospel uses a series of seven signs to reveal something about us and God’s relationship with us.  But just as we can be distracted on the road and miss some important street signs, we are often too distracted by the things in our lives – both good and bad, to see signs of God’s presence around us or to even recognize our need for it.  A series of stories unique to the gospel of John serve to point us in the right direction.  The story of the wedding at Cana is the first sign we find there.
      In Jesus’ time, weddings were a HUGE event, much as they are now.  Except they lasted for a full week!  During that time, the bridegroom provided the guests with everything they needed for a joyous celebration – including an open bar!  Mary, Jesus and some of his disciples are guests at this wedding that is about end abruptly.  For the bridegroom to run out of wine would have been humiliating.  Wine was not only the normal beverage served at meals, it was also a symbol of joy and of God’s abundant blessings on the marriage.  Somehow, Mary discovers what is about to happen and turns to Jesus, the one person she knows can rectify the situation and save the bridegroom’s honor. 
     Although reluctant at first, Jesus comes through in an extraordinary way.  He instructs the servants to fill six of the stone jars normally used for purification and he transforms the water into wine.  We aren’t talking about the equivalent of a case of Boone’s Farm Apple wine here, but 120 – 180 gallons of the finest wine available - like the $200 dollar a bottle Bordeaux wine I saw online.  Despite the extravagance of it, this miracle seems rather anticlimactic in comparison to some of the miracles mentioned in the other Gospels. 
      There isn’t a whole lot of fanfare going on.  The guests do not know the extent of the miracle because their palates have been dulled after three days of celebration.  In addition, Jesus didn’t come from a line of wealthy people.  So it’s probably safe to assume that the bridegroom and his family wouldn’t  have been exposed to fine tastes, and therefore would not have been able to recognize or even appreciate the richness of such a wine.  The wine steward knew the quality, but he mistakenly attributed the wine’s appearance to the bridegroom.  Imagine his surprise when the steward sang his praises for saving the best wine for last!  Only the servants, Mary, and Jesus’ disciples know what’s happened.  The disciples belief is strengthened because of it.  But except for them, this “sign” seems to be almost unnoticed.
      Not so for the gospel writer’s readers though.  Familiar with the words of the prophets, the Jewish audience would recognize the lavish outpouring of wine as a sign of the Messiah - God’s incarnation present and active in the world.  Similarly, this story was significant to the Greek audience who had heard legends associating the presence of a deity with the image of flowing and abundant wine.  For them, this story offered supportive evidence of Jesus’ divinity.  It also offers a taste of God’s over-abundance – this wine was beyond what the bridegroom needed for the remainder of the celebration.  Some might even say it was wasted on people who couldn’t even appreciate its quality. 
      This story of water, poured into stone vessels and transformed into fine wine for the sake of undeserving people points to God’s extravagant grace poured out for all through Jesus.  It’s natural for us to try to put limits on God’s abundance and grace, especially in a culture that associates hard work with high reward.  This belief often crosses into our faith life too.  God’s unlimited and undeserved grace - it is inconceivable to us.  We work hard to earn God’s grace – to feel as if we deserve salvation.   Likewise, we often judge others according to our own moral codes and not by God’s grace.  In our self-righteousness and never-ending struggle to earn God’s love and secure own salvation, we shut out God and miss the signs of God’s deep and abiding love for us.  Despite our unbelief, God continues to reach out to us. 
      One way God demonstrates this abundant grace is through the waters of baptism, a sign of God’s presence in the church today.  Present in the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit transforms us and equips each of us with spiritual manifestations.  The flowing waters of baptism cannot be contained, but continue to flow out of us for the common good.  Wisdom, knowledge, faith and healing are visible signs of God’s presence in the world.   
      Sometimes, it is easier to see the signs of God’s spirit at work in the world.  This week, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.  And in this celebration, it is easy to see the Spirit’s work in his life as he worked to use non-violent means to bring about equality for those who had experienced so much injustice. 
      And it is easy to see signs of the spirit’s work in Mother Theresa, who gave of herself in service to the poor.    Signs of God’s abundant love are evident here too: in our worship, in our gift of hospitality, in the sharing of our faith, and in our willingness to serve one another and the community around us. 
      But it isn’t always so easy to the signs of God’s grace in the mundane places in our lives: in the parents who struggle to make ends meet and whose hearts break for their children; in the dead of winter; or in the brokenness of the world. 
      Sometimes, we even have trouble seeing the signs of the Holy Spirit in our lives and recognizing how we are being transformed into visible signs of God’s presence in the world.  I know it is for me.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I feel more like an obstacle than a visible sign of God’s presence.  Perhaps you do too. 
      One day several years ago, I expressed this thought to a close friend.  Two weeks later, I received a card from her.  Inside, I found a pin in the shape of a diamond.  It was yellow, like one of the road construction signs we often see on the highways.  Printed on it were the words, “God at work.”  She included a note in the card that said, “Every day, remember your baptism – let that be the sign of God’s work.  Even when you don’t see it or feel it, you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit and I see it in you.” 
      What a gift she gave to me.  That day, she was a sign of God’s presence in my life.  Although I had missed the signs; she pointed me back to God’s continuous work in my life and reminded me to trust in God’s promise.  I still have that pin.  It is on denim jacket as a reminder to look for the signs of God’s abundant love poured out for me, for you, and for the world. 

Signs, what would we do without them?????

Let us pray - Lord, you gave us the sign of water transformed into wine. Distracted by the party, drunk with other desires, we noticed not. So it is with your signs. You put them everywhere, make them large and small, plain and subtle, but we do not see them. And should we see them, we know not how to read them. But you are the Word made visible. Grant us the grace to see the signs of your handiwork, that we might know your healing power, your persistent grace, your undying love  incarnate in Jesus Christ and in those who follow his signs to eternal life by the grace of God. Amen.
NOTE:  The above prayer was written by Paul Bellan-Boyer and used with his permission for this sermon.  For more of his writings, see his Blog City Called Heaven.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

John 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The countdown to Christmas is in full swing, and in case you haven’t heard, there are only nine more shopping days until Christmas!  Many of us are still frantically trying to pull it all together for the big day.  There are still gifts to be wrapped, cookies to be baked, and meals to be planned and prepared. 

Even in the church, the preparation for Christmas takes on a life of its own.  The colors on the altar change to blue.  The Advent wreath becomes a part of our morning worship liturgy.  We even gather on Wednesday evenings during the week to share a sacred meal and reflect on Jesus’ birth and what it means in our lives. 
Today, we lit the third candle of our Advent wreath that traditionally signifies joy, even though are hearts are heavy in the wake of the recent tragedy in Connecticut.  The idea of proclaiming joy seems inconsistent with our reality.  How can we proclaim joy to the world when it seems that evil could have the power to extinguish the flames of light heralding the coming of God’s Kingdom. 

Two days ago, the countdown to Christmas progressed as usual.  But life has a way changing our direction, and the terrible events in a town much like ours brings us to our knees.  Today, we light the third candle in our Advent wreath, praying that somehow the light of Christ will not be extinguished but will continue to shine in a world of pain and suffering.  And as we wait for God’s kingdom to be realized, we wonder – Lord, how long will it be? 

The people flocking to see John in the wilderness knew the pain of suffering too.  They lived in a time of oppression at the hands of the Roman government.  Their dream of being the great nation that God had promised them to be was almost forgotten.  Still, there was hope because they knew that their current situation was part of an all too familiar pattern.  Their history and the beloved stories of their journey with God reveal a cycle that began as a promise from God to make the children Abraham into a great nation.  At first, they believed God and enjoyed a measure of prosperity.  But at the first sign of trouble, the people rebelled and turned away from God.  When they did, God seemed distant and the promise became a seemly unattainable dream.  In frustration and fear, they cried out to God who heard their cries.  Just when all seemed lost, God would send a chosen one to lead them out of bondage.  For awhile, they would live in peace, worshipping God and enjoying God’s blessings – until they rebelled and turned away again.

When John came on the scene, the people of Israel were in a state of bondage – this time to the Romans.  Once again, God’s promise seemed to be a distant and unattainable dream and they were crying out for freedom.  The religious leaders were trying to turn things around, paying closer attention to the details of the law in order to prove they were worthy of deliverance.  Surely, God would hear their cry and their efforts would be enough for God to send them the Messiah who would release them from oppression.  So they flocked to John and to his baptism of forgiveness in an attempt to wash away everything that was keeping them from living in God’s promise. 

We can imagine their dismay when they heard what John had to say.  They were seeking the promise of forgiveness and restoration.  Instead, they heard words of judgment, God’s wrath, and frightening images of winnowing forks and fire.  It’s hard to hear anything that sounds like good news coming from John the Baptist’s mouth isn’t it? And yet, the scripture says John was proclaiming the good news.

If this is good news, I’d hate to hear the bad news!

But there is good news here – there really is! 

John is offering a way to break the cycle of disobedience and rescue that gets us nowhere except in a state of dizziness.  He points to the Messiah – Jesus, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  Hearing this passage through the lens of God’s love and forgiveness allows us to see this frightening image in a new light. 

You see, when wheat is harvested, it is moved to a threshing floor where it is pounded down to release the edible grain from the inedible seeds called the chaff.  Once the wheat has been threshed, it must be winnowed in order to separate the grain from the chaff.  The winnowing fork is used to pick up the threshed wheat and throw it into the air.  The process depends on the wind.  Since the chaff is light and the grain heavy, the wind carries the chaff away while the grain falls to the ground.

Grain and chaff – they are by-products of the threshing process.  And they are also the by-products of life itself.  The chaff represents the circumstances in our lives that threaten our faith and make us feel unworthy to be in God’s presence.  But Jesus’ winnowing fork removes the chaff with the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit.  Through the work of the Spirit in our lives, we no longer have to worry about earning God’s favor. 

As a result, we find ourselves in a face to face encounter with God where we discover something amazing!    God has not abandoned us.  Miraculously, God considers us worthy of love, showers us with forgiveness, and invites us to see the world differently – as valuable and worthy. 

John warned the people that repentance is not just words of sorrow for misdeeds.  True repentance, he said, brings about a genuine transformation in the way we see the world and the way we live our lives.  When we turn toward God – in a face to face encounter, we are invited to view the world through God’s eyes and our selfish desires are transformed into deeds of service that flow from God’s love and forgiveness.  

This year, as we spent time thinking about how we might join God in doing what matters, we identified the importance of embracing God’s love and forgiveness as one of the five guiding principles that will help us live out our purpose as a community of faith.  In the first two weeks of Advent, we heard about two other guiding principles: being open and flexible to God’s call in a changing world and working to break down the barriers that separate us from one another.   All of these flow from repentance - a face to face encounter with God made possible by Jesus’ winnowing fork and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Bathed in God’s love and forgiveness, we are given a new vision of the world where God is actively at work, even in the face of suffering and loss.

Today, we come before God with raw emotion.  We cry out in anger at the injustice of the senseless loss of life.  We feel helpless and unable to protect the innocent from violence in our world.  We wonder how long we must wait until all is made right again.  At the same time, we feel compassion for the victims and their families and we trust that the light of Christ cannot be extinguished in this world.

Anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, patience, hope, love, compassion, and forgiveness.  These are the chaff and grain that we offer up to Christ.  Although it is difficult, we turn toward God, turning our backs to the power of suffering in order to see God’s presence in the face tragedy.  And I believe that we WILL see many glimpses of God’s work in the days and weeks ahead as God’s people embrace God’s love and forgiveness and reach out to others in the midst of suffering.  Today, we do not need to be afraid of proclaiming joy because we rest in God’s power to transform the world.  Pain and suffering will never have the last word.  This is good news indeed!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dying to Give

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Dying to Share
Today, on Veterans Day, our liturgy and special music gives us time to think about and offer thanks for all the men and women who have served in the armed forces.  We are grateful for them and for the freedom that we have in this country, especially for the privilege to worship freely.  But freedom is costly, and our prayers and litanies remind us that sinfulness leads us to war and to the tragic loss of life that comes in its wake.  Even as I say these words, I am flooded with contrasting images.  The first is the image of grand and elegant celebrations that accompany an unabashed pride in our country’s great heritage.  The second is the image of marginalized people living in poverty throughout this country and the world.   

Perhaps our Gospel lesson could not have come at a better time in the liturgical calendar.  Today, Jesus shows us another set of jarring images.  They are seen in the contrast between the temple scribes and the poor widow.

Jesus has spent the better part of the last few chapters of Mark challenging the religious leaders.  Earlier in the Gospel, he literally turned the tables on the money changers.  They had turned the temple from a house of prayer and care into a financial institution that had little regard for the poor or powerless.  In today’s text, Jesus is teaching in the temple.  It’s a wonder that he was even allowed to be there! 

Never one to be shy about creating controversy, he begins to warn the people to beware of the scribes – the educated men who are responsible for interpreting the law.  They parade around in their long flowing robes, a sign of their wealth.  They take the good seats in the temple and are honored and flattered by their high position.  They offer long prayers in the temple for the sake of appearance.  To make matters worse, their lavish and pretentious lifestyles are made possible through the generous donations to the offerings gathered there.  When he was done teaching, he moved to a corner of the temple where he could watch the people offer their money. 

It is hard to get a feel for what Jesus is seeing without a description.  In the temple, there were thirteen collection boxes located in various rooms.  Some were in area of the women’s court.  Each collection box was earmarked for a specific purpose.  Perhaps one was to collect money for outreach, another for education, and another for the maintenance of the temple. 

Since there was no paper money, the boxes had a system that allowed for the collection of coins.  Attached to each box was a wide mouthed metal funnel that looked like a trumpet.  When a person of great wealth dropped their offering into the mouth of the trumpet, everyone could hear the clanging of the coins as they circled the metal.  It was similar to what you hear in a casino when a slot machine pays out on a win.  No matter where you are in the room, you can hear the coins dropping from the machine.  Immediately, everyone turns their heads to see who won. 

Imagine this cacophony of noise in the temple.  Every time someone gave a large offering, everyone could hear it and see who was rich enough to offer such a gift.  The prize for such recognition was an honored place in the temple and a greater say in how the temple funds would be used. 

According to Old Testament law, the very law that the scribes so dutifully protected, offerings from the temple were to be used to support the priests whose lives were dedicated to God’s work, the widows who had no family to support them, the orphans, and the aliens in their community.  Jesus’ description of the scribes indicates that the temple’s collections were not being used properly.  Instead, they are devouring the widow’s houses. 

As Jesus watches the people give their offering, his attention is turned to a widow with only two coins in her hand.  Somehow, Jesus knows that these two coins are everything that she has, all that she has to live on.  Still, she offers it all.  Her offering would receive no fan-fare.  Except for one, no other head would turn to the sound of two measly coins being thrown into the trumpet. 

Barbara Brown Taylor described the scene perfectly saying, “As far as the widow knew no one ever saw her. But then again, no one EVER saw her.  She was all used up.  Only Jesus sees her and realizes that her last penny is a fortune in God's eyes.  She was a percentage giver and she gave 100%.   It took one to know one...she withheld nothing from God and neither did Jesus.”

He knew what she was giving up.  In fact, he and the widow seemed to be on a parallel course, and he didn’t want her decision to give all that she had to go unnoticed.  But why? 

We often hear of this story as an inspiration for good stewardship.  And the widow is certainly a model of sacrificial giving. She seems to have the kind of reckless trust that allows her to give everything she has.  But that’s romanticizing the story.  

There is another interpretation that is far more disturbing.  It is a story of lament – a commentary on the consequences of losing sight of God’s purpose for the community of faith, a purpose seen clearly in Jesus’ life and teachings.  The institution that should have supported the widow let her down.  It did not recognize the gifts that she had to share in that community, nor did it give her the opportunity to live her life to the fullest as a valuable member who had much to offer. 

For the people who followed Jesus from the beginning, the contrast between him and the scribes was quite clear.  Jesus lived a life of self-sacrifice, modeling the life of a servant as he washed his disciples feet.  He spent time listening to God in scripture and prayer…and moved out into the world healing, feeding, and offering words of forgiveness. 

His life, death and resurrection free us from bondage to our selfish desires and inspire us to give 100% of ourselves.  We are free to take notice of the systems and behaviors that marginalize others and to take extraordinary risks to change them. We are free to recognize the value of all people and the gifts that they, like the widow, are dying to share. 

One church in Nashville, Tennessee did just that.  They studied the needs of the community and discovered that affordable housing was critical and the town had little land available for such an endeavor.  Defying the church growth strategists, this small congregation gave land adjoining the building for the construction of five houses for the working poor. The land had been intended for expanded parking for anticipated growth. However, in a risky act of devoted ministry, the church gave up the land. Now, five families have homes who once had no homes. The irony is that the church is now growing as the often neglected and frequently rejected people of the neighborhood are finding a new community centered in grace and expressed in the willingness to give away its very self.

Their decision to give away their land was not made in order grow the church.  Instead, it was an act of self-less love in order to fill a need in the community.  They were willing to risk dying in order to give this great gift.  As a result, they received new life.

There has been a growing desire in our congregation to make a difference in the world around us. This past weekend, a group of fifteen of our members met with the Doing What Matters Team to talk about how we can best serve God in this community. 

Through prayer and Bible study, we sought to discern God’s purpose for our church.  The result of that work is printed on the first page of today’s bulletin.   It says:

 God’s purpose for our church is to strengthen our faith by gathering in worship,
reaching out as disciples, sharing our faith and serving all.

 Gathering, reaching, sharing, and serving

These are the things that we hear God calling us to do.  In order to live into our purpose, we discussed the importance of embracing and practicing God’s love and forgiveness; being flexible and open to God’s call in a changing world; breaking down the barriers that separate us from one another; giving of ourselves and praying always.  We know what we must do, but we can’t do it without identifying where God is calling us.  In the next few months, we will begin a process of talking to the people and leaders in our community in order to match their needs with the gifts that we are dying to share. 

Jesus reminds us that no life should go unnoticed and that ALL have gifts that they are dying to share too.  As we work together to serve God in this community, we are called to recognize the systems and behaviors that marginalize people, keeping them from becoming valued members in our society and the church.  May God grant us the courage to risk all, using 100% of the gifts that we have been freely given so that others might do the same.



Sunday, October 07, 2012

Delving into the Gospel and Discovering Grace

Mark 10:2–16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Scholars consider this Gospel lesson to be one of Jesus’ “hard teachings.”  One pastor said that many preachers would want to exercise prudence, choosing to preach on the Hebrews text instead of the Gospel today.  The problem is, preaching the gospel is rarely about being prudent.  Far be it from me to follow the path of prudence.  Avoiding this Gospel lesson after reading it would be like ignoring the elephant in the room. 

Is there anyone who can hear this story without cringing?  Since almost fifty percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, I would venture to guess that every one of us has had some experience with it.  Divorce not only brings about pain and suffering for the couple, but also for their children, family members, and friends. 
As tragic as divorce is, sometimes it is the best choice for all involved.  Divorce can save people from the physical, mental and spiritual abuse that often stems from failed relationships.

Even so, people experiencing divorce suffer from such a deep sense of failure that hearing Jesus’ words today is like ripping open wounds that have not been fully healed.  One woman described hearing this passage in church and feeling as if a garbage dump was being poured out all over her.  Although she had put on her Sunday best to attend church that day, by the end of the reading she felt as if she couldn’t rid herself of the stink of her divorce. 
I imagine that some of us here today may be feeling the same way right now.  This text is extremely difficult to hear.    But when we internalize it in this way, we fail to realize that Jesus is using divorce and remarriage to make a bigger point.  He is using it as a springboard for a deeper discussion about our brokenness and inability to live as God intends. 

The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees are again trying to test Jesus.  But he is on to them.  When they ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus answers their question with question.  He knows that the Pharisees already know the answer, so he asks, “What did Moses command you?”  Being the good Pharisees that they are, they repeat the law from Deuteronomy 24 verse 1.  The verse says this: “If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off.” 
So there is the answer…right from Moses’ law.  The answer is yes, divorce is lawful, but Jesus does not say it is right.  Jesus’ response throws them, and us, for a loop.  His answer is unequivocal.  Divorce is lawful, but it isn’t really what God intends.

God’s intention unfolds in the creation story.  It is a bond of equality between two people, joined together so closely that hurting the other means hurting yourself.  This is God’s intention for all relationships. 
But it is an ideal that is not the reality for us because human sinfulness creates all sorts of unhealthy situations.  Therefore, the law allowing for divorce is in place to protect the life and spirit of individuals who would otherwise be forced to live in harmful relationships. 

Even so, obeying the law does not release us from the brokenness we feel when a relationship dissolves.  Instead of feeling justified, we worry that we made the right decision.  We worry that we could have done more.  We are afraid that we are nothing more than a failure, in God’s eyes and in the eyes of our family and friends.  Although we want to do right, trying to live according to God’s intent, we find ourselves floundering.  To make matters worse, Jesus points out that we cannot even find righteousness through our obedience to the law.
I think this is the point of today’s text.  Every time we seek to understand the law as a way to make ourselves right with God, we set ourselves up to fail.  But Jesus seeks to release us from our pain and brokenness by showing us a better way. 

The whole Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus’ journey on the way to the cross.  During the three years of his ministry, his plan directly conflicts with everyone else’s expectations.  Along the way, Jesus also forces us to admit how far we fall short of God’s intentions for creation.  And the closer Jesus comes to the cross, the harder the questions become and the more he reveals how much we need God’s grace.
The Hebrews text says that Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.  We expect to stand in front of God and receive condemnation for our failure.  But with Jesus, to our amazement, there is no condemnation – only forgiveness.  For God is a God of the sinful, the broken, the humble, the miserable, the troubled, the oppressed, the despairing, and those who feel they have become totally nothing. God lifts the lowly, feeds the hungry, heals the blind, comforts the miserable and troubled, justifies the sinner, raises the dead, and saves the despairing and the condemned. 

Sometimes we have to confront the forces that threaten to leave us in isolation and shame.  But God is with us in all of our struggles. God’s forgiveness changes everything.  It scrapes off the garbage dump that has been heaped on our heads.  It restores us to a right and loving relationship with God.  It offers us eternal life!  Like that preacher said, delving into the Gospel is not always prudent, but it is where we find God’s grace.  Thanks be to God.