[sermon] birth pangs

hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 (NRSV)
and every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. but when christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of god,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. and the holy spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “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,” he also adds, “i will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of god, 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. let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 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 (NRSV) as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” then jesus asked him, “do you see these great buildings? not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

when he was sitting on the mount of olives opposite the temple, peter, james, john, and andrew asked him privately, “tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” then jesus began to say to them, “beware that no one leads you astray. will come in my name and say, ‘i am he!’ and they will lead many astray. when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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 birthpangs.

today is the twenty-fifth sunday after pentecost–the twenty-fifth sunday of a long period of time in the church year we call “ordinary time.” this long, long, long period of the life of the church between our celebration of the birth of the church at pentecost until our season of advent begins to prepare us to watch and pray for the coming of our messiah.

i have good news–this season of ordinary time will soon be drawing to a close as we begin advent–with the lighting of candles, the sharing of the call of mary to bear god in her womb, joseph’s acceptance of his call in the holy family–through the season of advent we will wait with mary as her belly grows large with child–we will wait with her as she waits.

so technically, at this moment, we are waiting to wait. we are perched on the precipice of a new season–next sunday is christ the king sunday, and the one following that is the first sunday of advent. we are entering into what is called a liminal space. 

to be liminal means to be betwixt and between two things. now wholly one thing nor another. for example–in cultures that have a coming of age ceremony: in the last stage of childhood, in some cultures, a boy is sent out into the wilderness and told to wait for his spirit animal to come to him. he is to wait, alone, in the wilderness until this happens–then he is to come home and tell the tale. it is then that he is eligible to go through the ritual that will make him a man. while he is in the wilderness he is neither a boy, nor a man. he has left what it means to be a boy behind in the village–and while waiting for his spirit animal to make itself known to him, he is also not yet a man. he is betwixt and between. not a boy, not a man, but something in the middle–a mix of the two and a third thing altogether. 

and so we are here at the end of this ordinary time. we are leaning toward christ the king sunday next week, looking toward advent. we are waiting to wait.

and the lectionary readings for this last part of the ordinary time season are perplexing ones to choose just before advent. the writer of the hebrew’s passage reminds us that christ’s sacrifice is the new law that replaces the old law of reconciling sacrifice. in the old covenant sacrifices were made over and over again, but christ, in offering of his body, then sat at the right hand of god and ending sin.

that passage ends with a plea for those following jesus’ teachings to not stop meeting together–urging those who hear these words to continue to seek unity together, to love one another and encouraging one another–all because of christ’s example in love shown most clearly through his sacrifice. it is a bit perplexing that the epistle lesson would be on christ’s sacrifice when we are waiting to wait for jesus to be born!

and again in the gospel text for this morning, from mark, we read that jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple (perhaps after pausing to reflect on the widow that jesus had drawn their attention to), and one of the disciples asks “aren’t the stones in these buildings amazing?” (don’t forget, these disciples were predominately galilian men-from down near the sea of galilee, not the big city of jerusalem–if you don’t see skyscrapers very often, you are likely to be in awe each time! so too with the expanse of the temple!) and jesus replies that not one of those impressive stones will remain untoppled–he is predicting the destruction of the physical temple, but also the destruction of the temple that is his body. it seems a peculiar reading to have here at the precipice of advent.

liminal spaces can be peculiar. they are mysterious places where uncertainty hangs out. a place where there tend to be more questions than answers–and everything is muddled into a a mix not seen before. 

this liminal space is like the end of a long pregnancy–where perhaps the baby is a little overdue. the mother of the liturgical seasons is heavy with child–that of the coming advent–these stories of jesus’ prediction of his suffering and the author of hebrews reminding us of that sacrifice–these are the beginnings of the labor pains for the next season. we are laboring, but not yet in labor.

we are in that confusing space between seasons and in-between time–almost in-between drought and flood with the quick turn around on rain after months of dry, at the in-between of hot summer weather and cooler fall weather, the seasons seeming to not quite make up their mind. in some traditions they began observing an extended advent last week–and yet a lot of churches and traditions still have some time to go before that liturgical season.

it seems that a lot of the world is feeling some sort of labor pain these days, too. the recent attacks in paris, the ongoing bombing in syria, continued violence in our cities and towns in the united states–the violence wrought through angry words and put downs of our family, friends or co-workers. the church was filled yesterday with those morning the loss of aleta duff–the labor pain of her rebirth into new life felt by those who now miss her presence here among us. 

we feel the pain of violence and oppression, we feel the pain of grief and loss, we feel the pain of change–but instead of shying away from this liminal time and space, instead of medicating these labor pains so we cannot feel them these scripture lessons today are inviting us not turn away but to feel that pain. 

growing up as an athlete i learned quickly the difference between good pain and bad pain. there is that tenderness that comes from a long and hard workout–that special kind of all over sore at the beginning of training season, where you rediscover muscles you forgot about in the off season–you learn if it is sore-pain, or if it is injury-pain. 

sore-pain you stretch out. you drink more water to dissolve the built up lactic acid and gently move the muscles, giving them space to heal and strengthen. injury-pain is different. you immobilize, you take the weight off and be still to allow for healing. 

the pain of this liminality –of being between liturgical seasons, being almost-between pastors, of funerals, and aching bodies, uncertainty in our world and in our community–this is not injury-pain. this is sore-pain. this is the laboring before the labor–when we stretch our muscles and drink enough water–when we go for walks to loosen up our joints. we cannot ignore these birth pangs–we cannot medicate them away, but rather must focus our attention and energy at the source of the pain.

these perplexing lectionary readings make more sense in the focus of waiting to wait–of laboring before the labor. jesus predicting the destruction of the temple (and thereby also his death and subsequent resurrection) remind us of the promises of god through the god’s son the messiah. it is good to be reminded, during the birth pangs, that there is beauty and truth coming at the climax of all of this pain. 

the hebrews passage today remind us in this liminal time of birth pangs that as followers of christ we are to remain united in our love and care for one another. the creators of the lectionary are showing us in this awkward in-between time reminders of what we will begin journeying toward during advent and into christmastide. 

what is the sore-pain that you are experiencing? what is happening in this seasonal liminal space for you? for the community and the church that could use some stretching out? what are the ways you are choosing to medicate sore-pain instead of feeling it, stretching it, drinking enough water and letting that sore place heal? 

this liminal space between ordinary time and advent is the time to actively wait on the waiting of advent. let this space be one of preparing for waiting with mary as she grows god in her belly. this liminal time is a holy time to renew our commitment to the unity of the community.

i invite you to cast away the medication of too much television or too much food. that medication of pushing feelings away and not feeling the awkwardness, anger or sadness. and let the feelings come. and if they get to be too much, reach for a friend to join you–we are all in this liminal: in-between space together–waiting to wait, laboring to labor. 

thanks be to god, amen.

what about the widow’s mite?

a sermon offered to solcum union church and first united methodist church of elkhart, texas. a different view of a text typically offered as a stewardship campaign–turned on its head.

mark 12: 38-44 as he was teaching, he said, “watch out for the legal experts. they like to walk around in long robes. they want to be greeted with honor in the markets. they long for places of honor in synagogues and at banquets. they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. they will be judged most harshly.

jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. many rich people were throwing in lots of money. one poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. jesus called his disciples to him and said, “all of them are giving out of their spare change. but she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”

when a story is narrated in the same way over and over again we begin to adopt that narrative as what is true–even if perhaps there were tweaks, stretching or editing of the truth and even pure untruths have made their way into the telling of the story. sometimes this is harmless–like a ghost story of an abandoned building children tell each other, tall fishing tales, or when a novel or movie is “based on a true story”. taking artistic license or sweetening of the story-telling plot can be a beneficial thing, for sure.

the story of the widow’s mite to many of us who have been attending church services for a lot of our lives, may be a familiar piece of scripture. we learn about her as children, this story being one of those stories deemed good for children (like noah’s ark, too) that confuses me as to why it is chosen for delicate ears. most often with the main point of the telling of this story to chide congregations and individuals into tithing more, or adding more to their “second-mile giving.”

in the prosperity gospel tradition (which i will name here as heresy and abuse of trust), this widow and her two coins equaling only one penny is used to narrate what that tradition refers to as “planting your seed.” that false notion of planting your over and beyond gift of money to a certain church, or more often than not, a certain “pastor” (and i’m using quotes there on purpose)and if you pray just right, and give just the right amount THEN god will bless you. let me name again, that is abuse, friends.

these tellings of the stories of the widow’s mite are helpful for making an emotional and guilt educing plea during a stewardship or building campaign, with the preacher saying “see, brothers and sisters, even this poor widow-woman gave her last two coins–only totaling one penny–and so much more can you do!”

i am here to tell you that that is not the whole story. we have lost the point.

to be a widow in any age is a difficult role in life. to lose your partner to sickness or accident is a burden that many have carried with broken hearts and empty hands throughout the ages. we hear of stories of one spouse passing away, and the other following not long after–their friends and family saying that they died of a broken heart–missing their partner’s presence and love in their lives so much that their own hearts cease to beat.

added to the pain of losing a partner, in the time of jesus’ ministry, to be a widow had many other life-threatening implications, too. women were not able to own property. even if this widow’s spouse had owned half of judea and successfully farmed figs for their entire lives–his passing meant that she no longer had anyone to take care of her financially. after his passing the land would have passed to a son, a brother, a cousin, a close male friend. almost never to a woman. even if the land had belonged to HER father, and together they farmed olives for thirty years would the land be passed to her–when her husband passed she lost all connection to that land unless whomever it was given to decided to take it upon themselves to help her.

no land, also means no home. again–it could be that the kindness of the new landowner (most likely family of some sort) would allow her to stay in her home–but it very well could be that she wasn’t welcome there any more. no land. no home. and no way to make money.

i wonder if jesus knew her name. surely he did. does.
i wonder if the disciples took the time to know her name.
what about the rich men who were putting their spare change in the box? did they even see her?

what i hope for this widow–and the reality of her story that has been over looked for so long–is that she died with dignity. these were her last two coins–equaling, i’ll say again, only one penny.
and the last thing that jesus says in this reading is “…she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” everything she had. everything she needed to live on.

jesus doesn’t tend to speak in hyperbolic statements–at least not by my best reading of the gospels. so if he says that this is all she has, it is a safe bet that this is a literal statement. she walked out of that temple with everything she most likely owned on her back–whatever clothes she had, and that was it.

this sort of gives me the heebie-jebies, friends.

i spent a few years living among some pretty abject poverty in east africa. i have seen and touched and smelled what it is to literally have nothing but the clothes on your back and to be starving to death, with no hope of coming back from that brink. i have known people whose entire worldly possessions consisted of a blanket, a hat and a cup. a cup they hoped to have filled by the kindness of strangers.

so i wonder what it means for preachers to laud this widow for giving away everything she had but the clothes on her back to the temple. do i hold that up and ask you to be like that? when it very well could be that she was distributing the last of her property so she could quietly slip away and starve? do we celebrate this? do we put our hand over our eyes and weep?

the first part of the reading for this passage tends to be ignored by those preaching stewardship sermons about this widow. but the gospel of mark has jesus, already in the temple and teaching, calling out the legal experts of the day. right before the narration of the widow jesus says to beware of the legal experts because “they are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. they will be judged most harshly.” they cheat widows out of their homes. hum.

the false piety of the legal experts and the religious institution that they lead is corrupt. the institution steals homes from widows rather than tending the least, last and lost–or as the psalm’s say serving a god who is the parent of orphans, and the protector of widows.

if you read backwards in mark you see that in the days preceding this time in the temple, jesus has spent a lot of time speaking against the political and economic injustice all around. he pokes fun at the overly fancy roman ways by processing into jerusalem on a humble donkey. he loses his mind, flips tables and clears the temple’s money changers out of the building with a whip and the most intense anger we see from him.

he keeps quiet when the chief priests, scribes and elders of the religious institution demand to know where his authority comes from–because they just cannot and will not believe that he has been sent by god. he offers scathing remarks on the religious leaders and taxes, and more!

so what is the deal with then turning around and saying that this widow is worthy of praise for giving the last of her possessions and shortening her life expectancy profoundly?

friends: he doesn’t. look at it again–we have heard this narrative so many times over so many years with false information tinting it the wrong color–jesus never celebrates this sacrifice. he does not tell the disciples that this is what true giving looks like. what he does is he sees her. he sees this widow, knows she is giving all she has, and asks his disciples to notice this and to see her, too.

i want to see jesus’ eyes as he watches her. i want to her his voice when he speaks to the disciples. he just preached about the leaders of the temple destroying widow’s houses and then a mostly-destroyed widow deposits the last of her earthly possessions (thereby participating in her own destruction!) literal moments later.

jesus has just drawn the attention of his disciples–and of us– to a trusting woman giving her all to an indefensible institution, one that refuses to protect the poor, refuses to protect her.

jesus saw her. and he asked his disciples and us to notice her. everyone else was “too busy, too grand, too spiritual, and too self-absorbed” to see her. it is nauseating to me that they didn’t see her. but the beauty is in the flip-side. jesus did. jesus saw her. he saw this “insignificant” and small, quiet and hidden woman.

he saw her courage. can you imagine moving through crowds of some of the richest of the rich to deposit the smallest currency in the land? that took courage. it took courage to give the very last pieces of security that she could have clutched in her palms until the very end.

jesus noticed her dignity.  surely she had to steel herself when widowhood rendered her worthless — a person marked “expendable” even in the temple she loved.   she had to trust — in the face of all the evidence piled up around her — that her tiny gift had value in god’s eyes.

and finally, jesus noticed her vocation. if she knew it or not, the widow’s action in the temple that day was a prophetic action.  she is a prophet– rejecting  injustice and corruption. without even saying a single word, she shouts wisdom in the ancient prohpetic tradition of isaiah, elijah, jeremiah…

this widow is also a messianic prophet, because her self-sacrifice comes before jesus’s sacrifice.  something that jesus noticed was his kinship with this prophetic woman,  her story a mirror of his.  she gave everything she had to serve a world so broken, it killed her–and just a few days later, jesus gave everything he had to redeem, restore, and renew that world, and it killed him, too.

and, if reading this time line right in the gospel correctly, jesus died just four days later.  i wonder if the widow did, too.

and, i wonder what it means that Jesus rose from death just three days after that. what does that mean for this prophetic widow and her death?
and, what does that mean for us, too?

thanks be to god, amen.

[sermon] all saint’s day: accidental saints

a sermon offered to solcum union church and elkhart first united methodist church for all saint’s sunday, 2015. inspired by rev. nadia bolz-weber‘s newest book _accidental saints_ and the week’s lectionary texts.

isaiah 25: 6-9 
psalm 24
revelation 21:1-6a
john 11:32-44

mother teresa, or teresa of calcutta, the founder of the missionaries of charity who most famously starting the home for the dying in india. she not only lived among the poorest of the poor, but she held them, touched them and loved them when all of society had cast them out. she has been beatified by the catholic church, meaning that she is in the process of being officially sainted in recognition of her selfless and giving life responding to what she called “the call within a call” when she adopted indian citizenship and moved into the slums.
saint francis of assisi believed that nature was the mirror of god, referring to animals as his brothers and sisters, preaching to the birds. francis founded the franciscian and clare orders, groups of men and women–orders that remain faithful today, living in apostolic poverty and preaching repentance. st francis is the patron saint of animals and ecology.

saint teresa of avila, who is a doctor of the church (which means she has “an extensive body of writings which the church can recommend as an expression of the authentic and life-giving Catholic Tradition”, sought to reform the order she had joined–noticing that the daily life of the sisters was interrupted by outside visitors, the hours of prayer not kept and a general lax attitude toward their vows she pushed back, eventually beginning a reformed order and writing many didactic collections to further individual’s lives of faith. a mystic, a contemplative, teresa spent her life seeking to not only draw closer to god, but to journey with others as they did as well.

saint augustine, one of the most prolific writers of the early fathers, whose philosophical and theological thought has deeply influenced christian thought in both eastern and western traditions taught against heresy, and was committed to a life of poverty, prayer and study.

saint peter is said to have been the first pope-“upon this rock i shall build my church,” jesus said of peter. a disciple and an apostle who left everything he had to follow jesus, who continued to teach the ways of christ after jesus’ ascension and was martyred by crucifixion for persisting in teaching christianity.

these five saints of the church are responsible for countless hours of prayer and devotion to god. they are responsible for countless acts of generosity and kindness to strangers. each of them rebelled and pushed back on the institutions they were a part of in the name of seeking reform and deeper holiness. these men and women are just a few examples of those humans who have dwelt among us who sought to be christ-like–altering their lives and devoting themselves to poverty and prayer. we are right to call them saints.

in our church calendar today we take a break from this long season of post pentecost ordinary time to observe all saint’s day. as reverend nadia bolz-weber (a lutheran pastor in denver, colorado) writes in accidental saints, this is the day “when the church recognizes how thin the veil is between life and death and remembers that the church includes all who have gone before us and now are glorified and all whom will follow, who are yet to be born.”*

in the united states, our anglo-culture does not do publicly morn or remember those who have died unless they are in some way famous, if they have served in the armed forces or are a national hero. but the church liturgy asks us to do something sort of strange today. it asks us to remember the saints who have lived and died, and to learn from their lives.

we have a lot to learn from mother teresa, saint francis, saint teresa of avila, saint augustine, and saint peter. their good acts i listed a moment ago are only but a few in their lifetimes of dedicated service and piety.

well, sort of.

what if i told you that even the most holy of those five humans was still, in fact, human? and not just that but had an anger problem? or a drinking habit? how about if i told you one of them had a lying problem? a moment ago i quoted reverend nadia bolz-weber’s newest book called accidental saints. in that moment i failed to mention the subtitle of this book, it is “finding god in all the wrong people.”*

mother teresa “shouldn’t” be a saint! we learned after her death that she doubted her faith her whole life. not to mention she was pretty sharp with her words with the sisters she lived and worked with.

saint francis was a notorious hot-head, he “shouldn’t” be a saint! his brothers were building a house that he found to be too opulent so he climbed onto the roof and started tearing apart with his bare hands!

saint teresa of avila had the gift of snark, she is said, once when annoyed with her fellow sisters prayed aloud “from silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good lord deliver us!”

saint augustine left the church as a youth to pursue education and philosophy–he infamously stole pears and is quoted as praying “lord give me chastity, but not yet!” he “shouldn’t” be a saint, right?!

and dear saint peter, surely you know his faults? one of the most glaring is that he was a terrible lie-er! on the night of jesus’ crucifixion he was asked, three times, “you’re a friend of jesus, right?” and his response was basically, “WHO? ME?! NOPE. NEVER HEARD OF HIM.”

and these are the saints of our church, ladies and gentlemen. snarky, lying,unchaste, angry, doubting thieves. while the good works, the bruised knees from hours of prayer and lives of chosen poverty are, indeed, to be applauded it is not their work that makes them saints. a true saint does not say “i am a saint” but that title, rather, is conferred upon them. the title of saint is not earned–you cannot put in your ten thousand hours and become a saint. what the saints show us, these five famous saints as well as those we know and love and miss from own community, is how god works through us and our lives.

the apostle paul, in philippians 2:13 says, “god is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.” you cannot boot-straps your way to sainthood with good old american grit, a firm jaw and tenacity. these things don’t hurt–but in doing our part, but it is the grace of god through the holy spirit moving through these human hearts and minds and hands that turns these lying, cheating, alcoholic, angry humans into accidental saints.

i wonder if you know any accidental saints? those people who have happened into their circumstances and situations and and somehow help others along the way. like someone with a wee bit of a drinking problem managing to get sober and help others on their journey to sobriety, too, who are equally kind and hostile.*

anthony de mello, a jesuit priest and psychotherapist wrote and spoke on spirituality. in one of the speeches he gave he began by talking about receiving compliments, and how good they make us feel. when he would receive visitors where he lived in india they would comment on the lovely grounds, trees, weather and he would feel proud. they could comment on being disgusted with the poverty of the country and he would become upset. but then realized “i didn’t choose these grounds, i am not responsible for the trees or weather or even for the poverty of a country! how silly!” we rely deeply on compliments of things that aren’t really real, “what a lovely shirt!” “your house is beautiful!” “what a pretty costume!” but what did we do to earn these things? he said “i am going to write a book called ‘i’m okay and you’re okay’ and wont’ that be nice? but then i’m going to write a book called ‘i’m an ass, and you’re an ass.’ and isn’t that the truth?!”

to be able to acknowledge that we aren’t always nice or kind, that sometimes we say yes when we should say no and we say no when we should say yes, that we willingly choose to be jerks sometimes liberated from the false cycle of ‘i’m okay, you’re okay.’ and at the same time frees up space for acknowledging that in our imperfection god not only chooses to love us and work through us, but delights in doing so.

the ancient saints were all accidental saints.

the saints from our families and community we have lost this past year? also accidental saints. and i have news for you, friends, you are all accidental saints too.

even though sometimes you get angry and say things you regret, even though you cheated at dominos. you are an accidental saint, too, even though you ignored that call, even though you cut someone off in traffic and thought unkind thoughts about someone’s sweater choice.

you, dear friends, are accidental saints because you love each other. you love your families even when they make you want to pull your hair out. you are accidental saints because you go the extra mile, and then a marathon more for your neighbors in need. you are accidental saints because you continue to be a people upon whom god is continually working–a people on whom god is continually sending the holy spirit to comfort and to guide–even when we are mean, when we ignore one another, even when we gossip and bicker and hurt other people’s feelings.

you are an accidental saint if you like it or not, because you are made in god’s image and are loved deeply by our creator if you like it, or even know it or not.

my closing question to you today, is what will you do with that knowledge? will you rest on your laurels of being loved? or will you lean into that acceptance and accidental sainthood and deepen your love of neighbor? are you listening for the movement of the holy spirit? where is she trying to take you?

amen.

*quoted or paraphrased from _accidental saints: finding god in all the wrong people_ (i listened to the audiobook, therefore, no page numbers. guess you just have to read it yourself!)