The Poor Widow’s Gift

“The Poor Widow’s Gift”

Mark 12-42 widow, mite mosaic

Mark 12:38-44 – November 11, 2018

You know celebrities? Many of us follow their activities. Look at popular tabloids, magazines, television, and computer screens. It seems like the richer the celebrity, the better. So many celebrities give away a lot of money, or a lot of stuff, and they get a lot of applause. Look at Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, Bono, and Angelina Jolie. All of them are very open in their giving, and they are to be commended, even applauded.

Many people watch celebrities, to see what they do, and even how they give. This is not a new activity. People have been doing it for centuries. In our Gospel reading today, people were watching, too. The offering box for the Temple was in the back, by the exit door. In the first century, apparently it was common for people to sit or stand near the offering box and watch as the faithful put in their offerings.

In the first century, all money clinked. All money was in coins. That means, no paper money. When anyone threw money in the offering box, the money made a metallic sound. I suspect there even were some who knew what kinds of noises different coins made. They possibly could keep “score,” regarding what kinds of coins were given by which people.

In the first part of our Gospel reading, our Lord Jesus calls out the temple leaders. Jesuse tells His disciples that the teachers of the Law of Moses are hypocrites. “They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Whoa! This is judging! And, judging pretty severely, too. Notice, please, where Jesus mentions “devouring widows’ houses.”

Does everyone here understand what happened to a widow, after her husband died? She had no way to earn money, and very quickly she would become poor, sometimes even losing the house she lived in. That’s a direct condemnation of the group Jesus was talking about in the first verses. He’s weighing one group of people against another.

These religious leaders had special clothing that actually was very different from the clothing of the other, “blue-collar” workers around them. The leaders had fancy long sleeves and elaborate cloaks that came down to the ground, which would just get in the way for the blue-collar workers. What is more, the synagogue leaders just loved to sit at the head table for public events or at synagogue functions.

“While those actions may have seemed spiritual, Jesus warns they’re signs that the religious leaders especially enjoy the attention they receive from people. However, Jesus also points out that the religious leaders of his day don’t just crave attention.  They’re also hungry for material things.  Jesus grieves, for example, how they “devour widow’s houses,” exploiting these defenseless people.” [1]

So, these religious leaders are two-faced and hypocrites. What else is new? The way the scribes/Pharisees treat the widows. That is, the poor, the indigent. Horrible example for others. They were throwing their pocket change (jingle, jingle) in the giving box in the back of the synagogue, so everyone could see AND hear how MUCH they gave, all the while neglecting and even robbing the widows of what the Temple offering would have given the poor.

This sermon is about so much more than the poor widow and her tiny gift. But, now that I’m referring to that, what about her gift, anyway?

If they were lucky, some widows had a small next egg saved up for a rainy day. And when that was gone, they had nothing. Zero. Talk about living on a fixed income! With no life insurance, Social Security or other government safety nets, these widows were often sunk, Out of luck, unless the synagogue chipped in or helped out, that is.

Jesus pointed out that ““Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

What a contrast! On one hand, the show-off religious leaders, with their ostentatious gifts of money they can easily afford. On the other hand, we have people like this widow, giving her all.

But, what about the attitude of giving we see here?  One of the commentators says, “Some of the happiest, most fulfilled people on the face of this planet have the fewest resources and choice. These same people are also some of the most generous. They don’t seem convinced that hoarding their meager resources is the best use of them, and they appear to find more joy and possibility in sharing with others and in building relationship capital.” [2]

Another way of saying a similar thing? In the archives on a pastor’s chat-board, a Pastor JD from Washington DC gave the following example. “The widow gave from her “poverty” it says. Think about people who have given from their vulnerable experiences, from their “poverty” and, in so doing, have helped others beyond measure. An alcoholic revealing to a problem drinker his or her life’s story; A woman who has survived breast cancer shares her struggle with someone newly diagnosed; A Christian shares his faith doubts and journey revealing a realistic and growing faith.” [3]

Think about it. Those who knowingly share in their poverty are truly the most giving and trusting individuals of the world. God doesn’t want 10%, God wants 100%, regardless of whether we have less than others or more than others. God wants it all.

Each week we sing “We give thee but thine own, what-e’er the gift may be; All that we have is thine alone, a trust O Lord, from thee.” All we have is from God and we are to use all for the Glory of God. Giving our all, and trusting in God to take care of us.

May we all strive to follow this Godly example. So help us, God. Amen.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-27b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

The Center for Excellence in Preaching commentary and sermon illustrations, Scott Hoezee, 2015.

[2] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2015/11/the-abundant-life/

“The Abundant Life,” Sharron R. Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2015.

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

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All Things New

“All Things New” – November 4, 2018

Revelation 21:1-6a

Rev 21 making new creation

  “ . . . and they all lived happily ever after.” The end.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t that the way that fairy tales are supposed to end?

Thinking of the scripture reading we just read, the new heaven and new earth haven’t shown up yet. News flash! We are still living in the same old heaven, same old earth.

Life here on this earth is okay, I guess, but it is sure no fairy tale. Fairy tale endings are few and far between. Once in a while it happens that someone inherits a huge amount of money, or wins the lottery, or signs a big sports contract, but that isn’t the way it works for the vast majority of people here.

What happened? Doesn’t somewhere it say that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good?” As the book of Genesis, chapter one, tells us, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and God created everything good.

God gave humanity the world and everything in it for us to enjoy. It is all a gift, everything, for us to enjoy together with God. God wants to be in relationship with us. Can you imagine, daily strolls through beautiful gardens, in the cool of the evening? That’s just the picture that is painted for us by Genesis chapter 3.

You all know the plot line. God did have a close relationship with Adam. Then, one day, God came looking for Adam, but what happened? Sin happened. That relationship was fractured. Humanity was separated from God by sin. Now, today too, I am separated from God by my sin.

Another word for sin is separation. I know I sin. I displease God. And when I sin, I am separated from God. I feel it. I know I am alienated from God.

How many people here have seen a mime? I bet you are familiar with the wordless actors, who use gestures and movements to communicate. Can you see a mime coming up against a wall, trying to get through?   ((pantomime a wall))   Sin is like that wall. So high. So wide. Impenetrable. We are separated from God! That’s what sin does. Sin builds walls in our lives between us and God. And what’s more, sin builds walls between each of us, as well. Between me and you. Shutting us out, shutting us apart from each other.

The picture I’ve painted is pretty grim. If we were left in this horrible situation with no way out, the outlook would be pretty hopeless. I know that I am helpless to get myself out of this mess. I cannot overcome this separation from God, no matter how hard I try in my own strength.

I’m reminded of my children. When they were small, I can remember taking them to the playground, where I’d push them in the big swings. Then when they got a little older, they would always want to pump higher and higher themselves, so high that they would touch the sky. I remember my daughter Rachel (she’s in graduate school now, so this was some years ago) asked me if she could get as high as God. I laughed, and then told her that was a good question. But I said that she couldn’t reach God like that on a swing, no matter how hard she pumped.

But isn’t that just like us? To want to get to God on our own, on our own terms, in our own way? I want to do things my way! But, wait! I can’t get to God! There’s something in the way! ((pantomime a wall))  A wall, a barrier, a separation . . . I can’t get through!

But . . . thanks be to God. God has provided a way. God sent His Son, His only begotten Son, as a gift God sent His Son into this world, to reconcile this world to Himself, to bring us back into that relationship God wanted to have with us at the beginning. Remember God, walking in the garden? Giving humanity all of creation to enjoy? God has broken down the walls of separation and reconciled us to Himself. Praise God! We can now have that relationship with Him!

Let’s read again from Revelation 21, verses 3 and 4. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be His peoples, and God Himself will be with them; He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Did you hear that? What did these verses say? The home of God will be with us!

The One Who is Faithful and True has written this. Sure, we’re living right now in an imperfect world. Sure, there are many problems here and now. Sure, we all can think of things that ought to be changed. And, we can strive to make it the very best world that we can. I’m wondering . . . how can you make a difference in this world, here and now? In big ways, little ways, any way you can? How can I make a difference, right where I am? This is not only a God-given challenge to us, to you, to me. This is a God-given opportunity!

But . . . there’s more! We can also look forward to the new heaven and the new earth. Right here in Revelation 21, the One seated on the Throne has promised to wipe away every tear from every eye. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

No matter what, we can look forward to a close relationship with God! No more separation, no more alienation. No more walls or barriers. Instead, the home of God will be with us! We will dwell with God forever and ever, no matter what.

What a great expectation to have. What a future. What a promise. What a celebration. Remember, the One seated on the Throne is trustworthy and true. The Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End has promised these things. And our God is One Who keeps His promises.

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Saved by Grace through Faith

“Saved by Grace through Faith”

 

Rom 3-24 justified by grace

Romans 3:23-24 – October 28, 2018

I have been called for jury duty four times. Yes, one of those times I did serve on a jury, and I was one of that jury in a murder trial. I vividly remember the judge and his instructions to us as the jury. This particular judge had quite a presence. I could see everyone in that courtroom sitting up a little straighter, or paying more close attention when he spoke.

Is that your idea of a judge? Someone in black robes, sitting in judgment on a case with fairness and equity? A judge, someone evenhanded, listening to both sides of the legal question at hand before making a final decision on the case?

I am afraid that not all people think of judges in this way. In some parts of the world, judges can be less than fair, not exactly honest, and even mean or hurtful. I wanted to point out that this kind of flawed judge was certainly not what the Apostle Paul was thinking about here. Not here in Romans chapter 3.

We need to consider some background, if we are going to look at the book of Romans. This letter was written by Paul at a time when he was in prison. Paul had never been to Rome, even though he was born a Roman citizen. He knew a number of people who had over the years relocated to Rome. In fact, the small group of believers in Rome had probably written to Paul first, and they asked Paul to answer some theological and religious questions, and give them some of the Godly wisdom that comes from above.

The majority of Christ-followers at this time were Jewish, but not all of them. Paul started this section of the letter with a discussion of the Mosaic Law. I can just hear the responding comments by the Roman Christians who are also Gentiles: “Why are you talking about the Jewish Law Code?” In these beginning chapters of Romans, Paul is setting up an argument. He tells the Roman believers that ALL have sinned. Not just the Jews, under the Jewish or Mosaic Law Code. ALL have fallen short of God’s expectations.

Here in Romans 3 Paul highlighted the Law of Moses, and how difficult it is that anyone could be considered righteous. Another way of saying this is: The Law, in which the Jew boasted and the possession of which the Jew took for righteousness, is not able to make any one righteous but only to show them to be unrighteous. [1]

Sure, there is a whole lot of talk about unrighteousness in Romans. Paul comes right out and says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23 is a verse countless Christians have used over the centuries to let people know what a rotten state we are all in. Notice that this verse does not say “For some have sinned,” or even “For most have sinned.” No. we ALL have sinned. We ALL have shown how unrighteous we are. We ALL fall short of the glory of God, that glory that goes so far beyond words.

Just between you and me, I am very glad we do not use the Mosaic Law to be our rulebook now for the believers’ faith. Paul even says so a couple of verses before, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” In other words, ALL have fallen short of God’s expectations.

If that were the case, I do not know how anyone could pass through such strong judgment and find reconciliation with God. That is, without Jesus. He is the whole point of Romans, and Paul returns to Him again and again. Thank God we do not need to stop at Romans 3:23! Paul does not stop there, either, but instead goes on: “ 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

That is good news! I don’t know whether we fully understand it, but that’s good news!

Grace. That word is a simple enough word. However, I don’t want to put anyone on the spot and ask them what exactly “grace” means. I do remember an acrostic definition, from years ago. Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

Notice, please, that these two verses of Romans 3 tell us the whole Gospel. The whole Good News. The first, Romans 3:23, tells us why we are sunk, separated from God for eternity. The second, Romans 3:24, tells us we are justified by grace. We are drawn back into God’s presence, and are redeemed by Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’ve related this before, I am proud to say that I was raised as a Lutheran on the northwest side of Chicago. I was baptized and confirmed at that Lutheran church. I was fascinated by Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran denomination. When I was in high school, I learned as much as I could about Martin and his soul-wrenching journey to better understand this blessed fact—that he was saved by grace through faith.

Martin was a learned theologian, yes. But Martin felt sinful and unlovable, too. What’s more, even after lots and lots of good works and all these years of reading and study, he still felt so inadequate. Martin felt God could not possibly love or forgive him. He knew lots of things about Jesus intellectually, but he still did not grasp this central understanding.

Remember Romans 3:23? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes. Yes! That is true. But—that isn’t the whole story! Reading, starting from 3:21: “21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

I can almost see Martin falling off his chair, once he realizes how huge this is. Our sin is taken away through the redeeming that came through Jesus. We are made lovable through God’s grace. Our low self-worth and low self-esteem is now viewed by God through Jesus. God looks at all of us, each one of us, through Jesus-tinted lenses.

            We are all saved by grace, through faith. What tremendous Good News. No, it’s Great News! It’s the most marvelous News of all time!

We will not be tried in a court of law, with all of our sins playing out on a huge screen behind us as God the Judge bangs the gavel in some heavenly courtroom. Jesus took our sins upon Himself, so we do not have to carry them any longer.

That is the best of all possible Good News! Jesus died for our sins. Jesus showed us radical, God-sized grace, and radical, God-sized love.

As I proclaim each week after the Confession of Sin during the Assurance of Pardon, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!”

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/b-righteousness-it%E2%80%99s-not-what-you-know-or-who-you-are-romans-11-326

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Servant? Leader? Both!

“Servant? Leader? Both!”

Mark 10-45 Son of Man came to serve

Mark 10:35-45 (10:43) – October 21, 2018

Almost everyone is familiar with slogans and jingles. I could say, “You deserve a break today, so get up and get away to…”  What about “I am stuck on Band Aids, ‘cause Band Aid’s stuck on me.” Or, “It’s the most original soft drink ever in the whole wide world—Dr Pepper.” When I mention these jingles, you can almost see the product right in front of you. That is how vivid the slogan or jingle from Madison Avenue is. This advertising hook is planted deeply in many people’s brains and memories.

I am not going to mention any political party in this sermon, but currently, one political party today uses a slogan that bring images to many people’s minds today. (Either strongly positive, or strongly negative.) It is “Make America Great Again.” Again, a lot of people have vivid, strong ideas or thoughts about this slogan. Similar to the advertising jingles I just mentioned, “Make America Great Again” strikes deep in people’s brains and memories.

Greatness. What is greatness? Who is the greatest? That’s the argument among the disciples in the Gospel reading for today. I suspect that argument resonated deeply in their hearts and minds, too. The disciples all had a basic idea in their heads of what “the greatest” was supposed to look like, act like, speak like, and be like.

Our reading is from Mark 10, just a few verses before the beginning of chapter 11, where Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday for the final week of His life. This is the very end of Rabbi Jesus’s three-year ministry. His disciples had been with Him, and learned from Him for three whole years. And, still, after all this time, the disciples are still bickering over who is going to be “the greatest” among them. How clueless, how thick can they possibly be?

James and John, two of the disciples closest to Jesus, have the presumption to march right up to their Rabbi and ask Him something outrageous, straight out. In the Gospel of Matthew, same question, except Matthew softens it a little by having the mother of James and John ask.

The question? “We want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” Talk about a self-centered and self-serving request! But, don’t we say almost the same thing to God, sometimes? Some of us might be looking in the mirror when we look closely at this reading.

In our modern world in this twenty-first century, we still repeat the identical demand to God: ‘Lord God, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ And then we ask God for our own way, what we want, e.g. healing for ourselves, our loved ones, a good job, a good spouse, a good house, a miracle of some sort, a special blessing, a way ‘out of a jam.’” [1] (In other words, some say prayers to a vending-machine-in-the-sky-God, or foxhole prayers said when things look really black, and there is no hope left.)

James and John wanted to be great! Whatever “great” meant to them. Oh, we know what “great” means to many people. Lots of power and control! Lots of people running, fetching, carrying for you! Being “great” meant lording it over everyone else, over all the little people. After all, James and John had a pretty good idea that their Rabbi was soon going to be proclaimed the Messiah. After all, hadn’t He told them so? Hadn’t Jesus been displaying the signs and miracles of His Messiahship for the past three years? Wasn’t that why Jesus was going to Jerusalem? As Messiah, they thought Jesus would become an earthly King. So, He would need right-hand guys to be His lieutenants. They figured they were those guys.

What is the matter? This picture does not jive with Jesus, that’s what.

Everyone else was pinning their hopes on Jesus, hoping that He would overthrow the Roman armies of occupation and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. Then, everything would be hunky-dory, as far as the Jewish people were concerned. However, Jesus had no desire to become an earthly king, with an earthly kingdom, like King David.

People just did not understand. Not even when Jesus explained to the disciples that they needed to become completely of no account, like children, they still did not have any idea of what Jesus was talking about.

What is the overarching disconnect and problem here? “Power has been the perennial problem in human history. The reality of power is complex; its use and misuse in all human, social and political relations and interactions has been a question of utmost importance for all peoples.” [2]

Here, in this 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus clearly outlined His path and direction several times. Then, how did James and John get so mixed up, so close to the end of Jesus’s ministry? When people get focused on the wrong direction, they can end up in a very different place from where they started.

Listen again to Jesus’s words: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”  I’d like everyone to notice: Jesus calls His friends to serve others. That is how they are to lead.

Jesus does not slam ambition and striving. Jesus does not call us to be Godly doormats, or worms under other people’s feet. He did not mean for us to be so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good or of no earthly use to others. In this passage, Jesus redirects our efforts of leadership. Our servant Savior teaches that true success requires a servant heart, and a servant practice.

Can you think of humble, thoughtful people who were chosen to lead, rather than those who proudly grasped for power?  Lording it over the people they lead? I can think of several who are particularly proud, high and mighty, looking down their noses at the “little people.”

Remember, Jesus said of His friends, “Can they drink the same “cup” of suffering and death he must drink, a cup that he himself will later ask be removed if possible? (14:36) Can they be baptized with the same baptism Jesus is to endure?” [3] Challenging words of Jesus, indeed.

Again, would we accuse Jesus of seeking for authority, status, honor, glory, or power? I think not. As followers of Christ, He modeled for us the style of leadership He wants us to use. We need to serve each other in love, not rule with a rod of iron or blunt force.

In Jesus’s day, all roads were dirt roads. People wore sandals. Whenever they went anywhere, people arrived with dirty feet. A household servant would show hospitality by washing guests’ feet. When Jesus and His friends were having dinner, there was no servant available to wash anyone’s feet. I leave us all with the vivid image of the Rabbi Jesus with a towel and basin. He’s a loving servant in the Upper Room at that Passover Seder, washing feet.

What kind of leader would Jesus want? Someone who is brash, proud, high and mighty, lording it over others? Or, someone who is humble, helpful, ready to pitch in, even available to wash other people’s feet? What kind of leader is Jesus? What kind of Christian are you?

Challenging words, indeed.

[1] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_having_the_hearts_and_hands_of_a_servant_GA.htm

“Having the Heart and Hands of a Servant,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[2] “Minjung and Power: A Biblical and Theological Perspective on Doularchy (Servanthood),” Kim Yong-Bock, at Religion OnLine.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2641

Commentary, Mark 10:35-45, Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Jesus Loved Him

“Jesus Loved Him”

Jesus and The-Rich-Young-Man, Harold Copping

Mark 10:17-27 (10:21,24) – October 14, 2018

One of my favorite movie series made recently is “The Lord of the Rings.” Huge, sweeping fantasy epic, made for the wide-screen. I realize that fantasy is not everyone’s favorite kind of movie (or book), but I absolutely loved it. The ultimate battle of Good versus Evil, with the clash of armies fighting for supremacy in the world called Middle Earth.

One supporting character in this fantasy is an ancient, twisted creature named Gollum, who had the Ring in his keeping for many years, but lost it. The Ring was magic, you see, and the Ring exerted a magical pull or craving on anyone who came near to it. Gollum spent years and years trying to get close to the Ring, and perhaps possibly steal it back. Gollum not only craved the Ring, he thought about it almost all the time, and talked to it. Called it “my Precious.”

In our Gospel reading from Mark today, we have something similar to the situation with Gollum and the Ring. But, I’ll get to that in a few minutes.

What is the centerpiece in this picture from the Gospel of Mark? A rich young man? Is this about a wealthy young person, who had everything in life he could possibly want or desire? Some preachers make use of this bible reading to criticize wealthy people for being stingy. Even more preachers use this as an example of good stewardship, and how Christians are to be generous with the money they have. This sermon is not going to focus on either of those things. Let’s take a closer look at what is actually happening here.

A rich young man comes to Jesus, and asks how he might go to heaven—that is, inherit eternal life. This is not an odd question, for a rabbi. Not out of left field, at all. Rabbis got this and similar questions tossed to them on a regular basis.

Jesus took the young man directly back to his religious training in the synagogue. Jesus mentioned several of the Ten Commandments—all commandments that refer to a person’s relationship with others.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

The young man seems to be very earnest and sincere.20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ’all these I have kept since I was a boy.’”

“We have this rich man (Matthew describes him also as young) coming to Jesus, actually, kneeling in front of him, asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How often do you get rich people asking you that kind of question? Not much, I suspect. But here’s a live one.” [1]

All of these commands—all of these rules and prescriptions and social morés for behavior this young man has followed since he was a boy. Reading between the lines, I suspect this young man felt empty on the inside. He felt there was something missing in his relationship with God. Thus, prompting the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The response of Jesus? 21 “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

It is at this point some preachers say, “Aha!” This young man had too much wealth! Shaking their fingers at their congregations, some advise their congregations to divest themselves of their wealth, and a few preachers even mention how blessed it is to give it all away to others.

Well, yes. At first glance, we all can see that is kind of what Jesus is saying. But as with many things Jesus says in the Gospels, we can read deeper than the surface communication, and get so much more.

It may be that Jesus saw that this man was trapped in his riches, that it had become an idol that needed to be cast away. On top of that, as many have pointed out, what is the man supposed to do after he impoverishes himself?” [2]

Yes, riches and wealth can be a huge obstacle in anyone’s relationship with God. A rich person’s money might be on their mind too much. How are they investing the money? What kind of money manager do they have? How much are they paying in taxes? What if the stock market takes a big hit? And what about making more money? What then?

All of these persistent questions and random thoughts—and many more besides—can preoccupy someone’s mind. They can get in the way when you or I are thinking about having a close relationship with God. Why? Because, our skewed relationship with money or wealth is more important than a relationship with God.

To expand on what Dr. Vander Zee just said was that the relationship with riches had become an idol. It was getting in between the rich young man and God. Isn’t that what idols do? But, let’s go one step further. We are talking idols, what might be all-important to many people. Do you know people who have a real focus on their house? I mean, take care of their home impeccably, even are constantly boasting about it? Is their house an idol to them, maybe?

What about people who put their job first? Work extra-long hours, neglect their spouse and family, but are always available for work-related activities? We can say their job is their idol, even what they would sacrifice much of their life for.

Remember Gollum? I mentioned him a few minutes ago. A sad, twisted creature, so set on the magic Ring. He even called it “my Precious!” Is there anything extra-special in your life, so special you might be tempted to call it “my Precious?” Anything that consumes your mind and heart?

I believe that is something Jesus was so concerned about, with this rich young man. “We all have something ‘precious’ to which we cling. It’s the thing that separates us from God, from our full potential as faithful disciples. In order to see and experience the truth found in Jesus that leads to real life, the rich man has, to turn from his “precious” thing (money/possessions).” [3]

It does not matter what we lift up, what consumes almost every waking moment. Possessions, or physical fitness, or money, family, friends, or education. Any aspect of life can become too-important. Anything can become an idol, and get in between us and God.

What strikes me so much in this reading? Jesus loved this young man. He loved him. So earnest, such questions, really wanting to find out more about how to have a close, sincere relationship with God. Yet, the young man went away sorrowful, because he was not willing to set aside that idol or riches, of comfort. He was too comfortable, too complacent. Or, perhaps it was because the young man was too set in his ways, and that amount of change may be too disruptive. For whatever reason,

Jesus is calling. Jesus beckons to you, to me, to all of us. Leave behind whatever idol, whatever separates you from God. Embrace a loving, abundant relationship with Jesus, today. Jesus loved this young man, despite his faults and flaws. He loves each of us in exactly the same way, without strings, without conditions. Praise God! His arms are open to welcome each of us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-23b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. Author: Leonard Vander Zee

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2015/10/who-can-be-saved/

“Who Can Be Saved?” Sharron R. Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

All the Children of the World

“All the Children of the World”

jesus loved-children-clive-uptton

Mark 10:13-16 (10:13) – October 7, 2018

Today, the first Sunday in October, is World Communion Sunday. Today, we celebrate the holy practice of Communion, along with the millions of Christians in thousands of churches and gathering places all over the world. I know I asked already about the many different Communion services we all have been to, in different churches. I would like to go back further, before the Passion Week, before the time Jesus instituted Communion at that Passover dinner.

We have a little, short Gospel reading today. This situation is not long before Palm Sunday. We are not exactly sure how long. A number of days perhaps, or a few weeks before Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem for that last week, that Passion Week.

What is the Rabbi Jesus doing here? Teaching, as usual. Also, arguing with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of Moses. These smart guys were always testing each other, to see whether each of them could give wise answers—and correct answers. A lot of the Gospel writings were responses of Jesus to these questions. He had just finished one of these verbal duels with the Pharisees when this particular situation with the children came up.

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have Him touch them.” Both in the first century as well as in later centuries, it was common for parents to bring their children to rabbis for a blessing. This was a very common thing, often done. However, the disciples here rebuked the parents. “Children should not be allowed to disturb the teacher and his students.” [1]

They considered themselves more important. Rabbi Jesus was doing very important teaching, teaching His Very Important Students, the disciples. We can see they just did not get it. The disciples completely missed the point of Jesus and His ministry. Again.

We have one group of men—the disciples of Jesus—and another group of men—the Pharisees—bickering and arguing about who is right, and who is more important, and who gets to listen to the Rabbi. Then, we have a third group, probably mothers and maybe grandmothers, bringing small children for a blessing from the Rabbi Jesus.

Let’s come at this from a different point of view, and look at the feelings, emotions and the power struggle going on.

A snooty, self-important group of Pharisees have been asking Jesus challenging questions, again. As is always the case, Jesus answers their questions well. The beleaguered disciples are probably relieved that they have finally gotten rid of the Pharisees, and finally are able to sit and listen to their Rabbi’s teaching by themselves, for a change. Some women with small children in tow come to the door of the house, tap-tap-tapping. They would like a blessing for their young kids, if it isn’t too much trouble. Can you see the picture?

A couple of the disciples poke their heads out the door. “What? Now? Come in and bother our Rabbi? He just got done with the Pharisees, and He’s doing some important work right now. Get lost. Take off. The Rabbi doesn’t have time for you, anyhow.”

But, Jesus finds out. I don’t know whether He overhears the disciples, or what, but Jesus gets upset with them.

In English, we usually need to use special words for emphasis or to show something is really important. The language the New Testament was written in, Koine Greek, has specific verb tenses, the aorist active imperative tense. Jesus uses one of these verbs right here: “Let—or, permit—the little children to come to Me.” Jesus was particularly urgent and intense, here. He caught His friends in the middle of turning these moms and kids away, and publicly rebuked the disciples. In front of the women and children. Jesus really meant what He said!

What is more, in the act of shoving away the unimportant folks Jesus capped that rebuke of the disciples. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

The view of children in the first century was radically different than today’s view. Modern readers or listeners of this Gospel lesson often romanticize children. Oh, how innocent! Oh, how accepting a child is! However, “ancient societies lacked such romantic notions of childhood. Jesus directs His comments to adult male disciples who are shoving away the ‘non-persons.’” [2] The child in ancient culture was not even considered a “person.” Children belonged to their father, and were dependent and subject to him even as adults.

Do we understand how radical the words of Jesus are, yet? If we see the children of the first century as totally dependent on their father, we can take His words one step further. Jesus tells His disciples they need to become like children—become totally dependent on their Father in heaven. The disciples—and by extension, the followers of the disciples, that is, us!—must understand we are totally dependent upon God’s grace and care and welcome.

And, after Jesus gives this stinging rebuke to His disciples, Jesus then turns around and blesses the small children. He takes them up in His arms, and holds them. What a picture! Can you imagine holding a little one in your arms, perhaps smoothing back their hair, smiling back at them, maybe even tickling their tummy—and then blessing them? That is what Jesus did. He cared for them. He blessed them. And, probably blessed their moms, too.

Children were considered “non-persons,” not yet adults, not yet important like the Pharisees or rabbis or priests or teachers of the Law. And, certainly similar to the status of women, who were often considered “non-persons,” at best second-class citizens, if that. Not males, not the important ones. Who might be considered “non-persons” today? Would the handicapped be considered “non-persons?” What about the mentally ill? What about the homeless, or the street people? Are they all “non-persons?”

All of these individuals are important to Jesus. He reached out to children, to women, to lepers, to the blind and lame, to foreigners, to ritually unclean people, and the mentally ill. Jesus was not exclusive, but radically inclusive. Jesus raises the social standing and the self-worth of all individuals. His welcome transcends all barriers, all boundaries, all colors, all separations of class and language and ability.

What a marvelous welcome each of us has on this World Communion Sunday. Our Lord Jesus bids us all come. All are welcome here.

Amen, alleluia.

(Postscript)

  • The image of Jesus gathering up the children has me imagining Jesus gathering up those most vulnerable among us — particularly now those whose memories have been rendered raw by the necessity of reliving their most traumatic moments in these last days. Who among us most needs the safety of that divine embrace? And what does it look like, what does it mean for you and me to extend it in Jesus’ name?
  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline number is 1-800-656-4673. If you have need of it, use it. If not, pass it along. Indeed, may we continue to hold close in prayer those whose suffering is ongoing. And may we keep on seeking to shape a world where such a hotline is no longer necessary. [3]

[1] Perkins, Phemie, The Gospel of Mark, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 647.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/jesus-gathers-the-most-vulnerable-into-his-arms-then-and-now/  Pastor Janet Hunt has served as a Lutheran pastor in a variety of contexts in Northern Illinois. Currently she serves as pastor at First Lutheran, DeKalb, IL.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Prayer: Powerful and Effective

“Prayer: Powerful and Effective”

James 5-16 prayer of righteous, words

James 5:13-20 (5:16) – September 30, 2018

If anyone has been following the news in the past weeks out of Washington, you know that journalists have been trying hard to get as much information as possible about the people and the situations involved. Journalists always are on the lookout for reliable information. They want to answer some basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. If you can answer those five questions clearly, you will have a good, solid news story.

The past two weeks have been a roller coaster for many people. With the nail-biting news about the Supreme Court nomination, many people across the United States have been sitting on the edge of their seats. While I am not going to play politics or tell anyone which Washington politician or opinion is right or wrong, as a pastoral caregiver I do pay close attention to people’s emotions and reactions.

What I have seen in these past days are the overwhelming number of people with heightened emotions and reactions to anxious, even fearful situations. As someone involved in pastoral care and trained as a chaplain, I notice these things. In our scripture reading today, we find the apostle James talking straight about how to pray, and thus deal with things similar to these: heightened emotions and reactions to anxious situations.

The apostle James was a practical kind of guy. We can see that from this short letter, the only letter he wrote, included in the New Testament. He gives some practical advice to his readers on how to live a faithful and effective Christian life: how to live faithfully with others in society, how to control the tongue, how to turn away from evil and towards God. Here, in the fifth chapter of James, he turns to prayer. As we look at this passage, James tells his friends how to pray, in very practical terms, almost the same way as a news reporter might tell it.

Here are the first verses of our scripture reading, from one of my favorite modern translations of the Bible, The Message, by Eugene Peterson. “Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

James covers the bases here. People who are hurting, happy, sick, sinning. In other words, he tells us Who ought to pray. Anyone ought to! Anyone who needs God’s help or anyone who has received God’s blessing ought to pray. That means anyone—all of us.

What is the next question? What should we pray about? Anything, and everything. That is the wonder and power of prayer. So many things to pray about, but James gives some great descriptions. He tells us what kinds of situations, in just a few words.

When should we pray? Anytime is a great time to pray. When we are hurting, or feeling great, or sick, or sinning? In each case, we are invited by James to bring everything to the Lord in prayer. Whenever we are in trouble, or in need to healing, or for forgiveness from sin? That is the time for prayer. Anytime.

Where are we to pray? Absolutely anywhere. This is one that James does not directly address, but we can see James tells us we are able to pray any time we need help from God. So, it just makes sense that you and I can pray anywhere we happen to be. Wherever we are, God is with us. God is everywhere.

The last question is, Why should we pray? The simple answer? Because God answers prayer. Verse 16 tells us “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Did everyone hear? “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Except, I have been hearing from a large number of people during the past two weeks. Such difficult and traumatic events are extremely hurtful, especially for people who have had similar things happen to them. Psychologically speaking, the mention of a similar traumatic event can very well cause someone else to vividly relive their personal experience, no matter how long ago it happened. Trauma is imprinted on the brain in a unique way. It’s like the brain flags the specific memories as super-important. Those flagged memories can surface or re-surface at unpredictable times, when someone reminds you of something traumatic that happened. Like, for example, this serious discussion in the news of harassment and assault.

During the past two weeks, calls to rape and sexual abuse help lines have skyrocketed, anywhere from doubling to running four times as many as in a similar time period. Online, in social media, and personally, I have heard more people tell of harrowing incidents of rape and sexual abuse, and the horrible responses received when these actions were reported. Plus, I have both read and heard of situations where no one ever reported these horrific acts—until now.

Though I don’t who or what you believe, I think all of us can agree that as God’s people, we all need regular repentance and soul-searching, no matter what. We are also all in need of healing, personally, and certainly communally. Isn’t that what James tells us here?

When I was a chaplain, working in critical care units like the Emergency Department, Intensive Care, and trauma support all over the hospital, my primary job would be that of compassionate listener—even before prayer, and also as a heartfelt part of prayer. I suggest for all of us to consider a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our defenses down and instead experience the vulnerability of listening to one another.

“If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, ‘I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.’ In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart. “ [1]

As this letter tells us, the apostle James was practical. He also had quite the reputation for prayer. We all know the familiar saying “Listen to what I do, not what I say.” That was James. He would not tell his friends and followers to pray if he didn’t follow Jesus in prayer himself.

Through the power of prayer, total personal and communal healing can occur. James was following the example of Jesus who taught his disciples to pray and showed them that people can be healed through prayer.” [2] James spent so much time in prayer that he had the nickname “Old Camel Knees,” since his knees were so hard and callused from staying on them in prayer for hours on end.

As one commentator said, “we must be active participants in the process. Whether it is the healing touch of the laying on of hands or a simple hug from a sister or brother in Christ or the potent power of prayer or the relief of corporate confession, active participation in the Body of Christ is preventative medicine at its best.[3]

What are we waiting for? “Take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Amen. Alleluia.

 

(My sincere thanks to Charles Kirkpatrick, for his Object Lessons & Children’s Sermons, Coloring Pages, Puzzles. Sermons4Kids.com. https://www.sermons4kids.com/5Ws_of_prayer.htm  I borrowed freely from this children’s activity for this sermon.)

(What follows is the Response our church had after the sermon. Instead of a Prayer of Hymn of Response, we had the following activity.)

Amidst the prescriptions James prescribes, the anointing of the sick is one that we do not do enough of, and one I want to offer to this congregation, to this family of faith during the worship service.

We read again these verses from our scripture passage from James chapter 5: “Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven—healed inside and out.”

Come, let us worship God, and claim our desire to be made whole – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

And if anyone is just sick and tired of the current state of the world, come and be prayed over and be anointed with oil, a sign of the possibility of healing, inside and out.  

 

In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, be strengthened and made whole, filled with God’s grace; may you know the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Dear Comforting God, thank You for hearing and answering our prayers. Help us to remember that You want to heal us when we are sick, help us when we are in trouble, forgive us when we sin, and rejoice with us when we are happy. In the healing name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2018/09/30/time-for-compassion/

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster (Sue) is the pastor of the East Woodstock Congregational (UCC) Church in CT.

[2] http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=52

Commentary, James 5:13-16, Christopher Michael Jones, The African American Lectionary, 2008.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/09/rx-for-broken-lives-and-faltering-faith/

“Rx for Broken Lives and Faltering Faith,” Sharron R Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2012.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!