Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day - November 26, 2009 (Matthew 6:25-34 and Psalm 126)

“Today’s trouble is enough for today,” Jesus says.

Well, it would certainly seem so! Thanksgiving, as days go, can be a stress-fest: How many people will we have this year around our Thanksgiving table? Will the house be ready in time? Will Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucy’s flight be delayed, like last year? Will everyone get along, or will family tensions dominate the thanksgiving scene? What will it be like without the loved one who just died this past year? Can we afford this feast we feel we must prepare? Will there be enough food? Will there be too much? Will it be done in time? Will the turkey be too dry? Will the turkey still be frozen?

A member of our congregation who works for a local manufacturer volunteers at the phone desk at the Reynolds Kitchen Turkey hotline each Thanksgiving. Overly-stressed or maybe just confused about turkey preparation, people call in with their worries and troubles to get quick, efficient answers. This hotline volunteer explained to me that each year, as the day of Thanksgiving gets nearer, the phones light up with more and more frantic callers. He once coached a person through a crisis that had arisen when her turkey hadn’t thawed out in time. This person wanted to know if, instead of filling a bathtub and changing out the water every thirty minutes, it would be possible just to put the frozen turkey in the commode and continually flush the water over it. I’m not sure how the caller rectified that Thanksgiving predicament, but our steady-minded volunteer strongly advised her or him against that method. Yes, in spite of all the festivities, there is plenty of trouble and worry on our national day of Thanksgiving.

Indeed, there is plenty of trouble everyday, and tomorrow will bring trouble all of its own, especially with the demands of embodying Christ’s kingdom. That’s what at the heart of Jesus’ little pep talk to his disciples about the lilies and the sparrows. He is not preparing them for setting a table and stuffing a turkey, but rather for carrying out God’s vision of a world redeemed. This is his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ inaugural address, as it were, for the kingdom of God.

For quite some time, Jesus makes the kingdom of God sound like a place with a lot of responsibility on their part. His sermon is full of all kinds of moral and ethical expectations that the kingdom will bring. He discusses anger, adultery, and the necessity of non-violence and making peace with your neighbor. There are instructions on the ins and outs of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, loving the enemy. He even includes a warning about the perils of serving two masters, God and wealth. All of this, of course, is based in the hard-to-believe, difficult-to-imagine, upside-down world of the Beatitudes, where the poor in spirit are blessed, and the meek—not the mighty—inherit the earth. The disciples’ heads are likely spinning as they try to conceive of a life this counter-cultural. This will produce anxiety, no doubt. Our heads are spinning…as we try, by God’s grace alone, to live out Jesus’ words.

And, on top of that: to forge ahead amidst times that provoke such worry: risk of a double-dip recession, a stubbornly-high unemployment rate, two wars raging on, budget cuts, and the spread of H1N1. Don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear? Give me the trouble of a frozen turkey anyday! And a hotline sure would be nice, in the meantime—something to coach us through a life that puts us at such odds with the world around us, a world that repetitiously trumpets its own version of success, a world that teaches us to fight and hoard and over-consume.

The origins of the national holiday we celebrate today are shrouded in myth and mystery, but regardless of that fact, I suppose there are some glaring dissimilarities between the Thanksgiving most of us celebrate now in America and the Thanksgiving meal that purportedly began this tradition almost three centuries ago. This is not to suggest that we are not as truly thankful for our blessings today as our pilgrim forefathers and foremothers were, but I do believe that the ancestors who first gathered in 1621 to celebrate a bountiful harvest might have been little more aware of the fragility of human life, a little more cognizant of the ephemeral nature of lilies and small birds. During the first year of their settlement in Massachusetts, we are told, almost half of the original 102 settlers perished from starvation, disease, and the hardship of eking out a life in a harsh, new environment. The decimated population that remained was dependent on the whims of weather and the generosity of the local population in a way that most likely pushed them to acknowledge even further their utter reliance on God’s providence.

They were probably a lot like the pilgrims who first sang the words of our psalm today, Psalm 126, as they made their yearly trek to Jerusalem for harvest prayers:

“May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

The ancient Hebrews associated sowing and planting with weeping because those actions caused them to throw into the soil that which could be eaten. In order to have grain for another year, grain had to be given up, and one must trust that a harvest would come, and that shouts of joy could then be offered. It was a precarious existence—weeping, sowing, reaping, rejoicing—one that never allowed the illusion that humans were in control.

I doubt the original American pilgrims, whoever they were and whatever they did those first hardscrabble years, were under that illusion either. There was little doubt that God was the giver, and as they built a society based on their version of Puritan values and beliefs, Jesus’ words about not worrying over clothing and food likely hit home in a way that seems quaint and trite nowadays.

Sometimes I think our worry and our trouble grows out of a misunderstanding or a forgetfulness of our real fragility. At least in this country, so many of us can control so much about our surroundings and how those surroundings effect our lives. We are under the impression that we can control our security, or what we think is our security. Myriad choices are placed before us, and we can decide what we want for breakfast, what we want for supper, what we want for retirement. We want to be in control of family finances, of our loved one’s reactions to what we say and do, of the journey through cancer. The basic concept of weeping as we toil, all the while trusting that God will tend the seed of whatever it is we do, is all but lost. And thus our great amounts of worry—because we think it will ultimately all be up to us. We Americans, with our exceptional government, our privileged history, so many abundant resources—we can still be under the impression that our future, our life, is all up to us.

I can’t help at this point but think of yet another group of pilgrims gathered for a meal in an Upper Room, poised at the edge of a daunting future. They have seen their own ranks decimated over the past several days as the once-hopeful crowds turn to thoughts of sacrifice. But for now, these unwitting settlers of a new world gather. They gather, and they worry. They worry as the cup of blessing is passed around and the bread is broken. They wonder and worry, as words of grace are spoken and, once again, not fully understood. There will be a sense of doom and denial that lingers in the air as they are caught and questioned about their associations with Him.

And there is weeping, for sure, as the journey is made up the hill, and the cross is planted into the ground and God teaches, once again, that is isn’t ultimately up to us.

This, my friends, is the kingdom for which we strive—a time and place where God is acknowledged as the source of all gifts, and that nothing—not even our death—will prevent God from bestowing them. This is the kingdom for which we strive—a strange but marvelous system where we can hope that the merciful and the mourning are blessed and those who make peace are called children of God. This is the kingdom which we seek, for it is the kingdom which Christ sought in its fullest sense, handing over every bit of himself, every desire for control, in order that compassion and forgiveness may take over in their fullest measure.

And this pilgrim meal they would come to call thanksgiving—the Great Thanksgiving—“Great” not because of its cornucopia variety, or the offerings we share, but “great” because of what is given. It is a Thanksgiving where we approach with little more than empty, outstretched hands to receive enough for today. Enough for forever. A meal where we learn—often very, very slowly—not to worry, not to fret, as our delusions of perfect control eventually do thaw out, because the best future for which we could ever hope—or for which we could ever be thankful—has been secured for us through Christ.

Yes, in a way, you could say this is our hotline, and the steady voice on the other end is always there, always and ever again proclaiming our value to him.

And I? I…I’m going to go home and take the turkey out of the toilet.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

painting: "A Bountiful Harvest," by Gregory Frank Harris

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27B] - November 8, 2009 (Mark 12:38-44)

Biblical scholars and historians tell us that the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was a bustling place of business and politics, as much as it was of religion or faith. Mark alludes to this quite frequently in the last chapters of his gospel as Jesus comes into Jerusalem during his final days. Almost everywhere he goes, Jesus is confronted with the oppressive and hypocritical expressions which faith in his Father’s name are taking. Whether it is the Pharisees and their strict, draconian interpretation of cleanliness codes, or the chief priests and their collusions with the Roman authorities, most religious authorities in Jerusalem were not, in Jesus’ view, upholding a true, living, life-giving faith in God. They were, rather, upholding a system of domination and control that often exploited the weakest in society.

That’s what at the heart of this morning’s criticism of the scribes, perhaps Jesus’ harshest yet. As he tours the heart of the capital with his disciples, they observe the powerful scribes hanging out in the marketplaces and in the places of honor in the synagogues. They are recognizable because of their long, flowing robes, and it is clear that they are using their influence as educated, religious clerics to gain status and wealth. They drop names and say long, showy prayers that can give the impression of closeness to God. They stand in the doorways and shake hands with as many as they can. Hmmm…long, flowing robes…showy prayers…shaking many hands…I’m going to have to take a closer look at this text!

Then, as Jesus and the disciples take a ring-side view of the Temple treasury, they watch as the people walk by to drop their alms into the long, trumpet-shaped, bronze collection box. Coins clattered and jingled noisily down its neck, a contraption which was designed, archeaologists tell us, precisely to announce how much each person was giving. Like those change machines in the grocery store which convert your coins to green cash—for a small fee—the collection boxes in the Temple Treasury made donating to God’s cause both a visual and auditory experience…for everyone! How fun!

This is why Jesus and his disciples can discern the amounts different people are giving as they make their donations. Large sums make a large clatter. Two small coins clink pathetically down into the box. Jesus’ final words in the temple are surprisingly not directed at the wealthy contributors or the scribes who maintain the collection, but instead they have to do with the seemingly insignificant contribution of the seemingly insignificant widow. In the new math of Jesus’ kingdom, two coins from a woman with no financial status, little legal status and no social status equal more than all the loud, clattering donations given by all the others.

These are comforting words to hear in this time of recession, of increasing unemployment and decreasing 401k’s, when the concept of wealth and abundance seems to change at every “ding” of the stock market bell. These are comforting words, perhaps, to kick-off a congregation’s Stewardship campaign, a nice instance of timing when the lectionary readings line up with budget realities. Comforting words—and true, no doubt—that God recognizes the wealth in each person’s contribution, regardless of the size of the dollar sign attached to it.

Yet, a closer look at this teaching moment at the Temple treasury might suggest more is going on here than we realize. The widow’s two-coin contribution turns out not to be so much a lesson about how much Jesus wants us to contribute to his ministry as it is an illustration of trust in God. And the widow’s sacrifice is not so much some kind of stewardship sermon from Jesus’ lips as it is an example of where the Church’s true treasure is found.

It would be impossible to prove, but it is highly likely that the two coins that the widow plunks into the Temple treasury were likely the leftover amount of the sum she that she had been given by the Temple treasury to live on. They were not, in any modern sense, her savings, but part of the paltry allotment the Treasury had dispensed to her so she could buy food. In Jesus’ time, that is what the Temple Treasury was intended for: to tend to the welfare and champion the cause of groups like widows and orphans, people who were, in those days, vulnerable and unvalued. Although the scribes denounced by Jesus often helped to maintain a corrupt system that devoured widow’s estates and kept them poor, one of the main purposes of the treasury was still to support them, for God’s law was their defender.

Therefore, we see in the widow not simply someone who is generous with what she has been given, but someone who is wholly dependent upon God’s grace and generosity, and knows it. Two coins in the coffer? She might as well be throwing her whole self in, for that is what she lives. She lives a life utterly dependent on a God who saves, or, as it says in our psalm appointed for today, a God who “watches over the strangers, who upholds the orphans and the widow” (Psalm 146:9). She knows her life is in God’s hands.

Lowell Almen, former Secretary for the ELCA, tells the story of going to sub-Saharan Africa on an official tour to see how the Church was doing in several countries there. Of course, he found congregations that were growing by leaps and bounds and seminaries that were struggling to find enough professors to keep up with burgeoning enrollment. A good portion of the finances that help fund those ministries come from the coffers of congregations in more affluent, western countries. But out of all this that he saw, Almen relates that he was most impressed with the work the ELCA was doing to cope with the ever-prevalent AIDS epidemic. He talks of church workers who go each morning into the villages and bring back more orphans to a children’s home that has been built and is run by the Lutheran Church. Each night, more parents in the city die of the disease. Each morning, more orphans rescued from the streets. Each year, another class of students for the school. Each life given hope and future—a whole community of children literally raised and defended by the Church, Almen reflected—because there is a God who upholds the orphans and the widows, whose hand embraces his true treasure.

As we look at a budget for the coming year, as we consider new leaders and our apportionment to the wider church body—as the affairs of business and perhaps even politics once and ever again enter the picture of religion—the challenge is to see the church’s true treasure with the eyes of Lowell Almen, and not as the scribes. As we seek to re-energize our congregation’s long-range planning and re-consecrate ourselves to the tasks of the gospel, the challenge is to let the widow’s dedication frame our mission. That is, to see we’ve been given gifts, too, and the church’s mission is somewhat compromised when we hold ourselves back.

So often congregations urge involvement from their members only by trying to convince them that participating in church is “worth it,” that taking part in Christ’s ministry can make a difference in their lives—which indeed it does. Congregations focus their message solely on the spiritual experience or sense of belonging that a congregation can offer the individual. Sometimes I wonder if the church shouldn’t couple that message with one modeled on the call to hold nothing back. The church should remember to say to God’s people, “You—each of you—are part of the church’s treasure.” In fact, each of us has a certain constellation of Spirit-given gifts that no one in the history of the world has ever had. Who are we to withhold those gifts from the life of this community and its ongoing work of restoring the world to Christ? Who are we to think that our participation doesn’t really matter, that someone else can just take our place? Who do we think we are? Unvalued?

On second thought, now that I hear it out loud, I suppose that approach sounds a little hard-edged, a little pushy. A little too pushy…in the way that Elijah pushily demands the widow at Zarephath to give him a piece of bread from her last meal. But, you see, she does trust to give it and not hold it back. She miraculously trusts God’s word will suffice when it says it will suffice, and she opens up the jar and the jug. And she sees it miraculously become a fountain of blessing that sustains the community for days.

I imagine that you could testify to this about your own lives—just like the poor, exploited widow Jesus glimpses in the Temple Treasury, just like the unwitting AIDS orphans that overflow Almen’s schools from the streets of Nairobi and Arusha, like each of us baptized treasurers that we are—we each become an opportunity for God’s grace to flow and flow and flow.

And our call is to realize, in the midst of our calculations of copper coins, that we have been claimed by a God who, himself, has held nothing back on the cross, who places his own life in the hand of the Father so that mercy and forgiveness flow inexplicably without end. To us. Through us. Clank, clank, clatter clatter clatter…Body of Christ, given for you, Body of Christ, given for you…loudly and mightily proclaiming there is a God who upholds the widow and the orphan, the stranger, the sinner…there is a God whose true treasure is his people.

Praise Him!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.