Tuesday, October 23, 2012

it's a matter of trust

Sermon from October 14, 2012 (my first attempt at a stewardship sermon!) Here is a link to a recording of my sermon (only up temporarily).

Here are the readings (I chose Amos). I preached on Mark 10:17-31.


“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Amen.

Last week in Genesis we learned about how God made us stewards of creation. This week in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about being stewards of wealth. 

Now, even back then, money was not a comfortable topic, and you can practically see the disciples grimacing and groaning as Jesus broaches it. The whole discussion begins, as most of them do, while they are traveling on the road. A man comes running up and throws himself on the ground in front of Jesus. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17). Jesus replies with a summary of the commandments that deal with relationships between people. The man replies that he’s a faithful Jew; he’s kept the commandments his whole life. Jesus searches the man’s face and smiles, loving him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor...then come, follow me” (v. 21). At this point the man leaves dejected, “shocked...and grieving, for he ha[s] many possessions” (v. 22). 

Over the years, it seems the man in this passage has been painted as a miserly, Scrooge-esque character. After all, when Jesus lists the commandments, he changes “You shall not covet” to “You shall not defraud.” Apparently, the man has been stingy with his wealth. The man believes that he has followed the commandments, but perhaps not as closely as he thinks. It’s not that the man is rich that’s keeping him from eternal life. It’s that his wealth gets in the way of how he treats others, and therefore gets in the way of his relationship with God. “Jesus...discerns in the rich man’s wealth an obstruction to his participation in the dominion of God and calls him, for his own good, to abandon it and follow him” (Marcus* 723). As singer Billy Joel would say, “It’s a matter of trust.” 

Back in Jesus’ time, wealth was thought to be a reward from God for being faithful (this is why it is so shocking to his disciples when Jesus says that the wealthy have a hard time entering the kingdom of God). This idea of wealth as a reward has resurfaced recently in what is known as the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel claims that God wants us to be happy, so if we are truly faithful, then we will receive economic prosperity. But joy is not found in material wealth. True happiness is found by being in right relationship with others and with God. In today’s world, the idea of giving away all one’s possessions is counterintuitive. The whole concept of money and possessions is that they keep you wanting more. Bored with your wardrobe? Get the latest fashions! Missing the latest technology? Update to a newer model! Have a bad day? Fix it with retail therapy! I succumb to this over and over again. But the problem is that accumulating more things or more money does not replace the emptiness. Only God can fill that void. We are called to trust that God will provide for us, that God really will fill that void. 

“You lack one thing,” Jesus tells the man. What is the one thing you lack? What is the one thing that gets in your way of trusting God completely? For some of us, like the man in the story, it could be money or possessions. Or it could be holding grudges. Or maybe it’s guilt, busyness, self-consciousness, or pride. Whatever it is, Jesus is inviting us to let it go, to release its hold over us, and to follow him. 

“What must I do?” the man in the story asks. But the thing is, his question misses the point. There is nothing we can do. We cannot inherit eternal life on our own; the very word inherit implies this. Just as inheritances are given, so eternal life is given to us. It is God’s to give, not ours to earn. We trust that God will save a place for us. 

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the man in this passage. He seems to be genuine in his attempt to live a life of faith, to follow the commandments. And Jesus loves him for it, as a father loves his child. This is the only time Jesus is said to love anyone in Mark’s Gospel; it should give us hope! Jesus loves us when we try, even though we fall short--and we all fall short. None of us can follow all the rules, none of us can enter the kingdom. It’s impossible. But not for God. “[F]or God all things are possible" (v. 27). 

Most people think that the man walks away grieving because he realizes he is unable to give up his many possessions. But we actually don’t know what happens to him; the passage leaves his fate open-ended. Here again we find hope. There’s a chance that the man grieves for a while, then ultimately realizes that his possessions really aren’t making him happy. There’s a chance that he decides to let things go, trusting in the mercy and love that Jesus demonstrates time and time again. 

It is this trust that Jesus refers to in the section just before this passage, when he says that we can only enter the kingdom as little children. Children cannot provide for themselves; they must rely on their parents in order to survive. The man in this passage’s “...trust in delusive security afforded by his wealth prevents him from becoming a ‘child’ who relies exclusively on the [generosity] of the heavenly Father” (Marcus* 724). If he can only let go of his need to control his fate and trust that God will take care of him, then he will have removed his obstacle to eternal life. 

We are invited to examine our lives and see what is lacking. We are invited to explore what our priorities are and what we are able to let go of. We are fallen, but--in Jesus--God has torn down the barriers separating us from God. Listen: Jesus is reaching his hand out to us, calling us to follow him! Trust in him and enter the kingdom.  

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, ca. 1890

*Marcus, Joel. Mark 8-16. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2009. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

all creatures great and small

Sermonette from last Sunday (Oct 7, 2012). Here are the readings.

“The LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:18-19). 

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

We are gathered together today on this crisp fall morning to celebrate God’s glorious creation by sharing in the blessing of the animals. I’m guessing that many of you know that this tradition is a way we honor the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the man who began the order that came to be known as the Franciscans. He was born a wealthy man, but gave up his wealth to embrace “Lady Poverty” and her life of simplicity. Francis might be most well known for his love of animals. He is said to have organized the first Christmas manger scene, so the next time you see a nativity set or play, you can thank him for the inclusion of camels, donkey, sheep, and other animals. In fact, Francis loved animals so much that some legends say he preached to flocks of birds and even blessed a wolf that had been terrorizing a village (don’t worry; he only blessed the wolf after he set up an arrangement between the wolf and the villagers). As silly as some of these stories sound, the point is that St. Francis recognized the true gift animals are in our lives. Not only do they bring us joy, they are some of life’s best teachers.

Growing up, my first pets were a pair of goldfish named Jack and Jill. Now, the two of them were pretty and all, but all they did was swim in circles; I couldn’t teach them tricks. What I really wanted was a dog. Being the oldest of four, I took it upon myself to make this petition to our parents. We had been begging them for years, but when I was 15 or 16 I decided to show them that I really meant it this time. I went to the library to research what breeds were good with children and what were the best methods of caring for and training them. When I presented my parents with what I had researched, they finally agreed to start looking for a dog. When we finally chose a dog, I, as the oldest, became in charge of taking care of him. Caring for Muddles taught me about responsibility and sacrifice. I woke up 30 minutes early every morning to feed and then play with him. Granted, it was more difficult in the winter months when it was bitterly cold outside, but it was worth it to spend time with him, watching him grow from a puppy to a full grown dog. 

Muddles also taught me about selfless love, forgiveness, and pure, unadulterated joy; he was always happy and excited to see me when I got home from school. I used to chase him or get him to chase me. Then I would fall down exhausted and play dead, which would cause him to come sniff my face and ears, which--of course--would tickle and cause me to laugh, which would make him bounce around gleefully, which would cause me to laugh harder. I treasure these happy memories. 

Another thing Muddles taught me about was the value of life. Unfortunately, our pets do not have the same life span as we do, and when that sad day comes, it is if we have lost a family member. One morning we woke up to find that Muddles had died in his little house, facing the back door. We went out back by the creek, dug a hole, and buried him in his blanket. Then each of us stood around his grave and shared our favorite memories of him. He had lived life to the fullest, and our lives were fuller because of him. 

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear from the second creation story. In this account, God creates Adam first, and then all the other creatures. Did you notice that when Adam needed a helper as his partner, God did not immediately jump to Eve? Instead, God “formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air” (Gen. 2:18). I think that God realized how much we get from their companionship, how much we can learn from them. You see, when we care for animals, we learn how to care for each other better. St. Francis said it best: “If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”* The love we show our pets is a model for the love we have for one another, and a window into the love Christ has for us.

On this day of animal blessings, pause for a moment and think about the animals that are or have been a part of your life. Think about their sloppy greetings, the gifts they leave on the back porch, the joy they bring you. Even if you’ve never had a pet, you can still marvel at the beauty of God’s creatures: the graceful flight of the cranes at sunset, the adorable baby giraffe and sea lion at the zoo, the cows grazing peacefully in the pastures. God knew that we needed animals in our lives. Our world would be incomplete without them and our lives are richer because of them. And for that, we give thanks. 

My dad and Muddles

*You can find the St. Francis quote here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

experiencing eternity

On a day when I will have visited both someone leaving this world and someone who just entered it, I found today's meditation particularly relevant:

     "Eternity is not endless time or the opposite of time. It is the essence of time.
     If you spin a pinwheel fast enough, then all its colors blend into a single color--white--which is the essence of all the colors of the spectrum combined.
     If you spin time fast enough, then time-past, time-present, and time-to-come all blend into a single timelessness or eternity, which is the essence of all times combined.
     As human beings we know time as a passing of unrepeatable events in the course of which everything passes away including ourselves. As human beings, we also know occasions when we stand outside the passing of events and glimpse their meaning. Sometimes an event occurs in our lives (a birth, a death, a marriage--some event of unusual beauty, pain, joy) through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about, and this glimpse of what 'it's all about' involves not just the present but the past and future too.
     Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity. God, as Isaiah says (57:15) 'inhabiteth eternity' but stands with one foot in time. The part of time where he stands most particularly is Christ, and thus in Christ we catch a glimpse of what eternity is all about, what God is all about, and what we ourselves are all about too."

~Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner

 Image of pinwheel galaxy found here.