She Who Believed in a Fulfillment: Sermon by Laura, 12.20.14, Advent 4C

Scriptures:  Luke 1:39-56, Micah 5:2-5a

 God nudged me the other day. It was very gentle, a little burst of warmth and awareness somewhere between my mind and heart, and suddenly there was a new idea,a motivation to do something that hadn’t been there before. Do you ever get nudges from God? Author Margaret Feinberg, calls them “God whispers.” She writes, “God is big. [God] could use anything to communicate with [God’s] people…[God] could fill the sky with a Star Wars presentation,leaving messages beaming in the atmosphere for hours…But…[God] takes a much more subtle approach. Instead of shouting, [God] whispers…Why? Because God is not as interested in imparting information as [God] is in a relationship.”[1]

The God-whisper I experienced was indeed about a relationship, as they usually are,about my relationship with God or with others,which amounts to the same thing. In this case, God suggested I contact a friend with whom I haven’t really connected in 10 years. I’d been rereading old journals, in which God revealed to me how this friendship made a difference for me during a particularly hard time. This friend gave me acceptance and wisdom which invited me to a new awareness of myself in God.

As this truth became clear, deep inside me, the Spirit wondered, “Does she know she had such an impact on you? Perhaps today’s the day to bless her with your gratitude.” My response to this nudge was a little thing—just a Facebook message!—and my friend hasn’t yet responded. I have no idea how it will affect her, or how it fits into God’s larger plan, but in receiving and responding to God’s whisper, my eyes have been opened in a new way to appreciate God’s gracious provision of friends who offer welcome and wisdom.

Of course, God didn’t just whisper to Mary. She got an angelic visitation with a big picture promise of the impact she would have in her willing participation with God’s call upon her life: “You will conceive and give birth to a son…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and…his kingdom will never end.”

A spectacular message for certain! But God also knows that the scope of Mary’s calling to be the mother of Christ means she will need especially sturdy companions to help her stay the course. At the end of his message, Gabriel gives Mary a little hint, a nudge: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary wisely responds “with haste,” heading straight to Elizabeth’s door. This was a significant undertaking—the hill country of Judea would have been an 80-100 mile journey for Mary, a teenage Jewish girl on her own in an occupied territory. She needed strong motivation to make that trip.

What is going on in Mary’s mind and heart The signs of her pregnancy are not yet visible, so I don’t think she’s primarily motivated by the not-unfounded fears of becoming a village outcast in her unmarried, pregnant state, or being rejected by her fiancée, Joseph. But more immediately, Mary has a need to share her incredible story with someone who might understand, even a little, what it means to have accepted God’s strange and wonderful calling. Mary needs a friend.

The good news is that God has already been at work to provide just the friend Mary needs. As one author writes, “In truly stunning fashion, God orchestrates Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies six months apart. It is a testament to God’s care and provision that each woman has someone to journey with as she navigates the peculiar seasons in which she finds herself. The gift of a believing community can make all the difference in the form our challenging waiting seasons take.”[2]

Elizabeth offers Mary the priceless gift of friendship, welcoming her to a safe haven, not just accepting Mary in her present state, but rejoicing in Mary’s faithfulness, offering wisdom from the broader perspective of her longer faith journey even as she remains present with the new thing happening in Mary’s life. Elizabeth is for Mary a “believing mirror,” recognizing, naming, and reflecting Mary’s power, strength and beauty back to her.[3]

Whenever we say “yes” to God’s invitation to whatever creative and transforming work God wants to do in us, whether birthing a baby or a work of art, starting a business or shaping a community, the companionship of such “believing mirrors” is vital. These are friends who not only affirm and reaffirm the value of the calling upon us but who also strengthen our courage, energy, and capacity to pursue the call.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” says Elizabeth, offering Mary the powerful gift of believing with her that God will do what God has promised. In the warmth of Elizabeth’s friendship, Mary moves more profoundly into her calling. Elizabeth’s prophetic blessing draws forth Mary’s powerful song of praise for the Redeemer and Restorer who scatters the proud and uplifts the lowly, who indeed fulfills the promises made to God’s people, generation upon generation. What an amazing moment in scripture, when two obscure pregnant women on the margins of their world, become aware of themselves as powerful prophets at the center of the eternal story, agents of God’s blessing for all humanity. These women, these holy friends, bless each other, giving each other “shelter and sanctuary” even as they free each other to “imagine and live into a world made new.”[4]

My friends, in this Fourth week of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth invite us to reflect on the people who have walked with us in our faith journey, people who have offered us welcome and acceptance and blessing. As we wait on God’s promises in Jesus Christ, God provides us with the sustenance of friends and communities to encourage and strengthen us. In such friendships, we practice sharing ourselves and our stories, risking vulnerability and receiving grace. They pattern us in daring to trust and receive the steadfast welcome and wisdom of friendship with God, the fulfillment of God’s covenant to God’s people.

Even further, the holy friendships God brings us not only bless who we are in this moment, but invite us to imagine something greater, a yet-greater outpouring of ourselves in love for God and God’s world. We are blessed by such friends so that we may in turn be sent as a blessing for others.

Friendship. In one light, it seems such a small and ordinary thing. Yet in our world these days, where ugly divisions and debates claim all the airwaves, a current of fear seems to cling to us, and we are often tempted to despair, I can think of little we need more than people who offer of themselves the kind of acceptance and welcome, affirmation and blessing Elizabeth and Mary give each other. These two women provide an example of the life-giving hope God provides us in the friendships God brings us, especially friendships across differences of circumstances and generations.

It is not always easy to offer our friendship. It often feels messy and awkward. Children trying to navigate the ins and outs of school-yard friendships remind us that bravery is often necessary in learning to communicate our God-given authenticity to others and in trusting it will be graciously received.

Yet I am proud to say that this congregation is a place where we have the privilege of witnessing such friendships being offered on a weekly basis between women and men and children who are related through Christ and care deeply, not only for the old friends they know well, but for the new friends they haven’t met yet.

So in these last days of Advent, amidst the busy-ness of preparing Christmas for you and yours, consider this a holy nudge, a God-whisper, inviting you to notice and give thanks anew for the friends God has brought into your life. Who are your “believing mirrors,” who are the people whose blessing enriches your life?  Notice, too, how you are being invited to offer such blessed friendship to others. For whom might you serve as a believing mirror, as a welcoming sanctuary? Ask God this week to open your eyes to someone you may normally have passed over; how might God be inviting you to offer friendship to that person?

The One who comes to us through Mary, the babe to whom she gives birth and lays in a manger, is the One who says to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” My friends, you who are friends of God, let us receive Christ’s friendship and let us share it with the world he loves. Amen.

 

[1] Margaret Feinberg, God Whispers: Learning to Hear His Voice. Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2002, 21.

[2] Enuma Okoro, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2012, 67.

[3] http://juliacameronlive.com/2011/09/26/week-3-task-believing-mirrors/

[4] Jan Richardson, “Introduction,” in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015, xiv-xvii.

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One Thing: Sermon by Laura, 10.11.15 Pentecost 20B

Scriptures: Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16

In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Mitch, played by comedian Billy Crystal, is a 40-ish radio ad salesman in midlife crisis, whose friends have brought him on a Western cattle drive “vacation,” hoping to reignite some inspiration in their lives. The movie’s pivotal scene comes when Mitch is helping Curly, a grizzled old cowboy played by Jack Palance, round up some missing cows. Curly turns to Mitch and says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”
“Your finger?” says Mitch, perplexed.
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says….
Mystified, Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’”
With an enigmatic smile, Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”

One thing. Just one thing. A man interrupts Jesus’ journey, kneeling before him to ask a burning question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text says Jesus looks at him, loves him, and—I’m imagining this part, but can’t you just see him holding up a Curly-esque finger?—says to the man, “You lack one thing.”

One thing. You lack one thing. How ironic, since, by any of the world’s standards for measuring abundance or blessing, this man seems to lack nothing. Wealth then, as now, was understood as a sign of God’s blessing upon individuals or nations. To have many possessions is to lack nothing necessary for the comfort of oneself and one’s family, but also for achieving status as a societal patron with the power to influence culture and politics; and how much more likely is one whose needs are not only met but exceeded to be able to rigorously keep the commandments!

But Jesus looks at this man and sees differently. Mark’s words are simple but moving: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

Yet Jesus’ loving focus on the man also brings to mind today’s Hebrews text, about the living, active, piercing word of God:  sharper than any sword, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart, so that “no creature is hidden but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Jesus’ sharp gaze sees not only the man’s status, but also his sincere longing to be faithful, his deep yearning to participate ever more fully in the goodness of God. It is from such love that Jesus issues the man an invitation: “Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

These words were shocking and grieving to that man, as they are no less shocking and grieving to those who today have many possessions. And while Jesus issues this particular invitation to a specific individual, so that we are hopeful it doesn’t apply to us, just after the rich man sadly walks away, Jesus turns his keen eyes on all his disciples and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

Christians over the centuries, desiring to be both faithful and prosperous, have wrestled long and hard with this text. There are two classic ways interpreters have tried to wriggle out from under Christ’s loving but pointed gaze by making its message too simple. On one hand, we reduce what Jesus is saying to “Poor people good, rich people bad.” This gives us permission to do what we do so often, compare our wealth to those who have more than us. Clearly, Jesus isn’t talking to us, because we have so little compared to the 1%. And if we believe we are on the poorer end of the scale, we get to feel a little virtuous, feeling entitled to tell people who hoard their riches, “Good luck getting through the eye of a needle!” whilst we secretly envy them.

On the other hand, we try to tame Jesus’ hyperbole. There was a time when church scholars regularly taught that there had been a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which it was difficult, but not entirely impossible for camels—and therefore wealthy people—to pass through. Often the preacher would then suggest that if said wealthy people put a bit more in the church’s coffers, they’d be assured safe passage through the tight gate to eternal life.

Of course, there never was such a gate, and both reductions of Jesus’ message reveal that we are just as misunderstanding about the God’s kingdom as that poor little rich man.

“Good teacher,” the man says of Jesus, and we, like him, think we know what is “good.” Surely it is “good” to purchase every comfort or influence events with our monetary power. But Jesus says only God is good. The things we have and the power we exercise are only “good” to the extent that they partake of the God who alone is good.

We also, like the rich man, tend to think we are capable of assuring for ourselves ultimate security and abundance, both in this age and the age to come. “What must I do,” he asks, unable to see that eternal life might not be something he can procure for himself, even in his prosperity and lawful obedience.

Finally, we, like the man, misunderstand the kind of inheritance God gives us in Jesus Christ.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. The word “inherit” suggests the experience of waiting and receiving from someone with whom there is a history of relationship, a kinship. To the extent that we honor the one from whom we inherit, we assume a responsibility for stewardship. In an inheritance, the relationship is key.

With “abstract wealth,” however, those ties are severed; we claim ownership of our possessions detached from relationships and unaccountable to anyone but ourselves. As one scholar notes, “The rich man thinks he wants inheritance, but what he wants is an eternal form of abstract wealth. He soon discovers that God does not give gifts that are detached from God’s own self…”

Jesus invites us, like the rich man, to consider how our abundant “goods” have become an obstacle to inheriting and receiving what we really yearn for, not abstract “goods” but the Good which God alone can give. How does our wealth distort our relationships with God and to others? How have we sought to provide for ourselves, by means of monetary power and accumulation of things, the abundant life that God alone can provide?

What is the one thing, just one thing, which makes our lives here and now and forever abundant with joy? I know how many of us here are all too aware how our possessions can begin to possess us! Our home is no exception to the clutter conundrum, a pandemic unleashed on the earth by consumer capitalism.  So recently I tried out a de-cluttering method from an international bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Kondo helps people in her native Japan shape the life they long for by teaching them how to discard and store their stuff.

Her method is pretty simple: go through your stuff, category by category, hauling out everything into a big pile, and then taking each piece in your hands, asking yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If you feel a thrill of joy holding the item, keep it. Otherwise, thank it for its service to you and let it go.

I began, as Kondo recommends, with my clothes. Now, I am by no means a clothes horse, but just as Kondo predicted, I was stunned to see the heap of clothing I actually had. I managed to cull four large garbage bags of clothing from my collection, though I was a bit worried seeing how much I was letting go: “What will I wear? If I rely only on joy, will there really be enough?”

That right there is more than a purely practical question, isn’t it? Somehow de-cluttering my clothing became a practice that got right at my fears of scarcity, revealing my lack of trust in the true source of joy. Waking up to my fear, I chose to trust and let go, giving thanks for the abundance I had received; and sure enough, a new and joyful freedom in dressing emerged.

It’s a pretty simple example, but I think Kondo’s method is effective because, beyond the desire to have a tidy home, it taps into our greater longing for joy and gratitude,  without which the most luxurious things become nothing more than clutter collecting dust.

Gratitude and joy go together. As Benedictine Brother David-Steindl-Rast writes, “We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it…”

My friends, what is the one thing you lack, the deepest yearning of your hearts? And what in your life has become clutter, standing between you and the truly abundant life? Maybe it’s a pile of things collecting dust, but maybe it’s also your fears and insecurities, your distrust of anything but what you can count in your pocketbook, your home, or your heart. Maybe it’s a long-burning anger or grudge, or maybe there’s grief that’s never been experienced and released.

Today is the day to look at your life with the sharp and loving gaze of Christ, to see the things, habits, attachments and attitudes, holding you back from full reliance on God, to let go with gratitude, trusting you will inherit the one thing necessary a life of joy that comes only from the Giver of all Good things, not only in the eternal future but starting here and now, as we lean deeply into Christ’s love,  and we receive with gratitude the grace and mercy of our God of impossible possibilities.

“You lack one thing,” Jesus says, pointing the man and us toward liberating generosity which restores relationship with God and others, rooted in gratitude and fruiting in joy. My friends, let us practice gratitude that we own nothing, not even ourselves. We belong to the God who created us, who invites us to receive a joy we can scarcely imagine, as we follow Jesus the Christ and we partner with the Spirit in sharing ourselves generously with a world profoundly in need of God’s love.  Amen.

Sources:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101587/quotes, with obscenity removed for church consumption.

Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3699

Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective,” in, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 310.

David Steindl-Rast, quoted from Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast by Brene Brown at http://brenebrown.com/2012/05/24/2012523it-is-gratitude-that-makes-us-joyful-html/

Wise and Thankful Living: Sermon by Keith, 8.16.15, Proper 15B/Ordinary 20B/Pentecost 12

(This sermon was delivered at Worship in the Woods, at Westminster Woods Camp, during our annual joint worship with Pendleton First Presbyterian Church).

It is my understanding that Pastor Roger has been preaching on Ephesians for a while now, putting me somewhat at a disadvantage.  The joy of preaching or studying a book of the Bible, especially one from Paul, is seeing and experiencing how the passages build upon each other.  I looked forward to hearing Roger wax eloquently as he delved into the passage and how these words speak to the greater message found in Ephesians and affects our lives today.  But it was not to be so.  When Roger called last week and let me know about his grandson’s surgery, I couldn’t say no to his request that I preach today.  But I decided that since he got to miss out on preaching on this section, I’d like the good folk from Pendleton to make a request of Roger when he returns home.  Now give him a few days to get settled back into things, but ask him to preach on the next section of Ephesians.  If you know your Bibles, you might know that the next section is the “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and just as important, “Husbands, love your wives.”

Our reading from Ephesians 5:15-20

I recently heard a definition about wisdom that I think helps us grasp what the writer of Ephesians, who, for the sake of argument, we will assume is the Apostle Paul, is talking about when he wants us to live as wise people, especially this time of year: “Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.”

That is the kind of wisdom living he is talking about.  And with that wisdom, Paul is calling us to be careful.  Now, what is usually translated “live” could more accurately be translated “our living walk.”  Paul is saying “Look how you walk:”  Keep your eyes peeled as you walk, because these days are evil.  The word “careful” here modifies the word “walk,” not “look.”  Basically, watch where you step.  Paul is commanding his audience to keep their eyes wide open, so they can walk carefully in this evil age.  The first reaction to these words might be a paranoid approach to life, peeking around corners and through drawn curtains, but that is not at all the picture Paul paints later in this verse.  A careful walk through life, in fact, results in an intoxicating joyful life full of song, thanksgiving, and healthy relationships.  But we will look at that a little closer later.

For now, Paul fleshes out what careful walking looks like.  Because the eyes are wide open as one walks carefully through a treacherous world, the believer can take advantage of opportunities he or she may encounter along the way.  Paul doesn’t talk about avoiding pitfalls, or give a long list of those pitfalls that might be encountered while living in the evil days.  Paul deals with some of those pitfalls earlier in Ephesians as he delves into what it means to live into the new life of Christ.  But, instead Paul puts a more positive spin on wise living.  Wise living involves recognizing, seeing, and making the most of the opportunities that are encountered daily.

Again, Paul doesn’t give a list of the kind of opportunities he is talking about, but from the overall letter, we can deduce he isn’t talking about business opportunities or waiting for the best buy at Walmart, even though the word “making the most” is a word from the Greek found in commercial transactions.  What I think Paul is talking about is that when the culture may be trying to lull us into living the same way that everyone else does, we need to be alert to those moments when we can exhibit unique Christian living.  He doesn’t mean keep a sharp lookout for cheap real estate during a recession, what he means is keeping a watchful eye open to avoid the evil of the day and to be ever on the lookout for where God is being active in the world because that is where God’s kingdom will be found and experienced.  Direct your walking towards those God moments in which we can join God in his love and grace.

That means living wisely is understanding what the Lord’s will is.  Throughout Ephesians, Paul has written a lot describing God’s great cosmic purposes for everyday living, Thus, Christians should know both what God is doing in the world and how we should respond in our everyday living.  Paul’s call to paying attention to walking wisely is tied directly to understanding the will of the Lord.  The temptation is to just drift along with the current of the culture, where the will of the culture overtakes the will of the Lord.  Paul is calling us to pay attention so that doesn’t happen so that we can live and experience the Kingdom of God.

So, how can we live wisely in a foolish and evil world that wants to grab hold of our attention and pull us along its currents?  Paul give a profound answer—“be filled with the Spirit.”  What does that mean?  Paul uses what I think is an interesting analogy.  It’s like being drunk on wine.  I don’t think he includes this prohibition on getting drunk because it is such a great sin, because intoxication can and does cause great harm, but I think he includes this example because it is such a good comparison.  When you are drunk, you are under the influence of the alcohol and the more you drink, the more under that alcohol’s spirit you become.  Your speech slurs, your eyes roll, you stagger, your response time slows.  I think that is why it is called a DUI, driving under the influence.  You no longer are the one in charge, but the alcohol is the calling the shots.  And being under that control doesn’t last forever.  Once you sober up, you’ll have to drink again to come under the influence again.

It is somewhat similar to be filled with the Spirit.  Now, I believe that in our baptism, we all receive the Spirit once and forever.  But to be filled, to come under the influence of the Spirit, is an ongoing process.  Ironically, Paul doesn’t talk about what it takes to have a Spirit filled life in this particular passage.  I’m guessing he thinks you figured it out in the previous passages with what not to do: Don’t steal and slander.  And what to do:  worshiping together, having patience with one another, speaking the truth in love.  But what Paul does is describe a Spirit-filled life:  Speaking, singing and making music, and giving thanks.

Those who are filled with the Spirit speak to one another in a distinctive way—with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.   Now, don’t ask me what that exactly means because I’m not going to walk up and belt out Amazing Grace when I see you on the street.  But it maybe how we talk with each other as we talk to God in worship.  What a wonderful way to think about our walk and worship with God—not grim duty, not reluctant reverence, not fearful distance, but heartfelt singing together.  Paul would seem to indicate that those who are filled with the Spirit are so overflowing with joy that if flows out into song, even if you are someone like me who has a tough time carrying a tune.  Music is made first in our hearts and then outflows with voice and instrument.

And not surprising, a Spirit filled life is a life full of gratitude.  It is the level and extent of the gratitude that is surprising.  Paul indicates that if the Spirit is in control of our thoughts and desires, we will give thanks always for everything.  Now, I will be the first to say that sometimes things can be so awful that I can’t give thanks.  Maybe Paul means we can give thanks in those times, but not for those times.  Yesterday, I did a funeral.  Many times we gave thanks for the life of the one who had died, we gave thanks to the Savior who now held her close in his arms, and we gave thanks that the pain was gone.  But she died.  Death is the great destroyer of relationships.  I can’t give thanks for death.  So I think a Spirit filled life that is full of thanks is wise enough to understand what is evil and what is the good work of God in our lives, even in the midst of tragedy.  And that Spirit filled life overflows not with complaint and dissatisfaction, but with thanksgiving.

This text, and a large portion of Ephesians, calls of to kind of living that will move people to ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us—carefully wise, always looking for opportunities to live for Christ, deeply in touch with the purposes of God in the world, but not in a way that alienates others but draws them into a relationship with Christ.  And in doing so, the Spirit will fill us with joy and gratitude, and creating relationships that demonstrate our closeness to God with hearts that overflow with song.  Amen.