Sunday, November 11, 2018

The House Generosity Builds: Mark 12:38-44 - 25th Sunday after Pentecost

38As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.”

Today’s Gospel always takes me back to the annual stewardship drive held at the church of my youth.  It was the centerpiece of what was called Every Member Visitation Sunday.  Later that day, my family was visited by a male elder dressed in a suit and tie.  He would present each of us a box of offering envelopes for the coming year.  He would also hand us a pledge card, along with an admonition to increase our giving over the prior year.

I can honestly say I looked forward to stewardship Sunday about as much as I look forward to Tax Day.  Just the same, I find it difficult to think of this brief story as “good news.”

Here, you have a poor widow who’s giving away all the money she had—two small coins worth about a dollar in today’s money.  We could find some encouragement if the temple treasury was a worthy cause—but Jesus makes it very clear that it’s not.  It’s a house built on exploitation—presided over by a bunch of self-righteous men who like to play dress-up and parade their supposed holiness around for everyone to see.  “They devour widows houses,” Jesus says—making it that much more tragic that the widow contributes everything she had to live on.

Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the widow—specifically, why she gave the amount she did, or what ended up happening to her when she left the temple essentially broke.  But there is gospel here: Jesus sees her.  He recognizes that while so many others give out of their abundance, she gives out of her poverty.  While everyone else would’ve noticed the religious leaders and the big-money givers, Jesus notices the one whose life and whose contribution would’ve gained her no other public recognition or acclaim.  Her generosity far outweighs that of everyone else. 

The temple is the house that exploitation built.  But the Church is a household that generosity builds—upon the sacrifice of God’s only Son, clothed as a run-of-the-mill Jewish Carpenter, that brings forth redemption and new life to all the world.  And while wealthy donors, educated persons, and strong leaders will get their names attached to buildings and engraved on plaques, the gifts of all God’s people that make this Church a house where heaven meets earth.

The generosity of this congregation is nothing short of miraculous.  It’s living proof of the power of Jesus.  There are people in this Church who tithe—and who give that tithe priority over all the monthly expenses.  I know because they told me—and not to boast of anything except of how much this Church means to them. 

This congregation does all kinds of great ministry for children—but no one turned in a single receipt to Don this year for the Easter Egg Hunt, the Halloween Party, the game nights, anything.  But can you place a dollar value on our children’s excitement about inviting friends to our events—because they love their church so much?  There are also people in this church who come even when they aren’t exactly feeling one hundred percent well—because they want to worship, and they want to make a difference.  Can you imagine, that if we placed a dollar value on the thousands of hours given in our clothing closet, what that amount would be?  I’m sure it would far exceed the $3,000 we’ve raised selling clothes for twenty cents an item, most of which we’ve given away.  A better measure could be a mother’s tears when she left our church with clothes to get her children through the school year…

Is it possible to measure the value of our newsletter—by the office angels who spend hours here prepping over two hundred copies—or the people who eagerly await the news of all that God is up to here?

Is it possible to measure the value of GriefShare?  On Monday, when eighteen people came for Surviving the Holidays, a participant told our leaders: “this ministry saved my life.” 

Putting together the generosity of Christ with the generosity of people like you, the result is the transformation of lives. 

Jesus wants to draw you deeper into that generosity—so that your hope and joy will increase at an even greater rate than the increase of time, talent, or treasure you share.

And I’ll admit, it gets tough here—because when someone invites/asks you to give, whether it’s your church, a beggar on the street, or a cashier in a store—there’s always going to be resistance.  Giving is not the natural response in the face of the multiple demands upon your time, talent, and treasure.  You won’t want to do without, be without, and miss out.  The path of least resistance will always be to skip discipleship and skip church.  The path of least resistance will always be to let scarcity rule over your faith—and if you’ve done everything you wanted, bought everything you wanted and saved everything you wanted; maybe you can give God some of the leftovers.  But there’s no joy in that way of life.  Maybe some fleeting enjoyment and good feelings, but no lasting joy.  No sense of what God is up to…

We are the house that generosity built—and we must make room, in our schedules, in our budgets, in our priorities—because Jesus is fixing to make this household grow and you to grow right along with it!  Just like the widow’s mite, there is no gift that’s too small and no giver that too insignificant.  Jesus works through everything and everyone to make his resurrection a reality.  Sacrifice and generosity are the means through which we all enter into the resurrected life. 

Thank you for your sacrifices and generosity that makes this church the point where heaven touches earth.  May the story of amazing grace continue to be written by the lives and gifts you share.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Unbinding Resurrection: John 11:32-44 - All Saints Sunday

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

San Vitale Basilica by Holly Hayes on Flickr.  CC BY-NC 2.0

It was exactly 12 noon last Saturday when I learned of the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill that left eleven worshippers dead.

I was sitting in the sanctuary of Chestnut Ridge Church of God in Hubbard, Ohio, making the final preparations for Ashley Dunmire’s wedding which was to begin at 1:30.  After talking with the bride and groom and their families, we agreed that I would make an announcement five minutes before the start of the ceremony, and offer a moment of silence and prayers. 

October 27, 2018 will be another date that shall live in infamy.  But as far as mass shootings go—it isn’t the first; it isn’t the worst; and it won’t be the last.  This is reality.  We’re stuck in a world which, by all outward appearances, is going to hell. 

How else are you supposed to feel amid this civil war of partisan ideals?  How else are you supposed to feel as poverty and drugs infest our community?  Costs are going up, wages are going down, and good jobs are going away.  Neighbors don’t speak to neighbors.  People aren’t coming to church anymore.  Patience, peace, and charity are getting harder to find.  It’s nearly impossible to face the future with hope.

We find this same dread and despair in the air in today’s Gospel.  Lazarus is dead.  His sisters Mary and Martha are angry that Jesus had not been there sooner to keep Lazarus from dying.  Those looking on are disgusted by Jesus failure or inability to keep the man from dying. 

When they arrive at the tomb, the stone is set in place.  The stench is overpowering.  The only sound amid the silence is that of bitter weeping.  Even Jesus begins to weep.

Death is loss.  Loss is death. 

it’s not wrong to be frustrated, angry, bitter, or afraid when death strikes.  But death feeds on these emotions.  The reality of loss, or even the fear of it, can manifest itself in all kinds of dreadful and destructive ways.  If left unchecked, you can become a partner to and participant in death. 

This is what happened with the shooter.  Here was a man whose fear and hysteria were fed by conspiracy theories and talking heads promulgated by an irresponsible media.  Violence is, of course, the most extreme way that death acts itself out against the living.  But it is not the only way. 

When you see politicians and factions battling it out, calling each other names, blaming them for society’s ills—that’s fear.  Death does its work by dividing us and keeping us in a constant state of suspicion of the other.  It’s all about seeing another’s well-being as a threat.  You find your only way to prevent loss is to render powerless or eliminate altogether—those whom you blame for perpetuating it.

And yet death doesn’t just turn neighbor against neighbor.  It can make you into your own worst enemy.  You become depressed and cynical.  You push away anything or anyone that God provides.  If you refuse to take responsibility for yourself, and blame all your problems on someone else, what hope do you have?  If you believe that everyone’s against you, or you insist on tackling problems your own way, who can help you?  If you believe that death controls your future, how can you go on living? 

Make no mistake, the death of Lazarus was one of Jesus’ most painful life experiences, aside from his own crucifixion.  Jesus and the people among him were forced to confront the stench and darkness of death.  You can’t minimize death; deny it; or pretend that it isn’t real.  Death brought Jesus to tears.  But Jesus was not about to let death have the last word. Right then and there, Jesus prevails upon the tragedy.  Death won’t be so final after all.  But he doesn’t do it all himself. 

“Roll the stone away,” Jesus said.  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  But don’t think for a second that this process was quick, painless, and easy… 

Think about it: it would’ve required numerous strong persons and beasts of burden to roll that stone away.  It would’ve been a frightful and frantic task to dis-emblalm him.  It took a wounded, angry, and divided community working together to release Lazarus from death.  Just the same, no one person can enter new life totally on their own.

Suspicion and hate; envy and rage are heavy stones to roll away.  Fear, unforgiveness, and hopelessness bind you in death.  You are powerless to fight back death on your own.  You need the help of all of God’s people to unbind you from all that holds you captive to darkness and death. 

At the same time, you must bury the illusion that you and your tribe are righteous, while all those people are not.  You must call off your dogs; bury the hatched; and love the fact that you will never look into the eyes of anyone whom God doesn’t love (including the shooter).  And that’s not to say that you must hug and kiss your enemies, or be their friend—but you must pray for them and seek their welfare. 

Death is what binds us in division.  The lie it tells is that you and the other cannot flourish side-by-side. But what if we as a society used the energy we now spend attacking each other to come to a better understanding of each other?  What if we listened to people’s stories; learned of their sufferings; and took the time to appreciate the tremendous burdens they’re forced to bear?  Would you not come to a fuller knowledge of God’s love for you as you love someone else so graciously?

Hope comes in the form of a stranger’s arms open in love and compassion.  Healing comes in when forgiveness is given and received.  Jesus journeys into all of our places of loss and tragedy, no matter how horrific, to conquer death with life.  A saint is someone who once was dead and yet is made alive in Christ.  That’s God’s will for everyone.  If God is for you, no one—not even death itself—can ever be against you.  The power is yours to live life and create it.