Discover God-given Gifts

“Discover God-given Gifts”

1 cor 12-7 gifts given to all

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (12:6) – January 20, 2019

When my children were little, from time to time we would go into toy stores—usually on the occasions when they were going to birthday parties. We would choose a present for them to take to the party. My children would not only enjoy giving gifts. All of their friends would see all the other presents given to the birthday boy or girl when they were opened at the party. And sometimes, they would tell me about some extra special gift given at the party. What gift-giving opportunities we all have had, whether at birthday parties, holidays, or other occasions.

We have been talking about gifts for the past few weeks. Not only in the weekly sermons, but also in other parts of our worship service, too. God gave us all the most wonderful gift of all at Christmas in the gift of God’s Son, the baby Jesus. We can all praise God for that super special Christmas gift.

Two weeks ago, the first Sunday of January was the day of Epiphany. Some might know this day as Three Kings Day, or the occasion the Wise Men came and brought gifts to the toddler Jesus. Whatever you call it, that was the day the foreign-born wise men came with their rich gifts to lay before the young Jesus. Last week was the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus. Another gift-giving occasion. What is a good reminder of God’s gift poured out upon us all. God’s grace. God’s rich, full and abundant grace, given to us all. Baptism is an outward sign of that God-given grace.

After all this talk about Christmas and birthday gifts, and how marvelous and generous our God is, there is even more to say about gifts. The Apostle Paul talks about gifts to the believers in Corinth in our Scripture reading today. God gives Christ-followers spiritual gifts.

I am certain everyone here has seen public service announcements on television, or heard them on the radio. These are announcements about public health, or about the public good. This is exactly what Paul was doing here. Paul made a general public service announcement about spiritual gifts. God is gracious, and God gives out spiritual gifts generously. Paul made sure that all his friends in Corinth—and all of us, by extension—knew this.

As is so often the case, Paul was making this announcement about gifts for a definite reason. Some Christians don’t even know about spiritual gifts. They might not be aware of them. Perhaps they have a great many things going on in their lives, or the lives of their families, and are too distracted.

Some Christians do know something about spiritual gifts, but think that they are for someone else. Not for regular folks like me, or maybe like you. Spiritual gifts are only for the superstars of the faith, for people like St. Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa, or perhaps Billy Graham. Everyday people can’t get spiritual gifts. Not much, anyway.

And, every so often, some Christians even think they are not good enough for spiritual gifts. Not worthy, or not saintly enough. They know they mess up, and do bad things, and say things that make God sad. There is no way—God couldn’t possibly give them spiritual gifts.

Guess what? I have good news for all of us. In fact, great news! God gives spiritual gifts to everyone. To you, to me, to the members of St. Martha’s Catholic Church, to the friends at Morton Grove Community Church, to the folks at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. God freely and generously gives spiritual gifts to all of these folks. All Christians, all throughout the world.

This list of spiritual gifts here in 1 Corinthians 12 is not exhaustive. More spiritual gifts are listed in other passages. In Romans 12:6-8, Paul lists prophecy, serving, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership, and mercy. Ephesians 4:11-13 has apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. And, even these three lists are only partial lists. God is endlessly inventive and full of generosity. If we were to check out modern assessment tools for spiritual gifts, we would find many more gifts.

Just like Paul and his friends, we would find out that spiritual gifts all come from the same source: the Holy Spirit. What is more, these gifts all have the same purpose: “the common good.” As commentator Carolyn Brown says, “we identify and celebrate all the gifts God gives us and recognize that we are meant to use these gifts not just for our own good but for the good of the people around us.” [1]

So, we all have spiritual gifts, and these gifts are a joy for us to use for others.

Except—what if we never use these gifts, and they sit in the bottom of some drawer, or in the back of a closet? What then? The Rev. Jeff Campbell uses a distinctive analogy to help us understand more thoroughly. He says, “Activation of your spiritual gift is essential. Activation is putting your gifts into practice “for the common good.” What good is a gift if it is never shared for the good of others?

“I have a few credit cards in my wallet, as I am sure many of you do. When you receive a new credit card, you usually find a sticker on it that provides an 800 number to call in order to do what?  To activate the card. Have any of you ever received the card and placed it in your wallet, never calling to activate the card? Not if you need to use the card! So why do some disciples clearly recognize a spiritual gift but leave the sticker on and never use it?” [2]

Our friends at the United Methodist Church have developed a bible study especially for this bible reading, and using this section of spiritual gifts. In it, the members are urged to listen for their own personal gifts. Discern the signs, and ask others.  “You may wonder what your spiritual gift is. God will help you discover it.”

“You may already know what your spiritual gift is. That’s good; keep sharing it! All of us should “be on the lookout” to help one another recognize their spiritual gifts. In this way, God encourages us to contribute to our community of faith in Jesus Christ.” [3]

So—what do you have in your spiritual wallet? What spiritual gift do you have? Find out, today. And if you already know, use it for the common good, for the community of faith, and for everyone you can.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/01/year-c-second-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 2C, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-20-second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-20-second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2019-year-c-faith-formation 

(Thanks to Rev. Jeff Campbell and the other friends at http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for help and ideas for use in this sermon.)

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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!

Thanksgiving to God

“Thanksgiving to God”

2 Cor 9-11 thanksgiving, words

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 (9:11) – November 19, 2017

Today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, many people across the United States celebrate as Thanksgiving Sunday. “According to the Internet there are 12 nations – large and small – who celebrate in one form or another their nation’s Thanksgiving Day; whilst other forms and styles of celebration include local “Harvest Thanksgiving” services.” [1]

Both scripture readings this morning feature words of gratitude and thanks to God for giving us our many blessings, and specifically for the blessings of the harvest. First, our psalm for this morning lets us know God has provided so much for us to enjoy. Not only the bounty of the harvest, but more than that. Our Psalmist lets us know God has made the earth and water, and everything else, and provides everything for humanity’s benefit.

Let me read again from Psalm 65: “You, God, soften the earth with showers and bless its abundant crops. 11 You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness become a lush pasture, and the hillsides blossom with joy. 13 The meadows are clothed with flocks of sheep, and the valleys are carpeted with grain. They all shout and sing for joy!”

All this bounty is considered to be given to humanity to enjoy. All the harvest and bounty that this psalm celebrates is what the apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the church in Corinth, too. Except, Paul goes one step further.

When we read Paul’s suggestions in this passage today, he urges the believers in Corinth to be generous. Sure, in Paul’s previous letter, in 1 Corinthians, the people from that church were collecting for the poor and persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Now, with this updated message to Corinth, Paul praises the church for continuing with the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, and urges them to be generous. He broadens his suggestion and encourages them to give gifts freely. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

What about that last phrase, anyway? “God loves a cheerful giver.” Sure, Paul is urging his fellow Christians to be generous. However, this goes over and above mere giving of alms, or slipping a dollar in a panhandler’s cup, or even a five-dollar bill in the Salvation Army kettle in the holiday season. Paul lets us know we ought to give cheerfully (Gr. hilaron), or “hilariously,” in the sense of very joyfully. But, he doesn’t want us to throw our money around needlessly. And, not in the sense of thoughtlessly, either.

Money, charity, and giving are discussed in the Bible in several places. I will highlight one: “cheerful” givers always receive God’s loving approval (Prov. 22:8). So, God wants all of us to be cheerful, generous, and open-hearted.

There is a problem here, and Paul mentions it. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

One of my favorite bible commentators, Bob Deffinbaugh, writes “Some people simply do not enjoy being generous. It causes them great pain to give up more of what they possess in order to bestow it upon someone who needs it more than they do. Once I suggested to a friend who was dying that she give away some of her possessions while she was alive, so that she could enjoy the act of giving while she was still alive. I had seriously misjudged the situation. This woman did not want to give anything away before she died, because she found no pleasure in giving. Only after her death, when she could keep her possessions no longer, would she reluctantly will them to someone else. How sad.” [2]

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. Certainly, the idea of reluctantly giving away money or worldly goods is something most of us associate with Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol fame. I know very well that there are great numbers of people who only give “grudgingly.”

So many people love their stuff, don’t they? Or, if not “stuff,” then they are awfully attached to their money, or even their time. Some might hate to part with anything of value, period.  And, especially, “We should not give because we feel there is no alternative, or because we think others will look down on us if we fail to give.” [3] It’s sort of tGod’swisted and perverted, and just like the Pharisees. That is the exact opposite of the reason Paul tells us to give.

As Bob Deffinbaugh relates, “To use an analogy our Lord employs, when we see a brother who has no coat, we don’t have to own a coat factory; all we need is two coats (see Luke 3:11). The reason we may not have the means to give to the poor is because we have not sown from that which we have in order to reap more to give. We, like the widow who cared for Elijah, may need to give first to those in need, and then look to God to supply our needs.” [4]

We can follow Paul’s words and suggestions, and ask—how would we celebrate God’s blessings to us? How could we give thanks? Like I suggested to the children earlier today, we can be generous. Give of what we have. If we have a little extra food or canned goods or pasta, give that. If we have an extra coat, give it to a coat drive. If we have some free time, volunteer or donate that. If God has been good to us and we have some extra money, be generous with whatever God has blessed us with.

When my husband and I were hiking through a state forest some years ago, we came across a stream. The path turned and followed the bubbling, flowing stream. As my husband and I continued walking, we came to a little waterfall, where the water bubbled and traveled downward from one level to another, and then went rushing along its merry way. I think of giving like this. Paul lets us know that generous giving flows out of God’s generosity to us. If we dam up that trickle of giving, we might end up with a backload of water that can’t flow, can’t run free and clear, and cannot transmit God’s blessings to others.

When we understand that everything—every single thing!—we have comes from God, it is much easier to share what we have with others. God supplies both the seed and the harvest. He is the one who makes us rich so that we might be generous on every occasion. Our giving is a demonstration of thanks to God. We thank God for what God has given us by giving it away!

And, what is the final point of Paul’s suggestion? What is the most wonderful thing God gives us? Praise the Lord for God’s unmatchable, unspeakable, unsurpassable Gift—Jesus Christ! Jesus and the grace He freely gives to us is the reason we give to others.

We give thanks that our generosity is rooted in the generosity of our God in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can say “Happy Thanksgiving,” indeed.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.thetimelesspsalms.net/w_resources/pentecost23[30]c_2016.htm

The Timeless Psalms: Psalm 65, Joan Stott, prayers and meditations based on lectionary Psalms, 2016.

[2] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

[3] http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/2corinthians.pdf

2 Corinthians, Expository Notes, Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2005 edition.

[4] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Every Blessing in Abundance

“Every Blessing in Abundance”

2-cor-9-7-thanksgiving-word-cloud

2 Corinthians 9:7-12 (9:8) – November 13, 2016

At this thanksgiving time of the year, people are more liberal with their donations. Soon the Salvation Army kettles will be out in front of stores and supermarkets, and we will hear the ding dong of bell ringers asking for gifts. The food pantries and clothes closets appreciate extra donations, and all manner of other charities will receive additional gifts, too. The holidays are a time to give liberally to all kinds of organizations and charitable institutions.

This brings me to our Scripture passage for today. This giving time of the year reminds us of what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. In the paragraphs before today’s reading in chapter 9, Paul asks for a collection to be gathered together. This collection of money is to be given to the persecuted, needy church in Jerusalem.

It’s then Paul tells more about giving, in general. How to give, and why. How not to give, too. People have all kinds of reasons to give: giving to provide for others, in a righteous kind of way. Giving to help others, in a loving way. Or, giving out of obligation, in a grudging way. There are many different kinds of ways to give, and attitudes to have while we contribute. The Apostle Paul talks about a few of them in this reading today.

God loves a cheerful giver. Paul says so! In the verses just before today’s passage, Paul praises the believers in Corinth for such a bountiful gift for the persecuted church in Jerusalem. So generous! They understood why the money was needed, certainly.

We have a proverb of Paul’s day included here, in our first verse: “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Here Paul is including a common saying of the day to illustrate his point. Talking about bounty, about being generous, and about grudging giving—being stingy.

What is all this about sowing and reaping? To us, in a 21st century, urban context, most of us are not very familiar with planting and harvest, sowing and reaping illustrations. Some are—those of us who have green thumbs, plant lovely gardens, and reap a bountiful harvest. You will more easily understand what Paul is saying here.

We have it in a little different fashion, a verse later. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion.”

Let me give an illustration. Better than that, let me show you what Paul is talking about here. I have some bookmarks with 2 Corinthians 9:7 printed on them. I will take the liberty of passing them out.

(I pass out the bookmarks, first, reluctantly. With a somber face, not looking people in the eye, sighing, rolling my eyes, and not very pleased to be giving out bookmarks at all. Halfway through, I change my demeanor. I pass out bookmarks with a cheerful smile, with a happy attitude, and wishing people the best as I give them bookmarks.)

Did anyone notice a difference? What was that difference?

Was I a reluctant giver of the bookmarks, at first? “I can’t believe I have to do this.” And “I wonder whether I can leave soon?” Rolling my eyes, and sighing. I did not show a very good attitude, at all!

How about the second half of the bookmarks? The second half of my giving? How was that? Was I a cheerful giver? Was I kind and welcoming?

How did you feel receiving the bookmark from a reluctant giver? How about the cheerful giver? Which kind of giver would you prefer? Which kind of giver do you think God prefers?

We will read this verse once more: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” These are wise words from the Apostle Paul. This giving cannot be done reluctantly, or under compulsion, because then it isn’t for real. The reluctant giving is grudging. Out of obligation, and a heavy, unpleasant responsibility.

Paul would tell us, “No! That isn’t that way God wants you to give!” Instead, we are to give in cheerfulness, with joy in our hearts. We are to give freely and positively. God will love us for that positive, cheerful attitude. What is more, the whole action and the whole feeling of the heart will then be framed by love. God’s love! God will express love toward us, and each of us will express love toward our fellow people in need. And, whomever else we need to give to.

But, wait! There is more! Paul goes on to talk about what more God will do. If we have this generous attitude towards giving, being open-handed, positive and cheerful, then God will bless us abundantly with every blessing.

You can kind of see this from the way the sentence is translated into English, but Paul is making sure his readers know that God will absolutely, abundantly provide. God will certainly multiply all with great abundance. If we have generous attitudes, God will provide every increase, so that we will abound in every good work.

Let me caution everyone here. God is not talking about purchasing salvation. That is not even being discussed. We are saved already.

We have been justified by God, and we are now and always God’s children, beloved and cherished. However—as we know from our own children, beloved children are not always cheerful and generous. That is just Paul’s point here!

God wants us to live abundant lives. God wants us to be kind and cheerful and generous. God wants us to be abundantly blessed, and have heavenly gifts rain on our heads. What is the hinge, here? Giving. If we have a kind, cheerful and generous attitude towards giving, God is essentially giving us a high five!

We will live abundant lives, blessed and enriched in every way.

What a marvelous promise. What wonderful words. And, this is not “maybe,” or “I hope so,” but it is a blessed promise from God! This is not only for our gifts of treasure, for our gifts of money. But, this blessing is for our gifts of time and of talents, as well.

For the person who comes and volunteers on Sunday mornings to start the coffee, stuff the bulletins in the hymnals, or turns on the lights in the sanctuary and lights the candles—thank you, so much. For the person who bakes a cake or makes a table decoration or repairs the church building—thank you. Those are the gifts of time and of talent, and God is so pleased with that. All of those things, and many, many more.

Paul’s final words from this reading today: “11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” See? Our cheerful, generous giving supplies the needs of the saints. The needs of the local church.

We end as we begin, with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving to our fellow church members, to our friends and neighbors, and ultimately, to God. Thanks be to God for God’s abundant blessings. And, thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of salvation.

Alleluia, amen!

(Thanks to Pam Auble and http://www.ucc.org/oghs_resources_2013-resources_activities for the excellent suggestion of a reluctant giver and a cheerful giver.)

Generous with Our Faith

“Generous with Our Faith” – March 29, 2015

Jesus raising Lazarus John 11

John 11:25-27

Some people strive to be punctual. Even, early. My grandfather was like that. If he wasn’t fifteen minutes early for an appointment, he would consider himself late! Then, some people have a more fluid idea of time. They see a more relaxed framework of the spectrum of late- versus-early. These come down at different points on this spectrum. And then, we have Jesus.

Our Gospel reading is quite long today, from the 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. I wanted to read this whole passage in the context of this sermon. At the beginning of the reading, we have Jesus and His disciples, some distance from the town of Bethany, where His friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. Let me set the scene. I will be using the awesome, modern version of the Gospel, translated by Eugene Peterson, called The Message.

1-3 A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”

When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”

5-7 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days.

 

Here’s the situation in Bethany. We receive quite a lot of information here! Jesus was very close to all three siblings, to Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became very sick! So sick, that his sisters sent an emergency message, a call for help, to Jesus. The request to Jesus has been made. A sincere request, made by the loved ones of Lazarus. I suspect we all can relate to this earnest request. We’ve made similar prayers from time to time. Any number of us have sent SOS messages to Jesus, too!

Jesus made mention of showing God’s glory through Lazarus’ sickness. Obviously, He made this comment to His disciples, and I suspect to whomever else was there, listening to Him, at the time. And, as was often the case with Jesus and some of the cryptic things He said, people just did not understand what He meant, at the time. Back to Jesus:

After the two days, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?” 11 Jesus replied, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”

12-13 The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.

14-15 Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”

Jesus knows. I mean, Jesus really knows the situation some miles away. His disciples are confused, and at first think Lazarus is just asleep. But, no! Is this a major complication, or what? Sure, there are miracles all over the Old and New Testaments, but miracles of healing, or of feeding large groups of people. Not of reversing death itself! And, especially, after several days!

On top of the disciples’ confusion at the words and behavior of Jesus, Jesus wants to go back to Bethany, which is a town just down the road from Jerusalem. “Jesus, You can’t go there! The Jewish leaders are going to arrest You. Probably try to kill You, too!” Jesus goes anyway.

17-20 When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.

We see Mary and Martha, in the house of mourning. Two very different women, mourning in two very different ways. Many of their friends and acquaintances are with them, too. Sympathizing and mourning with them, as was the custom of the time. Martha goes to meet Jesus while her sister stays put.

21-22 Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”

23 Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”

25-26 “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”

What a statement! What a testimony! Even though Martha is distraught at the death of her dear brother, she still has deep faith. As we’ve just heard, she states that her brother will be raised in the resurrection at the end of time. What does Jesus say? He does her one better.

I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Did you hear? Did everyone hear these words of faith? Words of hope? Words of new life? “The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live.” And then Martha responds again, with great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

I could preach a solid sermon on this statement of Martha’s, alone. This ringing declaration, these great words of a rock-solid faith were made at such a devastating time for Martha. On top of everything, in the middle of mourning her brother, we can see that this is not just an intellectual admission or assent for Martha, but heartfelt belief. But wait, there’s more! Much more!

28 After saying this, Martha went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”

29-32 The moment Mary heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33-34 When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

34-35 “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept. 36 The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

37 Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”

We can tell, from these few scenes in the Gospel, that Martha, Mary and Lazarus had a close, intimate relationship. Mary even fell at Jesus’ feet, sobbing. Saying, “if only! If only You had been here!” The words of deep, gut-wrenching emotion are here, too. “Jesus wept.” We know that Jesus felt with Mary and Martha! We can see from this account that Jesus felt so badly and grieved with them, even though He knew what He was intending to do!

How often do we get into a situation where we have the opportunity to come alongside of someone who is devastated, a friend, a relative. Grieve alongside of them, and walk with them down that sorrowful road of mourning, loss, anger, anxiety. Grieve over the deep pain and loss in the reality of death. That’s why I think Jesus cried with Mary. And with Martha, and with the rest of the mourning people. Back to Jesus.

38-39 Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”

40 Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41-42 Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”

Practical Martha. “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days.” Wouldn’t that be something you might think of, too? I probably would have thought of it, too.

They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken aloud so that they might believe that you sent me.”

43-44 Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”

45-48 That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him.

 

Because of this display of resurrection power, because Lazarus was brought back to life, we see that many believed that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah! The Son of God!

Let me ask: what do you believe? Do you think Jesus was just a great man? Did He preach great sermons, and live an exemplary life? Or, do you think Jesus was a prophet of God? A miracle-worker, like the prophets of the Old Testament, or like the Apostles? Or, the third option. Or—do you think Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah? The Son of God? As Jesus Himself said, the Resurrection and the Life?

Hear the words of Jesus! “The one who believes in Me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in Me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” Just as Jesus asked Martha so long ago, He is asking us, today, too. Can we respond with Martha, “Yes, Master. Yes, Lord. I believe.” With great faith. “All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus is asking. Do we, really, believe?

Jesus was generous, giving life abundantly to Lazarus. Can we do any less in our lives? We are encouraged to be generous with our faith! To believe Jesus. To take Him at His word, and to trust in Him. Like Martha. Like Mary. We find out that we can believe Him, we can trust Jesus when times are hard, difficult, through storms and suffering. We are also happy to trust Jesus when times are happy, when everything is going our way. Whatever is happening in your life today, can you believe Jesus? Can you be generous? Believe the good news of the Gospel. Have faith! Believe Jesus!

 

Thanks to Eugene Peterson for his wonderful translation The Message. I read most of John chapter 11, around which I have interwoven this message. “Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.”

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. #40acts Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)

Generous With Our Hearts

“Generous With Our Hearts”

Jesus heals son of royal official John 4

John 4:50 – March 22, 2015

Important people are just that—important! Ever try to see one, face to face? Sometimes we go through a receptionist, or an administrative assistant. Make several telephone calls, or emails, and confirm the appointment? It can be really difficult, just getting the attention, being squeezed into the schedule of a very important person.

That’s the situation we are faced with in our scripture reading today. The two main characters are a royal official, a very important person. He was reputed to be important—a big man, regionally known. And, the Rabbi Jesus. Let me remind everyone again: this was the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the area around Galilee, so Jesus was not very widely known, yet.

Can we compare this VIP situation to any parallels today? Do we know any very important people, in our workplaces, neighborhoods or schools? How about a school principal? A very busy person! What about our town’s mayor, or the local state representative? Again, really important people. What about your company’s president, or CEO? These all are people who pull a lot of weight, who have a great deal of responsibility.

Let’s go back to this reading from the Gospel of John. The royal official here in Chapter 4 has a big problem. He has a sick son. A really sick son. No matter how important the official was, he was a father, at the same time. And his son was really sick.

How about important people, today? A school principal, a town mayor or local state representative? A company’s president? Sure, each of them might pull a lot of weight and shoulder a great deal of responsibility. But—each of them has loved ones. Any of the loved ones may very well get sick. And sometimes, get really sick. What the Gospel writer tells us about this royal official is that he was a very concerned parent. A good, loving parent.

Those of us who are parents or grandparents or uncles or aunts know about the anguish and pain of having a sick relative. Especially, a sick child. This congregation knows the concern and the time and the many, earnest prayers that have been offered for loved ones from our church. In the year that I have been here, I can think of several, including our miracle big boy, L! And, Sunny’s friend B. These children’s parents and other loved ones went all out to get help for their dear children.

This royal official in our reading today is no different. He was so concerned about his son! The Gospel reading states that the ailing son was close to death. The father dropped everything! Everything in his very busy, very important schedule! The official took the time to seek out Jesus, and travel for a whole day, way out of his way, to beg for this man’s help.

Let’s focus on Jesus, for a moment. A miracle-worker, Jesus is called. Here He is, back in His home town. Still in the area where there were people who knew Jesus’ family. I would like to remind everyone—in verse 44, “Jesus Himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in His own country.” Jesus had been welcomed back into the area after He turned the water into wine, but many people remembered Him as the boy and young man He once had been, before He became a Rabbi.

Plus, I suspect certain people merely wanted more miracles. Many just wanted to see a dog-and-pony show, and ooh and ahh over the flash and dazzle, the miracles, the signs from God.

What about this royal official? This very important man from Capernaum? Even though he may have—initially—scoffed at the reports of Jesus doing miracles, especially turning water to wine, by this point he is desperate. He dropped everything and traveled for a whole day to come and see Jesus! He had a genuine need—that is, his son was close to death. He begs and pleads for Jesus to accompany him back to Capernaum.

Today, so many of us have friends who are sick, or loved ones in the hospital or rehab centers, or at home. Sure, our world is broken. As our friends from the website #40acts mention, no one is exempt from pain and sorrow. Many, many people become ill, some chronically, even permanently ill. Death is an integral part of the human experience. We all are born. We all die. As my acquaintance Rabbi Joe said, “We all have an expiration date.”

Yet, this royal official had hope! This royal official came rushing up to Jesus. Can you just see their encounter? Perhaps in the middle of the street, or in the town marketplace.

We might think Jesus’ response is out of left field. What? What is He talking about? “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told the official, “you will never believe.” One of the most interesting parts about this response is how Jesus says it. In Greek, the word “you” is plural. Let me say it again, a bit more colloquially. “Unless y’all-people see signs and wonders, y’all will never believe.” Now, I think Jesus made this statement in a public place, with a bunch of people around. He wasn’t just talking to the official. No! Jesus was addressing a group. Y’all.

We see the official begging. He pleads with Jesus to come with him, to heal his sick son. “Sir, come with me before my child dies.” This very important person is a father with a genuine need, a father whose heart is breaking with worry and anxiety about his son. And Jesus? His internal compass always turns toward those whose hearts are breaking. Jesus’ response to the official? “Go. Your son will live.”

The official was able—through the veil of great worry and anxiety over his son—to really hear Jesus’ words. Moreover, this father was able to take Jesus at His word and go home. He may have been wondering exactly who Jesus was. A prophet? “Did Jesus hear a message from God that my son would be healed?” Or, perhaps, even, the Messiah? “Did this Rabbi Jesus cause my son to become well through a miracle?” Regardless, the official started back to Capernaum.

Let’s hear verses 51 to 53 again. While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.” 53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed.

Wow! And again I say, wow! We can see that this official did not come to Jesus with false motives, or just wanting to see a miracle-worker. On top of this, the official willingly left when Jesus told him the boy had been healed—long distance, no less! Then, when his servants confirmed the healing sometime later, this father—this official knew for sure. Jesus performed a miracle. A sign from God. The official believed Jesus, and so did the rest of his household.

Is Jesus ready to meet us in our distress? In the middle of our pain and sorrow? I think you know the answer to that. Jesus is ready to meet us, to walk with us, in all these situations. Does anyone have sick loved ones? Jesus is there, at your side. How about pain and sorrow in life? Jesus will walk next to you, keeping you company. Does the world seem broken, and as if it will never be fixed? Jesus is ready to meet us, to help us pick up the broken pieces. To encourage, support, and heal in any one of a number of ways.

Just as this official did something right–he came to Jesus when he was in genuine need! So, we are invited to come to Jesus when we have needs, too. Jesus can heal our broken hearts, just as much as He can heal our broken world. Plus, we can reach out and allow Jesus to use our hands, our feet, our voices to come alongside of others, too! We can be partners with Jesus, to help others. Just like Jesus, we can see needs around us and respond from our hearts. Respond with generosity and kindness. May it be so! Praise God, amen!

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)

“Generous With Our Possessions”

“Generous With Our Possessions”

fish, bread and wheat photo credit - Jerry Bridges

fish, bread and wheat
photo credit – Jerry Bridges

John 6:12-14 – March 8, 2015

A memorable picture book I dearly remember from my childhood is called “Stone Soup.” I remember reading it to my children, too. This story is about a small village in Europe after the wars, several hundred years ago. The villagers are frightened of strangers. As a result, they are tight-fisted, and keep their precious food to themselves. They hide the food, until coaxed to bring it out; be generous and share it all together. And then, all the village has a wonderful feast.

Our Gospel reading today from John 6 has a similar sort of idea. Someone is generous, and food is shared. Jesus blesses the food, multiplies it, and all the people end up having a wonderful feast.

In today’s Scripture reading—which appears in all four Gospels, by the way—we see Jesus and His disciples traveling far away from town, to pray. Far away from a ready source of food. Yet, here comes a huge crowd of people, pursuing Jesus!

I am not certain why they are coming after Him. Perhaps it’s because the Rabbi Jesus has been healing so many people. Perhaps some of these are disabled, deaf, or sick. Maybe some of them are poor, and want to hear what the great Rabbi has to say. Maybe some are wondering whether this charismatic rabbi could possibly be a Messiah, a political leader!

Can you see the hungry crowd? Can you hear their hungry cries? Can you understand the hunger—yes, immediate and physical, but also spiritual! I suspect that Jesus knew all of these reasons, and all of these expectations. I know He understood the deep hunger of their souls.

Jesus sees the crowd, too! The Gospel has recorded an exchange He had with his disciples Philip and Andrew. Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” I can just see Philip, serious and earnest, rapidly trying to figure out how on earth they are to feed several thousand people on a moment’s notice! I can just hear what he might say: “This feeding thing? Much too expensive! We couldn’t possibly afford it!” Or, perhaps, “This feeding thing? We don’t have enough volunteers! And the budget won’t stretch that far. Not by a long shot!” And what about even, “Not again, Jesus! You are setting a negative precedent with this kind of free hand-outs.” I don’t want to diminish Philip’s practical concerns, at all! Quite valid, and absolutely understandable.

When you and I are uncertain, anxious, or afraid about practical concerns, what is our response? What would we say if we were asked a similar question? “Where shall we buy bread for this huge crowd of people to eat?” Would we get uncertain or anxious? Are we overwhelmed by the massive size of the crowd? Would we freeze up? Perhaps even get angry, or bluster about? Jesus asked Philip—and us—a great question!

Turning to Andrew, he also responds to Jesus. Andrew has gone outside of the safe constraints of the well-intentioned church budget to uncharted territory. He has found a boy with a bag lunch, and the boy has offered his food to Jesus, to share.

Let’s step back and take a look at our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the book of 2 Kings. The prophet Elisha is called upon to perform a miracle of feeding. There are obvious parallels, too. Someone comes up with a small offering of food. A bag lunch, again. Barley loaves—what a poor person might eat—is the bread in question. Even the question from Elisha’s disciple and Jesus’ disciple is similar: “How far will they go among so many?”

How many times are we overwhelmed with the problems we face today? Anxious because of the lack of resources, volunteers, or finances? We see so many today striving to get enough to eat. Unemployed people and their families lining up for food at the food pantries—like Maine Township Food Pantry. We realize God promises us abundance and generosity repeatedly in the Scripture. How on earth will this be accomplished? We ask—what is Jesus going to do?

We can praise God! Jesus knew very well what He was planning to do. He accepted the boy’s gift of the bag lunch. The boy was generous! And he willingly gave his food to Jesus.

Just a minute! Richard Niell Donovan poses the question: “What if the boy were unwilling to share his lunch? What if he were to say, ‘I need this for myself’ – or ‘My little bit won’t make any difference’?” (How many times have we uttered these words to ourselves or to those with whom we serve in ministry? Or, in Church Council? Or in the congregation?)

The unnamed boy here turns his food over to Jesus. I can just see him, giving Jesus the little lunch, perhaps wrapped in a cloth by his mother that morning. He empties the food from his hands into those of Jesus. Jesus turns around, blesses the food, and miraculously multiplies it to feed thousands of people.

What about us? Are we frightened and fearful, like the villagers in the picture book “Stone Soup?” Are we hesitant to share our food, our resources, our money, time and talents with Jesus? Jesus can take what we offer and turn it into such abundance! Just as the boy was generous and turned over his lunch, look at what a marvel Jesus did with that!

We don’t know what happened to this boy afterwards, either. Can you imagine this event becoming the defining event in his life? Imagine, the Rabbi Jesus took his lunch and multiplied it into enough to serve 5000 men! Plus women and children? I suspect that once this boy has seen Jesus work a miracle—perhaps right in front of this boy’s very eyes!—that this boy’s life was never the same.

Jesus transforms the bag lunch, the little bit that was generously offered, into the more-than-enough. Biblical commentator William Barclay writes, “There would have been one great and shining deed fewer in history if that boy had refused to come or if he had withheld his loaves and fishes. The fact of life is that Jesus Christ needs what we can bring Him. We may not have much to bring but He needs what we have.”

As Jesus’ followers today, we are also invited to be generous. To see God’s abundance, and to stretch our hearts, minds, and hands. Not like the disciples, who were constrained by practical problems, economic and logistical drawbacks. They couldn’t see that God wants people to be open to God’s working, and willing to serve. Willing to be generous with whatever they have to offer.

Suppose I took a one dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of you were to donate one dollar to the food pantry. We would have a pile of ones collected after the service. That’s something. Now, suppose I were to take a five dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of us were to donate five dollars, and we took a collection for the food pantry. We would have a large pile of fives after the service, and a nice freewill donation for the pantry, besides!

Everyone has something to offer. If each of us gives our little bit, and we gather it all together, it turns out to be a whole lot! Not only food, but time. Talents. Money, when possible. In addition, what about prayer? Some of us have the gift of praying. too! We can pray for those who are hungry. Pray that they may know God’s abundance—through our generosity, as well!

All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus comes to open our hearts, our hands and our minds to those around us, especially to those in need. We can do that only because Jesus also comes to open our hearts, minds and eyes to His own presence in our midst. May God increase our generosity! And may God increase our love and caring for all who hunger after the abundance that Jesus offers.

Thanks to the friends at the website “Radical Gratitude,” www.umfnw.org, Stewardship Emphasis, and Tanya Barnett for several ideas that I have interwoven into this message.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)