Jesus Confronts Demons

1371252_10201976831894455_1189944952_nJanuary 29, 2012

Year B Epiphany 4

Deuteronomy 18,   Mark 1:21-28

Don’t you wish you could have been there that Sabbath? For one thing to hear what Jesus sounded like this first sermon. Of course there would have to be subtitles, since our Aramaic isn’t too good. But the voice and face would have conveyed what the others got. After all, Mark doesn’t even mention the content of the sermon. Just that everyone who heard this new preacher was astonished. He spoke as one with authority not as the scribes and Pharisees.

What is authority?

A DEA (Drug Enforcement Authority) officer stopped at a ranch in Texas and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher, ”I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.”

The rancher said, “Okay, but don’t go in that field over there…” as he pointed out the location.

The DEA officer verbally exploded saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher.

See this badge?! This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish… on any land!! No questions asked or answers given!! Have I made myself clear?! Do you understand?!!”

The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores.

A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, looked up, and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull…

With every step the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he’d sure enough get gored before he reached safety. The officer was clearly terrified. The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs…

Your badge! Show him your BADGE!!”

Exousia is the word that Mark uses. Authority. The power to do something. Literally it means out of essence or being of something. There was something in the essence of Jesus that radiated this sense that he could make things different.

I wonder what he preached about? Did he use the text from Isaiah 61 that Luke says was his scripture when he preached for the first time back in Nazareth.The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Did he offer some of the teachings we have in the Sermon on the Mount that in Matthew is his first teaching? Did he talk about how the upside down kingdom of God? Or maybe a parable? Did he tell the outrageous story of the loving father who received his bad son back into the house when he came broken and needy. Did he talk about how there was a place in God’s kingdom for people who had been lost like that?

Whatever he said he did not hide behind what other “authorities” had said. He spoke with his voice and authority. And what he said or how he said it or both threatened to change how they had understood things, threatened to make things different. Was that it? Was that what provoked a member of the congregation just then?

There was a commotion and someone in the crowd stood up and started talking, right in the middle of Jesus’ sermon, mind you. You assume that this was someone the people probably knew. It might have embarrassed them for the sake of the man, for the sake of the guest preacher, for the sake of the service. Why didn’t the deacons usher him out? Did they know this man? Did he come to church often?

Martin Copenhaver, a pastor in Illinois, writes of having a man named Bernie in his congregation and choir with Tourette Syndrome, who exhibits his condition by barking without warning. Bernie’s disability has kept him from holding down a job, and in fact his family couldn’t handle it and turned him out. But Bernie was a gifted musician and one day he joins the choir in this church that has accepted him. Sounds great when he is not barking. Most times Bernie would turn the bark into a coughing fit to try to cover it. People in the church get used to it. First time a visitor hears it they may ask, “did someone just bark?” They look around and the rest of the congregation doesn’t react. it happens again. And the visitor wonders “what kind of place have I wandered into?”1

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”Now the unclean spirit does not lie. It knows Jesus’s home address. It accuses Jesus of having come to “destroy us”, to undo evil permanently. And calls Jesus the “holy one of God” .

But Jesus does not seem to miss a beat. He zeroes in and addresses not the man but something in him. “Shut up and leave him!”

The man is convulsed momentarily, but then he is in his right mind. And now the congregation is really impressed. This is some kind of preaching, if the preacher is able to command demons out of people and the demons obey!

Word got around that Jesus had power, authority, could make things happen by just saying the word. In a dramatic way we see that Jesus’ preaching about the effective rule of God is not just words. It is backed up by real change.

What are we to make of the unclean spirit? I don’t know if you feel comfortable with talking about possessions. People can get possessed about possessions, poltergeists, haunted houses, Ouija boards. Charles Williams warned in Witchcraft that one of the great ironies of church history is how people who got passionate about exorcising evil ended up doing Devil’s work. The Inquisition is only one example of people going to such extremes to fight the Devil, that they ended up acting like him. Devil wins when we fall into using the devils methods. Mark tells us Jesus wrestled with temptations 40 days before he began his ministry. Matt and Luke tell us one of those was over whether Jesus was willing to use the Devil’s skill set to accomplish his holy purpose. Jesus saw right through the offer. If you use devil’s tools, the devil has won. Getting too fascinated with evil may be just the thing to loop us into giving evil too much power in our lives.

As someone said, whether you believe in the devil or not, watch out for people who talk about keeping his company.

But on the other hand we can dismiss evil as a chemical imbalance or a neural flaw, or some other “it’s only”, with the result that we can surrender responsibility of the evil person and even our responsibility to address it. As if evil was just there and nobody could do anything about it. “You can’t change the way things are.”

Doubtless many times we need to be humble about how much we are going to be able to change the world.

A young minister complained to a church mentor he was frustrated that he had not been able to change the people in his congregation. The old man offered, you don’t understand. God didn’t put you there to change them but to love them and minister to them. Do that and leave changing to God.

But sometimes we have seen people get so stuck in sick behaviors, self-defeating lifestyles, we just get jaded and lower our standards and our hopes to maybe just things not getting any worse.

Sometimes the problems we are stuck in are so intractable we think nothing we do or say will make any difference.  Think how Wilberforce faced the evils of slave trade, 2

William Harrison was the offspring of prosperous slaveholding Virginians, despite his attempt to present himself as a country boy who had come out of humblest conditions to be a great Indian fighter– “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” When the issue arose whether to allow slavery in the new Western states, Harrison waffled. He did not think slavery was something that ought to be spread, but he was swayed by folks who said if you don’t allow rich plantation owners to bring their slaves, they won’t move here and invest in our territory. Can’t ask people to just let go of so much of their resources like that. Can’t change things.

When the civil rights movement was building in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower responded to a church sermon on the need for civil rights legislation by saying “You can’t legislate morality.” Morality only changes gradually. Martin Luther King responded that while Eisenhower was correct in one sense, he was missing something else: “A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.” Law can never make a society perfect, but it can make its rules a little more just. The law can’t change hearts, but the law can lead.

Years later, Dr. King wrote in his marvelous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of the   cost of waiting. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.'” 3

I think sometimes we need to hear this gospel lesson so we can know that Jesus is more than talk. Jesus has the power to alter the way things are, Jesus can change the status quo.

Walter Wink has done a great deal of work exploring what unclean spirits and powers of evil meant and mean.

Paul writing about meat offered to idols says he can see the point of those who are superstitious about eating anything connected to the old gods they recently worshiped. But he himself shares the opinion of those who think that there are not such things as those gods to begin with, so their existence is not an issue in eating the meat– it is just meat. On the other hand as Paul continues, my eating such meat in front of someone who still has superstition about those gods might nudge them into doing something against their conscience. So Paul says he will give up eating the meat like that –but not because there are such things as pagan gods or demigods.

On the other hand, Paul writes in Ephesians 6, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

There are forces at work in my life and your life that are “superhuman” they are greater than any one of us. It is what is going on when decent people do terrible things because they are caught up in some immoral system?  Call it “the system,” the spirit of the times.  Racism, hatred, fear, panic– all can be powerful forces that have a transpersonal reality– they are bigger than an individual- they are principalities and powers.

You know people probably who are decent, responsible, and caring people until they get drunk. And then the restraints that keep ugly possibilities at bay break down and the demons get loose. Domestic violence, gambling away security of your family, road rage–addictions of every sort– it is as if something else has come in and taken control. Yanked the steering wheel out of your hand and you can’t fight away from this possession.

Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Our freedom is real, but we are never isolated. We are influenced and we are an influence. If we are good, there have been influences which helped you do right. If you have gone wrong there were influences that paved the detour from the straight path.

When we choose what is right, it is with God’s help, though the choice is ever our own. and in doing what is loving and right we become freer still.

When we chose what is wrong we become more tangled in web of lies, a slurry of confusion, less free, emptier, co-opted. Fear that which can destroy body and soul.

We cannot blame the Devil or our genetics for our mistakes. They may have helped tilt us in the wrong direction but they did not push us into it. When the serpent strikes up the conversation with Eve he directs her attention to other things than her duty. But he does not force the fruit into her hands or into her mouth.

If we are defeated we bear some responsibility.

But we may not be able alone to right the wrong, to regain our freedom.

It make take a lot of steps to get back to where life can be what it should again.

Maybe 12 steps is one way:

THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

What a healthy balance of doing what we can and asking for God’s help for what is too much for us alone!

That “higher power”, we know it is personal. You can address that higher power. The God who comes close to us in Jesus is able to come closer still in the Spirit.

But David, do you believe in the devil or unclean spirits? Do you believe in the powers of evil? Are such powers personal?

I do not know how to speak of such things. They are hidden.

Karl Jung suggested that these dark possibilities are in fact the shadow of our own self. The shadow I could say of our freedom. For if you are free personally, then it is surely possible that you could do wrong with that very freedom. So that in you lies the seed of good and evil.

But sometimes it seems that that “evil urge”, as the Jews speak of it, is other than me– is something opposed to me, against me. And at that moment it is possible to speak of it as a foe, a force that is intentionally against me, attacking me.

Luther felt the devil trying to push him into despair and depression. He wrestled with those temptations and threw his ink well at the devil. But he wrote:

A mighty fortress is our God

a bulwark never failing;

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;

His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,

On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;

Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever…

Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil”? … or as the Greek says “from the evil one”

For thine is the power… the authority…

When the disciples were sent out Jesus gave them a message to preach, and the power to heal and cast out unclean spirits. They returned amazed and Jesus said, (Luke 10) “17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 4

Oh, the battle is on.

John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. (KJV)

I John 3:8 The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

1 Peter 5:8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith,

Jesus said to his disciples before ascension, his life transcended earth– “all Power is given unto me (by the Father) all power in heaven and earth.

Therefore– Go into all the world making people into students of the way

And lo I am with you always.

Jesus has the power to command evil to let go of us, to come out of us, to come out of families and churches and communities, and let us be free.

Salvation is more than a word, it is a deed. Jesus heals the whole of who we are– body, mind and soul. The goal of Jesus is to redeem us not so much from punishment for sin but from the power of sin over us and in us.

In the epilogue to his book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink wrote: “The passion that drove the early Christians to evangelistic zeal was not fueled … by the desire to increase church membership or to usher people safely into a compensatory heaven after death. Their passion was fired above all by relief at being liberated from the delusions being spun over them by the Powers [and principalities]. Being thus freed determined them to set others free.”5

The passage in Mark’s gospel does not focus on the origin of demons or disease; or the spiritual or medical origins of demon possession and the presence of diseases but rather on the ability of Jesus to effect both conquest and cure. 6

Thanks be to God. Amen

1This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers

By Lillian Daniel, Martin B. Copenhaver, 98.

2“In our culture, if we don’t accomplish something in six months or a year we will often abandon it and move on. But Wilberforce relentlessly put this bill on the floor of Parliament — year, after year, after year for seventeen years. He fought for this thing until finally it was passed on February 23rd, 1807.Then he turned around and spent the next twenty-five years fighting for the abolition of slavery itself. British Parliament passed that bill in 1833 and then three days later Wilberforce died. Before his death, William Wilberforce heard that slavery was abolished.

3Mark Byrnes,” The Past Is Not Past,” blog, March 13, 2010.

4Barnes’ Notes on the Bible

I beheld Satan … – “Satan” here denotes evidently the prince of the devils who had been cast out by the seventy disciples, for the discourse was respecting their power over evil spirits. “Lightning” is an image of “rapidity” or “quickness.” I saw Satan fall “quickly” or rapidly – as quick as lightning. The phrase “from heaven” is to be referred to the lightning, and does not mean that he saw “Satan” fall “from heaven,” but that he fell as quick as lightning from heaven or from the clouds. The whole expression then may mean, “I saw at your command devils immediately depart, as quick as the flash of lightning. I gave you this power – I saw it put forth – and I give also now, in addition to this, the power to tread on serpents,” etc.

52 Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998)

6Gino Geraci 05/15/11

 

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Advent 3: Rejoice

 

divinemercyDecember 11, 2011

Year B Advent 3

Isaiah 61; I Thessalonians 5

The third Sunday of Advent has a special name, “gaudete” which is Latin for “Rejoice!” An imperative, a command, “Rejoice.”

If you remember the readings of Advent thus far have had other imperatives, “Stay awake!” “Be prepared” “Comfort my people.” The imperative today pivots around to a new focus “Joy!” With this clue we can see joy in every text.

Isaiah 61 starts out with the speaker saying that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring joyful news. God’s year of Jubilee. Now is the time for things to get reset economically, spiritually, socially.

Suffering people who have been through discouraging and difficult losses are going to get relief and then they will be able to rebuild Jerusalem and Judea which have lain in ruins for these 70 years of exile and absence. What a challenging thing to rebuild after fire or flood, tornado or earthquake.

Doesn’t the passage speak to our times?

Those who suffer, if given a second chance, a new beginning, are the very ones who can rebuild their lives, their family, their community, the world. The devastations of many generations.

As the renewal is undertaken we hear the promise: “God swaps flowers of celebration for ashes of grief. He gives healing oil for our broken hearts. And God dresses us up for the future with the same excitement that a groom and bride dress for their wedding. Not is tux and gown, but in righteousness and salvation.

Psalm 126 is about coming back to Jerusalem and the wonder and excitement of coming home after long exile. Reflecting back on it the psalmist says, “Isn’t that the way God worked: We went out with tears and come home with laughter. Like sowers who go out sadly and a bit fearfully, planting the last seeds they have– look just a few weeks later they come home rejoicing bringing in sheaves of grain.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Or Luke 1 and Mary’s song. Her heart is swollen with joy in God her savior. Because God has proven he noticed her, a nobody. And now because of what God is going to do through her she will be called blessed by generations to come.

God turns things upside down like that

Powerful get tossed out

Weak ones win

Greedy folks lose it all.

Hungry people have enough to eat.

Revolutionary things. And Mary rejoices at it.

I Thessalonians 5.

Paul spends a lot of time in this letter reiterating Jesus will return and receive the faithful of the earth. But Paul has to correct some mistaken conclusions that have been drawn about what we should do with that hope.

First, people who have died before Jesus returns will not miss out on heaven. They are with Jesus. We are always going to be with Jesus

Secondly, Jesus is coming, but you should not quit your job an idly wait for it all to end. So end spends many verses talking about what sort of life you ought to lead in view of the coming of Jesus.

It is roughly parallel to the secular carol, “Santa Claus is coming to town.–He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” The Lord is aware of how you are doing. So be about the things that God has for you to do till the end comes.

Three imperatives line up in verse (15?) Rejoice, pray, thank.

In a funny way the first tie together. Rejoice is chara and thank is eucharista . So the blessings of God causes joy to spring out of our hearts which in prayer give thanks to God and the giving thanks increases our joy.

This is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

God wants you to have joy.

First there is this overarching good news, “God has destined us not for wrath, but for salvation.” I Thess. 5.9 This journey with Jesus is not a dead end. That is the most fundamental reason a Christian can have joy “Always.” Regardless of how dark things may be for us right now, the story is going to turn out for good.

Secondly we can live with each other in such a way that cultivates joy.

Paul’s list is instructive, and not exhaustive. he could have gone on, but look what he told us to work on:

First respect people who are helping God’s work along. Treat them right.

Then he goes on…

Be at peace among yourselves. 14

And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers,

encourage the faint hearted,

help the weak,

be patient with all of them.

15See that none of you repays evil for evil,

but always seek to do good to one another

……..and to all.

Living together like that is one of the ways you get to “rejoice always.”

Some have been concerned that the culture downplays the religious side to Christmas, objecting that Christmas trees are called holiday trees. The truth is our English Puritan forebearers fined people for observing Christmas at all. It was not in the Bible that Jesus was born on December 25, and in their eyes trees and decorations of any sort at all were scandalous and only became popular after German immigrants brought practices here.

We ought not to be so shy about joy.

a. “Be glad then, you children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God.” – Joel 2:23

b. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.'” – Ps 122:1

c. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” – Php 4:4

d. “…singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” – Ep 5:19

Always:

Martin Buber said, “The moment you become aware that you are praying, you are no longer praying.”

Peter Storey, a pastor who helped lead the church’s struggle against apartheid, in speaking of light, said in a sermon, “A candle light is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ!’” When Christians are not intimidated by tough times, but can still express joy, they are saying, “I beg to differ.” The darkness will not have the final word.

Rejoice, pray and give thanks. When we live into those things we are living into the will of God. Such living is probably the best witness we can give to the light of Christ in our lives. St. Francis words on witnessing come to mind. He said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

Amen

For Further Reflection

Kenneth Carter

Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need in these days, in these holidays, when in a world of terrorism and road rage, estrangement and outsourcing, all is not calm and all is not bright. The writer of the Proverbs knew about this gift and our need for it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17. 22)

There is something about humor that brings us to life, and the scriptures for this day hint at all of this:

The prophet Isaiah: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.

The psalmist: Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.

And the Apostle Paul, writing to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always.

Advent 2: What Changes, What Abides

divinemercyDecember 4, 2011    Year B Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11

Things change. Sometimes that is exhilarating. Sometime the change is depressing. But one thing you can count on: things will change.

Over the last 100 years physicists have revised their notion of the universe. Before the last century most textbooks would have told you the universe was infinite and some would have argued it had always been. Some said the only eternal thing was matter.

But now scientists talk with certainty about the moment when suddenly the universe sprang into being: about 13.7 billion years ago. And from that infinitesimally small point, the universe has been exploding, growing larger. The universe has a definite mass but the size keeps changing. In fact the universe accelerating in its spreading. The universe is changing.

This planet is changing. My grandson loves dinosaurs. It is sobering to think of how the earth was home to a whole different set of animals. It is also sobering to think what we have and are doing to change the balance of nature. Climate change is something we are going to have to face.

The economy is changing. Once upon a time a person could work for the same company their entire working career. Now so much work is temporary. And people who train for one job may find they need a whole set of new skills by they time they graduate.

Even history changes. In History in the Making Kyle Ward studies history books and texts and discovers that over the years the explanations for what was going on in history changes. “When [history books] are written, the historian who’s writing them – or more likely, the editorial staff who’s writing them – they are being impacted by the current social, political, economic issues that are going on at that point in time.”

…So in the textbook from 1849, the Mexican War is started by Mexico. In a textbook from 1880, it’s an inevitable conflict between the races. In 1911 the books say U.S. has to go into Mexico and start this war because the Mexicans are obviously coming. In 1966 start getting the names of certain individuals who at that time actually questioned the war.1

And we more recently have seen how the history of how we got into America’s longest wars– Iraq and Afghanistan– have altered.

Even history changes.

Techonology is one of the most obvious changes. There is more memory in some thumb drives than was available to computers that took men to the moon. [Wikipedia: ] Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, who described the trend in his 1965 paper.[Moore, Gordon E. (1965). “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits” (PDF). Electronics Magazine. p. 4. Retrieved 2006-11-11.] The paper noted that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year from the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958 until 1965 and predicted that the trend would continue “for at least ten years”.[13] His prediction has proved to be uncannily accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semi-conductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development.[14]

A change that was unforseen only a few years before:

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than one and a half tons.”

Popular Mechanics, Forecasting the Relentless March of Science, 1949

Think what cell phones and social media have done to change the political landscape of the world.

Think what it means that the largest number of English speakers in the 21st Century will be in China. That the largest democracy is India.

That the center of Christianity has shifted from America and Europe to South America and Africa.

Change is around us at every turn.

Changes itself changes. You can’t predict what is next by looking back at change patterns in the past.

One of the first philosophy books I ever picked up was Hegel’s Philosophy of History. It was way above my head, but I pondered then and now the truth of the first pages: Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this, – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past.

I did not even know what ‘idiosyncratic” meant. But the sentence asserted that change changes. The changes we are facing today are not like the changes we faced before.

Long time ago when the Southern Baptist Convention was going through the takeover, I heard some old ministers say, “oh, don’t worry. The pendulum will swing back, it always has.” But it didn’t. The pendulum fell off its hook.

Listen to politicians say, “America has always been the leader in innovation ….America will be a moral force for good because that is what we always have been…”

But what do investors say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Human nature has perennial themes, but history has infinite variations.

Sir Winston Churchill was once asked to give the qualifications a person needed in order to succeed in politics, and he replied: “It is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Closer home our bodies change. Louis Armstrong used to sing “old Man Time”

he gives you your youth then he takes it away. “He gives you beauty, style, and grace, then puts wrinkles in your face, that old man, Old Man Time”. We grown up without deciding to and we can’t stop wrinkles and aches just because we don’t want them. Our bodies are always changing.

Families change. Every year the people who gather at Christmas are different in some way than last Christmas. Some are missing because of death or breakups, Some are added by marriage or birth or friendships. The people in our lives are always changing.

Ancient Greeks felt life was a whirl of change and they were desperate to find something that was beyond change. Heraclitus supposedly said that you cannot step into the same river twice. 2 Perhaps he meant that when you step into it you are not the same person who stepped into the first time.

The search for absolutes, for the eternal became very important to the Greeks. is there anything that we can rest on as unchanging, untouched by the flux of events, the coming into being and passing away. So Plato speaks of Ideas –sort of ideals that are more real than the world of perception and Aristotle speaks of God as an unmoved mover. God is not changed but as iron filings form a pattern in the presence of a magnet so the universe is affected by the existence of God. We are changed by the existence of an unchanging God.

History is not where you find truth. Truth is in an eternal realm that is untouched by the coming and going of history.

I was once very drawn to that picture of eternity, of truth. But is misses something real about life.

Change changes. There is nothing inevitable about how things will change. It doesn’t have to get better. It doesn’t have to get worse. Change is not predetermined.

So the fact that real change is possible means the world is not predetermined.

And that is good news. Change is the basis of freedom. If things had to be a certain way, real freedom would be an illusion. And here is where it comes back. Freedom is one of the causes of change.

Isaiah 40-55 was written 70 years after the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. Isaiah of Jerusalem lived some 150 years before that. (ministry up till around 700 BC.

Return from Exile around 538 BC).

Jews had been dealt a terrible change. Babylon had deported leaders and workers. The Temple was plundered of all sacred vessels and precious tresausres then burned. Jerusalem was in ruins. And the people were displaced from the land promised to their forefathers.

Life had changed. Read Daniel 1-7 about how Jews survived as Jews in a strange land without the props of land, temple.

For 70 years that had carried on but with a deep grief for what use to be. Some felt God had given up on them. Some felt that their punishment for disobedience meant things could never be the way they once were. They were lost.

The “new normal” was to figure out how to accommodate old faith to new cultural contexts, do worship without Temple, adapt and go on, but as captive, second class race.

70 years.

And then God breaks the silence . The word of God comes to this nameless prophet, a disciple copying, preserving, studying the old prophecies of Isaiah.

And God’s first word is repeated twice “Comfort, comfort” (nachmu nachmu).

tell her tenderly that her struggle is over, she has served her sentence, her sin is forgiven her.

The second word is “prepare” – make a road in the wilderness, your God is coming in a way so spectacular that the whole world will witness the glory.

Prepare the way in the desert. In the desert… Does that ring a bell for them? Wasn’t the desert where they path led from Egyptian slavery to the promised land?

The unpromising desolation, the forbidding scarcity had become the way through which God had brought them first to himself and then to the promised land.

Get a road ready in the wilderness. God is coming to fetch you back home, back to himself.

The announcement is sudden. The prophet doesn’t’ know what to do with it.

You tell me “shout it out!’” and I say “Shout?! What have I got to shout about?

All flesh is as grass. All beauty passes away like flowers in the hot sun.

The people are like dying grass. It is over. Do you hear, I’s is over. Things have changed forever.

That what he feels. But then from somewhere– memory? The Spirit whispering? And old scripture verse? (As he says later- have you not heard? Have you not known?)

From somewhere comes the answer.

Yes, everything passes away, but the word of the Lord abides forever. Get up! Climb on the hill. Cry out in a loud voice. ‘Behold God!’ Tell Jerusalem, that ruined city to rejoice. Tell Jerusalem to spread it to all the other villages”

The prophet is down in the dumps along with all his people about the changes that have destroyed so much that was precious to them. Everything falls apart. Everything dies. Beauty passes away.

But then he thinks of something that has not changed.

It isn’t that God doesn’t change. In one sense I think it is clear that God changes. For one we read that God changes his plans in reaction to what happens in human history.

We read that God is willing to change his plans in reaction to the prayers of Abraham.

Look God is changed by history in this simple way. God becomes the God of Abraham, and then Isaac comes along and now God is also the God of Isaac and then Jacob is born —-the story of God adds chapters.

God is living you know. He is more than an abstract principle. And the God of Abraham has become my God and your God. In a sense God does change, but what doesn’t change is God’s word.

Hebrew word for “word” dabar means “word as something spoken but it also carries the meaning of “deed” something we enact.

The closest thing I can think of in English where word and action overlap is what is know n as a performative utterance.

For example when you say “done deal” you are actually doing something– you are committing yourself the terms of an agreement. When you say “I Jake take you Sophrina to be my wedding wife,” you have not just said something you just got married.

When you take an oath of office you have not just said pretty words, you taken office and its responsibilities.

When you truthfully say for the first time, “I love you.” something is different. Something is changed. The word does something.

There can be this overlap between deeds and words. And this is what Isaiah is talking about.

What Isaiah says is not that God doesn’t change, but that his word doesn’t change. He doesn’t take back what he has promised. He doesn’t cancel out his purpose and commitment.

John’s gospel begins with the words. “In the beginning was the word.” Logos. It means “word,” but is more. Logos means – idea, thought, plan, purpose, the sense of words. Not some signs on paper, not even some forumla of verbal expression. Word in the deep sense of what God means to get across to us, what God wants to do.

That doesn’t change. It has been there since before the beginning. That word is God.

And what our scripture discovers for us is – the hope we have in all the changes of our lives is that word of God doesn’t change.

And that is why everything else can change.

Preacher told of a homeless person who was always turning up and asking, “Preacher, is this the way it is suppose to be?” A bright person caught in the mess of life, working temp jobs and fighting to keep from losing sanity too. “Is this the way it is suppose to be?”

The truth is so much about the world and about ourselves is not the way it is suppose to be. So much about the world and about us has changed from what God intended. There are rough places, there are steep mountain climbs. There are pot holes and wash outs.

But the way things are will not cancel God’s desire to claim us and bring us home.

Change isn’t always negative. Sure the flower fades. But listen the ones who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will begin to work on the avenues to smooth the way for the approaching God.

The two tasks of Advent is amidst whatever changes are in your world,

1. Change ourselves to be more in line with God’s way for us

2. Change our world to be more like the kingdom where justice and grace, peace and integrity become one.

A pastor had had a bad week. On Sunday he was very frustrated and he began his sermon, “Everyone in this parish is going to hell if they don’t change their ways.” One man in the back began to laugh. So the pastor said it again louder. The man continued to laugh. The pastor went back to him and asked him why he was laughing. He answered, “Because I don’t belong to this parish!”

World is always going to change. New carols will be written. Old one may be forgotten. But the God who became incarnate in Jesus will still be the God of 3,000 AD or 30,000 Ad. Just as in 587.

Get up

Look around

Behold your God.

Rejoice, the Lord is coming.

And all the changes that we work on now will be finished.

Kenneth Carter writes

I live not far from the mountains of Western North Carolina, and I try to spend as much time there as I can! Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through these same mountains one afternoon, and they encountered several miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:

End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

We are in a time of transition. We wait with a sense of promise. Do not be demoralized if the world does not seem to be a very peaceful place. Do not be discouraged if anxiety rules within your heart and confusion pervades your mind.

2Although, as Encylopedia of Philosophy has it this may be a misinterpretation. If this interpretation is right, the message of the one river fragment, B12, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

 

Advent 1: Waiting, Working

divinemercy November 27, 2011

Year B Advent 1

Mark 13:

The disciples are leaving the Temple area where Jesus has been in extended debate with religious leaders, who are trying to find grounds for discrediting him before the people or even better, grounds for arrest. All to no avail.

And yet they will arrest him in a matter of hours.

Perhaps all that is weighing on Jesus’ mind when one of the disciples pipes up, “Lord, isn’t that temple beautiful?!”

No doubt it was quite a sight. Josephus the historian whose life overlapped Jesus had seen it. Listen to some of it.

Now the magnitudes of the other gates were equal one to another; but that over the Corinthian gate, which opened on the east over against the gate of the holy house itself, was much larger; for its height was fifty cubits; and its doors were forty cubits; and it was adorned after a most costly manner, as having much richer and thicker plates of silver and gold upon them than the other. These nine gates had that silver and gold poured upon them by Alexander, the father of Tiberius….

Now the outward face of the temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white. On its top it had spikes with sharp points, to prevent any pollution of it by birds sitting upon it. Of its stones, some of them were forty-five cubits in length (67.5ft), five (7.5 ft) in height, and six (9 ft) in breadth.1

No wonder the disciple exclaimed, “Isn’t that wonderful?!”

Jesus looked past the splendor. He speaks it seems of what lay ahead, something which would happen before their generation were all gone. We see it foreshadowed a few years later when Emperor Caligula proposed a statue of himself as Zeus Incarnate be set up in the holy of holies. It would have happened except he was assassinated.

And then a revolt began in Caesarea in AD 66, was provoked by Greeks sacrificing birds in front of a local synagogue.[Josephus, War of the Jews II.14.5] The Roman garrison did not intervene and the long-standing Greek and Jewish religious tensions took a downward spiral. In reaction, the son of the high priest Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices for the Roman Emperor at the Temple. Protests over taxation joined the list of grievances and random attacks on Roman citizens and perceived ‘traitors’ occurred in Jerusalem. Fearing the worst, the pro-Roman king Agrippa II and his sister Berenice fled Jerusalem to Galilee. And in just a few years we read Titus came sweeping into the land and slaughtered Jews in the thousands and when there were no more to slaughter, they began to destroy what was left of the temple.

When you see signs of these things flee to the countryside, Jesus warned.

All that splendor become a waste. Here we have no abiding city. No eternal temple.

The destruction will not just be real estate. “You will be persecuted,” Jesus says.

But “after that tribulation,” beyond all that, there will come a cosmic upheaval. Stars leaving their position, the sun going out, the moon vanishing in darkness. And the son of man will appear in glory and all the elect, God’s people from all the corners of the earth and all the corners of heaven will be gather together.

Then as I read it, Jesus goes back to speaking of the terror close at hand when he speaks of the fig tree and the disaster happening within their generation.

And then back again to the final end which is not so predictable, it won’t have the same signs of warning. And about that end no one can know the exact time.

Despite this clear word from Jesus that we could not know the time, an awful lot of folks have spent good time trying to predict when it would all be over.

Harold Camping, president of Family Radio first predicted the End of Days September 6, 1994/ When that proved wrong, he said his calculation was off and he declared the end would be May 21, of 2011, when nobody got raptured he changed it to read mankind entered into the Day of Judgment. This “day” will last for 5 months (153 days) until October 21, 2011. I don’t know what Mr. Camping is saying now.

Charles Russell who founded Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted the return of Jesus would be 1914. Since then the JW’s have predicted 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994.

I guess there is more than a little self-deception with some of these predictors. Mary Bateman, who specialized in fortune telling, had a magic chicken that laid eggs with end time messages on them. One message said that Christ was coming in 1809. The uproar she created ended when she was caught forcing an egg into the hen’s oviduct by an unannounced visitor.2

Instead of playing 20 questions with the date the world will end, Jesus said we should be expectantly alert, while we work.

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

It is as if we have been put in charge of the Christ’s business and we each have our job in that, we are to be about that work as part of being ready for the return of the master. And we are to expect that at anytime– night, midnight, dawn, or morning.

Treating the Bible like some kind of Da Vince Code is just a big mistake. There is more important things to do than looking for clues to secret timetable that doesn’t exist. There is kingdom work to be done.

There is a movement Tony Campolo is promoting called “Red Letter Christians.” A secular Jewish country-and-western disc jockey in Nashville, Tennessee first suggested that title. During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, that deejay declared, “You’re one of those Red-Letter Christians – you know, the ones who are really into all those New Testament verses that are in red letters!”

When I think of the job Jesus had in mind for the disciples and for us till he comes in glory, I think mostly of the verses in red. The sermon on the mount, the parables. I have to think Jesus had in mind living humbly, caring for the unfortunate, visiting the sick, making room for the outcast, practicing forgiveness, receiving little children, praying and giving and going. We will not run out of things to do if we are about the work of Jesus.

Paul says in our reading from I Corinthians, “1.7…..You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1:8 He will also strengthen you to the end….” We have not only been given an idea of the work to do but the resources and power to get on with it. That is how we wait for the coming of the Lord.

Richard Cavanaugh reminds us that beyond doing some small deed for someone in need, part of the proper work of those who wait is to tackle the deeper causes of problems. 3

But there is more. Jesus said not only work, but wait.

We must not read these as opposites. Waiting means that our work is within our sense of God’s work. We are listening for God to give direction. We will pray about what we should do and when. We are striving in everything to keep in step with the Lord.

Waiting means I shift the emphasis from what I am doing to what God is doing. It means being open to God. Something that Isaiah 64 says the people were lacking: There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you (64:7).

Waiting:

Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.”

Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.”

Proverbs 20:22 “Do not say, `’I’ll pay you back for this wrong!’ Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.”

Isaiah 30:18: “For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”

Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Johannes Brahms took up the text of Psalm 39

4 LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.

5 Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.

6 Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

7 And now, Lord, what wait I for? (passionately, desperately) (then peacefully:) my hope is in thee.

Waiting means to pray:

Psalm 106:13, “They soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel.”

God may tell us to be still as he told Moses to just watch as he delivered Israel through the Sea of Reeds.

In Acts 1, the disciples are ready for Jesus to bring the kingdom to fullness right now. Instead, Jesus tells them they will be involved in that process, but first– “Don’t do anything yet. Go back to Jerusalem and wait there until the Holy Spirit comes.” “I’m sure this must have come as a major surprise. Here’s a crucial insight: When God wants to reach the world, his first step is to tell his people to slow down and wait for him.”4

Isaiah 30:15 the Lord says, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” And you would not, but you said, “No! We will speed upon horses,” therefore you shall speed away, and, “We will ride upon swift steeds,” therefore your pursuers shall be swift.

Or God may tell us as he did David “Go up and engage for I am with you.”

In 2 Samuel 5:19, when the Philistines were pursuing David, it says, “David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I go up against the Philistines? Wilt thou give them into my hand?’ And the Lord said to David, ‘Go up. For I will certainly give the Philistines into thy hand.’”

Please note that to acting under God’s guidance is a way of “waiting on the Lord” for the simple reason you are not doing it without dependence on God.

Proverbs 21:31, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.”

Psalm 33:16–22: A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save . . . Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Yea, our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let thy steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in thee.

Sometimes waiting on the Lord means I do not act, but as God may lead me, I leave it in God’s hands how things will turn out. But waiting sometimes means I act. But whether the action is engaging the enemy, building, visiting, creating, debating, studying, struggling, we do it relying on the Lord. That is what it means to wait on the Lord.

All our actions must await God’s completion.

I do my little deeds till God sweeps our work into his great Deed of Redemption. We work waiting for how God will finish what we cannot complete.

Niebuhr’s great prayer:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

And so we come to that brazen prayer “O that you would rip the heaven apart and descend to us.”

It is an acknowledgment that the help that is needed to fix this world is more than our efforts. It is an acknowledgment too that we cannot scale heaven to bring the Lord down. If there is contact between heaven and earth it will be the work of heaven breaking through the barriers.

God “acts on behalf of those who wait for him”… “those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.”

Lord Shackleton was a famous British scientist and explorer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He tried but failed in his initial attempt to reach the South Pole. In fact, he was forced to leave some of his men behind on a remote island in the dangerous Antarctic region. Shackleton promised to return for them. Day after day he tried to reach those marooned men, but always he failed because the dangerous ice would close the channel way between him and his abandoned crew. At last Lord Shackleton determined to make one great attempt at rescuing his men. The channel suddenly opened between the sea where Shackleton was and the island where his crew was stranded. At the risk of his own life, Shackleton rushed in with his ship, got his men aboard, and quickly rushed out, barely making it before the ice crashed together again. The whole rescue operation took less than 30 minutes.

Afterwards, Shackleton turned to one of the crew members whom he had rescued and asked, “How was it that you were all able to get aboard ship so quickly?” Replied the crewman, “Sir, Mr. Wild, the officer you left in command never let a chance slip. You had promised to come and we were waiting for you. Whenever there was the slightest chance of your coming, Mr. Wild would say, ‘Men, roll up your sleeping bags, the boss may be here today.` “Sir,” continued the crewman, “our sleeping bags were all rolled up, we were always ready. We were always prepared.” [From Proclaim (Parish Publications, 1993) ]

One preacher: My wife used to be a manager for a bank. One of the things they were always aware of was the likelihood that a bank auditor would show up. These folks were employees of the federal government who’s job was to ensure that individual bank branches were following all federal laws and security procedures. The key was, nobody ever knew when they were going to show up. As my wife once related, “I came to work this morning and as I was putting my key in the lock, the auditor came up and introduced himself to me.” She only knew it was time for an audit after it had already begun.

(Dr. John E. Harnish:)

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Yet…yet…yet…in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (U.M. Hymnal, page 230)

Yet…In the dark streets of our world;

The dark streets of Bethlehem and Baghdad

The dark streets of own personal doubts and disillusionment

The dark streets of our day

Yet…in these dark streets, shines the everlasting light.

One lone candle, challenging the darkness.

One lone candle, lighting the way toward the future.

One lone candle…the gift of hope.

Amen.

1Wars of the Jews, by Flavius Josephus, Book V, Chapter 5

2A compendium of predictions is available at http://www.bible.ca/pre-date-setters.htm

3“During Advent opportunities for works of charity abound calling out for Christians from every side: a sack of food for a needy family, money dropped in a Salvation Army kettle, a donation to an Indian school, a toy for ‘Toys-for-Tots,’ etc. Unfortunately, these works of charity so easily can assuage the Christian conscience, while doing nothing to being about a solution to the root causes of the problem.

Works of justice, on he other hand, follow the road less traveled of Advent’s hope to pursue solutions for difficult problems. Hope comes through works of justice rather than simply performing works of charity.”

4Ray Pritchard, In God’s Waiting Room.

 

Extravagant

 

anointing

by He Qi

Lent 5, March 17, 2013

John 12:1-8

 

Today we dip into the gospel of John. Which is a little surprising since most of this year we are reading from Luke. But we get a little of John every year, which says something about its importance as well as its uniqueness.

The gospel of John has a different language world. The viewpoint is vast. Where Matthew and Luke talk about geography and historical context of Jesus’ birth, John speaks of deep eternity as the well from which Jesus comes. And so often when Jesus speaks in John it is almost as it were from heaven.

But note this, the gospel is a series of personal encounters with Jesus. And here is where I think John is going. As he tells us plainly at the conclusion he wrote the gospel so we could have access to Jesus and come to trust ourselves to him. In that relation we have life that transcends this world, he says. And these personal encounters are entry points for us into a dialogue with Jesus. We can be successful Nicodemus, or ostracized woman at the well. The Scornful Nathaniel or weeping Mary Magdalene. The blind man who grows slowly in faith or the disciple Thomas who is synonymous with doubt.

So here we come to the family of Bethany.

Bethany, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There is scant mention of Bethany1 in Hebrew scriptures, but it pops up regularly in the New Testament. It is a place on the eastern side of the tree covered Mt of Olives. Its name means house of dates. Only a short walk from the holy city (1 ½ mile). We read it is where Simon the leper lived, that the road to Jericho passed nearby. We read that then Jesus ascended he walked up the Mt of Olives as far as Bethany. It was Bethany where the disciples were told they would find a colt ready for use on Palm Sunday. Bethany. The place where olive groves, date palms and fig trees abounded. 2

And it was in this village where his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for any of the big feasts this home provided a treat in the evening. The coffee was always on. There was the smell of home cooking in the kitchen and a fresh pie on the counter. This was the kind of place you could kick off your sandals and be yourself.

John 12 is about a special get together. They are celebrating and especially jolly because of what happened in John 11.

In our lesson Jesus has come back to Bethany where only a short while before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus had gotten the message that Lazarus was seriously ill and near death, but he doesn’t budge. Some assumed he was holding back because of all the signs of how authorities were looking to nab him. Herod was on the lookout. The priests had spies.

But when Lazarus dies Jesus abruptly decides to go. Thomas points out the folly but at last consents to come. “Let’s go die with him.”

By the time they arrive the funeral is over. There is still a crowd of mourners. But instead of going in, we read that someone whispered to Martha, “The master has arrived.” And Martha goes out to meet him. A short moment later she come back and whispers to Mary, “Jesus wants to see you.”

Mary quietly and quickly leaves and the crowd assume that she is going to the grave and follows her. That is when the crowd sees Jesus.

And you know the rest. They go to the tomb . Jesus weeps with them all and then he asks for the stone to be rolled away. Martha cautions “It has been four days, Jesus. The corpse will stink. Jesus insists. The tomb is unsealed. Jesus prays and then calls out in a great voice “Lazarus come out.” and the deceased Lazarus come stumbling out , wrapped in bands of burial wrapping.

Everyone was happy, amazed, confounded. Had there ever been such a sight?

Only God could do such a thing. Word spread like wildfire and that very day when Lazarus is raised, a committee of temple authorities meet secretly and decide that Jesus has to be eliminated lest he lead a revolt. But it has to be done carefully, stealthily, so as not to upset the crowd.

Lazarus lives, but now Jesus must die.

Jesus had retreated over the Jordan and was keeping low profile, but now it was 6 days before Passover. One week before the celebration in Jerusalem. And so here he is today back at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And they are throwing a party. Shouldn’t they?

Martha was serving– of course. Lazarus was just sitting there in the middle of it all. And that is when it happened in the middle of that meal of thanksgiving, that feast for victory over death, Mary slipped out and returned with a little jar of nard. Spikenard, distilled from the roots of a flower from the steppes of India. immensely expensive. A kilo cost a years salary. One of the eleven spices used in temple incense. It is twice mentioned in the Song of Songs as bedecking the lovers. Achilles perfumed the corpse of his dead comrade Patroclus with it.

Mary did something no one there ever forgot. She opened that jar, a big jar for such a spice. And she anointed Jesus’ feet.

Now a king was crowned by anointing the head with oil. A priest was consecrated by anointing of the head. But anointing the feet– well that is something you do for the dying or the dead.

Not only did she pour out this expensive perfume she sopped up the extra with her unbound hair. The odor filled the room.

What is going on? A few days later Jesus would echo this action in the upper room when he wrapped himself in a towel and stoop to was the feet of his disciples. He would ask, “Do you know what I have done? I have enacted service and love for you. Now go and give yourself in service and love to each other.”

Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friend. …You are my friends.”

Peter would be embarrassed when Jesus bent down to serve him.

Jesus was about to give extravagantly.

Mary is expressing love to the one who had always treated her graciously, and taken her seriously and been a friend who had risked his life to come raise to life her brother Lazarus.

Judas complains that this perfume could have been sold for 300 dinarii and the money used for the poor. And of course this is true. But it misses the truth of the moment. And it is ironic that Judas who complains about misuse of 300 denarii is willing to sell Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What is Jesus worth to each of them?

A few years ago there was a true story about a man in New York City who was kidnapped. His kidnappers called his wife and asked for a $100,000 ransom. She talked them down to $30,000.

The story had a happy ending: the man returned home unharmed, the money was recovered, and the kidnappers were caught and sent to jail. But, don’t you wonder what happened when the man got home and found that his wife got him back for a discount?

Calvin Trillin was the writer of this story. He imagined out loud what the negotiations must have been like: “$100,000 for that old guy? You have got to be crazy. Just look at him! Look at that gut! You want $100,000 for that? You’ve got to be kidding. Give me a break here. $30,000 is my top offer.”

Mark Trotter concluded his rendition of the story with this thoughtful comment: “I suppose there are some . . . who can identify with the wife in that story, but for some reason I find myself identifying with the husband. I’d like to think if I were in a similar situation, there would be people who… wouldn’t haggle over the price. They wouldn’t say, ‘Well, let me think about it.’ I like to think that they would [think “whatever it takes”]

There is a place for calculations, but Judas misses the point. Sometimes we act extravagantly to express what is too huge to be put in words.

As for Judas’ comment on the poor. There is always a place for helping the poor and working for those in crisis in the name of Jesus. As much as we do it to the least of these, we do it for Jesus. But in the meantime there are time for Bethany.

Jesus says “I am here right now and soon I will die, and she has seized the moment to do something wonderful for me, and I won’t let you pour cold water on that.”

Sometimes the love, the gratitude we have for the Lord needs to be expressed with great abandon Sometimes we express that love in hard practical works of benevolence and sometimes we express it in ecstatic pouring out of the soul, in music and dance and adoration.

Mary uses the intimate language of touch and smell.

What do we do after we have been given life back? Lazarus is present with Jesus, Martha is serving, Mary gives. Presence, service, giving– all sides of our response to what the Lord has done for us.

Judas cannot understand such giving. He is counting pennies. He sees all that going down the drain. And he objects. We could have held on to it a while. It sounds so prudent. reasonable, good planning.

But holding on too much– never letting go?

Then we fail when the thing we are called to is extravagant sacrifice.

During Lent we talk about giving up, denial of ourselves, and is possible to see this as a terrible restriction on delights. But Mary shows that giving up can be a joyful expenditure which imparts a sweet smell to all around. Not the stink of death but the perfume of the spirit.

Nathan Nettleton: So what this story and Jesus’s attitudes and behaviour within it are pointing to is that extravagant expressions of love and generosity are a sign of the kingdom of God, the new incoming culture of God. And by contrast, as important and laudable as it is to have a concern to avoid waste and make as much as possible of our resources available to the poor, as soon as that turns into a miserly preoccupation that frowns on every pleasure or indulgence and wants to ration out everything in scrupulously measured and accounted handfuls, it undermines its own purpose and becomes destructive of hope and joy and life itself.

Not saving up our lives for an emergency later but giving what we can now. Something of Mary’s no holding back kind of sacrifice is the proper celebration of grace.

As Christ poured out himself on the cross, as Mary poured out her precious oil, so we are bid to spend our lives.

Lottie Moon who poured her life out for Chinese, starving herself quietly to have food to give the hungry children.

Albert Schweitzer giving up the career of concert and scholarship to bury his life in bringing health to the sick in isolated jungles. Dorothy Day who gave up her life and comfort to care for homeless and hungry.

There is something of Jesus in each person who for the sake of love has given up what they hold precious to pour out themselves in gratitude for the gifts Christ gives.

In this “now,” this moment, there shall be what beauty we can offer. And love will pour itself out without holding back.

Six days is all that is left till that fateful day– but Mary has Jesus today and she will demonstrate love and celebrate that Lazarus is alive and Jesus is right here right now.

There is a moment when we too are impractical and extravagant.

When the only proper response is killing the fatted calf and hiring musicians.

Paul Tillich called it holy waste. This pouring of resources into a moment of beauty and worship.

Six days shalt thou work. The Seventh day is to act as if you didn’t have to work. To waste time in holy worship, to give so worship is adorned. To give so others may have.

Life doesn’t wait till heaven to celebrate the joy which is part of this moment, this time. AMEN.

For further reflection:

DURWOOD L. BUCHHEIM In the delightful book, Zorba the Greek, the main character is certainly no Mary, but there are striking similarities. Zorba is impulsive, spontaneous and irresponsible, but at the same time he is warm and loving. Zorba’s uptight boss is envious of Zorba’s attitude, but he can’t break the tight string of respectability and responsibility. Zorba describes him in this fashion:

A man’s head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts. I’ve paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of this much. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.

And the Boss responds:

All that Zorba said was true. As a child I had been full of mad impulses, superhuman desires, I was not content with the world. Gradually, as time went by, I grew calmer, I set limits, separated the possible from the impossible, the human from the divine, I held my kite tightly, so that it should not escape.13

1“Bethany is today el `Azareyeh (“the place of Lazarus”-the L being displaced to form the article). It is a miserably untidy and tumble-down village facing East on the Southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, upon the carriage road to Jericho.”

2“In those days the mountain must have been far different from its condition today. Titus in his siege of Jerusalem destroyed all the timber here as elsewhere in the environs, but before this the hillsides must have been clothed with verdure–oliveyards, fig orchards and palm groves, with myrtle and other shrubs” Bible Encyclopedia.

  1. 3 Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek, (New York, Ballantine Books, 1964), pp. 334-35.

 

Talents

gleichnisse-jesu-20-100dpi

by the Serbian artist  Nikola Sarić

Year A Proper 28

November 13, 2011

Matthew 25:14-30

The 400th anniversary of the KJV was earlier this month. There is no end to the influence which that magnificent achievement has had in the English world. It was that beautiful prose that formed Lincoln in his eloquence. It was often the only book in some homes, and the hearing and reading of it contributed phrases that still pepper speech today.

Today’s reading marks an instance where the KJV Bible gave an English word. Our word “talent” comes from this parable.1 The Greek word talanton in Jesus day was a measure of money. Originally a measure of weight, it came to be a measure of weight of gold or silver. Scholars tell us that a talent of silver was worth about 15 years of wages for a day laborer. In fact a talent was the largest monetary measure of the ancient world. It was used of the wealth of kingdoms and ancient Bill Gates or I suppose we could imagine the wealth of hedge fund investors. But because of this parable talent has come to mean also any God-given ability.

So you see the interpretation of this parable has shifted the meaning of this word.

Now some will say that this parable is really about the uncertainty of Christ’s return. All the parables in Matthew 25 tell us something about that. Some limit this parable to that because the idea of making money or having access to such wealth doesn’t seem to square with their idea Jesus’ followers were peasants and getting in too deep with large sums of money is dangerous spiritually. Jesus said, after all, that it is easier for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle than a person of means to get into the kingdom of God.

But in fact some of Jesus followers were not poor at all. Remember the expensive jar of nard poured on Jesus feet and the dinner Jesus was invited to at Zacchaeus’s home. And Matthew makes a point of including wise men with their impractical expensive gifts in the guest list for Jesus’s baby shower.

The parable is a gold mine of meanings. Let’s investigate what Jesus may be telling us today.

First, the workers got different talents. There is a difference in what we each have been given. That is true whether it is monetary or ability you are talking about. Is this a case of gross inequality? No, rather the master gives what he thinks each is able to handle. –“each according to his ability” (25:15) The master knows what they could do. The trust he gave was based on their ability. If they worked up to their ability there would have been an increase in every case. And in the end what they are judged by is what they have done with what they had. Their worth is based on the way they used the gift. On whether they worked up to their ability.

They accept what their master gives.

On our covenant renewal service for the last few years we have used words from a prayer of John Wesley.

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. Let be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things, let me have nothing, I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.

We don’t know why we were born in a free and rich country like America and not in a favela in Brazil or a refugee camp in Southern Sudan. We have not control over what we are given and we will not be judged by how much we have but by what we do with what we were given.

Second, All three of these servants are clear about the fact that what they are given is still the property of their master. Consistently through the parable the servants say “your money.” The master says “my money.” They are managing something that is on loan. It does not become theirs by their use of it.

Third, the most relevant difference between the servants is the what they do with what they were given. Both of the first two servants double what they have been entrusted. They are equal in the accomplishment because they both doubled the trust.

The third one does nothing with what he has been given.

Why do you suppose there is this contrast between the first two and the third?

For me the clue is the excuse the third one makes for not doing anything with the money he was given, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid

I think the first two saw their master as having confidence in them. The third man saw the master as critical, setting him up for failure, ready to condemn.

The first two focused on promise, the third focused on threat.

The first two focused on hopefulness; the third man focused on fearfulness

The first two acted; the third dallied.

The third servant thought he knew his master but he was wrong. He didn’t know and so he didn’t trust and so he did nothing and lost everything.

He was a servant in name only. He never did what the Master trusted him to do.

Do you think this might apply to us? What we do says something about what we believe. And if we never dare to do something significant with what the Lord has entrusted to us, one of two things might be true– we either think that was we have is simply ours and we can do or not do whatever we please with it. That is one mistaken belief! Or we can be paralyzed by fear that we might make a mistake and God would come down hard on us.

We have to take risks. Ann Lamott wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

He had ‘certainty’ that if he did anything wrong, he would be punished. And he let that certainty lead him into a fear And fear led to paralysis. “If I just tie this money in a handkerchief and bury it, that will be enough. I won’t have to do anything else. I can sit back, wait until the master returns and I won’t get in any trouble.”

He who waits to do a great deed will never do any deed at all.” No risk, no reward. The third man played it safe and ended up losing everything. In the end, his talent went to the first man and he ended up with nothing. “Many people neglect the task that lies at hand and are content with having wished to do the impossible” (Teresa of Avila).

But here is the thing. What impresses me most is not the risk taking or failure of risk taking of the servants. I am impressed with the willingness of the master to risk such large sums of resource into the hands of servants.

Does this say something about our God?

A student in seminary had said, “Everything that God does is perfect”. Then the Candler theology professor commented, “I cannot support the contention that everything that God does is perfect. The biblical witness is not to a God who is perfect, but to a God who loves so much that God’s love overflows and takes risk.”

God loved enough to create the world and creation is not perfect. Note the presence of natural evil that surrounds us. God loved enough to create human community and human community is far from perfect. Note the presence of moral evil that surrounds us. God so loved the world that God sent Jesus that through him the world might be saved; but the life of Jesus did not go perfectly, at least not by any human standard and not all people are yet saved. God loved enough to risk. The courage to risk!2

God takes the risk because what God dreams of for us and for this world involves God’s great desire that we will add our own risks to his. God said to humans be fruitful. God said for us to steward creation.

I knew you were a rough master– looking for return where you never invested.” But that is not the way it is. God is heavily invested in our becoming responsible, creative collaborators in making the world what it should be.

No. God “gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5)

God takes risks for our salvation and for the redeeming of the world. The cross is a testament to God not playing it safe.

And God wants us to join him in that.

It is not true what the third servant thought. The other two acted as if they were empowered by the master’s trust in them. They were repaid by his praise and rewarded with more responsibility.

Jesus told a parable once that if you were a servant and did what you were asked to do, what praise ought you to expect. All you had done was what it was your duty to do.

But this master does not take lightly the success of the two. He expresses delight and appreciation.

That is the picture Jesus draws of God.

Leslie Newbigin used to say there was something wrong in asking what God’s mission for the church is. God doesn’t have a mission for the church, he said. God has a church for his mission.

We exist, we are gifted, we are empowered and entrusted to participate in God’s work in the world. Bigger than the church.

God’s first assignment to humans was to be fruitful and to tend the earth. Out of that comes our commission to see justice prevail, the vulnerable protected, the young nurtured, the sinner brought home, the world repaired.

None of us has all that is needed. No church is up to the task alone. But each Christian, each family, each church and association can ask what it is that God has specially given them, and how those gifts might make a difference.

This means we have space to be creative. The master did not micro-manage. He did not give a list of specific things that had to be done with the capital he entrusted. He trusted each servant’s ability to dream and scheme, and set priorities, and weight the most effective strategies.

God may not have just one plan for how you use your gifts. Situations can change. Opportunities arise or door shut. But God trusts you.

I know how life transforming it is when you come to trust God with total commitment. But today’s gospel tells me how transforming it can be to realize God has trusted you. God waits to see what you will do with those gifts God has put in your hands.

Amen.

1M. Eugene Boring, Matthew, New Interpreters Bible Commentary vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 453.

2Jill Oglesby Evans, Emory Presbyterian

 

Glad and Generous Hearts

01-unknown-artist-the-widows-mite-basilica-di-santapollinare-nuovo-ravenna-italy-6th-centuryNovember 11, 2012  

Year B 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 12

Preachers about this time of year are casting about for a text for Stewardship drives. Here comes the lectionary conveniently with the story of the widow’s mite. Maybe they will have a sermon like “With All Your Mites”, or “Mighty Mites”, or some such cleverness. But of course this story is not just about the widow. While the widow is extolled we must not forget the critical eye Jesus cast toward religious institutions.

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.”

The widow is contrasted with some other worshipers. Scribes, professors of law, professional religious scholars. Jesus warned his disciples not to imitate them. They dressed to impress. They dressed up for the role of religious leader. (I saw a photo of a seminary president [Al Mohler] with his corporate CEO tie and suit and thought “What are you trying to say, dressing like that?” But then the issue isn’t the gold tie. There are other costumes that send the message– “preacher” or “cool preacher” or “traditional pastor”)

They project an image of being religious and that is exactly what they want you to think, and maybe the way they think of themselves, but under those appearances is the hard reality that they are people who take advantage of hard-up folk and paper it over with flowery prayers.

S. Kierkegaard sneered at the state-paid clergy, which he said derived social and financial gain from the Gospel: “In the splendid cathedral, the high, well-born, highly honored, and worthy Geheime-General-Ober-Hof-Preacher, the chosen darling of the important people, steps before a select circle of the select, and movingly sermonizes on a text chosen by himself, namely, ‘God has chosen the lowly and despised of the earth’—and no one laughs”1

So while we look at what we should be; we keep one eye on what we should strive not to be.

Jesus is watching the Passover crowds pour through the Temple precincts. He sees, as all do, the parade of self-important people. But Jesus isn’t impressed by the glitz and glamor. What catches his eye is a little widow woman weaving through the crowd to the offering box. With no fanfare two coins slip from her hand. You could not hear them when they hit inside.

Two “ha’pennies.” There will always be a smallest coin. But the USA got rid of half-pennies in 1857.2 In 1989 a bill was introduced to get rid of the penny and have all transactions rounded off to the nickel. It did not pass. But as of 2007 it cost 2.7 cents to make a penny and there have been times when the raw material in a penny was worth more than the face value.

So we might have to adjust this story for inflation. The point was this: the widow had two of these smallest of coins and whereas she could have kept one, she put them both in the offering box.

Jesus says “She gave all she had.”

Now why would she do that? After all she was a widow. Which meant the only reason she had a penny to start with is someone had shown her charity. Widows in those days didn’t get a Social Security check. When Ruth came to Israel with Naomi, neither had an income. They were coming on hope , dependent on the kindness of kinfolk or the charity of the pious. All they had was willingness to work hard (gleaning), sharing what they had with each other, and faith that God have mercy. Again and again we read in scriptures of God’s concern and care for vulnerable in society, summed up by “widows and orphans.”3

The aristocrats were, it is true, putting in handsome sums into the offering. But Jesus notes they never really felt it. Whatever they gave they had plenty left. Their generosity was always out of surplus and left them as comfortable as they were before. But the widow gave all she had.

The rich young ruler was challenged by Jesus to sell his holdings and give the proceeds to the poor. He couldn’t imagine doing that because he had “much possessions.” He couldn’t give all he had.

The strange thing is sometimes having more makes it harder to give. A quarter of respondents in a new national study said they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity….[Science of Generosity Survey and the 2010 General Social Survey ] In one indication of the gap between perception and reality, 10 percent of the respondents to the generosity survey reported tithing 10 percent of their income to charity although their records showed they gave $200 or less.4

Today our country will observe Veteran’s Day, as we have since WWI. A lot has changed since WWII. Veterans of armed conflict put their life on the line in the conduct of wars. But whereas the sacrifice in those wars were general, “Just one-half of one percent of Americans served in uniform at any given time during the past decade — the longest period of sustained conflict in the country’s history” (American Forces Press Service Report) “Our work is appreciated, of that I am certain, but I fear (civilians) do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” (Retired Admiral Mike Mullen). 5 And while soldiers gave their all, we have yet to be asked to pay for the wars we sent them to. If you want to talk about debt problem talk about how we were chicken to ask Americans to sacrifice for this interminable war.

STORY: There was a man who once made a covenant with a former pastor to tithe ten percent of their income every year. They were both young and neither of them had much money. But things changed. The layman tithed one thousand dollars the year he earned ten thousand, ten thousand dollars the year he earned one-hundred thousand, and one- hundred thousand dollars the year he earned one million. But the year he earned six million dollars he just could not bring himself to write out that check for six-hundred thousand dollars to the Church. He telephoned the minister, long since having moved to another church, and asked to see him. Walking into the pastor’s office the man begged to be let out of the covenant, saying, “This tithing business has to stop. It was fine when my tithe was one thousand dollars, but I just cannot afford six-hundred thousand dollars. You’ve got to do something, Reverend!” The pastor knelt on the floor and prayed silently for a long time. Eventually the man said, “What are you doing? Are you praying that God will let me out of the covenant to tithe?” “No,” said the minister. “I am praying for God to reduce your income back to the level where one thousand dollars will be your tithe!”

Sometimes the more we have to give, the more we hold back.

SPURGEON was once invited by a wealthy man to come down and preach in a country church in order to help them raise funds to pay a debt. The man told Spurgeon he was free to use his country house, his town house, or his seaside home. Spurgeon wrote back and declined coming and said, ‘Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself’.

John Wesley, in a sermon, “The Right Use of Money” suggests, “All the instructions which are necessary for this may be reduced to three plain rules.”

  • “Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling.”

  • “save all you can.”spend nothing “to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life,”

  • The third rule is to “give all you can.”First, Wesley states, your duty is to provide for your household “whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength.” After that obligation is met, then you “do good to them that are of the household of faith.” Then, “if, when this is done, there be an overplus still, as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.”

Make Money, don’t throw it away, be generous.

A church that was in decline decided to go out in style. They put every resource they had left into ministering to people around them. The result was when the church became focused on giving instead of survival, it got a new lease on life spiritually.

Several years ago, a Kenyan woman joined our church. Her name was Lydia. She told me that she loved our congregation, but she really missed certain aspects of her home church, especially parts of the worship service. I asked her what she missed the most, and she told me something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “I miss the offering. In Kenya, we would sometimes dance down the aisles during the offering. We didn’t have much to give, but what we did have we gave with much joy. What a privilege to give back to God!” she said. 6

A retired preacher was cleaning out the dresser when he found 5 eggs and $1K.

He asked his wife and she said she saved 1 egg for every bad sermon.

5 eggs in all those years. Not bad. But what’s the money for?

Every time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them.

There was a time when women did not enjoy as much independence as they do today. Farm women would often sell butter and eggs for extra money that would be stashed away for an emergency. The pennies they’d receive each week from the extra eggs they would gather and sell. With such scraps of resources as these women in America financed Christian missions around the world.

Why did she give?

She had learned the joy of giving. The other week I heard Social Psychologist Timothy Wilson of UVA refer to research one of his grad students, Elizabeth W. Dunn, did. The article she co-authored with Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology with the provocative title: “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.”

A few years ago, Dunn did an experiment in which researchers fanned out across the University of British Columbia campus and handed students a $5 or $20 bill. The students were randomly assigned to spend the cash on themselves or others by the end of the day.

In the evening, those who had been told to spend on others reported feeling happier — even if they spent only $5 — than those assigned to buy for themselves.

The emotional rewards of social spending can even be detected on MRI brain scans.7 This and other studies are measuring that it really is more blessed to give than receive.

A pastor in Oregon tells of sitting at the bedside of a 90-year-old widow whose entire pension and social security each month went directly to the nursing home that cared for her. She got complete care there, and so on the surface she had no need for any income. But she was apologizing for the fact that she could not longer give to the church. The pastor gently told her that she mustn’t worry about it, that she had given so much for so many years and at this point in her life no one could expect her to do any more. Besides, the church was doing just fine. He wanted to help her feel better, but she became very agitated. She shook her finger in his face and rebuked him: “Young man, you listen to me. I am not talking about the church’s need for money. I’m talking about my need to give. I should not be deprived of the opportunity to give!”8

We are made in the image of a generous God and it gives us joy to be able to give. The widow gave because she had been given. In fact everything she had was a gift of someone’s generosity, and finally a gift from God. So she was bold enough to trust God’s continued supply of her need.

Is it really different for us? Finally none of what we have is really ours to keep. It is something we received and someday none of it will be ours– whether we give it or leave it when we die. How much you have doesn’t really have so much importance in the Kingdom of Heaven. You can be blessed with millions or struggle to make ends meet with a disability check. The issue is not what you have but,

  1. Did you earn it without cheating and by applying yourself?

  2. Did you use it wisely and simply in providing for your family’s need?

  3. Were you generous?

Proverbs 31 describes a wise woman . She worked hard., provided for the necessities of her family, employed servants in meaningful work, opened her hands to the poor. Therefore her children and her spouse rise up and call her “Blessed.”

Our lives are really all about giving. History depends on each generation giving all it has, life, knowledge, skills, memory, to a new generation, over and over in endless chain.

History depends on each generation giving life to children, spending time and money and energy protecting, educating , repairing, nurturing, building, planting, and preaching– pouring our lives and encouragement and direction.

So that when life is over, one of the best outcomes is to be able to say to God, ”Thank you for this life. I was able to give it all away.  I was able to use it all up for others.”

There is a phrase in Acts 2 that describes the winsome attractiveness of the early church.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

“Glad and generous hearts.”

Somehow I think those two words still go together. The gladness of generosity, the generosity of the joyful.

May God make us ever fit that description.

AMEN.

1Joakim Garff, Soren Kierkegaard; A Biography, translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, p. 773).

2When the United States discontinued the half-cent coin in 1857, it had a 2010-equivalent buying power of 11 cents.[14] After 1857, the new smallest coin was the cent, which had a 2010-equivalent buying power of 23 cents. The nickel fell below that value in 1974; the dime (at 10 cents) fell below that value in 1980;[13] the quarter (at 25 cents) fell below that value in 2007.[14] (Wikipedia)

3Ex. 22:22 Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.

Deu 10:18 He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.

Isa 1:17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Jer 7:6 [If] ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow,

Zec 7:10 And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor;

4http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/the-flesh-is-weak-churchgoers-give-far-less-than-they-think_b_1846516.html. “In analyzing data from two churches in the Northern Indiana Congregation Study, researchers Brandon Vaidyanathan and Snell found some respondents claimed to be tithers or high givers when church-reported figures showed that was not the case.”

5Phillip Heinze : Living the Lectionary

6“What God Values in Stewardship”, Day 1, November 8, 2009, Rev. Dr. Scott Weimer

7“Spend Your Way to Happiness?” By Katherine Kam, WebMD.. “In a University of Oregon study, people were given a chance to donate money to a food bank. Others were forced to give to the food bank through a tax-like transfer. Volunteering the money activated brain areas typically associated with receiving rewards, but so did the mandatory giving.”

8Sermon on Mark 12:38-44, by Richard O. Johnson