Saturday, December 1, 2012

Are We There Yet?

I mention several not-for-profit organizations in this sermon. These are not necessarily offered as an endorsement (except in the cases of First Light, Jimmie Hale Mission, and Hiefer International, which I most wholeheartedly endorse), but serve as examples.

I also encourage you to consider ministries like Love Wins, The Eucatastrophe, Revolution NYC, and The Van Atlanta in your giving.

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. Thanksgiving and Black Friday came early this year, so no lingering turkey hangover or shopping fatigue. We're entering in to a wonderful season full of progressively 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? On the one hand, the wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before sunrise to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and that question: are we there yet?

And on the other hand, 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… and 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 God’s passion and dream are simply for a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. That’s all well and good, but a political Nirvana is a place far too temporary for the purposes of an eternal Kingdom. No, a “transformed earth” is a world full of transformed people,  Kingdom dwellers whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ whose Advent we celebrate this season, that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

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

And maybe that’s not fair or accurate; maybe we end up on the 26th quite happy with how things turned out. The point I am making is that, for a very long time, we have been told and told and told that, in order to have the spirit of the season, in order to do Christmas, we must do commerce.

Not so. I want to suggest to you this morning that no matter what the media tells us, no matter how many commercials try to convince us otherwise, the Christmas season – 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.”

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus 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: repentance is 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.

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, Americans will spend a total of $465 billion on Christmas this year, an average of $854 each. Everything from clocks and ties and gift cards to toys that walk and talk and teach and entertain, and gadgets like iPhones and tablets and TVs and video game consoles.

None of this is bad, and for the most part, every dollar is spent in love. We see the giving of gifts as a way of demonstrating, to one degree or another, our love and respect for the recipient. Very few gifts are bought out of obligation, really. It would be far too easy for me to paint the act of Christmas shopping as an endless merry-go-round of giving presents because if we don’t, so-and-so person will be mad, or such-and-such family will never speak to us again, and so on and so forth. The reality is much kinder and far more nuanced. Though bombarded by advertising that attempts to cajole and entice and guilt us into spending more and more, when we give to our friends and family, we are most often motivated by our love for them, plain and simple.

But let me ask you: how many of the gifts we buy for others are things that the recipient really needs?

Let’s talk about “need” for a moment. Human beings need clean water. In sub-Saharan Africa, women spend something like forty billion hours just hauling water. Yet through groups like Living Water International, one dollar can provide clean drinking water for one person for one year.

Let’s talk about “need.” Right now in Syria, in rebel-held territories, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, living in tents or in schools and other makeshift shelters, without enough food, no electricity or heat, no blankets. Government relief agencies can’t get to them. The refugee camps in neighboring countries are full, and running short on supplies as well, with winter setting in. It’s left to non-governmental relief agencies to somehow get supplies into rebel-held regions of Syria, to these struggling, war-torn families. One hundred and fifty dollars can provide four heavy, queen-sized blankets to Syrian refugee families through organizations such as “Life For Relief and Development.”

Let’s talk about “need.” Right now, there are something on the order of one point zero two billion people in the world without enough to eat. Twenty five thousand adults and children die every day from hunger and related causes. According to some estimates, as little as thirty billion dollars per year could eradicate – eradicate – global hunger! Does that sound like a lot of money? By my math, if every American redirected fifty-five dollars of their Christmas money toward the support of organizations addressing world hunger, we would meet that thirty billion dollar mark easily.

Advent is a season of repentant preparation –where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, in the lives and experiences of those around us, and by extension, in the lives of everyone on earth. Warmth, clean water, food, shelter, hope.

Are we there yet?

There are people you and I know who will be happier to get a card saying that a gift was given in their honor than they will with any thing you would buy them. And make no mistake: what I am talking about is not a new idea, it is by no means an original thought. Wonderful, trustworthy organizations have been offering opportunities like this for years! Through Compassion International, $79 gives a family clean water for a generation. Through Heifer International, $20 can buy a flock of chicks or ducks or geese for a family, $120 buys a goat or a sheep. Meals at local shelters like Jimmie Hale Mission and First Light cost less than two dollars each. Jimmie Hale Mission, in fact, says that twenty dollars can provide overnight shelter for a homeless man, woman or child.

And in that space we create by giving a gift in someone’s name instead of buying them a present, we help a person or family we'll never meet to have a better life. And it is in that space where we can begin that repentant preparation, begin to more fully worship this amazing Christ of Advent, who for us and for our salvation came to earth, lived, died, and rose, and comes again.

Are we there yet?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

If Christ Is King...

Thanks to the writing of Jaime Clark-Soles for helping me point this sermon in the right direction.

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, however patriotic we may be, none of these 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.

It’s interesting, though, that this King repeatedly removed himself from situations where the crowd wanted to make him king by force, and never really admitted being a king. Isn’t it interesting that, in our Gospel reading today, Jesus never responds to Pilate by saying, “Why yes, I am a king, thanks for asking.” In fact, many scholars see Pilate use the title of “king” in a sarcastic way.

Certainly, it is an odd kind of exchange. Pilate, who should be confident, decisive, and who has no reason at all to fret over killing a man who seems to be stirring up trouble in his territory seems, throughout the longer passage in the Gospel of John, to fret over Jesus, to be genuinely trying to figure out if he is a threat to the peace, or a pawn in a power play. Pilate seems scared of Jesus!

Let’s face it, however sympathetically we tend to view Pilate in these readings – poor guy, torn between the bloodthirsty Jewish mob and the very-likely-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 Roman 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. Think about it: Pilate is someone who employs, in crucifixion, a form of execution in which breaking your legs is seen as a merciful act! That, in my book, is not a sympathetic figure.

Crushing, killing, subterfuge, murder, coercion… this is what the people of the time expected of their leaders, 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 Judea, 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.

And over against Pilate, there is Jesus… by now bruised and exhausted, yet unbent. Christ the King.

This, too, seems odd. If Christ is King, how can he be under arrest, being interrogated? How can he be beaten and crucified, an innocent victim, a lamb led to slaughter? This is not the way royalty acts!


Pilate, like all kings and despots and occupiers, needed to use force, and fear, and coercion, all in order to maintain his power, to keep the population in check. His position, after all, was precarious: Judea had a reputation as a trouble spot for Rome, and Pilate’s job was to keep the peace. In any case, who knew when the Emperor would die or be overthrown? Who knew when some Imperial gossip would mumble his name into Emperor Tiberius’ ear, ending Pilate’s prefecture, and quite probably his life?

There is a certain way of looking at Pilate as a man of great power, and great fear. A man who commanded armies, whose word decided who would live and who would die, yes, but a man always a whisper, a heartbeat away from ruin.

So if Jesus is a King, why doesn’t he show that same kind of fear, that same jealous lust for power? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus never demands that people follow him. He invites people to follow him. He never threatens or coerces or kills to get his way. He speaks the truth, he ministers healing, he feeds the hungry and raises the dead, and above all he personifies love.

If Christ is King, then his Kingdom cannot be of this world. If Jesus is King, then his power neither results from, nor requires, the assistance of armies, police forces, tax collectors, the guillotine or the gallows pole.

If Christ is King, then his Kingdom is one predicated not on power for the sake of power, or conquest for the sake of control. Rather, his Kingdom is founded upon love and obedience.

We all know about the love part: God loved the word – all of the world – in such a complete, overwhelming, wild and boundless way that the only gift worthy to be sent was the Son, who came not to condemn, but to save.

And (using Paul’s words from Philippians) that son, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

If Christ is King, he is King through that love and obedience, and his victory was won through suffering, and conquering, death.

Continuing in Philippians, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Every knee bows and every tongue confesses, not out of fear, not because that knee is forced at gunpoint to bow, or that tongue is coerced to confess, but because the only possible response to a love that vast, that exuberant, is to give ourselves to that love with wild abandon.

So… is Christ indeed King? This is a question that demands our attention, because 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? 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. Pilate and Tiberius and every despot and ruler and king has had followers, and those followers did their best to emulate the actions and attitudes of their leader. Caesar had his legions, just as Hitler had his Nazi Party, and Stalin had his purges, and Idi Amin Dada had his army, and the list truly does go on and on.

Over against that picture of Pilate and Hitler and Stalin and Amin and all 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 the one lost, who would – who did – give his life in protection of his flock. We who would follow this king are called to emulate him… to care for others as if they were our own flesh and bone, to love without reservation, to give without fear of lack, to serve without regard to appearance or propriety.

Calling Christ “King” means also that we are, in some ways, revolutionaries. In the earliest days of Christianity, saying “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a capital offense, since by definition it meant that Caesar was not Lord.

In our own time, 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 have quite publicly and proudly done. 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, philosophical, and 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 the King know the answer: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

What is truth? That's what set us free.

Let us pray.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Eternal...

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.

For weary pilgrims, who travelled the mercilessly hot, dusty roads with little to eat, scarce water to drink, and the constant danger of attacks from bandits or even wild animals, one thought kept them putting one foot in front of another – one vision in their mind’s eye, one dream: the sight of Jerusalem as they topped that last hill, laid out before them like an opened flower, and there, on a hill overlooking the city, its white walls and golden decorations so bright in the sunlight that it hurt your eyes to look for long, was the Temple. That sight made the journey worth it.

Never mind that the Temple was a work in progress. No one alive could remember it any other way. And although Herod had begun the Temple expansion and renovation only in the last sixty or seventy years, the priests had been sacrificing, Psalms had been sung, and God had been worshipped in that holy place, nearly nonstop, since 516 BC, following the return of the exiles from Babylon.

And what a renovation it was! The Temple walls and its buildings soared into the air, constructed bit by bit from huge stones, some as large as forty-four feet long, which had been quarried nearby and set painstakingly in place. The result was breathtaking, to say the least. It stood boldly as the epicenter of Jewish worship, the place where humankind came closest to touching the Almighty. It seemed eternal, indestructible. No wonder even the disciples were dazzled by its beauty.

We aren’t told in our reading this morning which of the disciples commented. It may have been one of the Twelve, or it could have been a relative newcomer perhaps someone so young that they had never been to Jerusalem before.

“Wow, look, Teacher, ain’t it awesome?” Words to that effect, anyway. I imagine the comment made Jesus stop, and turn to look at the walls and buildings and gold trim, all aglow in the afternoon sun. After a long moment, her responds, almost too softly to hear. “Yeah, it’s big. It’s pretty. But it’s temporary. Every last stone is going to fall.”

To the people within earshot, it may have sounded ludicrous. If the Temple leaders had heard it, they’d have considered it tantamount to blasphemy.

Yet many of the ones who may have heard Jesus’ words that day would still be alive when, in 66 AD, Jewish Zealots began a revolt against their Roman occupiers.

This first of three revolts, sometimes called the Great Revolt, started out well for the Jewish rebels. Roman sympathizers were driven out, a Roman garrison was overrun, and the rebels even succeeded in ambushing and defeating a Roman legion. It didn’t hurt their chances that, in the middle of their rebellion, Rome itself was in turmoil, enduring its own harsh civil war and four Emperors in a single year.

But the Zealots were far from a united front themselves, and infighting and power struggles weakened the rebels. The year 70 AD saw the Roman General Titus laying siege to Jerusalem with four legions, and that was the beginning of the end for this Great Rebellion.

Titus is said to have wanted the Temple to remain intact, so that he could make it into a temple to the Roman Emperor (his father, Vespasian), and the Roman pantheon of gods. Yet when Titus breached Jerusalem’s walls and street fighting ensued, the Temple caught fire and burned to the ground, utterly destroyed. Not a single shattered, blackened stone was left on another. The gold and valuables were looted and carried back to Rome in triumph.

As beautiful as it was, as indestructible as it seemed, and though it had stood in that spot, in one form or another, for five hundred eighty-six years, it was, in the end, temporary.

And what could be said of a force strong enough, an Empire powerful enough, to topple the very House of God? Surely such an entity would itself be everlasting, indestructible.

Well Rome certainly thought so. But counting from the moment Julius Caesar became sole ruler of Rome in 46 BC, the part of the empire that Rome controlled after the third century, the western half, fell in 476 AD. In the East, the part of the Empire ruled by Constantinople lasted another millennium, until 1453 AD… but it, too, eventually fell.

In the end, even the mighty Roman Empire was temporary.

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the system of priestly sacrifices, so integral, so foundational to the daily worship of Jewish men and women, ended as well. It was as temporary as the Temple itself.

Yet these daily sacrifices were necessary, according to the Law of Moses. The shedding of blood was vital, for without it there was no hope of covering the stain of sin from a holy God. If these were temporary, what hope could there be that humanity could ever, in any way, approach the Creator and at last be reconciled to God?

In answering this question, we see a glimpse of the enormity of the sacrifice that Jesus made, for each of us and for the world. Knowing full well what was at stake, completely aware of all he would have to suffer on behalf of a creation which would scarcely notice and in large part not care, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, sacrificed himself on the cross.

Hear the Word of the Lord from our lectionary, the Book of Hebrews, Chapter 10, verses eleven through twenty five:

“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.”

The temple sacrifices were vital, but they were temporary. The flash of the knife and the stench of burning flesh was effective but for a moment; the sacrifice had to be repeated day in and day out.

In Christ, the temporary has been replaced by the Eternal. When he cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” it was! In that one selfless act, God giving God’s own life to reconcile humankind to God, everything that could be done to wipe away the sins of the world was done.

In Jesus Christ, we have an answer to Empire as well. No earthly kingdom or empire or nation has ever lasted, not really. Every one which has risen has eventually fallen, and the citizens of the fallen one are enslaved by or integrated into the conquering one, or are else destroyed, and the pattern repeats itself again months or years or decades or centuries later. Kingdoms, empires, they’re all temporary.

Yet we who are in Christ, who have responded to the grace of God, are citizens of an eternal Kingdom, the now-and-coming Kingdom of God which shall have no end. Christ sits at the right hand of God because there is no more that needs to be done.

Not that there are no more Caesars or Herods – as long as there are countries suffering under the bootheel of a dictatorship, or power-hungry politicians saying what the people want to hear rather than what they need to hear, while the more crooked politicians simply buy the votes they need, there will be Caesars and Herods.

But the dictators will fall, and the politicians will be voted out. Power for the sake of power is, after all, ultimately self-destructive. Our eternal Kingdom of God is predicated not upon power, but upon service, upon what the writer of Hebrews calls, “provok[ing] one another to love and good deeds,” and upon the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, who – even while we were still sinners – died for us.

As we enter in to this Thanksgiving week, let us each day reflect on the sacrifice of love God has made in Jesus Christ, for each of us and for the world, and let us be mindful of each opportunity to share that wild, boundless, extravagant love with all of those around us, near and far, next door neighbor or across town neighbor or neighbor in another state or country or culture or belief system.

And on Thursday, when we pile our plates high and gather around the table and break bread in the Thanksgiving meal, let us remember 3ith joy and true thankfulness the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us all, and for every one of those neighbors I just mentioned. Once, for all, perfect and complete and eternal.

And may Christ be made known in the breaking of bread.

(Words of the Institution)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Widow's Mite...

It ain't about money, y'all. It's more important than that.

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.

First-century Judea was a completely patriarchal system. Men ran the government and the religion, men owned the businesses, sold the goods, handled the money, and men made the rules. In fact, it was a part of the daily ritual for a Jewish man to include this phrase in their prayers: “I thank You that I was not born a woman...” Women were regarded as little more than a man’s 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 Temple rulers and, very often, the very scribes Jesus was talking about.

The Gospel account this morning takes up the narrative just after Jesus has been sparring with the religious leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Herodians, and had done some teaching to boot. All of this appears to have been taking place in the area of the Temple known as the Court of the Women. This was an area about 200 feet square, set beyond the Court of the Gentiles, beyond which no non-Jewish person was allowed. Beyond this court, fifteen steps up, was the Court of Israel, which only men were allowed into. So it was this area specifically in which only Jewish people, but all Jewish people, be they man, woman or child, could gather.

Within that court, against a wall, were eleven chests, with two more at the gate leading up to the Court of Israel. These chests had brass, trumpet-shaped receptacles to receive the donations of the people. Each chest was set aside for a different purpose; some received the annual donation that each Jewish person was to make to the Temple, others were for specific sin offerings and thanksgiving offerings required by the Law, and some were set aside for voluntary offerings.

Since there was no paper money in that day, the act of giving meant throwing coins in, and of course the more one put in, the longer and louder the noise of that brass trumpet. This could be what Jesus was referring to in Matthew’s Gospel when he said, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others…”
So Jesus sat and relaxed from his long morning teaching and dealing with challenges left and right, just across from the noisiest place in the Temple, and watched as people went by and gave their gifts into the Treasury. You could, of course, tell how much someone was giving by how loud and how long the coins rang as they were poured into the box, and you could see why people were giving based on which box they poured their coins into.

And in the midst of all this ringing and clanging and rattling this one widow walks up, tosses in two tiny coins, and walks away, and Jesus perks up. “Hey, Peter and James and John, yo, Thomas and Matthew, grab Andrew and Phillip and Thaddeus and Bartholomew and the others and come here! Did you see that? Did ya?”

The widow's two small coins would have made barely a sound. I’ve seen some commentators say that the coins were worth anything from a sixty-fourth of what an Israelite would need for their daily food to half a day’s wages, but it’s quite a chunk of money when that’s all you have.

It wasn't a tithe or something given out of her abundance, this widow 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 does he particularly disparage those who gave more, but out of their abundance.

Why? Well, because what fired Jesus up, the point of what he teaches his disciples and all of us here isn’t about money at all! The focus is on priority, on where we place our trust and security, on what takes precedence in our lives. What the reading asks us, today, is this: who is the center of our individual universes – ourselves, 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 individual 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 what I’ve heard called “the WIIFM” – “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, with book titles like “Your Best life Now” and “Becoming A Better You,” all focused on how God is just itching to pour abundant financial blessings on you if you’ll do and say and think the right things and “open yourself up to it,” whatever that means. In a world where, according to some reports, a Christian is murdered for his or her faith every five minutes, the clear “Gospel” message of many of these books is less on truly living the Good News, no matter the cost, and more about how to game the system, how to make God give you what’s in it for you.

Oh, it isn’t just books. There are an abundance of television and radio ministries and shiny megachurches 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 wealthy they are. Poor and middle-class viewers of these TV preacher types are often encouraged to give what are called “seed faith” gifts, often totaling thousands of dollars, as evidence of their faith in God to provide for their needs.

There’s a story, and I can only hope it isn’t true, about one of these preachers who was at an arena following one of his prayer-meeting events. A woman walked up to him and gave him the last of her money. All that she had. 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 and “Word of Faith” messages 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 “What’s In It For Me” – it’s true that, whether we call it Prosperity Gospel or “fire insurance” or simply being “better than those sinners over there,” all too often our nature is to be like the Scribes, and if we devour some widow’s homes in the process of making our own home more secure, so be it. We are the center of our own individual universes.

By contrast, the poor widow in our Gospel account 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. She gave everything because that’s all there was to give.

Sure, 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!”

I admit that, given the same situation, I’d think long and hard about keeping some back for myself, even if it wasn’t enough to even buy a slice of bread. But for the widow, I imagine 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.

Do you remember a few weeks back, when we talked about the rich man who came to Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus told him to go and sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, and he would have treasure in heaven. He finished with, “Then come, follow me.”

Of course we know that the rich man walked away grieving, unwilling to part with his wealth. His security was in his possessions.

This widow, in her utter poverty, parted with all she had as naturally as breathing. Again, her security was found in God, and that’s all there was to it.

And is it not true that this widow, in giving all that she had, was being just like Jesus, who not many days after he sat in the Treasury would give everything he had for you and me on the cross.

Have you ever seen someone give all they had? I have, and it was an amazing experience.

It doesn’t sound like much, I admit, but I will never forget it. 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. He was holding an envelope, and had the strangest look on his face. He handed me the envelope like he was handing me a crystal vase, as if he was afraid it would break. It was a standard business reply envelope, the kind that the mailing house inserted into all our mass mailings. I opened it, and in that envelope was, I think, a very worn five-dollar bill and a handwritten note. It said, simply, “I’m sorry this isn’t much. This is all I’ve got and I want the children to have it.”

Now, I can tell you that in my twenty years in nonprofit development I opened envelopes with ten-thousand dollar checks in them, and I secured grants and in-kind gifts for ten times that much, not to mention all the mass mailings and commercials and fundraising events I coordinated and took part in. I’m not bragging, because this was my job, but I helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. With all of that, the letter with that crumpled five-dollar bill stands out in my heart and mind, because it was the single largest donation I have ever seen in my life.

Let me say this again: this isn’t about money. It’s about in whom or in what we find our security, about whom or what is at the center of our universe. Is the question we ask “what’s in it for me?” Or do we rather pay attention to the words of the prophet Micah in asking, “what does the Lord require of you?” Is our security in your portfolio, or in our retirement fund, or in our stuff, or is it in God?

Who is the center of our universe? If the answer is anything but God, then the challenge becomes this: to ask how our life, our decisions, our prayers and our worship would be different if the answer was God – then let’s 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.