Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reign of Christ Year B 2009

Reign of Christ B 09
Thanksgiving Sunday Combined Service
November 22, 2009

2 Samuel 23:1-7
1 Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: 2 The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. 3 The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, 4 is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. 5 Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? 6 But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; 7 to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
Psalm 132:1-18

1 O LORD, remember in David's favor all the hardships he endured; 2 how he swore to the LORD and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, 3 "I will not enter my house or get into my bed; 4 I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, 5 until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob." 6 We heard of it in Ephrathah; we found it in the fields of Jaar. 7 "Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool." 8 Rise up, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. 9 Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your faithful shout for joy. 10 For your servant David's sake do not turn away the face of your anointed one. 11 The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: "One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. 12 If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne." 13 For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: 14 "This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it. 15 I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread. 16 Its priests I will clothe with salvation, and its faithful will shout for joy. 17 There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one. 18 His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam."

Revelation 1:4b-8
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18:33-37
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" 35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." 37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

God’s Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration, one that is very much like many such Fall celebrations throughout human history. In our country, we remember the Puritan’s celebration, with their Massasoit neighbors, of a good year’s harvest and the abundance of God’s providence.

This Thursday, many of us will gather with friends and family to eat the traditional foods of the American thanksgiving, the turkey and the gravy, the buttered corn, the creamed onions and the green bean casserole, the pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and of course, in our local version, fried oysters.

But this morning, Thanksgiving Sunday, I’d like to tell you the story of a different kind of Thanksgiving Meal.

It’s God’s Thanksgiving Meal, and God has invited all the nations. And they have gathered around the table in God’s house. Some are wearing suits, some turbans, and some dashikis. There are many different colored guests, some are peach-colored, some red, some yellow, some brown. Some are big and muscular and some are small and frail. But the table before them is laden with rich and delicious foods.

Sri Lanka is served a big plate of mercy in the form of St John's Center in the Northern part of the country. The center works with twelve refugee camps, home to thousands displaced from their homes due to civil war. St John’s has nineteen volunteers, eleven pastors, one doctor and two nurses who are working tirelessly among the camps in a systematic and coordinated way offering subsistence food, child care centers, trauma counseling, medical assistance, clean water and sanitation.

South Africa is enjoying a bowl of Faith. In the bowl is the Samaritan Care Centre, where Dawn Barnes tells the story of a man named Possible. Possible is from Nigeria. He came to the Samaritan Care Centre after having been shot five times and left for dead. He came because he had nowhere else to go and no one to care for him. He is paralyzed from his waist down. He had been covered in bed sores. For the last two years he had travelled back and forth from Nigeria to South Africa for several surgeries to repair these bed sores. He comes to the Centre to recover from the surgeries until he can get back to his everyday life. Possible is a man that lives out his name…he says all things are "possible" through God. He wants to walk again…he wants to teach again…he wants to be a father again.

Brazil is being served a fragrant cup of Justice. In the cup is the Christian Church’s ministry in Rio de Janeiro, where twenty families were finally granted deeds giving them ownership of the land on which they’d built their shanties after a long battle with the government and the courts.

The Dominican Republic is savoring a plate of Salvation in the form of a ministry called Caminante, meaning "One Who Walks the Path," that serves children who are at risk of being drawn into prostitution. Caminante helps develop the self-esteem of these children by teaching Christian values. Also, Caminante works closely with the families, churches, and the community to raise awareness regarding the complexity of this problem.

South Viet Nam is served a healthy helping of Resurrection in the form of the many children’s centers our church is helping to run there. Our missionary there, Xuyen Dangers, tells the story of a young boy named Sili, one among many the centers in Laos have rescued from the horrors of human trafficking. Sili loved to dance and the center got him into dance and theater training, but as he grew, he finally decided to become a social worker and continue the battle against the trafficking of child slaves. He mounted a production about human trafficking that was performed for the United Nations. He is now a worker in the centers, teaching children yoga and meditation and basic theater skills.

Palestine is enjoying a delicious slice of Healing in the form of a training program near Bethlehem. Thousands of Palestinian children there are suffering the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to sleep through the night, to do their homework and to play with abandon like children in other parts of the world. Janet Wright, a member of Heart of the Rockies Christian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, traveled with three of her colleagues – mental health therapists – to train twenty-eight West Bank therapists in the use of EMDR, a mental health treatment that reduces the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.And the US is being offered a whole sampler, in the form of health ministries in Virginia, homes for the poor in Appalachia, a community center for at-risk kids in inner city Los Angeles, a center in Alabama for families broken by domestic violence, teams in New Orleans and Texas rebuilding homes for hurricane victims, among many other scrumptious treats. Included in that sampler is the ministry of Philippi Christian Church, who is leading Middlesex County churches in meeting the needs of the growing numbers of poor in our county. Just yesterday, the women of our church held a bake sale to generate funds for this purpose.

But the main dish at every place at the table of God’s Thanksgiving Dinner is delicious platter of grace, in the form of communities just like ours gathering around the good news of the kingdom of God, communities fed and served by pastors formed and trained in the church’s universities and seminaries, communities made up of richly gifted people raised in Sunday Schools and youth groups, nourished in fellowship and study and the transforming Spirit of God, God’s nation of priests.

It is good that we are concerned about the poor and needy. It is indeed what Christ has taught us to be concerned about. Our response to the poor and needy is to be commended; it is a good marshalling of our resources and skills. We raise some significant money through our fundraisers, and that is good. Fundraisers utilize skills we are comfortable and familiar with. Many of us are gifted bakers and cooks. Many of us have stuff around the house we don’t need and would like to get rid of. We all understand shopping, buying and selling. There’s the added benefit of the simple fun of being together.

But what about our evangelism skills? Do we know how to announce the good news of Jesus Christ in fresh and compelling ways? What about our stewardship skills? Do we know how to deny ourselves in order to free more resources for the work of God’s church, and then to manage them together in Christ’s name and for his purposes? What about our ecumenical skills? Do we know how to bring the churches of the world together in order to most effectively deal with the mission we have been given? What about our understanding of God’s word and purposes? Do we know enough about the bible to truly discern God’s will?

These are skills we don’t necessarily feel comfortable with, skills that require discipline and training and commitment. But what might our service to the poor in our country and around the world look like if we did feel comfortable with them, if they were a basic part of our everyday ministries?

What if this morning’s service included not one hundred but four hundred people? What if all of them offered ten percent of their time, talent and treasure to the service of Christ? What if as much as half of that offering could be directed out into the community and the world? What if more people in our county believed in Jesus Christ and had dedicated themselves to serving him? What if the churches in our county worked together in unity, pooling their resources and talent to address the needs of those in any kind of trouble, from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth? What if we partnered with our Regional and General Church to effectively manage our many gifts for the greatest benefit to Christ’s mission, not only here but everywhere? What if the churches throughout the world operated as one?

I am not talking about utopia. I’m talking about real goals that can be meaningfully worked toward. In many ways, we are already working toward them.

At the end of the day, it is true, the church is meant to be a blessing, a feast, to all the nations of the world. At the end of the day, it is about the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed, the thirsty getting something to drink and the sick and imprisoned getting visited. In order to accomplish such work, however, in order even to get to the place where it can be done and done well, the blind must be given sight, the deaf must be given hearing, the demons must be cast out, and the dead must be raised. In other words, people must be called, hearts must be changed, minds must be educated, leaders must be trained and the truth must be made known.

My Liz has gotten big into food and nutrition, and one of the basic rules of good nutrition is the diversity of color on the plate. A multi-colored meal usually means good nutrition. The rule of Jesus Christ and the ministry we do at his command is just such a multi-colored meal. It is true, we are called to reach out from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth, to be and to do the love of God in Jesus Christ. It is also true we are called to announce a true message, teach a true way of life, and grow into something truer and more authentic than we were. For us alone, it is impossible. But with Jesus Christ, everything is possible.

We are the harvest of God, we are the ones that have been gleaned from the fields, netted in the rivers and streams and oceans, we are the ones baked into the loaf, we are the new wineskins into which the new wine has been poured, we are the eternally nourishing bread God has laid on the table for the world. We are the holy nation, the royal priesthood. We are the Thanksgiving Feast that God is serving the world, the living body of Christ.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

24 Pentecost B 09
November 15, 2009

1 Samuel 1:4-20
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" 9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head." 12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." 15 But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." 17 Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." 18 And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 "There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world. 9 "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."

Hebrews 10:11-25
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," 13 and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," 17 he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8
1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.“

Approaching the Throne

There’s a lot of wars and rumors of wars going on today, friends. And I’m particularly susceptible to them, I can tell you. My wife calls me her little dark cloud. I hear about things, and I let them get to me. I worry and worry. And sometimes I wonder how it’s all going to turn out. I was worrying about the recession three years before it happened. I was worrying about worship attendance dropping three years before it happened. I was worrying about poor people in our county when the news-people were all saying the economy was fine. I’ve been worrying about the spiritual state of people in North America for the last seventeen years and I haven’t seen a great deal of reason to stop.

I worry about consumerism. Consumerism is an idol-worshipping religion, you know, a church so widespread and so, well, consuming, that most people don’t even know they belong to it. The god of consumerism is the consumer. Sometimes that’s me and sometimes that’s the other guy, but in the religion of consumerism everyone is a consumer, a member of the church of consumerism, and the only reason anyone produces anything, any good or service or work of art or anything, well, it’s just to make more money to spend on consuming things. Consumerism isn’t about having stuff, it’s about shopping for stuff. Consumerism isn’t about having things, it’s about consuming things, so it requires a constant resupply. Consumerism isn’t about making people happy. It’s about keeping people unhappy enough that they keep consuming.

Consumerism eats everything. It has eaten art, it has eaten philosophy, it has eaten politics, it has eaten ethics, and it’s well on the way to eating faith.

So I feel for old Hannah this morning, friends. There she is in a very troubled Israel. Enemies amassing all around them, lots of corruption among the priesthood of the various temples, and if that wasn’t enough, she’s barren.

I think about her wedding day to Elkanah, all the bridesmaids making bawdy jokes, the groomsmen kidding the groom, everyone asking them how soon they’ll have children. Off they go into their married life, and try and try and try, but no children, no pregnancy. I can imagine her friends giving her all kinds of advice. “Sleep with him when the moon is full. Sleep with him as often as possible. Drink this tea, eat this herb.” Nothing working. I think about the household. It was normal in those days for there to be other wives, and there’s that evil rival, that Penninah, oooh, she must have been hard to live with. She with all the kids, fertile as a rabbit, making snide comments all the time. Now you know that wasn’t a happy home.

Hannah, I know how you feel. I know what it is to look ridiculous, to dream of something you just can’t see happening, to feel worthless and impotent and unimportant.

It’s how I feel about the whole church on earth. I hear people listing all the reasons the Christian faith is exclusive and violent and narrow-minded and hypocritical. I see preachers on TV that make me wince in embarrassment for the Lord I love so much. I hear about the overall decline in religion throughout this country and the whole of the Western world.

What are we going to do, Hannah?

One of my professors from Union Seminary in New York was also the senior pastor at Riverside Church in Harlem. His name was James Forbes and he titled his sermon on this text “Hannah Rose.”

You can find those words in verse 9 of chapter one in the first book of Samuel. The whole verse reads:

“After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD.”

What did Hannah do? “Hannah rose, and presented herself before the LORD.”

And when she knelt before the temple, Hannah wept bitterly. I know, Hannah, I know. I know very well what it is to weep bitterly. I lay in my bed at night and think about how lost I am, how lost God’s people are, how sick this insane world sometimes makes me, and I weep bitterly.

But okay, Hannah. Okay. You prayed to the Lord in your heart of hearts, so deep within yourself you didn’t even make a sound. Your lips moved as you prayed and old Eli, probably the last of the faithful priests of Israel, thought you were drunk. And after you prayed, old Eli came in agreement with your prayer, and off you went.

I remember a day not long after I began at Philippi when I still didn’t know many people and I was very unsure I really should be a pastor at all. This was just about four years ago. I remember that day getting a directory of the church members and going into the sanctuary and getting down on my knees in the aisle facing the cross and going through that directory one by one and praying for everyone in there and everyone else I could think of. It wasn’t long after that things started to change.

Nothing changed, but everything changed. That’s the way it was for you too, wasn’t it, Hannah? You went home, no more weeping, and joined in the eating and drinking. “And her countenance was sad no longer.”

Hmmm. Even before God did a thing, even before your prayers were answered, your countenance was sad no longer.

We have a Lord, Jesus Christ, who spent his earthly life directly confronting the deepest evil in the hearts of humankind. He sought it out, he flushed it out of hiding, and he waved it like a banner in the eyes of everyone. His life and teachings and healings and exorcisms, and above all his death and resurrection, are a living testament to us not only of our disconnection from God, the only real problem challenging us, but that God has indeed forgiven us for that disconnection, and invites us to rise and present ourselves before him.

A lot of Christians get the forgiveness part, and that feels good, I know. It’s the rising-and-presenting-ourselves-before-him part that’s hard to get. But “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.”

And Hebrews says, “let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”

There’s an old story about the church ladies who met for tea. Millie said to Palmyra, “We must pray for Patricia.” And Palmyra said, “Surely it’s not as bad as that?”

All too often, rising and presenting ourselves before the LORD, offering up everything we have and crying out to him for healing and transformation, is the sort of thing we do only after we’ve gone out and beaten up our rival with a baseball bat, burned down our husband’s house and filed a lawsuit against our obstetrician. Only after all those things don’t work, do we think, “Well, there’s nothing left to do but pray.”

But of course the things we turn to in order to make ourselves feel better might be a great deal more powerful than that. Great buildings, great nations, great corporations, great organizations are built on the desires of people to solve some problem, to address some wrong, to make all those scary things go away. We build great machines that can think faster than we can, that can do microsurgery at the cellular level, we train thousands of soldiers in the art of mass murder, we build multi-billion-dollar planes that can travel faster than sound and can vaporize whole cities. We build sanctuaries that soar into the sky and fill them with thousands of arm-waving believers. And never do we think, will this last? Can we really count on this?

I went to a lovely New Year’s Eve party, formal you know, catered you know, stately mansion on the water you know, beautiful people with sparkling glasses and sparkling diamonds, and I remember one woman saying with a sad kind of tone, “I wonder if the Romans partied like this.”

They’re gone, aren’t they? They with their undefeatable armies and their stately palaces, they with their chariots and mountains of wealth. Did they really think it was going to last? Did they really think what they had could be counted on in the long run?

Every day is the end of a world and the beginning of a new one. There will come a day when no church building stands on this spot, a day when it might very well be covered with salt water. There will come a day when our national monuments will be crumbling ruins, when our great machines rust under the ground, when our family names have been forgotten for generations. But God will still be there, and God’s word will still be there, and someone somewhere will be reading Jesus’ words, in some language none of us would recognize, “Do you see these great buildings?”

And someone somewhere will remember that Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord, and the prophet Samuel was his answer. And while they are remembering, will they remember the people that lived in the early twenty-first century in America? Certainly they won’t remember me or you, but maybe, just maybe they will remember us, the church, the people of God? Will they remember that we turned from the idols of our day and presented ourselves to the Lord, or will they list us with the ones that were led astray? Will they remember that we presented ourselves to the Lord, and will they remember how he answered us and turned the tide of history? Or will they remember that we never even asked?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

23 Pentecost B 09
November 8, 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." 5 She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Psalm 127
1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. 2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved. 3 Sons are indeed a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. 4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. 5 Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Hebrews 9:24-28
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Three Widows

Our scriptures today tell us about three widows, Ruth, Naomi and a nameless widow who lived over a thousand years after them.

Our remembrance today is nearly miraculous. We are remembering two people that lived over three thousand years ago and another two thousand years ago. This is the marvel of scripture.

All of you who like to remember the good old days will enjoy this one, because the story of Ruth is a story from the good old days. Not long after the time of Moses and Joshua, when the people of God had settled in the land, there was a period that is covered by the book of Judges. These indeed were the good old days. There was no king but God in Israel back then, no need of palaces or temples or cities. Israel was an tribal and agrarian nation who practiced among themselves a religion marvelous to behold.

From our point of view today, of course, there is probably a lot that is wrong with Jewish society in that period. But for the people of the day, their society could only be compared to the societies around them, which were all much, much more brutal and violent. It was also not a time of uniform faithfulness; there was a good bit of backsliding here and there, but these periods were relatively short-lived.

Among the unusual practices of the Jewish people in the time of the Judges was their hospitality to strangers. Another was their tender care for the weakest and poorest among them. So it was that when Naomi and Ruth and Orpah all lost their husbands while living in Moab, Naomi, a faithful Jew who knew her people would take care of her, decided to return to them. She urged Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law, to return to their mothers, as was apparently the custom in Moab. Orpah did so, but Ruth chose a different path.

“Where you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

A widow in the ancient world, particularly one without sons, was a deeply vulnerable person. One very consistent dimension of God’s personality as it is described in the Old Testament was his concern for widows, orphans and strangers. This concern is repeated again and again. God commands his people to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien sojourner at least twenty times in the Old Testament law. He promises blessings to those who do, and wrath to those who neglect them.

For example, we find in Exodus 22:

21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

And so it was that Boaz, a faithful Jew blessed with wealth, welcomed and cared for both Naomi and Ruth. Later in the books of the Kings, we hear the story of the widow of Zarephath, who, in the midst of the evil and unjust rule of Ahab and Jezebel, gives herself into the hands of the Lord by welcoming his prophet, and is sustained by a never-ending supply of grain and oil.

Interestingly enough, as it turns out, despite his wealth, Boaz himself was a man in need. In our story today, Naomi coaches Ruth in the art of seduction and sends her off to join herself in marriage to Boaz.

The faithfulness of these two widows, along with the faithfulness of Boaz, becomes the spring out of which pours Israel’s greatest king, David, and centuries later, David’s descendent, one Jesus of Nazareth.

Fast forward twelve hundred years, and we find Ruth’s descendent in critical opposition to the temple religion of Israel in his day. The good old days are long over. Israel has been deeply troubled and compromised for hundreds of years. I read a wonderful sermon that described this scene as if it were a movie made by a brilliant filmmaker.

It begins with a close-up of Jesus, teaching about the religion of the scribes, who were the bible teachers of Israel’s day, held in deep honor by all the people. They wore long and fancy robes and were always seated at the best places at the table. Among their duties, they often counseled people who were having financial difficulties, for a fee of course, and were even sometimes investors on behalf of their clients. In Jesus’ day, it appears that they were not above getting everything they could out of those who were most vulnerable. Jesus says, “They devour widows’ houses, and say long prayers for the sake of appearances.”

One black preacher titled her sermon on this story “Have You Got Good Religion?” Jesus is contrasting not the difference between faith and unbelief, but the difference between true religion and false. The people of Israel deeply respected their scribes and believed in their teachings. But Jesus is warning his followers that careful discernment must be exercised, as the teaching of the scribes was warped by their own unknowing hypocrisy.

It’s highly unlikely that the scribe got up every morning and thought, “Today I will be a religious hypocrite,” anymore than an addict gets up in the morning and says, “Today I will deliberately ruin my life.” The ministry of Jesus during his earthly life, as Hebrews tells us today, was directed at the problem of sin, and the reality of sin is that it is, as the twelve-step fellowships tell us, “insidious, baffling and powerful.” Most of us are blind to our own sin. We are blessed with the gospel accounts so that we might come to be able to remove the log from our own eyes, before we remove the speck from our neighbor’s. The sin of the scribe was not readily apparent; he appeared pious, successful, confident and authoritative. His prayers were long and beautifully constructed. He said all the things people expected religious leaders to say. How could he be wrong?

The shot then widens to show us that Jesus is sitting opposite the temple, observing it, while his disciples stand around him. The scene is busy and crowded. Near the temple wall are metal receptacles shaped like trumpets into which people toss coins as offerings to the temple treasury. We see elegantly garbed people—might some of them be the very scribes Jesus just finished describing?—tossing handfuls of heavy gold coins into the trumpets, and we hear the loud clanging of their descent.

But then, as if on cue, the camera zooms in on an old widow in tattered clothes, the very victim Jesus had just mentioned, making her way through the bustling crowd. At the trumpets she digs into her bag and withdraws two small copper pennies. She looks at them with a thoughtful expression, perhaps thinking of the meal they could buy her that day, a meal she will have to go without in order to make an offering to the Lord. At last, with a sigh, she drops her two coins into the trumpet and disappears into the crowd.

The shot shifts to Jesus watching her in amazement. He urgently calls his disciples to pay attention.

"Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

“Everything she had.” In the face of the terrible injustice she had suffered, she nevertheless continued to be faithful to God. In her offering, she becomes as Christ himself, believing and trusting in the face of every reason not to. And today, we remember her, and she lives again among us. Today she is our teacher.

I heard a story from Jim Perry, the chairperson of the Region’s Mission and Stewardship Committee, about a missionary to China that returned home to report to congregations. At one congregation, after he’d finished his presentation, someone asked, “What can we do to help?” The missionary responded, “It’s not they who need help from you. It’s you who need help from them.” He went on to explain how the congregations in China had been built in the midst of horrific persecution. They’d had to meet in utmost secrecy. They’d had to memorize the scriptures because it was too dangerous for people to own bibles. Yes, perhaps there are some things we have to share with them. But the missionary was also pointing out that there was an even more precious things they could share with a wealthy and complacent American congregation, passionate faithfulness.

Three widows have more to offer us than we have to offer them. And so it may also be for the whole church on earth. By seeking out and knowing those in the deepest need, we just might find the passionate faith we lack.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Saints Sunday Year B 2009

The Lost Sermon

I regret to say that somehow my sermon for All Saints, which was entitled "Coming Out of the Tomb" was both lost on my computer and from the pulpit where I'd left it on Sunday.

Below then are some excerpts from the last drafts before I finally edited the sermon.

All Saints B 09
November 1, 2009

Isaiah 25:6-9
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Psalm 24
1 The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. 5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation. 6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. 7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.

Revelation 21:1-6a
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "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; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

John 11:32-44
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." 40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Protestants don’t think they play the saint game. A lot of them will tell you that’s a Roman Catholic thing. But if you don’t think we play the saint game, I invite you to check out the hallway between the Fellowship Hall and the Sanctuary. Or just look at the door to the United Bible Study room, which bears a plaque which reads, “The Mildred Barnes Room.” Or go down to the bathrooms in the education wing, and see the pictures of Carl Prince that hang there.

Of course, we often also speak of living saints, people we know and love who seem to ooze the Holy Spirit, to have God’s power and grace just pouring out of their ears. But the tradition of All Saints Day is to celebrate the resurrection of saints, their ongoing power to be both in heaven and on earth after they have died.

Lazarus, for reasons that we are not told, was obviously deeply important to the many people whom we find mourning his death. We know from other passages in John, that the sisters Mary and Martha, and presumably their brother with them, were important disciples of Jesus and were a significant part of his community. There is another story that raises the image of a houseful of guests, Martha running around attending to them, Mary at the feet of Jesus. From this story we might imagine that this household was a meeting place for Jesus and his community, a place at which he frequently stayed, perhaps even a kind of headquarters for his movement.

The grief of the community at Lazarus’ death was profound. Even Jesus wept. The story seems to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death at the end of John’s gospel. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and Lazarus emerged from the tomb to rejoin the community that needed his presence so desperately.

When John of Patmos had his revelatory visions, he was seeing those who had given their lives in testimony to Jesus Christ’s eternal lordship over the whole earth. They had all been killed by earthly lords threatened by this seemingly inconsequential carpenter from Nazareth. John was calling them out of heaven to be present in the suffering churches to whom he was writing as a comfort and a hope.

We need to make a distinction here between going to heaven and resurrection from the dead. All who die, we believe, have some spiritual destiny beyond death. Many have testified after near-death experiences of a journey guided by dead loved ones to a place of light. Some of us also hold that there may be some terrible place, something like a burn pile, where those who have died in the grip of the demonic go. But neither the ascent into heaven nor the descent into hell is resurrection.

Resurrection and eternal life is the ability to continue to be active both in heaven and in the living world after one has died. It is not like the history of great men or women which simply associates a name with a change in history’s direction, as an answer to the question “Why are things the way they are now?” In fact, the more ordinary science of history, in a very real sense, began in Judaism and Christianity. It was the Jews who really began to consider the possibility that recording events for posterity might be useful in discerning bigger patterns in the ever-changing life of nations and peoples, patterns that might serve to warn and inspire their descendants.

But resurrection and eternal life is more than historical relevance. Jesus, while certainly historically relevant, is also actually present and alive among us in the present. And we believe and are committed to his being alive and among those who come after us, until the end of time. He was for us the first to achieve this resurrection, but he was not the last.

Of course, there is another dimension to resurrection, perhaps, and All Saints may carry this meaning as well. There have been millions of people who have served Christ in obscurity and anonymity throughout history, who have been content to shed their own names and to take on his. If not for all of them, if not for all their work, if not for their disciplined remembrance of those who had gone before them, none of us would be here now. Just as there is a tomb for the unknown soldier, so perhaps there is a resurrection of the unknown saints.

But I think most of us know that real resurrection, the real remembrance we all do together when we gather around the table of Jesus, is something quite special, granted only to those who went far beyond showing up and doing their parts.

So who would we like Jesus to call out of the tomb this morning? Who should continue to be present among us as we gather on Sunday morning? Whom would we like loosed from heaven to share with us some crucial teaching or insight, something we must continue to remember in order to be faithful to Christ and his mission?

Far be it from me to name the names of Philippi’s saints. It’s not my choice that matters. This is a matter for the church, the assembly of believers, and not for any one person. Who do you propose and why?

(The congregation then called out names of those of Philippi's history whose influence is still felt.)

My list is not from this congregation. My list is from the whole church on earth. And it’s a short list. I made it up just from memory, and I suppose it demonstrates who in the history of the church continues to speak to me.

The first and most important name on my list is of course Jesus of Nazareth.

In addition, the ones that I see present among us this morning, alive, even though they have died, are Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Paul, Peter, John, James, John of Patmos, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lydia, Bartimaeus, Ananias, the beloved disciple, whoever he was, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anthony, Jerome, Thomas Becket, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Carl Zwingli, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Jonathon Edwards, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa.