Rejoice With Me (Lent 16)

Dear neighbor,
Dear sibling/stranger,
Dear God-among-us,

A silver coin of mine
is a coin of yours,
whether it is lost or found,
whether it is one alone or one of ten.

A sheep of mine in the fields
belongs too to your flock,
and a sibling of mine who is hungry
may appear at your table as easily as mine.

Whatever of mine is lost or lonely or struggling,
come and search with me lest we both suffer.
Whatever of mine is found or flourishing,
rejoice with me in our shared fortune.

To your good health,
To my daily breath,
To the glory of God.

coins

on the parables of Luke 15

Attentive

You would do well to be attentive:

attentive to Love
as to a lamp
at midnight

attentive to Solidarity
as to an oasis
in the desert

attentive to Glory
as to a lullaby
at bedtime

attentive to Humility
as to a seed
freshly planted

attentive to Hospitality
as to a path
through the wilderness.

Thou our love and companion,
You our aspiration and embarrassment,

Most Holy Host of Heaven,
we attend to you
with all heart and soul and strength.

on 2 Peter 1:19

heart

Closer to Thee, Closer to We

Jesus points to a widow as she adds her two copper coins to the temple treasury (Mark 12:38-44). Perhaps she is an older woman, with the death of her husband occurring late in life. She may be a young widow raising small children. More to the point, the widow in Mark 12 — like widows throughout the Bible — is economically insecure because she does not have a man to support & protect her.

Our 21st-century ears might hear the sexism and patriarchy of those circumstances, but what we need to hear most of all is the desperation of such circumstances. Widows were virtually their own economic class, one of the poorest economic classes, with no guarantees for living from one day to the next. This is why, across the Bible, when God or when the prophets or when Jesus admonishes people to care for the widows, the message isn’t “Be nice because they’re sad and they’ve gone through some tough times” … the message is “Don’t let them go under for lack of finances and food.”

“Do not deprive the orphan of justice or take the widow’s last coat” (Deuteronomy 24:17). “Do not send the widows away empty-handed, do not crush the outstretched arms of the orphan” (Job 22:9, adapted). The Bible calls God the protector of widows (Psalm 68:5), the One who supports widows and orphans (Psalm 146:9).

God’s heart breaks most of all for the least of these, not for the modestly comfortable of these, and surely the widow in Mark 12 is among the least in her extreme poverty. Jesus notes that the two copper coins she gives to the temple treasury are everything she has. In those days, two copper coins equaled a penny, and sixty-four pennies were a day’s wages for a laborer. The widow’s gift of two copper coins is 1/64 of a daily living wage, and it is everything she has!

We hear this and we’re amazed by her. We’re blown away by the courage that it takes to give everything you have when you have almost nothing. Our typical take-away from this story is that we should be as generous as this widow when we give to God. We tell ourselves (or the preacher tells us) that we should be willing to give it all — willing to risk it all — and not hold back when we make financial gifts to God and to God’s work. We say that we should give without counting the cost. The widow’s offering is captivating … it’s moving … it’s inspiring … it’s courageous … it’s incredible in its generosity …

… it’s also unfair.

When we hear the story of the widow’s offering, we focus in on her money and her daily budget. Because Jesus observes aloud that her offering is 100% of her budget, we conclude that this is a math problem — a math parable — to teach us about giving a proper percentage of our own budgets.

But when we focus in on the widow’s money, we miss the whole picture. When we focus in on her two copper coins, we easily forget that there’s more to this story; there is something else that happens before Jesus points out the widow’s offering.

The story actually starts with Jesus’ criticism of the scribes for their love of attention and acclaim. “They like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace. They love to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They say long, flowing prayers for the sake of appearance, and they devour widows’ homes” (Mark 12:38-40, adapted).

Throughout the Old Testament, there are references to rules being made so that it was tremendously exacting for widows and foreigners to seek justice when they were wronged; decrees being advanced to make it harder for the poor to beg on street corners or glean leftover grains from the fields; and statues being written that eased the way for the rich to further oppress the poor by “lending” money at a high price (Isaiah 10:1-2). The prophet Ezekiel laments this trend: “The princes of the land are like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives … while the priests have done violence to [God’s] teaching and destroyed lives for dishonest gains. Altogether the people have practiced extortion and committed robbery by oppressing the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 22:23-30, adapted).

The prophets, God, and Jesus here in Mark 12 have nothing but condemnation for those who have the means to devour others’ lives for their own gain and comfort. The widow’s offering might be inspiring — and certainly we need to be inspired out of our comfort toward more generous giving — but most of all the widow’s offering is unfair! The scribes in their temple leadership have set up an “offering” system that devours even the last two coins of a poor widow. They are eating her up financially, while she goes without anything to eat. They accept (require?) her generosity to God while remaining themselves ungenerous toward her needs.

Rather than putting us in the shoes of the widow and asking the familiar stewardship question of how we can give 100% of our lives and resources, I would put us in the shoes of the scribes and ask the stewardship question of what & who we are “eating up.” How are we participating in the system that devours the least of these? When do we sit back and welcome God’s generosity without looking around and recognizing opportunities for our own generosity? For whom do we set expectations that we ourselves do not meet or follow?

A simple graph demonstrates the intrinsic connection between caring for the Other and pursuing our relationship with God; between lovingkindness for neighbor and loving reverence for God. [I was introduced to this graph by Dr. David Mellott of Lancaster Theological Seminary.]

The outer circle represents all of humanity; the dot in the middle, God. In the life of faith, we seek to draw closer to God — to move toward the dot. Notice what happens as two or more people draw closer to God: they draw closer to one another as well. Coming closer to God brings us closer to others. Becoming closer to others draws us closer to God.

The opposite is true as well. When we pull away from God, we begin to separate ourselves from one another. When we step back from others, when we retreat, when we overlook our neighbors, when we miss seeing one another’s needs and hearing one another’s stories, even when we dismiss someone who’s just seriously annoying, when we do not welcome one person as much as we welcome another person, we pull away from God.

Drawing closer to others as we draw closer to God isn’t optional or coincidental. We cannot move toward God all by ourselves, on our own little trajectories. Increasing love for God necessarily means increasing love for neighbors, and increasing love for neighbors absolutely draws us closer to God.

When Jesus points to the widow making her offering, he’s not asking us to focus in on her monetary gift. He’s pointing out the big picture of how we relate to people and how we relate to God. He’s bringing into focus how we see people & understand this world’s systems, and how God responds to the least and to systemic injustices. Jesus is not just pointing to her two coins, he’s pointing to her whole life. He’s inviting his disciples — he’s inviting us — to pay attention to her, to hear her story, to witness God in her life and in her person.

Essentially, Jesus is saying: “You want to find out what’s essential to God? Find out what’s essential in the life of the widow. You want to draw closer to God? Draw closer to her.”

Draw closer to the poor so that you can hear the stories and understand the systems that make poverty the tangled web it is. Draw closer to the neighbor who irks you with yelling or with toys in the yard or with contrary political opinions or with meticulous landscaping (or lack of). Draw closer to the person you see every day and each week, from the grocery cashier to the spouse, from the church member to the mail carrier. Listen, look, learn the stories you don’t know, watch for God at work in others’ lives.

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, where he could take in the full picture — watch people coming-and-going, observe the world’s systems at work in the microcosm of the temple, see how people interacted with one another while they were practicing their faith — and he invited his disciples to do the same: “Draw closer to her, and thereby draw closer to God.”

Draw closer to “we” — closer to one another — if we want to be closer to God, closer to Thee.

Draw closer to Thee, if we hope to bring about a closer “we.”

Closer to Thee.

Closer to we.

Amen.

 

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ on November 11, 2012.

“Take Heart”

Many of us were taught to ask God for what we need for each day — that is, we learned to pray as the Lord’s Prayer instructs, “Give us this day our daily bread.” So we pray for daily bread, and for daily milk, and for daily eggs. We pray for daily shelter, for daily caffeine, for the weekly paychecks so that we can afford daily bread & daily milk & daily eggs & daily shelter & daily caffeine. We ask for what we need for the days of our lives … and containing our list of prayer requests simply to what we need can be a significant faith challenge.

Even so, consider this contrast in faith: We ask for what we need to live our lives. Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) asks for what he needs to follow Jesus.

We ask for what we need for our lives. Bartimaeus asks for what he needs to follow Jesus! Now certainly it’s possible that what we need for our lives and what we need to follow Jesus can be the same, but not necessarily. Just the processes of figuring out what we need for our lives and what we need to follow Jesus tend to be vastly different: understanding what we need to follow Jesus requires time spent listening to Jesus … while what we need to make our lives work each day requires a grocery list and a full tank of gas.

Bartimaeus asks for what he needs to follow Jesus.

Even more challenging: Bartimaeus is ready to follow Jesus whether he gets what he asks for or not! When Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus responds by calling him to him, the disciples relay the invitation to Bartimaeus saying, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you,” and then Bartimaeus immediately leaps up.

He leaps up in joy, even before his vision is healed. He throws off his beggar’s cloak even before Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Because for Bartimaeus, the good news isn’t whether he gets healed. The good news isn’t whether he is relieved from begging for his daily bread. The good news for Bartimaeus is simply that Jesus calls him. Jesus hears him, Jesus intuitively affirms his gifts & possibilities, and Jesus calls him. Bartimaeus leaps up, throws off his cloak, because Jesus calls and Bartimaeus is ready to follow!

He’s ready to follow Jesus regardless of his circumstances, because it’s so amazing that Jesus has called him! While he is still blind, Jesus calls him. While he is still begging, Jesus calls him. While he is still crying out, Jesus calls him. Before he is healed, Jesus calls him.

Before our lives are all together, Jesus calls us. Before the heartache is healed, Jesus calls us. Before the storm is finished raging, and even before the storm arrives, Jesus calls us. Before our bodies recover from illness, before our finances are in order, while we are still trying to make it — physically, financially, emotionally, relationally, spiritually — while we are still just trying to keep our lives together from one day to the next and crying out, “God have mercy!” Jesus is already calling us.

By God’s mercy, healing and daily bread will come, but the good news is that Jesus is already calling us. And because Jesus is already calling us, we are not meant to wait for our lives to be in order, for our bodies and finances to be strong, for our hearts to be healed, for our storms to finish raging, for our vision to be restored, before we leap up and throw off our cloaks and follow Jesus.

The good news comes before the healing: “Take heart! Get up. He is calling you!”

 

Excerpt from the sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 10/28/12.

What God Can Do

I want to be great. I want to be great at everything I do, and I give myself a hard time for not being brilliantly excellent 100% of the time — as a pastor, a preacher, a mother, a writer. I long to be stellar … and not just to be stellar, but to be known for being stellar. It’s entirely vain of me, and I want to repent of it as soon as I see it glaring in front of me. But the desire always returns. I’ll see news on Facebook about a clergy colleague’s invitation to the White House, or about another mother who is teaching her children how to cook five-star meals after they finish their homework each day, or about a writer friend who’s on his fifth book … and the demon wells up again: “I want to be great too! I want people to see that I’m great.”

Of course, it can be tricky to recognize ambition as a demon, because it’s often disguised with good intentions. Like the disciples in Mark 9:33-37, arguing over greatness. It’s not that they want to skip past the discipleship and get right to the glory of who sits where in heaven — they have genuine intentions of striving to be good disciples. In fact, they want to be great disciples for Jesus! They want to be the kind of disciples that other people look up to, the kind of disciples leaders turn to for advice, the kind of disciples who will be solicited to write memoirs one day when they retire from discipleship. They want to be the kind of disciples who keep famous company and are seated at the head of the banquet table. They long to be the kind of disciples who will one day be the kind of saints that people pray to, because people will know that these saints can bend Jesus’ ear in heaven. It’s not vanity, it’s spirituality! They just want to be great at it.

In a similar vein, we tell ourselves it’s not vanity or ambition — it’s faithfulness — that we want our individual congregation to stand out and be known for its ministry. We like being distinguished among our denominational peers as one of the churches that is growing. We like being known among churches in the region as an inclusive congregation of diverse theologies, diverse families, diverse loves. That’s who God has called us to be as a congregation; that we are well-known for it is just a perk! And we long for that perk to multiply! We want our church’s reputation to pack the pews and boost our budget and raise our new roof. We want this church to be great…

…but if you haven’t already caught the hint of it, there’s a very delicate line between ministering greatly and desiring greatness. Between doing great work and being known for our great work. Between great discipleship and great ambition. Between desiring righteousness and desiring reputation. Between assessing our greatness in light of our call (individually and congregationally) and assessing our greatness according to our kudos. A delicate line that requires diligent mindfulness!

Jesus says (Mark 9:33-37), “You want to be great? Keep company with the least of these, with the powerless, with the disreputable.”

James says (James 3:13-18), “You want to be great? Show your greatness by your works of gentleness and generosity.”

God says, “You want to be great? Live with humility, and let me be what is great about you. You want to be great? Keep doing the work of your call, keep blessing your community, and I will show you what I can do through you and within you. You want to be great? Make room for me to be great!

Now by some necessity, especially when we’re embarking on a new project or mission as a congregation, it is useful to generate group enthusiasm and pride. It’s helpful for the task at hand to have a collective positive energy for who our church is, how our church impacts our lives, and what our church represents within the wider Church and community. It’s helpful for the task at hand to believe that our congregation is great, and well worth our investments of time and talent and treasure!

Nevertheless, the ultimate success of a congregation’s new project or mission is not about whether we believe that our individual church is great. The success of the new venture is about whether we believe that God is great, and whether we are willing to make room for God to do great things! And I don’t mean, “Keep doing business as usual and see what miracle God can work with the same-old-same old.” I mean, “Lay everything on the table and leave no stone unturned” to make room for God to do great things! And that means making room for God to change our minds! That means making room for God to change our minds about money — about our personal budgets and assets as well as our congregational budget. That means making room for God to change our minds about time — about whether we fill up our days darting around with a “to do” list rather than discerning the moments of God’s movement.

It means — ultimately, fundamentally — making room for God to change our minds about the greatness of God’s grace, about whether our experiences of grace are such sufficient evidence of God’s greatness that we are finally willing to yield our vain desire for greatness by ourselves, willing to unclasp our tight-fisted need for control in this life, willing to give way finally to peace … and possibility … and gentleness … and generosity.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — full & unconditional love from God, and the nurturing love of those who have gently guided our journeys.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — the breath of God within us to inhale the autumn air, to exhale with laughter, to sing with joy, to pour ourselves out in sobs.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — confidence and sustenance by God’s mercy for those days that we thought we couldn’t get through, for those trials which seemed too stormy to survive, for those moments when it seemed that beauty might shatter our hearts.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — and this is evidence of the greatness of God! It is not the greatness of us. It is not the greatness of this church.

So with gratitude for grace upon grace, with the confidence that God’s grace is sufficient, we will step aside from being great. We will set aside our vain hopes that others will see us as great. And we will make room for God to be great — we will risk making room for God to be great and to do great things — in our lives and in our congregation.

Amen.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/23/12.