Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflection on Mark 13:1-8

(The following is a stewarship sermon given on November 15th, 2009.  There were many visitors to the congregation that day due to a baptism.  That is the context of the sermon, now enjoy this reflection.)

Before I even begin my sermon today, I would like to give just a few words of encouragement, instruction, and reassurance. The reassurance goes out to everyone who is visiting here today. Throughout the rest of the service you are going to hear about money and giving. I want to reassure you that we do not always talk about money and giving. Our primary focus…even today…is the good news, God’s unconditional love for the whole world through Jesus Christ.

I say that because I was visiting a church once, and happened upon their stewardship Sunday. They talked about money, they sung about money, and…as it was a Pentecostal church…they even danced about money. I left that church thinking to myself, “they are God’s people and all they care about is money.” I am certain, now that I think back, that they probably cared about a great many things other than money; I simply had chosen to visit on the one Sunday that they secretly wished no one would visit. Therefore, as a visitor, you do not need to feel compelled in any way to give to this church or make some sort of financial commitment to it. That is the job of the disciples of this congregation. You are here simply to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, nothing more is expected of you.


And, speaking of disciples, if you attend this church, but are certain that you are not yet a disciple of Christ, then you too do not need to worry about any financial commitment this day. The Church is here for you…to bring the good news to you.  You are not here for the existence of the church.

And last, if any of you believe that I am a hypocrite when it comes to talking about money and giving, then I will assure you, I will put your heart at rest, that you are 100% correct.

Sometimes I give wonderfully of myself and my possessions to the work of God, and sometimes I do not. Like you, I am a confused mix of good intentions and selfish desires. I desire to enter into the lives of people who are suffering and provide them some comfort from our loving God. And for that you do need some comfortable shoes (tennis shoes are placed on the pulpit).  But, what if it’s winter? Then you need some boots (boots are placed on the pulpit). Or, what if it’s summer? Then you need some sandals (sandals are placed on the pulpit). Or, what if you are wearing tan pants? Then you need some brown dress shoes (brown dress shoes are placed on the pulpit). Don’t you see? I am completely a mix of good intentions with a very healthy dose of selfish desires. I am trapped by stuff. I am quite literally trapped by my stuff.

I need to reform! Have you not experienced this?  Every time that you commit to reform your ways, to clearing out a space in your house, and you start to give away what you have for the sake of others and for the sake of God, you inevitably have a birthday, or Christmas comes, or Father’s Day comes, or National Potato Day comes? You will not believe the amount of gifts…that I buy for myself on National Potato Day. Agh!!!! I suffocate myself and fill my existence with stuff, and somehow I miss those around me who will not have to worry about the tortures of too much, or the horrors of being full.

It is a huge problem that people…real human beings…are forgotten just as the poor man, Lazarus, was not even seen starving at the foot of the rich man’s door. But, is it not also a problem for me, that I am stuck trusting in something that is certainly going to rot, rather than trusting in the one who gives me life every waking moment?

I think that I would be horrified if I were standing with the disciples, staring up at the beauty of the temple, noticing how glorious are the columns and gold fa├žade, and hearing from Jesus that this beautiful place is soon going to be nothing but rubble. I would be truly horrified. And, when I saw it fall into rubble, I would be stricken. Grief would overtake me, and I would not be able to breathe. Beauty should not be destroyed.

But, have I not been lead astray? Have I been led to believe that beautiful things are important and that relationships are not? Have I been led to trust in the comfort of shoes rather than conversation; and nice cars, rather than welcoming people to my dinner table; and beautiful homes rather than forgiving a former friend; and possessing lots of movies rather than possessing and living out the story of God’s love for all?

Jesus says that temples will fall into rubble and that possessions will rot away, but the word of the Lord will never rot away. God’s unconditional love for the world will continue to live on in the hugs and smiles of newly baptized babies, in disciples who carry forgiveness on their shoulder like a high priced bag, and people who allow God to turn their lives away from dead things, to the living God and the living God’s purposes.

As a visitor, you may be wondering why we talk about money and giving once a year. Surprisingly, the primary reason is not to get more money for the finances of the church. The church will do its ministry with the gifts that it has been given as it has done for centuries. Rather, we talk about it for my sake, and for yours. It is a spring cleaning of the soul, moving out our trust in money, and shoes, and making space for God to direct our lives. Every year, I get tired of being pushed around and reoriented by my things, and every year I get a chance to do some spring cleaning so that my faith can be restored once again. It is a chance to reclaim a simple life in Jesus Christ.

Reflection on Mark 12:38-44

He noticed her. No one else seemed to pay any attention. No one else even realized that she was there. But, sitting across from the treasury in the temple, peering through the masses of people walking by on their way to throw their large, clanking sums of money into the ornate metal chutes that collected the offerings, Jesus saw the widow when she threw in her two small coins. The clank they made was not even audible. No one around her turned to notice the widow’s contribution. No one around her noticed that she had just thrown in her last bit of wealth. Not even the disciples noticed. No one noticed. That was the problem. She was in a room full of faithful, devoted, religious people, and no one noticed her.

Plenty of people go unnoticed. There is the girl that sits at the edge of the dance floor, waiting for someone to ask her to dance. But, she goes unnoticed. There is the slum containing thousands of poor who struggle to find clean water. The slum is along the rail line between Cairo’s suburbs and the business district. None of the commuters look out the window at the struggling faces. Thousands go unnoticed. There is the boy that needs help. He needs help with his homework. He needs help with his behavior. He needs help because he has no stable parents. He needs help, period. He is technically not an orphan…he has parents, but make no mistake, he is an orphan. He too goes unnoticed. Like the widow, they all go unnoticed.

For the most part, the fact that they go unnoticed is not because people intentionally want to ignore them. Most people do not intentionally ignore the plight of a widow. The widow simply does not register as someone important in an otherwise busy life. There are children to raise, and school to go to, and money to be made, and doctor’s appointments to get to on time, and obligations to take care of in the temple. Who has the time to see her? Who has the time to care?

Of course, the scribes will see her. It is their job after-all to take care of the widows and orphans. In an ideal world, this scene would not be tragic. In an ideal world, the widow would give her last cent in gratefulness to God, and she would have no worries because the scribes of the temple would make sure that she is cared for (food, clothing, shelter, and companionship). In an ideal world, you can give away your last cent for the sake of others because you know that you have a whole community who will care for you. That is what community is all about, is it not?

As biblical scholar Rolf Jacobson says, If God’s people were to write a self-help book, it would not be titled, “Your Best Life Now.” It would be titled, “Your Neighbors Best Life Now.” That pretty much sums up the Laws of God: care for your neighbor first. That pretty much sums up the message of Jesus: "love your neighbor as yourself,” and “be a living sacrifice for others.” Surely the scribes will see her. Surely they will care.

Assumptions are never a good thing. I am not certain the scribes are corrupt, but they have lives too. People expect them to go to banquets and social events and say long prayers and speak eloquently. Surely, they feel good when they do well, and feel the pressure of needing to do just as well the next time they speak. Surely, they are expected to dress well, therefore they get the long robes that make them look like the fine and respectable religious scribes that they are. People would expect no less of them. So, we have to cut them a little slack when they forget the widows do we not?

The widow expects that the religious leaders will not have forgotten her, though they have. The girl on the edge of the dance floor expects to enjoy the night spinning across the dance floor, though she will not. The poor expect someone on the high speed train to see that they are thirsty and need a fresh water supply, but no one will. The boy expects someone to help him, his parents, his grandparents, his friends, his neighbor, anyone, but they will not.

Well, almost no one notices. Peering through the crowds sits a man. He hears the clank of those two, small coins. He sees the widow’s trust in her community. He sees her, period. Only Jesus sees her.

Jesus calls his disciples over to look at her. He tells 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." He calls them over to see the woman’s faith in her community. They need to see that she trusts that she will be cared for. They need to see her, period. Jesus sees her. Jesus will die for her. Jesus will not forget her. Neither should the disciples. They need to learn and see.

In an ideal world, people give what they have for the sake of other people and for the sake of God. They do not fear to give what they have away, because they trust that others will in turn provide for their needs.

“In an ideal world,” I hate that phrase. The “ideal world” sounds like something unattainable; something that would be a waste of our time. But, this is not a waste of our time. I think that Jesus is teaching his disciple to see the widow, because Jesus actually wants us to try to be that community that she is giving her money to.

So how does this sound? “In a grace filled world, people give what they have because they love God and love others. They can do this because they know that they will be loved in return.” This is not an ideal. This is Christian community.


 
All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reflection on Mark 12:38-44

He noticed her. No one else seemed to pay any attention. No one else even realized that she was there. But, sitting across from the treasury in the temple, peering through the masses of people walking by on their way to throw their large, clanking sums of money into the ornate metal chutes that collected the offerings, Jesus saw the widow when she threw in her two small coins. The clank they made was not even audible. No one around her turned to notice the widow’s contribution. No one around her noticed that she had just thrown in her last bit of wealth. Not even the disciples noticed. No one noticed. That was the problem. She was in a room full of faithful, devoted, religious people, and no one noticed her.

Plenty of people go unnoticed. There is the girl that sits at the edge of the dance floor, waiting for someone to ask her to dance. But, she goes unnoticed.

There is the slum containing thousands of poor who struggle to find clean water. The slum is along the rail line between Cairo’s suburbs and the business district. None of the commuters look out the window at the struggling faces. Thousands go unnoticed.

There is the boy that needs help. He needs help with his homework. He needs help with his behavior. He needs help because he has no stable parents. He needs help, period. He is technically not an orphan…he has parents, but make no mistake, he is an orphan. He too goes unnoticed. Like the widow, they all go unnoticed.

For the most part, the fact that they go unnoticed is not because people intentionally want to ignore them. Most people do not intentionally ignore the plight of a widow. The widow simply does not register as someone important in an otherwise busy life. There are children to raise, and school to go to, and money to be made, and doctor’s appointments to get to on time, and obligations to take care of in the temple. Who has the time to see her? Who has the time to care?

Of course, the scribes will see her. It is their job after-all to take care of the widows and orphans. In an ideal world, this scene would not be tragic. In an ideal world, the widow would give her last cent in gratefulness to God, and she would have no worries because the scribes of the temple would make sure that she is cared for (food, clothing, shelter, and companionship). In an ideal world, you can give away your last cent for the sake of others because you know that you have a whole community who will care for you.

That is what community is all about, isn’t it? If God’s people were to write a self-help book, it would not be titled, “Your Best Life Now.” It would be titled, “Your Neighbors Best Life Now.”

That pretty much sums up the Laws of God: care for your neighbor first.

That pretty much sums up the message of Jesus: "love your neighbor as yourself,” and “be a living sacrifice for others.”

Surely the scribes will see her. Surely they will care.

Assumptions are never a good thing. I am not certain the scribes are corrupt, but they have lives too. People expect them to go to banquets and social events and say long prayers and speak eloquently. Surely, they feel good when they do well, and feel the pressure of needing to do just as well the next time they speak. Surely, they are expected to dress well, therefore the scribes buy the long robes that transform their whole being into the fine and respectable religious scribes that they are. People would expect no less of them. So, we have to cut them a little slack when they forget the widows and orphans don’t we?

The widow expects that the religious leaders will not have forgotten her, though they have. The girl on the edge of the dance floor expects to enjoy the night spinning across the dance floor, though she will not. The poor expect someone on the high speed train to see that they are thirsty and need a fresh water supply, but no one will. The boy expects someone to help him, his parents, his grandparents, his friends, his neighbor, anyone, but they will not.

Well, almost no one notices. Peering through the crowds sits a man. He hears the clank of those two, small coins. He sees the widow’s trust in her community. He sees her; period. Only Jesus sees her.

Jesus calls his disciples over to look at her. He tells 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." He calls them over to see the woman’s faith in her community. They need to see that she trusts that she will be cared for. They need to see her; period.

Jesus sees her. Jesus will die for her. Jesus will not forget her. Neither should the disciples. They need to learn and see.

In an ideal world, people give what they have for the sake of other people and for the sake of God. They do not fear to give away what they have, because they trust that others will in turn provide for their needs.

“In an ideal world,” I hate that phrase. The “ideal world” sounds like something unattainable; something that would be a waste of our time. But, this is not a waste of our time. I think that Jesus is teaching his disciple to see the widow, because Jesus actually wants us to try to be that community that she is giving her money to.

So how does this sound? “In a world filled with love, people give what they have because they love God and love others. They can do this because they know that they will be loved in return.” This is not an ideal. This is what it means to live in Christian community.

 
All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reflection on Revelation 21:1-6a

When I was young, my dog Sparky “passed away.” She did not survive the cold night as a family member dog sat her. She was a very intelligent little dog. And, she was the cure for a lonely boy.

It was not too far before Sparky’s death that my grandfather “passed away.” He did not survive the depression that he had sunk into. He remains in my memory the greatest fisherman I have ever known. And, now I alone hold many of those fishing memories. Without me, they no longer exist. When my life ends, those memories will too pass away.

A number of years later, my grandmother “passed away” from an extremely rare and very fast moving cancer that overcame her in just three weeks. She loved to cook and bake, and she loved her grandchildren; and those things, cooking and baking, and grandchildren, go very well together. But, her food has too “passed away.” Those Sunday roast beef dinners with hot, freshly baked cinnamon rolls as dessert shall be no more.

“Passed away,” those two little words are loaded words. They are the words we use instead of “death,” because “death” is either too hard to say, or it carries just a little too much reality. But, let us make no mistake, when we say “passed away” we mean “dead,” and “no more,” and “I’m really going to miss him or her,” and “I don’t know what I am going to do without him or her,” and “is it possible to survive after so much pain?” There is nothing happy about the term, “passed away.”

Well, there is almost nothing happy about the term “passed away,” but there are a couple of exceptions. The first is the day that, at age 13, my brother and I were told that our super cool, fits the whole family and the kitchen, “boy I hope we drive right down main street right past our friends," Ford LTD “passed away.” That sad occasion was marked with cheers and celebration, until we saw the Ford Pinto that drove into the yard to replace it. The other exception is in the book of Revelation.

In the book of Revelation, these words ring out from the throne:

"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

What is surprising about the book of Revelation is that the term “passed away” means the opposite from what we think. We think that “passed away” is what happens when death comes, but Revelation says “passed away” is what happens when death, and mourning, and crying, and pain have disappeared. Those first things, those painful things have “passed away” and are no more. The first world, where dogs freeze to death in the snow, and grandfathers kill themselves in the garage, and grandmothers die from ferocious cancers, is no more.

This text is read at a lot of funerals, but it is not a text intended for the funeral of any person; it is the primary text of the great funeral at the end of existence when death itself has “passed away” and all that is left is God. And, just like the demise of our family’s Ford LTD, we will rejoice and be glad when we hear the news that was promised through the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, that the world where pain and death has the last word, has “passed away.” “Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks for the Holy one….” (Sung). Yes, we will rejoice and be glad.

And, the best thing about the passing away of the first things is that it will not be replaced by a Ford Pinto. It will be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth where the river of life flows freely for all to taste and be washed clean body and soul. There will be the tree of life that bears fruit for every season so that no one in the world will go hungry. The oil of its leaves will heal the nations, making us one. War will be no more. And, this new world will not be led by some corrupt, inept, power hungry world leader, CEO, pastor, or military general. God, will personally come down to the world, and things will be made right. The vision is beautiful.

Of course, the vision is not here yet. We see glimmers of it as it creeps into the world, but it is not here yet for good. As of right now we still have pain and death, they have not yet “passed away.” And, we will still mourn and cry, and tears will still flow…as they should when we lose someone close. But, because of this vision in Revelation, our tears will serve a dual purpose. They will express both: sadness at the death of a loved one; and, at the same time, as they stream down our face, they will remind us of the river of life that flows and makes all things new. They are a cleansing tear that reminds us of our hope in Jesus Christ our Lord who makes all things new.


All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Refelction on John 8:31-36

One fine day, two men were walking by a lake in a city park. They were enjoying the autumn leaves and engaging in deep conversation about life when from out of nowhere they heard it approaching. It, was a 300 pound hotdog cart that had escaped its vendor and was now fleeing downhill to freedom. The men only had enough time to look up, and see it crash into one of the men, sending him flying into the lake in a wonderful explosion of hotdogs, buns, ketchup, mustard, relish, and a special, super spicy chili. Splashing around in the water with hot dogs floating everywhere and the super spicy chili cleansing his eyes the man shouted, “Ouch! Help me, I can’t swim. I’m going to drown.” The water was to the man’s neck and he was sinking fast.

“I can help,” the second man called from the bank of the lake. “I can figure this out, I’m a master of truth,” he yells as he survey’s the situation. “It seems to me that you are in danger of drowning.”

“Good read of the situation,” the sinking man says with the water now to his throat. “You are a genius, now help me out!”

The man on the bank quickly scanned all of the hotdogs and yelled back, “Hey, look at all of the hotdogs around you! There must be hundreds. Look on the bright side, you won’t go hungry. People are so negative these days…don’t fall into that sort of negativity. It is very destructive.”

“I’m not hungry you idiot, I’m sinking!” the man yelled back with water now to his chin. “Just help me.”

“I’m trying the best I can. I’m under a lot of pressure here,” the man on the bank whined back.

Now, do not get me wrong. I am not against positive thinking. We are regularly reminded in church to count our blessings; to take a look at the gifts that we have and thank God. But, positive thinking, good as it may be, does not have the power to save…especially when drowning surrounded by hundreds of wieners.

“Take a look at you splashing around out there,” the man on the bank yells. “Just splash a little harder, toward the shore.”

“Splash toward the shore? I can’t see the shore, I think the chili has eaten away my ear balls.”

“The shore is right in front of you. Just splash harded. Just work harder and you will save yourself.”

So, the drowning man splashed water toward the shore, completely misunderstanding the man on the bank, propelling his body quickly backwards toward deeper water.

Now, do not get me wrong. I am not against hard work and the benefits that it brings. Just ask my children. And, people in the faith are often some of the hardest working people you will find. They work hard to take care of their churches. They work hard to feed the hungry. They work hard to care for the needy. They work hard to educate the children. The faithful work very, very hard. But, as Luther discovered just before the reformation, hard work does not save you; especially, when water is now up to your lips.

“I’m a goner. I have a loser for a friend. I can’t swim. I am not going to make it. Goodbye cruel world. Goodbye cruel hotdog stand,” the man gurgles and gushingly weeps, only adding to his predicament.

“Hey, who are you calling a loser! I’m trying my best. I don’t see you doing the same thing you baby. If you just believed a little more, you wouldn’t even have a problem. God probably wanted you to struggle in a shower of hotdogs and ketchup so that you would start to believe harder. Don’t give up, just believe that you can make it to the shore and you will. Just believe correctly and everything will be fine, you will be saved,” the man on the shore reassures.

Somehow, faith discussions always come down to this; believing correctly. Whether you are drowning in confusion and doubt, or drowning in a sea of hotdogs, it always comes down to believing correctly. Do you believe in baptism correctly? Do you believe in the atonement the same way that I do? Do you even know what the heck I’m talking about when I mention the atonement? Well, you better, because you need to believe it correctly in order to be saved. We are saved by truth. We are saved by belief. We are saved by our intellectual understanding. We are speaking a bunch of nonsense. The truth that we seek is not an idea. The truth that we need is not a concept that needs to be understood correctly. The truth is found in a relationship. The truth is a person, and when He has found us, we truly are free.

With his nose soon to go under, that man waves goodbye to the world, and gives a special one fingered wave to his friend on the bank. But, he need not fear so much.  A man in a business suit rushes past the man on the bank, jumps into the water, grabs the drowning man, and pulls him to safety.

“Thank you. Thank you. You saved me. You cared and you saved me.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I’m sure anyone would have done it for you,” the business man replies.

“No, not just anyone would take the time to jump in and save me,” the former drowning but now very wet man stares at his friend.

“Well, I could have done that. Anyone could have done that,” the man on the bank replies.

"Thank you for caring." the wet man says again.

In the end, the truth is not an idea. Nor does it come about by counting your blessings. Nor does it come in the night as a great idea. None of these things can save. Only someone can save. The truth is not an idea. The truth is a person. And, it is to that person we cling, Jesus Christ our Lord.  "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."


All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.