“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.

Fireworks: A lived out prayer of illumination

Two weeks ago today I was in Nashville for the Festival of Homiletics. It was an incredible week, made all the more incredible by the experiences of reuniting with seminary friends, meeting my cousin’s children for the first time, and seeing my dear friend Sarah preach in her new church. I met with my spiritual director on Wednesday of this week and was trying to explain to her this amazing feeling of spiritual wholeness that I felt that week.

Evan

Meeting Evan

Melora

Meme and Me! (wearing the cupcake hat I knit for her)

The best I could explain to her was by sharing with her the story of coming into the city of Chattanooga with Patricia after meeting my cousin’s children: We were rounding a corner downtown and I was telling her how extremely blessed and full of joy I felt after such a week and then there in the sky all of a sudden were fireworks bursting across the sky. Though I know they were for the baseball game that had finished a few minutes prior, they felt like a physical manifestation of my own joy. Fireworks. Bright, unignorably celebratory lights flashing across the sky. A monumental sort of thing that must be experienced and cannot be contained.

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Then, also on Wednesday I received the latest installment of the Atlas Project from my favorite band, Sleeping at Last. As they so often speak to my heart and experience, I was only slightly surprised by a new song on there called, “In the Embers,” about fireworks:

We live and we die
Like fireworks,
Our legacies hide
in the embers.
May our stories catch fire
and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.
we live and we die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

May we live and die
A valorous life,
May we write it all down
In cursive light,
So we pray we were made
in the image of a figure eight,
May we life and die

Like fireworks we pull apart the dark,
Compete against the stars with all of our hearts.
‘Til our temporary brilliance turns to ash,
We pull apart the darkness while we can.

This Festival of Homiletics, this time of great speakers and deep worship for me felt like an experience of “stories catch[ing] fire and burn[ing] bright enough to catch God’s eye.”

It is my prayer that this might be the experience of all worship of all preaching. Perhaps my prayers of illumination should revise Psalm 19:14 to say, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts catch fire and burn bright enough to catch God’s eye.” Amen.

“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”[1]

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”[5]

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[6]

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. After our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32