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.





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.


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.


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


Thankful People

preghiera November 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25

Mark 13:1-8

Thanksgiving is still the holiday most widely observed in the USA. People of all faiths share some heritage of festivals to celebrate the gifts of life and creation. The American tradition of course is traced to pilgrims celebrating a harvest.1 150 years later Washington issued an invitation to the young nation to set aside a day for Thanksgiving. Lincoln issued several proclamations of Thanksgiving, but at the instigation of Sarah Hale, who had been campaigning for a national day to be set aside for Thanksgiving, Lincoln set the day of October 3. 2 In 1939 Roosevelt appointed the third Thursday in November a time of national Thanksgiving, and ever since the traditions have grown. Americans have gathered to feast with friends or family and celebrate with football, or hunting, or just having a down time from work and pressures of deadlines.

We can be thankful for Thanksgiving!

But of course, the pilgrims were Bible students and it is no great wonder that the celebration is colored by the record of Thanksgivings in scripture.

In Deuteronomy 26 we have described the sort of celebration Israel was to hold in the new land every year. They were to take some of the first fruits of the land which God had given them: “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that YHWH your God is giving you.”

They put this produce in baskets and brought it to the worship center bring it to the priest who is in authority, and say, “Today I declare to YHWH your God that I have come into the land that YHWH swore to give to our ancestors” (vs. 3). The priest is then to take the basket and set it down before the altar. And then the supplicant is to respond as follows: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”

There is a wonderful dual meaning in the word “wandering.” That word may also mean “perishing.” I have the strong suspicion that both meanings are intended. Israel in its ancient memory often described itself as wandering, rootless, landless. And because that is so, they were also “perishing,” threatened, fearful, victims of nations and peoples far more powerful than they. The recital continues: “he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien (immigrant), few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”

“they treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us” (Ex 1:11-14). So, they cried to YHWH, who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” (Ex 2:23-25). “YHWH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (Ex. 3-15).

God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Dt 26:10)….

So (as a result of all this history), now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, YHWH, have given me.” The worshiper then sets the gift before the altar and bows down before the Giver.

Is that all? Are recital and offering enough? No. “Then, you together with the Levites (landless priests among you) and the sojourners (the immigrants in your midst) who reside (however briefly or however long) among you, shall celebrate (all of you!) with all the bounty that YHWH your God has given to you and to your house” (vs. 11).

Thus is added to the memory and the worshiping gift, the inevitable social requirement. 3

What strikes me is that Thanksgiving is accentuated by a brush with scarcity. When things are going well, it is good to remember how it could be otherwise. Blessings are not necessary. Every day good is fragile. Like mana that melts away after a day and must be given again, all that sustains us must be given again and again, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The preciousness of goodness lies in part in its fragility.

Scripture sees it as a mark of idiocy not to be grateful.

Paul in describing the human situation writes, “Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.” (Romans 1:21 NLT).

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (NIV).

Knowing God is universal. Everyone has some inclining of Divinity. But to the extent we refuse to worship or give thanks, we begin a process of misunderstanding God and losing our ability to understand.

If we cannot thank we are not thinking clearly,  we are not seeing our situation clearly.

A very religious woman went into the local pet shop to buy a parrot for company. She selected a beautiful bird, but the pet store owner said he didn’t think she’d be happy with this particular parrot because he had belonged to a salty old sailor who used very bad language.

She replied that she knew with love and care she could break the bird of his bad habits and have a wonderful companion.

Well, the bird was not to be broken of his blue language and the woman had to hide him in the spare bedroom every time she had visitors. Finally, in desperation she told the bird she was going to put him in the freezer for 10 minutes every time he used bad language. Sure enough in just a couple of minutes the bird let out a string of obscenities. She put him in the freezer with him hollering and yelling his head off. After just a minute or two it got very quiet…..afraid that something bad had happened to the bird, she opened the door.

Out stepped the parrot, shivering and most pleasantly and politely he said “excuse my prior behavior, madam. I regret any dismay I may have caused you and promise never to use improper language again.” As she was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the chicken did?”

How often does thanksgiving arise from the deliverance from some trouble, some suffering?

The five kernels of corn on the plate is used by some families to invite each person to say five things they are thankful for. But it reflects a time when the pilgrims up against it and their supplies were exhausted.

The texts today speak of trusting God when times are hard. Poor Hannah lived in a day when a woman felt unfulfilled if she was unable to bear a child. She was mocked by her sister wife for being barren. Her husband did not give her the best of encouragement. (He should not have said “You have got me! I’m worth more than 10 sons” He should have said “I’ve got you and you are worth more to me than 10 sons.”) Hannah even has to endure misunderstanding by the preacher, who thought her emotional state was the result of drinking too much.

But when Eli understood he assured her God had heard. God heard and responded by blessing Hannah. The song of Hannah in I Sam 2 is the model for Mary’s Magnificat. The paean of praise. The thanksgiving pours out of her, for she knows that things could be otherwise. She has experienced not having the thing she wanted to most, the thing that would give her life meaning.

Thanksgiving comes out of knowing that blessings are not necessary. They are a gift.

The passage in Hebrew is about gratitude for grace. Our sins are forgiven, not because we fixed it, but because God did. Jesus has completed mercy’s work. Thank God for forgiveness, because it is a gift. It is always a gift. You cannot demand it as a right. You cannot earn it as a compensation. It is a gift.

And for the author of that book the gathering together in community is the celebration of that gift. “Therefore” don’t forsake gathering, encouraging love and service. It is part of living in the light of God’s great gift of mercy. The meaning of life is threatened by guilt and shame, but God has delivered us. Thanks be to God.

Then Mark 13 is about the terror that lay ahead in history, the trouble Christians would face. Look up and live, trust God. The end of the story is something God will write, not the tyrants to history. Thanks in the midst of tragedy.

Paul suggests that thanksgiving is the therapy for anxiety. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.- Phil. 4:6

Don’t just worry about it. Pray about it. Tell God what has you anxious or hurting or afraid. Spell it out. Say it all. But surround that frustration with thanksgiving.

I know a preacher who tried this with the headaches and heartaches of the ministry. He began intentionally giving thanks for what he could in a man who was always after him. It took him a while to get around the porcupine spines that hurt to feeling like he could genuinely focus on the man’ good qualities. But he discovered that he was able to interact with him without reacting in advance and as it happened the time came when the man opened his heart to the preacher and they developed a healthy relationship.

But some people always see the cup half empty.

There is a story told of two old friends, Bob and Dan, who bumped into one another on the street one day. Bob looked hopeless, almost on the verge of tears. Dan asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” Bob said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, my long lost uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars.” That’s a lot of money” Dan replied. Bob continued,

“Two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars.” “Sounds like you’ve been blessed…” Dan began to say. “You don’t understand!” Bob interrupted. “Last week a distant aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million from her.” Now Dan was confused, “Then, why do you look so depressed?” Bob responded, “This week… NOTHING!”

Better to focus on what is good. Philippians 4 “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

One day 2 men were talking as they saw a woman walking down the road. One of the men said, “That’s Mrs. Jones. She always has something good to say about everyone.” The other man decided to test her, so when she got close he yelled, “Mrs. Jones, what do you think about the devil?” She thought for a second and answered, “He sure is busy isn’t he?”

Several churches in North Dakota were being served by a clever old preacher. The people were always amazed, for no matter what the circumstances, the preacher could always find something to give thanks for. As he made his rounds one cold December morning, he was late in getting to worship because of excessive snow drifts. As he began the service with prayer, the parishioners were eager to see what the old preacher could come up with to be thankful for on this dismal and frigid morning. He prayed, “Lord we thank you not all days are like this one.”

John Claypool was one of my mentors. While he was pastor at Cresent Hill Baptist in Louisville, he daughter Laura, contracted childhood leukemia. His sermon the Sunday after the diagnosis is the first sermon in his book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler. Laura went into remission and their was relief, but when she died it was a while before Claypool could preach about it. What he came to in his grief was this.

I perhaps need to confess to you that at times in the last few months I have been tempted to conclude that this whole existence of ours is utterly absurd. More than once I looked radical doubt full in the face and honestly wondered if all our talk about love and purpose and a fatherly God were not simply a veil of fantasy that we pathetic humans had projected against the void. For you see, in light of the evidence closest at hand, to have absolutized at all would have been to conclude that all was absurd and there was no Ultimate Purpose.

….And although in moments like that I was tempted to absolutize about life and arrange all existence around one explaining principle, clearer moments made me realize that such simplicity would not correspond to reality. For you see, alongside the utter absurdity of what was happening to this little girl were countless other experiences that were full of love and purpose and meaning.

…..George Buttrick is right in saying that life is essentially a series of events to be borne and lived through rather than intellectual riddles to be played with and solved. Courage is worth ten times more than any answer that claims to be total.We cannot absolutize in such a way that either the darkness swallows up the light or the light the darkness. To do so would be untrue to our human condition that “knows in part” and does all its seeing “as through a glass darkly.”

For me, at least, the roads called unquestioning resignation and total understanding hold no promise of leading out of the darkness where I lost my child. But remember, I said in the beginning there was a third way, and what little I have learned of it I now want to share.

I call this one “the road of gratitude,” and interestingly enough, it is basic to the story of Abraham and Isaac that serves as our text. Years ago, when I first started taking the Bible seriously, this whole episode used to bother me a good deal. What kind of jealous God is it, I wondered, who would demand a man’s child as a sign of devotion? As I moved more deeply into the biblical revelation, however, I came to realize that the point at issue in this event was not that at all.What God was trying to teach Abraham here and throughout his whole existence was the basic understanding that life is a gift—pure, simple, sheer gift—and that we here on earth are to relate to it accordingly.

And I am here to testify that this seems to me to be the best way down from the Mountain of Loss. I do not mean to say that such a perspective makes things easy, for it does not. But at least it makes things bearable when I remember that Laura Lue was gift, pure and simple, something I neither earned nor deserved nor had a right to. And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was ever given her in the first place.

….Even though it is very, very hard, I am doing my best to learn this discipline now. Everywhere I turn I am surrounded by reminders of her—things we did together, things she said, things she loved. And in the presence of these reminders, I have two alternatives. I can dwell on the fact that she has been taken away, and dissolve in remorse that all of this is gone forever. Or,focusing on the wonder that she was ever given at all, I can resolve to be grateful that we shared life, even for an all-too-short ten years. There are only two choices here, but believe me, the best way out for me is the way of gratitude. The way of remorse does not alter the stark reality one whit and only makes matters worse. The way of gratitude does not alleviate the pain, but it somehow puts some light around the darkness and creates strength to begin to move on.

So much of life’s goodness is something we’ve pulled out of the fire. All of it we will let go of some day. But the goodness of God is that his generosity is never ceasing. And what we lose may become something we receive again.

Eye hath not seen. Nor ear heard. Nor has it entered human imagination all that God hath prepared for them that love him.”

So Habakkuk thanked God when “the trees and fields are barren; there are no grapes on the vines; no sheep in the pen or cattle in the stalls.”

Yet “I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

For Thankgiving is not only remembers the past, it hopes for the blessings yet to come from God’s hand.

Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran minister who came to Eilenburg, Saxony at the beginning of the Thirty years war(1618–1648). The walled city of Eilenburg became the refuge for political and military fugitives, but the result was overcrowding, and deadly pestilence and famine. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. During the height of a severe plague in 1637, Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in Eilenburg, conducting as many as 50 funerals in a day. He performed more than 4000 funerals in that year, including that of his wife.

And one of his hymns has been treasured for these 350 years because we see in it the ability to thank God even in the difficulties. By failing to remember the good when faced with the bad.

God bless you this Thanksgiving with grateful, trusting, remembering hearts. The God who gives life, who takes away the ravages of sin, who promises a way through tragedies, the God of Blessings and Mercies be praised forever.


1William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (In modern spelling): “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

NOTE : The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth in December of 1620. No further ships arrived in Plymouth until immediately after that “First Thanksgiving” – the Fortune arrived in November of 1621. One of the passengers on the Fortune, William Hilton, wrote a letter home that November. Although he was not present at that “First Thanksgiving,” he does mention turkeys.

2Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74-year-old magazine editor, wrote a letter to Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” She explained, “You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”

3John C. Holbert, A Sacred Thanksgiving: Reflections on Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 2010.



All Saints

Spencer, Stanley, 1891-1959; The Resurrection: The Reunion of Families

The Resurrection: The Reunion of Families by Stanley Spemcer

November 6, 2011

Matthew 5:1-10, Revelation 7:9-17

The story goes…Once there were two brothers who were notorious in their town for having grown rich by corruption, intimidation and every manner of vice.

When the older brother died, nobody grieved, but his younger brother wanted to go all out with a fine funeral. The problem was finding a minister willing to do the service, given that neither of them had ever graced the steps of a church. Knowing that the one of the local churches was in the midst of a capital campaign for some much needed repairs, the younger brother called upon the minister.

“Reverend,” he said, “I know my brother and I never attended your church, as a matter of fact we never attended any church. I also know that you’ve probably heard a lot of things about my brother and I, this being a small town and all, but I’d like you to do my brother’s funeral. And if you’ll say he was a saint, I’ll write you a check for 50,000 dollars. That’ll go along way to fixing up the parking lot.”

After some thought, the pastor agreed to have the service. The pastor, however, also had a condition. The $50,000 had to be paid in advance. And so it was.

On the day of the funeral, the church was crowded with curious people, who were not there to honor the rich man, but to see what the minister would actually say. The remainder of the crowd was made up of the shady business associates of the brothers.

The service began with the usual scriptures, hymns and prayers – and then the sermon began. The minister began slowly, but then step by step launched into a litany of the horrible things the rich man had done, how he had been selfish, greedy, corrupt, caring about no one but himself, carousing with women, drinking excessively, and on and on.

The younger brother, sitting up in the front pew, was getting hot under the collar about how the minister was not fulfilling his promise, but during the service there was not much he could do about it. Finally, after about ten minutes of outlining the rich man’s flaws, the minister concluded his sermon in a booming crescendo proclaiming:

“Yes my friends, this man was a no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel!

But, compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

When I was young the only way most Protestants around us acknowledged All Saints Day was trick or treating on the Eve of All Saints– or All Hallow’s Eve– which got shortened to Halloween.

There is something perverse about avoiding talking about saints but dressing up as demons. But there is a connection: both days tip the hat to the possibility that the dead may still have something to do with the living. Halloween is afraid of that evil won’t die. All Saints rejoices in the thought that the saints are ever alive.

Early Celtic Christians in Scotland and Ireland spoke of “thin places” where it seemed heaven was so close to earth you could almost see through the veil separating them. They marked such spots with stone circles and later churches and cemeteries. Maybe you have experienced a time like that. Some say it has happened for them at a death or a birth. It can happen in an empty church where you sense the faith and prayers of generations still hang in the air. Maybe it was while you were singing that you felt connected to a larger choir. Like Moses seeing the burning bush you felt like you were on holy ground. You sensed there was more about the world than appeared.

Years ago I saw a funny and thought provoking French film in which friends go out to eat at a new restaurant they’ve never been to. They arrive at the address and someone opens the door scolding them for being so late. They are rushed in to a dining room with the food already on the plates. They look at each other a little amused at the irregularity of the service, then one of the women tries to cut into the roast chicken to discover it is rubber. At that moment the curtain on the wall behind them opens up and there is an audience applauding. This is no restaurant; they are on stage in a play.

It strikes me that maybe we may be more on stage than we know. That a thin curtain keeps us from knowing that we are in a much different story than we think. Saints and angels, heavenly beings, God almighty all watching though we are not so conscious of it.

St John it is said was sentenced for his faith to the Isle of Patmos. One Sunday while he was worshiping he had a vision. He wrote it all down for the persecuted churches of his day and it became the last book of our Bible, The Revelation to John.

John was given a vision of how what the church was suffering was part of a much greater story. He wrote that the cosmos one day would be pulled back like a curtain and God would call out of pure nothing a new heaven and new earth.

And long before that happened– in fact right now– back in chapter 7– he sees a host of faithful people already standing around the throne worshiping God.

He hears a census of God’s people all twelve tribes – numbered with symbolic numbers– 12x12x100x10.

But what he sees is something much more staggering. It isn’t just Israel and it isn’t just 144,000. No, he sees a multitude no one could number out of every tribe and tongue.

They say the world’s population hit 7 billion this past week. The first billion was reached in the 1804. It took another 123 years to achieve the second billion in 1927. In a lifetime there are nearly four times as many people living on earth.

I saw a multitude no one could number.

Who are these?” The angel asks

And the angel has to answer, for John is confused.

These are those who have come out of great trouble, who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. Covered by the death of Jesus, they are washed pure and now they can stand before God and serve him day and night. And all the sadness and pain of the world is over for them.”

John glimpsed heaven where believers who had died were purified, serving God with joy and healed of all the brokenness of this world and its troubles. And as we read in Revelation 6:10 that they pray for the earth.

And so we think today of those whose rest is won.

Saints” suggests to most of us, folks with incredible perfection. Catholics reserve the title “Saint” for Christians whose lives have been characterized by extraordinary holiness, heroic virtue, and the performance of miracles. For them only the Pope may canonize a believer as a “saint.”

The first step to sainthood is called “beatification,” for which there are three criteria — theological soundness, extreme holiness, and the performance of two miracles. If the Pope verifies all of that, the person is then honored as “Blessed” so-n-so. But to be canonized as a “saint,” the believer must also be credited with two additional miracles.”

That process colors our perception. It is only natural to imagine that saints must be very different from the rest of us. Truth be told even those “certified” saints were not without flaws and foibles and blind spots. Which should draw us to look again at how the Bible speaks of “Saints.”

In the introduction to the letter to the Ephesians – Paul tells them who is writing, and to whom it is that he is writing.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus – grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul addresses both the Roman church.

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle… to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints. Grace to you and peace….”

And the church in Corinth:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…

A saint is not saint because they are extraordinary, miracle performing, perfect already, but because they have consented to let God work in their lives. Many saints have been very bad, before becoming rather good

We ask whether we are good enough to be saints, when we should be asking whether we are open to God enough to become saints.

Maya Angelou, that great poet who lives next door in Winston Salem, says she is always a little shocked when people come up after a reading or lecture and tell her “I am a Christian.” She says, “I’m tempted to ask, ‘Already?’”

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Does the journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.**

**Christina Rossetti, Uphill

Beloved it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

God is not finished with me yet. Things need to drop by the wayside and goodness needs to get added. God is renovating our lives.

DIY’s “Holmes on Homes” comes into a house that has been put together in a slipshod way, or a previous rehab that was only cosmetic. And he does whatever it takes to make the house right. Sometimes he has to tear a lot up to rebuild. Let God inspect your life and you may be in for some creative demolition. Are you open to letting God make you what you could become?

The beatitudes are full of promise to those who follow the way of Christ. How blessed are those who know they need the Lord.

Driving down the road yesterday I wanted to change lanes but I remembered “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”

Christianity is an historical religion. We read stories about people who lived long ago and every year we revisit the birth and life, the crucifixion and mighty resurrection of our Lord. But although these things happened long ago, they are closer than they appear.

Jesus said when two or three come together in his name he is present.

Wasn’t his last word on earth, “I will be with you always”?

Faulkner was right. The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.

What was, is and ever shall be.

As we gather in this place we are met of a truth by the Living Lord and sometimes we sense that through him we are with those believers/saints who have gone a little ahead of us.

Oh Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.

Mid toil and tribulation,

   and tumult of her war,

she [the church] waits the consummation

of peace forevermore;

till, with the vision glorious,

her longing eyes are blest,

and the great church victorious

shall be the church at rest.

5. Yet she on earth hath union

with God the Three in One,

and mystic sweet communion

with those whose rest is won.

O happy ones and holy!

Lord, give us grace that we

like them, the meek and lowly,

 on high may dwell with thee.






by He Qi

January 8, 2012

Year B

The Baptism of Jesus

“Abba Poeman said regarding Abba Prin that every day he made a new beginning.” “My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start” (Arsenios, 5th century).

It is good to follow up New Year’s with this Sunday about beginnings. Have you already forgotten what it was you were going to remember to do this year?

Story of couple in their nineties are both having problems remembering things. During a check-up, the doctor tells them that they’re physically okay, but they might want to start writing things down to help them remember… Later that night, while watching TV, the old man gets up from his chair. ‘Want anything while I’m in the kitchen?’ he asks. ‘Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?’ ‘Sure..

”Don’t you think you should write it down so you can remember it?’ she asks. ‘No, I can remember it.’ ‘Well, I’d like some strawberries on top, too. Maybe you should write it down, so as not to forget it?’ He says, ‘I can remember that. You want a bowl of ice cream with strawberries.’ ‘I’d also like whipped cream. I’m certain you’ll forget that, write it down?’ she asks. Irritated, he says, ‘I don’t need to write it down, I can remember it! Ice cream with strawberries and whipped cream – I got it, for goodness sake!’ Then he toddles into the kitchen.

After about 20 minutes,The old man returns from the kitchen and hands his wife a plate of bacon and eggs.. She stares at the plate for a moment. ‘Where’s my toast ?

Have you forgotten your resolutions? Wife to husband: “I don’t want to brag, but here it is February, and I have kept every one of my New Year’s resolutions. I’ve kept them in a manila folder in the back of my desk!”

Mark’s gospel begins with baptism. I think this underscores how baptism is a beginning for us. But in a wider sense it underscores how God is into beginnings. The Jews who came to the Baptizer for their dip in the Jordan were confessing with their bodies, their whole selves, that they needed the fresh start that John was urging. The very notion that they could let go of the baggage of a tarnished past and start fresh with a commitment to live right was a chance they were not going to miss. Wade into the water they did.

As we have begun a new year, maybe the remembrance of our baptism helps set the right tone.

Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, writes in Token of Trust (2007):

The Church is the community of those who have been ‘immersed’ in Jesus’ life, overwhelmed by it. Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ’s love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world. (112)

Mark says “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ Son of God”

If we had only Mark’s gospel we would have a very different Christmas. No shepherds or angels, Magi or swaddling cloths. For Mark it is enough to begin with the baptizing.

For Matthew that is not good enough. You need to back up and begin with the angel appearing to Joseph to tell him of the special birth of Jesus. But before that Matthew has to name Jesus ancestors all the way to Abraham. The beginning of the story goes all they way back to the call of Abraham.

Then Luke comes along and he tells of the angel telling Mary she is going to have a child by act of God’s creation then the story of shepherds coming. But before the life of Jesus you are told about the political corruption of Herod and domination by Rome and then Luke says you have to trace the story of Jesus all the way back to Adam. That is where it all begins.

Then John’s gospel comes along and says, “No, you have to look even further back: in the beginning when there was nothing but God and the Word of God was with God and was God before the Word became flesh in Jesus and we saw it.”

At the children’s retreat one of the perennial questions is “What was there before God? Who made God?” It is hard for us not to believe that you could keep pushing the beginning of beginnings back and back and back.

The Hebrew scriptures read literally “Beginning God created.” Whatever is is something God created. Go back as far as you will and God is already there. There is no before God.

There is something there before the beginning of any story. Every story begins in the middle of something older and longer.

The Odyssey, the Iliad, Paradise Lost, Star Wars, the Hobbit– all epics have a “prequel”.

When you and I made our entrance on the stage of human history we came in on the middle of something already going on. The love and tensions, the patterns and expectation, the confusion, the justice and the injustice of a family that was already there.

But although we carry the weight of that past, each birth is a new beginning.

I guess gazing into the face of my newest grandson I am struck again with the unpredictable possibilities ahead. Someone asked the British jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton where jazz was going, he replied, `If I knew, I’d be there already’.1 We don’t know where it is all going to end. It is a truly new beginning. And there will be many beginnings. The first step. The first day at school. The first time he falls in love. The first time his heart is truly broken. When does life begin? There are so many places we could start.

An Anglican priest, a Baptist pastor, and a Rabbi were discussing when life begins. The Anglican priest said that life began at the moment of conception. The Baptist disagreed and said that life began after 14 weeks. The Rabbi shook his head and said no. Life begins when the mortgage is paid up and the children have left home.

The first word of Jewish Scriptures is “beginning.” Chapter one of Genesis is not the oldest scripture. The story in chapter 2 was written much earlier, possibly during David’s reign. But there is a reason why our chapter one is first.

Most scholars agree that the majestic poem was written down during the Babylonian Exile. And some of the bits in the story reflect acquaintance with the Sumerian and Babylonian stories of creation, because the way Genesis puts it counters some of the positions of those old stories.

Oh I wish we had more time to explore it. More than this one day we read. But that one day bears a resemblance to modern physics. It says the first act of creation of the world was God’s calling forth light. “Let there be light and there was light.” Not a light– that comes later, but light.

Was there something before God created our universe? Well whatever it was it was something that depended on God for existence. But there is some allusion to a watery, confusion of darkness, like being in the middle of the deepest sea at dead midnight.

There came this wind which was the breath of God which is the Spirit of God sweeping over the watery chaos like the wing of a mother bird hovering over her chicks.

And the breath became a voice and the voice said, “Light” and what had not been anywhere before burst forth filling everything with fiery light. Call it the big bang, I won’t stop you.

God created from nothing, but sometimes God made with the stuff he had already made. Creation gets to join in on the unfolding of creation. God instructs the land to bring forth animals and plants. God tells animals in turn to be fruitful and multiply. Which is to say creation unfolds with the capacities God gives created things to diversify and continue life. Call it evolution, I won’t stop you. The text is capacious enough to include that account too.

And what we see is this great chain of firsts. This stream of new beginnings. All because God chooses to call for them.

And of it at each stage God says, “it is good.” which is what we say when we push away form a table after a wonderful feast: “That is good.” Or the way we feel after a moving symphony or a lovely solo.”That is wonderful. That was so right” Or when we finish a novel or film that has moved us– we cried, we laughed, we are satisfied with the ending– “That was good.”

God sees all this complicated diverse creation with creatures great and small and says of it all “It is good.” “It is beautiful.” Even though it is soon apparent that there are a lot of loose ends and these humans so wonderfully and fearfully made can sin and fall. God says of this freedom which is part of it all – it is good.

Now here is the thing. The Jews who were putting this poem down were in the middle of exile, where things most certainly were not so good. Thy had lost so much. There was chaos in their lives.

But this poem really is coming along about the time God is also speaking through a prophet we have in Isaiah. God recalls creation. My, look what God did. God reminds them of Exodus. Why you could never have become a nation if I had not opened the way out of Egypt.

And then God says through Isaiah, but now stop talking about what I did before, because I am going to do something new. I am going to forgive you your sins. i am going to come and take you out of exile and lead you home to the land I promised Abraham.

Just like God’s breath began to blow over chaos till beauty erupted, just like God’s breath blew over the Reed Sea till the waters parted for their escape to freedom, God is going to say “Let it be” one more time and there will be a new chance to be God’s people in the land of promise.

Now look at Mark and don’t you see the same thing? John the Baptizer was saying your lives are a mess. Your lives are without form and void, empty, you have to be willing to let go of the way things are. And they come to get baptized.

And Jesus comes and steps into the water with them, he walks right into the chaos, he steps into the muddy water kicked up by feet of sinners before him.

Did you see the picture of a young man sitting on some steps outside a school?The young man was bald, and all around him were his classmates, about 25 of them, some wearing school jackets, others in T-Shirts and regular jackets, their heads bowed towards the camera – and they too were bald.

The Headline next to the picture read: TRUE BLUE PALS and the caption said: Mark Busse, 16, of Reardon, Washington, poses with classmates from his high school in this eastern Washington state town. His friends shaved their heads to show support for Busse after his hair fell out  following chemotherapy for inoperable lung cancer. His buddies said  that they didn’t want him to stand out in the 180 student high school.

  • (Fairchild:) that this is so much like what God has done in Christ Jesus
  • – he has come among us – and identified with us
  • – he has taken on our flesh and our blood – our experience
  • – our joys and our concerns, our trials and tribulations
  • so that he might help us,
  • so that we may know that we are not alone,And it was exactly the way God wanted Jesus to go. For as he came out of those waters there is a breath that descends like a dove. And the breath whispers these words, “You are my servant, You are my child. I take delight in you.” God says, “Beautiful!”

God calls forth a beginning that will ripple out to change the world.

Jesus rises from the water like a child from the womb, knowing his existence brings delight to God and knowing that he is called as a servant for a mission.

But please don’t take these texts as interest of antiquarians. They are about us.

Jesus left instructions to go into all the world and baptize others into God the Father, Son and holy Spirit.

People whose lives may be chaotic, disordered, empty, dark and meaningless– can ent er the water and the Spirit of God the greath of God will blow over their surrendered lives and the breath will become a voice and the voice will claim them too as children and servants of the most high. They too will hear God say, “I take delight in you.” I call you to be servant. I name you as child.

It is a long process after the beginning we make. But God has even more beginnings to do in my life and your life. As we read inRevelation

God will say. It is finished. I am the start of it all and the goal of it all.

And behold.

The former things are passed away.

I make all things new.

The God of beginning again.

The God who calls order out of chaos

Orders light to break the darkness

Lets life emerge from inert matter

The god who can make saints out of sinners

and raise Jesus from the dead.

Is there anything too great for God?

Let us enter the new year with the sense that every day is a new beginning and everywhere we look God is at work making things new.


1“Dead-Ends and Through Roads in the Philosophy of Religion” by D.Z. Phillips.

Pacific Coast Theological Society, 2000 March 29

Action and Contemplation


by He Qi

2007 sermon: The Two Sisters

Luke 10:38-42

Year C 16th Sunday of the Year (Proper 11)

Mary and Martha of Bethany shared a friendship with Jesus, but they were very different sisters. Their difference comes through in the gospel of John as much as it does in the text today from Luke. Mary was more a muller; Martha a doer. Mary was an introvert who pondered things quietly; Martha the extravert who thinks out loud and expresses her passion through action.

As this story has been retold down the centuries most commentators have stressed how you need both capacities to be well-rounded spiritually. Mary and Martha are the “yang and yang” of the spirituality. The systole and diastole of the discipleship.

In a way this passage is a commentary on the previous one.

“How can I really live?” The lawyer asked Jesus a few verses earlier. “How can I have the life of heaven, life to the max?”

Jesus asks, “What does the Bible say?”

“Scripture instructs us to love God with every part of ourselves– body, mind, soul, heart…and love our neighbor as if we were that neighbor.”

Jesus said, “That’ it!” (Luke 10:25_37)

The systole and diastole of life, the vertical and horizontal of spirituality, is the upward and inward devotion to God and the outward devotion to fellow humans. If I understand Jesus here, these are really two sides of the same coin. When you try to separate the commands or put them over against one another you have really undermined both. Taking only one would be like only breathing in and never out, or always pumping blood but never getting it returned. It would be death.

James and the elder John wrote that if we say we love God and fail to love the person right in front of us we are mistaken about loving God. (James 2:14-18; I John 4:20-21)

Being finite we may have to alternate between focus devotion to God and attention to the person at our elbow. Maybe it is impossible for us to both simultaneously. You can focus on the book in your lap and that photograph on the wall will be blurry. You can look out the window at the children playing and the needle you are threading will become almost invisible. Both are real parts of your world and your life. You just can’t see both clearly simultaneously.

It is possible to see these three passages in Luke 10 and 11 as unpacking the love God’s law commands.

1.( Luke 10:25-37) The parable of the Good Samaritan focuses on loving our neighbor. It describes how two religious types with their mind on God missed the neighbor in need. And so, Jesus said, a man most Jews would have said didn’t really know God properly ended up keeping God’s law best. This story is about how loving neighbors is so important we ought not to excuse ourselves from action ministry on the grounds of loving God.

2. Luke 11 deals with this other pole of “eternal life”, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. (Luke 11:1-13)

3. Today’s story of Mary and Martha, coming between these two passages, can be seen as a story about balancing both concerns. In fact it may be an examination of how they connect.

Jesus ends the story of the good neighbor who happens to be a Samaritan by telling the lawyer, “go and do.” Martha illustrates that just “going and doing” can leave you worn out, irritable, frustrated. There has to be a time you also “come and sit.”

This week many members will put their devotion into action. Youth heading out to Passport; folks giving blood in the fellowship hall. There will be the Habitat work night. We know what to expect. As one youth said at the end of an exhausting day on a mission trip, “I’m tired, but it’s a good tired.” But if all we did was go, and give, rest up and work some more, we would be more than tired, we would lose focus and get depressed.

Martha is worried about the table linen and whether the pot roast will burn, or if they will run out of dessert. She has quit paying attention to Jesus. She only slows down to complain about what Mary is not doing.

Nobody in their right mind wants the Marthas of the world to stop preparing meals, repairing the plumping, washing the clothes, taking care of the legal forms, checking the supply cabinet. But should we not overlook the importance of what Mary is doing. In the midst of your doing don’t lose sight of why you are doing and for whom.

Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant physicists of the last century, a Nobel Prize winner for particle physics, and by all accounts a remarkable teacher.

When he was a young graduate student he was picked to work on the Manhattan Project to build an atomic weapon. What convinced Feynman to join the research was knowing Nazi scientists were working on one too and the fearful implications if they got an atom bomb first.

Looking back on it later he said he forgot the reason for going into the research. When the Nazis were defeated before the bomb was completed, Feynman said the Manhattan project kept right on going. The work had taken on a life of its own. And he said he did not consider at the time the complicated moral question whether to finish a bomb and use it against a nation who was not working on nuclear weapons. The reason they had tackled the problem to start with no longer applied.

He said he learned that sometimes after you get into a job you forget why you took it. Sometimes you may have a valid moral reason for getting involved in a movement, but the movement becomes its own reason. (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman)

Sometimes the busyness of religion keeps us from true devotion. The priest and Levi were busy on that road to the Temple. Their mind may be on preparations for the worship service. We can assume the Samaritan was traveling on business too. He had things to tend to as well. The difference was whether they interrupted their agenda to look at the person God put in front of them.

Doctors can get so busy with charts they overlooks the patient.

Parents can keep kids on task, but never just chill out with them.

“Martha,” Jesus says, “You are sure busy and distracted by all the things you’ve got on your mind. And you think that everybody should be just a busy as you are. But Mary here is showing hospitality by just spending time conversing with me. She is focused on the guest. And after all the one thing needful when you have company is to actually connect with the guest. I am not going to deprive her of our time together to go off in your tail spin.”

Some long weeks I become negative and impatient about ministry. I get irritable even if I rein it in. When cynicism or depression rise, I have come to realize I need to step away from the job. I go pray on my knees in the yard, hands in the dirt or I may go exercise at the Y. Or a walk long will quieten me enough “to be still and know God.” Getting out of the harness is vital for sustained ministry and the renewal of compassion and mercy.

St. Benedict said monks ought to work and think and pray: five hours of work, three hours of study, two hours for prayer every day. Body, mind and soul.

God said “Six days shall you work (that is the therapy of doing). And the seventh day give it a rest. That day you are to share the joy of the Creator who knows how to rest too. In this sacrament of eternity look at the people who you live with, stop and savor blessings of creation.

Don’t wait till everything is finished to enjoy what already is done. Don’t postpone vacations till you retire. Don’t wait till all the house work is done to sit with the family. Hold to joy in the middle of life’s hurry. Punctuate mission action with stillness in the presence of God.

There are many things to do and so most weeks we have to multi-task. But somewhere at the center of our busy lives we need a still point around which everything else moves. An anchor that keeps us steady in the storm of life’s troubles and anxieties. A center that holds all the parts together.

We are commanded to love our neighbor, but the power that enables us to keep doing that without bitterness or exhaustion comes from the time we spend just being with them, from the times we steal away just to be with God.

Lord God we came aside to hear your word. May the peace of being in your presence linker as we leave this place and so steady us that we may impart your peace to others. Through Christ our Lord, AMEN.