“#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.

 

“Your People are My People;” Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34; November 4, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

 “Your People are My People”
Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Today’s scripture lesson from the Hebrew Bible comes from one of the shorter, books in the canon. The Book of Ruth is unique in a few ways. It is one of only two books in our Biblical canon that is named for a woman. The other one is the Book of Esther. Also throughout the text, God’s action is hidden. God’s name appears only in conversations and blessings shared between the human characters. The story stresses human activity, especially acts of love shown towards one another.[1] Though the passage today is often quoted in weddings, the love in this book is that between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Naomi and her family had come from Bethlehem to Moab.  They were Jewish, worshiping the Hebrew God. They were foreigners in Moab, and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women.  Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were local but also outcast because they had attached themselves to this family of strangers.

And then, Naomi’s husband died. Her son died and then her other son died. Her life was surrounded by tragedy and disaster. She was childless, a widow, and a foreigner. Any one of those things would’ve set her on the outside of acceptability in her time and community, but all three left her utterly hopeless. Naomi’s two daughters-in-law were also childless widows, but they could go home, they could move back to the homes of their parents, they could start over again. There was no promise that Naomi would have a future.

The emotions at the core of this story of tragedy and disaster are not foreign to us. We needn’t look beyond our nightly news to know that there are things that can happen in this world that will plummet our lives into darkness. There are things that can and do happen that radically alter our chance at the futures we have planned for ourselves. Hurricanes can wreak havoc on communities. Winds and waves can destroy long-standing homes.

In our own lives we have our own experiences of pain and uncertainty. Famous New Yorker, humorous filmmaker and casual theologian Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” I don’t know about you, but I’m someone who likes to have a plan for things. I like to feel like I know what’s going to happen next, even when I know that this feeling is probably laughable to God. When we experience a sudden end to relationships, destruction of possessions, or loss of occupation, we may feel like the ground has been pulled out from under us. What will become of us if we lose the people and things that we rely on? How can we go forward?

In the face of great loss, Naomi thought her only way forward would be to go it alone. Sure, she was doomed, but she did not want this sorrow and despair to be the burden of anyone else. Naomi told her daughters-in-law to leave, to set out for a new future, to find stability in the home of their parents. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, pleaded with Naomi, saying she would stay with her. But she could not ignore Naomi’s advice. She must leave. She must find a new beginning for herself.

Ruth could not be persuaded. Knowing the hopelessness of Naomi’s situation, she was simply not willing to leave her. Ruth stood beside her and said “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In any future these two women could imagine there would be consequences for Ruth for following Naomi so loyally. By following Naomi to Naomi’s home, Ruth would become the outsider. By following Naomi, Ruth tied her fate to that of her mother-in-law. Certainly this was not an easy decision. But it seems for Ruth, there was no other decision that could be made.

This story of Ruth and Naomi is not an isolated example of a mother and law and daughter-in-law sticking things out together.  This story is an example of how God calls us to stand beside those in need, even when, and especially when, this relationship carries no apparent reward for us.

A few years ago I was working with “Group Workcamps,” a company 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 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.

It 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. 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 youth the opportunity to grow in their relationship with Christ and with one another. The point was serving God, through serving people.

Ruth promises her mother in law, “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This loyalty and faithfulness is exactly what Jesus asks of his followers. “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the disciples to fish for people. [2]  “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking the rich young ruler to give up his possessions.[3] “Follow me,” Jesus says, asking a man to disregard worldly obligations.[4]

Jesus requires that we follow with the heart and faithfulness of Ruth. We are God’s people and God wants God’s people to be our people. We are to care for those in need even when it’s inconvenient, even when it’s “weird.”

This faithfulness is exactly what our New Testament Lesson commands us to do. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. We show our love of God, by taking seriously our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. [5]

Naomi released Ruth. She said that Ruth needn’t worry about her. She would find her own way. Ruth needed to make a new future for herself. Naomi knew she would only hold Ruth back, she would be a burden. You can hear in Naomi’s questioning a tone of “why would you even want to be with me?” “what’s in it for you?” “What will become of you?There was nothing in it for Ruth. There was no benefit to Ruth linking her fate to that of her mother-in-law. But Ruth simply could not leave Naomi to a surely doomed fate.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is a weird thing to be doing. It’s inconvenient. It is counter cultural, it is counter capitalist, it is counter common sense. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we take a step back from our plans for our own future, to make sure that there will also be a future for someone else. If we love something else in this world with all our heart and mind and strength, our relationship with God will suffer. Our neighbor will suffer.

What would it look like in our lives for these stories we hear on the news to be more than statistics and body counts? What does it look like to love these people as ourselves?

If we are able, we can donate money towards relief efforts, maybe giving support to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance or the Red Cross. Or we can remember those closer to home by providing continued relief for those who suffered from the flooding several years ago. In our prayers we can lift all who are affected by Hurricane Sandy, remembering the names of those who we hear about on the news, and giving voice to their stories.

What does treating all people as God’s people mean to you when it comes time for Tuesday’s election? What does it mean for you to vote as someone who loves neighbor as self?

We can come to the polls informed about each candidate, and the impact their policies, practices, and attitudes will have on this country, state, and community. We can pray for those who are elected, praying for God’s will to be accomplished through the leaders who are chosen.

What would it look like if treated even those with disagree with as God’s people, as our people?

We can listen, even if we don’t like what we hear. Though we must stand on the side of justice, it is more important that we stand on the side of compassion. We can extend love rather than further disagreement. We can be present to them in times of struggle.

If we do all of these things, will it be weird? Will it be inconvenient? Will it be God’s will?

God desires for God’s people to be our people, and for us to love each other as we love ourselves. May we do so each and every day. Amen.