Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Household of Caring: Mark 13:1-8 - 26th Sunday after Pentecost

1As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The test of time by hehaden on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Black Friday is coming…

Don’t those words sound apocalyptic to you?  Like the end of the world is upon us?  Considering what happens on Black Friday, one would almost think it is: large crowds of people busting doors down, fighting over merchandise, everyone desperate to get what they “need.”

At the same time, there are things happening in the world which truly are apocalyptic: the deadly wildfires in California that are the deadliest in history; mass migrations of people fleeing violence and war; the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting… 

I truly wish it was the end and Jesus was returning—for at least, there’d be some relief in sight. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is warning his disciples of the chaos and calamities they are soon to face: the magnificent Jerusalem Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, will soon be destroyed.  Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

False messiahs who will lead people astray.  There will be wars and rumors of wars; nations will rise up against nations; earthquakes and famines will happen in various places.

Worst of all, Jesus is going to die.  God’s only Son, the Messiah—will be crucified as an enemy of the state.

All these things are too terrifying to imagine—but they will happen. 

Even now, Jesus warns that the world as we know it today will become even more chaotic and calamitous.  So what do you do?  Do you live for today and try desperately to have as much fun as you can?  Do you become a “Doomsday Prepper” and build a mighty fortress in your backyard?  Do you give up hope?  Do you let fear run your life?  Or, do you hold fast to the promises of God?

To do that, you need God—and you need God’s people…  As the author of Hebrews writes, “you must not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  You meet together in order to pray and worship, study the Scriptures, and serve the neighbors.  Just as importantly, you meet to share your burdens and care for one another.  And this is where it gets tricky.

I fear there is a deadly silence with the Church when it comes to many of the pains and struggles we face…

Here’s what I mean: a church-going woman received beautiful cards and meals when she was recovering from knee surgery.  But when her husband was hospitalized following a failed suicide attempt, there was nothing. 

Nearly half of all Americans will suffer a serious mental health condition in their lifetimes.  Suicide is among the most common causes of death in the United States, especially among young people.  People everywhere are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or pornography.  Abuse and domestic violence are tearing families apart.  Hundreds of children in the Leechburg school district are in danger of going hungry.  If these things happen to you—do you keep your suffering a secret?  Are you afraid to come to church, for fear of what people will say or do? 

I haven’t encountered a single person who hasn’t been impacted in some way by the Synagogue Shooting.  We’re frightened by chaos and calamities happening in our world.  But are we as a church grieving these tragedies and sharing our feelings?  Or do we stay silent—lest we offend someone, suffer a harsh rebuke, or divide the church?

But what good is the church if you must put on a happy face and pretend like everything’s fine?   What good is the church if it’s not engaged in God’s work of healing the public?

It’s very telling that God essentially abandons the mighty and magnificent temple to destruction.  God is not about to stay closed up in a building while God’s own children suffer.  The cross is proof that Jesus chooses to dwell not in glory and magnificence, but among all of the broken, frightened, and forgotten people of the world.  Jesus builds his church so that all God’s people who suffer will find acceptance, care, encouragement, and ultimately new life. 

The strength of our church lies not in the size of the stones that build it, but in our ability to care for each other’s brokenness.  What happens to one of us happens to all. 

What makes GriefShare so special is that when a common struggle meets genuine Christian love, the burden gets lifted and healing can begin.  AA and NA function much the same way: it’s a safe place for people to escape isolation and shame and be in the presence of people who care.  Meeting together and healing together go hand-in-hand.

So how do we go from being a house of stone to a household of care?

We start by praying for the Spirit to reveal to us those who are suffering—and what they are suffering. 

We don’t wait for them to come to us.  We go to them.  And not to fix them or give them advice, but to hear them.  One of the most loving things you can do for a person is to listen and appreciate what they’re going through.  There is so much good that comes simply by being heard.

As you pray for courage to listen, you must also pray for the courage to speak.  When you openly share your hurts and fears, you’re encouraging others by the simple fact that they’re not alone.  Sharing truly is caring.

Pray also for the courage to act—to proclaim with our words and especially out deeds, “God loves you and so do I.”

At the same time, we need to be deliberate about creating safe spaces to talk about the things going on in the world.  I am extremely proud of our adult Sunday School and Bible Study groups for the example they set.  We engage a lot of difficult subjects, and while we may not always agree, we remain allies in Christ’s mission.

There’s no sense in meeting together if we forget that Christ is with us in our struggles and that Christ brings salvation through the generosity of one Christian to another.  Meeting together means healing together.  The more that we listen, learn, and engage God’s people where they hurt, the more encouraged we will be.  You can trust God and face just about anything when you know that there will be people to love and care for you along the way, no matter what. 

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.