Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Advent Conspiracy

Thanks to Kate Huey, Heifer Project International, and The Advent Conspiracy for resources in writing the sermon.

Seriously, folks. Heifer Project, Advent Conspiracy, and Living Water International. Get on board.

Luke 21:25-36

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Are we there yet?”

It's a pretty universally accepted truth that if you put kids in a car and go on a journey of any length at all, that question (or one of its variations) will be asked about a hundred times per hour per child. The excitement of going someplace, the anticipation of what awaits, and the tedium of long car rides are a pretty bad mix, so it's no wonder so many cars and SUVs come equipped with DVD players.

Now, as a child I'm sure I asked that question a lot when we went places, but I don't remember that. What I do remember is, when we were headed to one set of grandparents or the other, looking for landmarks that would tell me that we were almost there. When we went to Huntsville to see Grandma Hazel, my mom's mom, there would come a point after we passed the Jetplex that you could see, off in the distance, the very tip of a Saturn V rocket. The bigger and closer the rocket got the closer we were to Hazel & Hunt's.

When we went to Tuscaloosa, to my dad's parents' house, my landmark was the “Burger In A Hurry” at the corner of University Boulevard and 15th Street, it was a small building with a v-shaped roof and a big sign promising fifteen-cent hamburgers. That's where we turned, so I knew we were getting close to Hilda and Red's.

Though I may have asked, “are we there yet? How much longer?” and things like that, in fact when I looked at the signs around me, be it the jetplex or the rockets in Huntsville or the miles of kudzu and the long-since-closed burger joint in Tuscaloosa, I knew we were almost there.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and the first Sunday in the liturgical church year. The Thanksgiving turkey is almost digested, we've just about rested up from Black Friday, and we're entering in to a wonderful season of building anticipation, waiting for the birth of our Savior and King! The Wise Men are scanning the heavens, the shepherds are moving their flocks through the fields, the angels are tuning their harps.

Yet we start this season of new beginnings with a discussion about the end of time – the words of a Savior not very far from the whip, the crown of thorns, and the nails. Because Advent is not just about Christ who has come, but Christ who will come again.

It's a strange mixture, isn't it? The wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before the sun is up to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and are we there yet?

Signs in the heavens and distress among nations, fear and foreboding and a roaring, unsettled sea, horsemen and trumpets and bowls and a great, final Resurrection, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – are we there yet? How much farther?

Could it be that the message of Advent is not so much one of two arrivals, one past and one future, or of a great and glorious beginning and a cataclysmic and permanent ending, as it is about one thing: “God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth,” (to quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)? I'm not suggesting just a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. This is what Crossan and Borg seem to envision in their book “The First Christmas.” Rather, I am speaking of a world full of transformed people whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

Crossan and Borg suggest that Advent is a season of repentant preparation – not “repentance” in the sense of being sorry you did something, confessing and promising to not do it again, as we seem to view it so often, but “repentance” in the original and correct sense of the word, where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, yes, personally, but also in a larger sense – in the lives and experiences of those around us and by extension everyone on earth.

When did the Christmas season become a time of stress and traffic jams, of holiday jingles playing and commercials running even before Halloween, of searching store after store for whatever the television tells us is this year's hottest gift, of endless shopping lists and Black Friday predawn sales, where all we're left with on December 26th is exhaustion and credit card bills and a stack of gifts to return?

I want to suggest to you this morning that Advent is not about commerce, but about worship: “It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus.” Is this not the approach God had in mind for Christmas? “A season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. ...a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath.”

Are we there yet? I can't speak for you, of course, but for me the answer is “no.”
Can we get there from here? Yes!

I always hesitate when I am about to talk about meeting needs in society and in the world, because I don't want to preach an unbalanced message. In the same way that the Gospel is not just about our personal salvation and our personal growth and personal relationship with the Triune God, the Gospel isn't just about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and speaking out for the marginalized. However, in a very real sense, what we believe internally, how we conduct our prayer life and direct our study of Scripture is both shown in, and informed by, our outward actions. People not only see what we believe in how we act, but the things we participate in with our time, our talent, and our treasure – whether positive or negative activities – impact how we pray, what we study, and even how we think about God. One always feeds the other.

With all of that said, a few years back, a few churches got together and started a worldwide movement that has come to be called the “Advent Conspiracy.” The idea behind it is pretty simple: to go against the Christmas season stress and hype, and to restore something of the joy and adventure of the Advent season.

They asked the members of their congregation to buy just one less gift during the holiday season, and to give the money not spent on a shirt or a tie or a DVD player or an X-Box or a Tickle Me Elmo to an organization like Living Water International or the Heifer Project, or to a local shelter or food ministry.

Americans spend about $450 billion on Christmas every year... but $10 can provide clean water for a child for a lifetime, and a hundred dollars gives a family clean water for a generation. $20 can buy a flock of geese for a family, $120 buys a goat.

I want to invite you to join me in a conspiracy – an Advent Conspiracy. There are people you know who will be happier to get a card saying that a gift was given in their honor than they will with anything you could buy them. And in that space we create by giving a gift instead of simply buying a present, where we help a person or family we'll never meet to have a better life, in that space is where we can begin to fully worship this amazing Christ of Advent, who for us and for our salvation came to earth, lived, died, and rose, and comes again.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King...

It's shorter than i had hoped for, but as the saying goes, the key to effective speaking is to say what you came to say and sit down.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

This is the Word of the Lord.

The church calendar marks this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. As church festivals go, this is a pretty recent one, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, either as a concession to Mussolini or as a response to growing nationalism and secularism, depending on whose account you read. Its statement is simple: Whatever our country, our rulers, our philosophies or ideologies or beliefs or mores, none of these can or should be the center of our focus, the foundation of our lives. Christ alone must hold that office, that place in our lives. Christ alone is King.

Here's something interesting, though: Jesus never called himself King! In fact, over and over in Scripture, we see Jesus removing himself from situation where the crowd wanted to make him king by force, and in our Gospel reading today, Jesus never says, “Why yes, I am a king, thanks for asking.” If anything, in this whole account of the trial before Pilate, the title of “king” is used in an ironic sense.

You see, however sympathetically we tend to view Pilate in these readings – poor guy, torn between the bloodthirsty Jewish mob and the obviously innocent Nazarene nobody – Pilate was, by all historical accounts, just as violent, cruel, greedy and self-serving as any other governor or ruler or king in the Empire. He crushed people under the weight of taxes. He killed whoever got in his way. You followed his rules or you rued the day you were born. After all, anyone who employs, in crucifixion, a form of execution in which breaking your legs is seen as a merciful act is not a sympathetic figure.

And the people of the time understood this because that's what kings, what Roman governors, what despots and rulers from time immemorial and the world over did. Kings rule by fear and by force. They make treaties when it serves their interests, and break them when those interests are no longer served. They fight wars to gain territory, and live in luxury at the expense of their subjects. Even David, the model of Godly leadership in the eyes of the Jewish people in first-century Palestine, allowed the power of his office to corrupt him, to change him. As much an example of Godly leadership as he may have been, he also personified, in many ways, all that was wrong about unlimited power in the hands of fallible human beings.

The picture of Christ as King before Pilate flies in the face of this. If Christ is King, he is Christ the King under arrest and being interrogated. He is Christ the King being held hostage, a royal political prisoner, if you will. He is Christ the King soon to be beaten and crucified, Christ the innocent victim.

He is Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world. Who needs no armies, no police force, no tax collectors, no guillotine or gallows pole to maintain His rule. Whose reign shall never end.

When we call him “King,” he asks us, as he asked Pilate, “Do you [say] this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Do we know Christ as King, or do we call him King because that's what we're supposed to say?

After all, what does it mean to call Christ our King in the United States of America in the twenty-first century? We're most likely to apply the title “King” to people like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson or Richard Petty – and two of them are dead and the other is hawking Goody powders. The closest thing we have to a monarchy we can understand, Great Britain, has had a queen on the throne for forty years, and the places where kings actually sit, like Saudi Arabia, are for the most part incomprehensible to us.

To be sure, calling Christ “King” means that he has access to all areas of our life, and is at the center of all we say and do. No thought is off limits, no action unconsecrated. If you've perfected this area of your life, please let me know how, because I am definitely a work in progress.

Calling Christ our “King” means that we are striving to look and act and think like citizens of the realm. Over against the picture of Pilate and Caesar and the kings of history stands the picture of Christ as King – not the warring despot, ruling with fear and an iron fist, but the shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to find one lost, who would give his life in protection of his flock.

Calling Christ “King” means also that we are, in some ways, revolutionaries. The very act of praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” means that we are not at all happy with the state of the present world and we wish to see it change. This does most decidedly not mean praying for the President to die, as some Christians are doing, and no, I'm not kidding. Nor does it mean wagging our fingers at a person or group of people, demanding that they act in the way we think they should.

What it does mean is that we are constantly praying and working for change – whether that means supporting a ministry or action group with our time, talent, or resources, making contact with government officials to speak on behalf of an issue or group, or simply giving a homeless person a sack lunch. What it does mean is that we are not dependent on an administration or bureaucracy for our safety and survival, we are not hanging on the word of a politician or pundit or even a preacher for instructions on how to think, feel, and react.

Rather, we rely on the written Word of God and the active Holy Spirit for instruction, and on the Triune God for our safety and sustenance and purpose. We serve not because we must, not out of fear or obligation, but because this King has set us free from bondage to all the lesser political or theological or philosophical or even personal kings. Scripture tells us that who the Son has set free is free, indeed.

Pilate's response to Jesus, right after our passage this morning, is well-known: “What is truth?” Whether he spoke it sarcastically, or as a genuine question, we who follow Christ, who strive to make Him King, know the answer: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth? That's what set us free.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Discussion about the sermon...

There's some great discussion concerning my last sermon post over on my FaceBook page. Give it a look and, if we aren't yet FB friends, add me!

Hannah and Hebrews...

(If you cannot yet tell, I dislike coming up with sermon titles.)

The Outlaw Preachers now have a Wikipedia page. It is, of course, a work in progress, and expect input from lots of folks, pro and con.

Now, on to the sermon. I include all three of the Lectionary readings, since I refer to each of them in the text of the sermon.

1 Samuel 1:4-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head."
As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."

Hebrews 10:11-25

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Hannah was trapped. There's no nice way to put it, she was stuck – stuck in a marriage to a husband shared with a spiteful, superior woman, stuck in a society which valued women only so far as they could bear offspring, trapped in a spiral of inadequacy and self-loathing. Her husband, Elkanah, loved her despite her barrenness, but he could not supply her with the one thing she needed: not a child, but love for herself.

They stood in the dusty street outside the temple, a group of traveling disciples and their Rabbi. None of them had been born when Herod began renovating and expanding the Temple, and work had been finished less than a decade ago. No one could resist the breathtaking joy or swelling pride as they approached the Temple Mount, its walls so white they almost glowed, the gold accents glittering in the sunlight, the air thick with the odor of sacrificed animals. At last, after five centuries, a Temple worthy of the God of Israel! Never mind the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets, never mind the heavy taxes and the criminals who hung from crosses outside the city walls, rotting in the sun. For the Jewish people, this building was proof that their God was supreme, the smoke from the altars was proof that their sins were covered.

But well before this century was gone, the people would be left weeping with Hannah, their souls aching for that which could not be. For this Second Temple would join the first, a smoldering pile of ash and rocks.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews very likely addressed a people who had run from the Roman army as it slashed and burned its way through the Holy City, a people who could no longer depend on the flash of the priest's knife and the stench of the burning flesh on the altar. The words of the Savior in our Gospel reading had all come true in a horrible and all-too-permanent way: not one stone of the Temple stood on another after Titus and his army was done with it.

In her brokenness, Hannah had known instinctively that her hope was not in her husband or in the double portion he gave her as a token of his devotion. In her desperation, she turned to the only One who could in any way help her – she turned to God. There's no way to know if Eli's blessing was a sincere response to her pain or simply something he tossed out in hopes of getting this crazy woman out of his Temple, but his blessing: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” was enough for Hannah. Having put her faith in God, having found in God her sufficiency, the matter was settled.

For Jewish believers in the first century, the central doctrines of the faith where, in large part, still being grappled with, still in the early stages of comprehension and articulation. By 70AD, Jewish Christians had not only lost the Temple, they had been barred from worshiping in synagogues. They were thus left without a focal point for their understanding of forgiveness and salvation. Not only were the sacrifices gone, but they had lost access to the practices that were actively incorporating into worship in synagogues to replace much of what was lost for the Jewish people.

One can imagine an early Jewish convert to Christianity saying, “OK, I know Jesus is Lord, has risen from the dead, but what about my sins? Are they forgiven, and if so, how? I have no priest to make sacrifices on my behalf, I can't participate in Sabbath worship at my synagogue, all this love and grace stuff is great, but what do I do about atonement?”

Here we are in the third millennium, looking back at the first, with all our theological understanding and confessions and teachings and historical studies and general Biblical knowledge and we're really still asking the same question: “what must I do to get God's favor? God's blessing? God's grace? How can I obtain and maintain a right relationship with God?”

The pen that wrote the answer to those ancient Hebrew believers answers us as well: All the doing – the sacrificing, the atoning, the forgiving, the accepting, all of that has been done, once for all on the cross. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

Once Hannah got her answer from God – the blessing of Eli – she went back home, ate with her husband, and didn't worry about her barrenness any more. In an exactly similar way, Hebrews tells us to “... hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

For Hannah, her sufficiency, her hope, was in the God of Israel. For first-century Christians, it was no longer in the blood of sheep and goats, or in the intercession of an earthly priesthood, but in the blood of Christ, the highest of High Priests, shed once for all. For you and I in the third millennium, our sufficiency cannot be in our possessions or our portfolio or in the good things we say, pray, and do. We do those things the writer of Hebrews encourages, yes: “provok[ing] one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching.” But we do them not because of what we wish to attain, but because of who we are.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

So... Who's the center of YOUR universe?

First off, I have to mention Matthew Paul Turner,who does a better job of addressing the tomfoolery that is Joel Osteen than I ever could.

Haven't posted the last couple because, frankly, they were embarrassing. My church is extremely patient with me, though, and loves me even when I preach stinkers.

Please comment, even if it's hate mail.

Mark 12:38-44
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."
This is the Word of the Lord.

Today’s Gospel reading is a study in extremes. On the one end, we see religious leaders whose chief concern was for their own comfort and fame. On the other end, there's a woman who is dependent on the church of the day for her continued existence, who faithfully gives every penny she has.

Now, I know that I've complained in the past about the way the Lectionary knocks passages together sometimes, and other times leaves a bunch of stuff out – our Old Testament reading skips over a lot of the story of Ruth, for example. But I think those cute little Lectionary Elves did us a huge favor in this morning's Gospel reading in treating this not like two separate events, but as halves of one whole event. If we are going to be faithful to the written Word of God, and in particular the Gospels, we can't look at isolated events, single accounts, parables and such without understanding them in the context of the overall Gospel. And to be honest, a lot of the commentaries and sermons I read this week seemed to emphasize the widow instead of the Scribes, and while I think that's a mistake, I also understand the reason behind it. It's easy to boo and hiss the scribes, or to wax poetic about the poor widow, and let that be that, or to look at the widow's side of the passage alone and thus avoid the danger of examining the Scribes too closely, and perhaps finding them a little too familiar.
First-century Palestine was a completely patriarchal system. Men ran the government, the religion, owned the businesses, sold the goods, handled the money, made the rules. In fact, it was a part of their daily ritual for a Jewish man to pray, “I thank You that I was not born a woman...” Women were regarded almost as property, and had no real rights. When a woman became a widow, she had to rely on family members to survive – and if there were no family members, then it was the responsibility of the Temple to care for her. This put them at the mercy of the Scribes Jesus was talking about. Too often, if it was a choice between the nicest robes and allowing a widow to stay in her home, the robes won out.

The Temple treasury would have been a noisy place. The collection boxes had brass trumpet-shaped receptacles for donations, and since there was no such thing as paper money, you could tell how much someone was giving by how loud and how long the coins rang as they were poured into the box. The widow's two small coins would have made barely a sound. Together the coins were probably equivalent to half a day's wages – around twenty bucks or so if you figure minimum wage – a respectable amount, and a big chunk of money when that's all you have.

Some preachers have painted the widow as someone who hid in the shadows, waiting for an opening where she could sneak up unseen and put her coins in, almost literally dying from embarrassment at how small her gift was. In fact, there's nothing in the Gospel account to suggest this; rather, she seems to have come up just like everyone else and dropped the money in. It wasn't a tithe or something given out of her abundance, she threw everything in the offering plate. Now, this is an important thing to see: Jesus praises the gift, but neither encourages his followers to do the same, nor disparages those who gave more, but out of their abundance. What's going on in the reading isn't at all about money at all! The focus is on priority, on what takes precedence in our lives. What the reading asks us, today, is this: who is the center of your universe – you, or God?

If we look at American Christian culture, whatever that means, we'll find that it mirrors, very often, American culture in general, and I think we can all agree that in American culture, the person is the center of the universe. It's all about “me.”

Walk in a Christian bookstore (and, increasingly, any bookstore, and even Wal-Mart) and you'll find lots of books by well-known preachers and authors that emphasize the WIFM – “What's In It For Me.” What started fairly innocently with Norman Vincent Peale and “The Power of Positive Thinking” has grown to a billion dollar industry.

Joel Osteen, a megachurch pastor in Texas, has become a multimillionaire by publishing bestsellers with titles like “Your Best life Now” and “Becoming A Better You,” all focused on how God is just waiting to pour abundant blessing on you if you'll do and say and think the right things and open yourself up to it! In a world where, just this past year, more than 176,000 Christians were murdered for their faith, the clear message of Osteen's “Gospel” is what's in it for you.

He's like a Christian version of Oprah, and he isn't alone. There are an abundance of television and radio ministries, and large churches, that espouse what is called “Word of Faith” or the “Prosperity Gospel,” where the measure of a person's dedication to God is how healthy and affluent they are. Poor and middle-class viewers of these TV Preachers are often encouraged to give what are called “seed faith” gifts of thousands of dollars to these ministries as evidence of their faith in God to provide for their needs. There's a story, hopefully apocryphal, about one of these preachers who was at a prayer meeting and accepted a donation from a woman. The story goes that after she walked away, he turned to his entourage and said, “See, boys? I got her last five dollars!”

The Prosperity Gospel, Word of Faith, Osteen and the rest feed on what Christian theology views as our fallen nature. In being separated from God through sin, we by nature view ourselves as the center of the universe.
Even when we respond to God's call to salvation and relationship, our automatic tendency, our nature, is to view that relationship in terms of WIFM – whether it's Prosperity Gospel or “fire insurance” or simply being “better than those sinners over there,” our nature is to be like the Scribes.

By contrast, the poor widow stands out as someone who was not the center of her own universe. Her comfort and security wasn't found in her meager possessions, nor did she need to show off her piety.

I've read and heard a lot about how she could have just given one coin and kept the other one. There's a story about a little girl who was walking to church with her parents. Mom gave her two quarters, one for herself and one to put in the offering plate “for Jesus.” As they walked the little girl dropped one of the quarters and it fell in a storm drain. “Oh, no!” she cried, “I just dropped Jesus' quarter!”

For the widow, I'd like to suggest that the struggle over giving half or giving all never even took place within her. She gave it all because that's what there was to give. The center of her universe was God, and God resided in the Jewish mind in the Temple, and if part of worship was giving, then that is what she would do. Her security was found in God, and that's all there was to it.
One of the observations about the widow is that, in giving all that she had, she was being just like Jesus, who not many days after he sat in the Treasury would give everything he had for you and I on the cross. I've actually witnessed this kind of selflessness firsthand.

This has been about 15 years ago, I was working in development and public relations at a home for abused children. Part of that is, of course, asking for donations, and one day the Executive Director came in to my office and handed me an envelope we'd received in the mail. In that envelope was, I think, a five-dollar bill and a handwritten note: “I'm sorry this isn't much. This is all I've got and I want the children to have it.” I've opened envelopes with ten-thousand dollar checks in them, and I've secured grants and in-kind gifts for probably ten times that much over the 20 years I was in nonprofit ministry, not to mention all the mass mailings and commercials and fundraising events I've done, but that letter with that crumpled five-dollar bill was the single largest donation I have ever seen in my life.

Who is the center of your universe? Is the question you ask “what's in it for me?” or do you echo the prophet Micah in asking, “what does the Lord require of you?” Is your security in your portfolio, or in your retirement fund, or in your stuff, or is it in God?

Again, this isn't about money. The session assures me that the church is in good shape financially and I don't want a raise. It's about taking some time to examine yourself and answer the question: Who is the center of your universe? If the answer is anything but God, then decide how your life, your decisions, your prayers and your worship would be different if the answer was God – then begin to act that way.

Let us pray, with St. Francis of Assisi,

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.