“#Blessed” Acts 20:32-35, October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

“#Blessed”
Acts 20:32-35
October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-23-slide-1-ethete-high-schoolSeveral years ago I worked with “Group Workcamps,” an organization that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth and their leaders going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.

2016-10-23-slide-2-workcampIt made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed.

Thinking of this from the perspective of that girl from this neighborhood, it’s very possible that she can’t even imagine having enough money and free time to be able to give it away like that. When you are barely scraping by, mission work and financial giving is an uncomfortable and risky stretch.

All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving what we had to give. Allowing youth to experience firsthand the joy and benefits of putting others before yourself, encouraging lifelong patterns of selflessness and generosity.

On the surface it seems like giving of our time and money is indeed quite weird. Why should others receive what we have worked for? Our money, our energy, our free time. Ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine. 2016-10-23-slide-3-seagullsI’m reminded of the seagulls in Finding Nemo, “mine, mine, mine,” swooping and diving with crazed desire to be the one to eat that particular fish. They all want to claim it as theirs, devour it on their own.

We, however have a different understanding of “mine.”2016-10-23-slide-4-brief-statement-stained-glassThe money, energy, and even free time that we have are not ours to claim, but they are gifts given by God. We are stewards of what God has given us. Extending those gifts to others expands the reaches of God’s work here on earth, and enables those in need to see Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world. When we give as we can we are reflecting the image of God within us, our God of abundant love and generosity.

But it is not just those in need that experience the joy of this generosity, Matthew 25:37-46 tells us of how our giving honors and delights God’s own self. This passage reads: “the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

2016-10-23-slide-8-heaven-or-hell This passage is rather explicit about the the benefits of caring for those in need, eternal life with God, as well as the penalty for ignoring those whom God has called you to care for, which is is eternal punishment. Read that to someone unfamiliar with church and they will really think you’re weird! Thankfully we don’t need to wait until our afterlife to experience the benefits of generosity.

2016-10-23-slide-9-paradox-of-generosityProfessor Christian Smith and Doctoral Candidate Hilary Davidson, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a book reflecting on these benefits, called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” It seems so nonsensical, giving what we have would seem to produce a deficit, but that seems to not be the case. In this book, Smith and Davidson wrote, “the results of generosity are often… unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win. Rather than generosity producing net losses, in general, the more generously people give of themselves, the more of many goods they receive in turn. Sometimes they receive more of the same kind of thing that they gave – money, time, attention, and so forth. But, more often and importantly, generous people tend to receive back goods that are often more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose, and personal growth.” This discovery came about through quite a bit of statistical analysis, proving empirically that increased generosity increases our likelihood of happiness, health, contentment, fulfillment, and feeling close to God.

“By grasping onto what we currently have,” Smith writes, “we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’” It may seem then that generosity is the cure not the cause for financial anxiety and protective hoarding.

2016-10-23-slide-10-blessedIf you spend any time on Twitter you will have likely seen the hashtag blessed. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, hashtags are a word or phrase begun with the pound sign and function as way to provide a topic or category. The hashtag blessed is often filled with pictures celebrating material wealth or personal achievements. If we only used secular media as our guide for showing us the blessed life, we would think that the end game to life was to accumulate as much money, things, and accolades as we can.

2016-10-23-slide-11-makariosIn this last phrase of our passage today, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” the word “blessed” in the original Greek is makarios. It doesn’t really translate fully but using the word blessed. Makar is the basic word for blessed, but makarios is more expansive, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, or well off.

This type of “well off” is very different from that of Twitter’s #blessed, the blessedness coming from generosity is rooted in love, spurring a wealth of joy, compassion, hope, contentment, and interconnectivity.

2016-10-23-slide-12-sanctuaryWhen I look around this room I see a people who seek God’s blessedness. I’m not referring to any one’s bank account, but when I see all of you I see a supremely blessed, fortunate, and well-off crowd. 2016-10-23-slide-13-prayer-shawlI’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. 2016-10-23-slide-14-pumpkins I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. 2016-10-23-slide-15-fpc-holt I’ve seen you step up and speak to one another about the joy of giving what you can in the capital campaign, planned giving, and annual stewardship campaigns. Your generosity in the tangible things in life have in turn made you wealthy in intangible ways.

Proverbs 11:24-28 says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”

If we live our lives to give to others, will it be considered weird? Yep. Will it be difficult? Probably. Will it be fulfilling? Without a doubt. Alleluia. Amen.

 

“Ready, Set…Now!”; Mark 12:38-44; November 8, 2015; FPC Holt

“Ready, Set…Now!”
Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 11 8 SLIDE 1 - Faith4GensThroughout the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on stewardship, on our Generations of Faith, the foundation of those who have come before us and the legacy we hope to establish for those who come after us; our giving towards the ongoing ministries of this church as well as investing in the future of what we will be able to accomplish in the future once our capital campaign is completed.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 2 - Widow Close upHow fitting it is then that the lectionary passage this week just happens to be the story of the widow and her two coins. If you’ve been around Christianity for a while, it’s a story you’ve likely heard many times and if so you probably have a good idea already of what I’m going to preach on, right? Praising sacrificial giving of our money.  Right? Well, not exactly.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 3 - piggy-bankShe gave all she had. All she had to live on. I remember hearing this story while I was growing up, and thinking of how I could give everything I had too. Surely God would want me to break open my piggy bank and give all of my pennies to those in need. But those pennies were not all I had to live on. Breaking my own bank would not leave me diminished. And if I were hungry that hunger would’ve dissipated the very moment my parents called me down to lunch.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 4 - Widow in TempleShe gave all she had. Hearing this story now I can’t help but worried for her. We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 5 - James-c-christensen-the-widows-miteI really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

The truth is, for all the teachings that lift up the widow’s tremendous sacrifice as the ideal giving, Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that. Could we even wrap our minds and hearts around it if he was? After all this scripture comes to us from the very same Bible that teaches us that God, “desires mercy and not sacrifice,” and that Jesus came to give his life for us, not the other way around.

Instead, there is truth in this story that is indeed in line with our very God who desires good things for all of creation, particularly those who are disenfranchised, overextended, and desperate. In this passage Jesus teaches us about the wrong way to give and the right way to be stewards, both of our own prosperity and of the well being of all of God’s creation.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 6 - Jesus in backgroundFirst, we hear about the wrong way to give, which Jesus lays out in the verse immediately before the verses we read today. He says,. “Beware 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!” These are the same scribes Jesus rebukes in Matthew because they sound the trumpet before they give their alms. But we don’t give in order to be acknowledged for our giving. The scribes shouldn’t be giving to get a seat at the head table, and we shouldn’t give to be first in line at our potluck today, or for say, naming rights to some part of our building. We give because of our reformed understanding of stewardship, that all we have is God’s and our giving is much more an act of acknowledging God’s providence than it is lauding our own generosity.

The passage continues, “They [the scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” All throughout Hebrew scripture God’s people are directly commanded to care for widows, to not was seen as tremendously unfaithful. Jesus condemns the actions of those who have put this woman in this position of desperation, it is likely that these leaders are taking advantage of the widows’ hospitality and therefore, what was left to them to live on after their husbands had died. Their long prayers do nothing to further the kingdom of God when they take advantage of those already on the margins of society.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 8 - Questioning Jesus If you have your Bibles open or if you are quite skilled at memorizing Scripture passages, note what happened only moments before Jesus notices the widow. “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one and beside him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

2015 11 8 SLIDE 9 - BillboardThe scribes simply are not—for all their piety—loving their neighbors. Their long prayers and large sums of money cannot possibly further the kingdom of God without loving actions toward others. Our giving—be it financially, through our time, or in how we use the spiritual gifts God has given us to further the kingdom—must be given in love.

Which brings us to how we can learn to indeed be good stewards of everything: monetarily, physically, relationally. Every aspect of our life and livelihood can point to God’s goodness if we let it.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 10 - Generations of LightThroughout our Capital and Annual campaign season we’ve heard many stories of what faithful living looks like. We’ve heard about the 150 years of past generations of Presbyterians that have done all they could with all they had to make this Church great, to indeed strive to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community.2015 11 8 SLIDE 11 - Bell RingingThere are members here who can point to various parts of the building and excavate layer after layer of stories of ministries lived out in this space.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 12 - Building PlansIn a similar way I’ve seen Dave Viele and others point to our space both in walking about and in architect renderings and paint the scene of the possibilities that await us in generations to come: expanded Christian Education, a food kitchen, a liturgical arts studio, so many things that we hope and pray will come to fruition.

 But there’s one generation that we cannot overlook. A generation we’re depending on for faithfulness, stewardship, and gifts given in love…. I’ll give you a hint. Look at those sitting around you. Look at those sitting behind you and in front of you. Look around you, and see your brothers and sisters who make up this church. As surely as we can look around the building and see the history and potential, we can look around this room and see God at work among us right this very moment. You are the generation called to be stewards of the many gifts we’ve been given in our history and called to be stewards of the relationships yet to be built in this place, the faith that will be formed from the foundation we help to lay.

You are tasked with serving God and God’s people in the here and now. Your faithfulness in this very day, in these next few weeks of our capital campaign, in the support of our annual campaign, shape the reality of the impact we have as a church, in the future, yes, but also in the here and now. What we give financially right now shapes how we are able to serve those God calls us into relationship.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 14 - Light of ChristOur giving to our annual campaign enables us to yes, keep the lights on, but also to shine the light of Christ into the lives of children each week with A-Team, X-team, and church school. 2015 11 8 SLIDE 15 - BlanketsWe’ll keep the building heated and we’ll also warm the hearts of those seeking hope through the Food Bank, Act Uganda, and our ministries in the Yucatan.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 16 - AAEvery day of the week we have people meeting in our church basement for Alcoholics Anonymous. Every day. This is not a future hope for service but a current vibrant relationship we have with our community. If we are able to meet or exceed our capital campaign goals we have the potential to better serve these brothers and sisters with an elevator, allowing all to access this life saving ministry.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 17 - Spiral StainglassIn taking our place in the line of faithfulness behind and before us, we are working to bring about God’s kingdom in the very here and now. How will you live into this call? Every one of us has something to contribute in this Body of Christ whether it be time, abilities, money, or gifts. And only you know for yourself the difference between a gift of faithfulness and a gift of spare change.

How will we be a Generation of Faith? What legacy will we leave? What path will we create? May God guide us all. Amen.

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.

“Simply Loving; ” Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; December 9, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Loving”
Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
December 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1There’s a story that was in the news a week or so ago about a New York policeman who offered boots to a man who was elderly, barefoot, and homeless. The policeman, officer Larry DePrimos, bought the shoes with his own money and helped to place the socks and shoes on this man’s feet. A tourist captured it in a photograph and posted it online. The picture went viral and was seen by more than 400,000 people. When questioned about it, the policeman said that he knew he had to help and so he did.

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. People saying that this action restored their faith in the NYPD and their faith in humanity. People asking, “why don’t I do that?”

Then, a few days later, the story changed. The man, Jeffrey Hillman, was seen out on the streets without shoes once again. He said he hid them because they were “worth a lot of money.” Suddenly investigations were launched about this man and it was discovered that he was “not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. The New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft and more.”[1] Some say that his erratic behavior is indicative of mental illness, but he has received no treatment.

This story has become more than a simple good deed. In many people’s eyes, this act of generosity has become sullied by the complexity of the story of the man who received it. This is not a simple story.

The question remains, “is helping someone still worth it?”

In our passage in Matthew today we heard, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ Hear that Jesus is not saying, “give to those who need it,” or “check someone’s credit history and criminal record before you help them.” Jesus is calling us to love, calling us to respond. He preaches a message of love independent of reaction, of faithfulness independent of result.

Slide3Arnold Cohen, President of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City says, “We should be asking why there are so many people on the streets. And why a rich city… is so ill equipped to deal with the complexity of homelessness — because it is very complex.”[2]

It is tempting to think that Jesus’ message doesn’t apply to us because we live in such a complex world. But to do so would be to disregard the reality of the first century world. Slide4This was the time of the Roman Empire. There was oppression, persecution, and financial disparity. Many were illiterate and disenfranchised. All except those at the very top were vulnerable socially and economically. It was indeed a time of complexity, when good deeds could be confused and charity could be seen as gullibility. This was not a simple world.

Slide5Both the photographer and the officer described the homeless man’s reaction as lighting up like it was Christmas morning. They delighted in this man’s delight. The moment was deemed worthy of capturing, worthy of doing. But when the story changes, is the feeling still the same? Is the action still reasonable? I believe in my heart of hearts, that “no act of love is ever wasted,”[3] that God’s love is shown through our love. Since God loves with an unconditional love, we are called to love in the same way.

Slide6We affirm in scripture and in our creeds as a Church that Jesus Christ, God’s own self, came to this earth and in the most extreme act of love, lived a sinless life, yet died for our sins. We were not and are not worthy of such a gift. There is nothing we can even do to fully earn such an enormous love. But that’s the beauty of grace, it’s a free gift of love, of forgiveness, of redemption.

Our Old Testament passage today speaks of how loving us so fiercely, altered and ended Jesus’ human life here on earth:

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[4]

How can we even begin to respond to such a gift? We can love. Simply love.

1 John 3:16-18 says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is not a love that comes naturally. It takes work to love when that love is not returned. It hurts to turn our cheek. Giving our coat to someone may leave us cold. Giving shoes to a man who remains barefoot is a hard thing to watch. But still, we are called to love.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians urges, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” This is the calling to which we are called. When we enact Jesus’ kind of unconditional love we are allowing God’s presence to become manifest in our midst. We are welcoming God as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Slide9We are standing at the Advent of God’s presence in the world once again: A birth of One, fully God and fully human, inaugurated at Christmastime. We are also standing at the Advent of the possibility of God’s Kingdom lived out here on earth: God’s love through our love, God’s care through our care. God promised never to leave us or forsake us. God forever desires to be in relationship with us. God is always, God-with-us, Emmanuel. May we remember that promise this Advent season and every day. Amen.


[3] “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.”

[4] Isaiah 53:2-5

Letter for December Newsletter

Grace and Peace to You,

As winter approaches, the cold weather makes us bundle up, draws us in to the warmth of our homes, and draws us towards each other. In this same way, the Advent season draws inwards for fellowship, reflection, and reconnection with God.

Throughout this Advent season our worship will be centered on practices of simplicity. Simplicity is an unpopular thing these days, with all the many places and things vying for our attention. In preparation for Christmas it’s easy to get bogged down by the work of Christmas rather than enjoying the gift of Christ’s birth. As we seek to connect with God in this time, we are called to quiet our hearts, listen to God’s story lived out in the Bible and in our world.

Simple GiftsTo help us turn towards simplicity in this Advent season we are utilizing an advent calendar called “Simple Gifts.” This calendar provides devotionals for each day with scripture, a lesson, and a small, simple action we can take. Through the reading of these devotions and our response through action, it is my prayer that we may draw nearer to Christ. Please be sure to pick up your copy in the back of the sanctuary.

As we are drawn inwards let us not forget those who do not have warm homes, warm families, or warm churches in which they might find comfort. We can help keep people warm through gifts of hats, scarves, and mittens on our mitten tree. We can help people to have a good meal through our gifts of food to the food pantry. We can help create sustainable economies in impoverished communities through our monetary donations to Heifer International. We can welcome people who may be disconnected in this season into our church.

As we prepare for Christ’s birth, may we live expectantly for God’s will in the world and God’s action through our lives.

May God bless you and keep you throughout this expectant Advent season,

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3