Making Room for the Stranger: Las Posadas

Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

Las Posadas is a Mexican tradition in which neighbors go house to house during the nine nights before Christmas, acting out the journey of the Holy Family looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  A song is traditionally sung in call-and-response style between neighbors outside the house (in the voice of Joseph) and the neighbors inside (in the voice of the innkeeper.)  Today we will hear readings in between the verses of the song, which is an English translation of the traditional Posadas song by a man named John-Charles Duffy, and made available in a resource from the Episcopal Church called Room in the Inn.  Those on the left side of the sanctuary will sing Joseph’s part, and those on the right will sing the innkeeper’s part.  The final verse is sung by everyone.

 

1

One night long ago, a couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census.  She was close to nine months pregnant.  He was just trying to hold it together for the both of them.  The journey was long and arduous, but they held on to the hope of reaching Bethlehem and finding someplace to rest. But when they came to Bethlehem there was no room for them, so instead of in the simple comfort of an inn or a spare room, Mary’s baby was born in an animal stall, and a feeding trough became his first bed.

It’s easy to think that if only we had been there, it all would have gone a little differently.  We would have recognized this couple for who they were; surely we wouldn’t have turned them away.

But perhaps if we pay attention, we might realize that Mary and Joseph are still among us, still looking for room, still asking us to make space for them in our hearts and our lives and our communities and our homes.   The choice is still ours: will we invite them in, or will we turn them away?

“Behold,” says Jesus, through the words of the prophet John in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

 

In the name of heaven, can you give us lodging?

My dear wife’s exhausted after hours of walking.

 

This is not an inn.  I don’t take in strangers.

You might be a robber.  I can’t risk that danger.

 

2

Every night in Arlington County, around 200 people go to sleep without a place to call home.[1]  Some find beds up the hill at the Homeless Services Center; others sleep in their cars or take shelter in the woods.  If you walk by Arlington Temple at night, you may also come across some of our own neighbors who find a safe place here outside our doors, under the shelter of the skywalk.

In Arlington, the number of people experiencing homelessness has trended downward in recent years as strides have been made to care for people in more holistic ways, from housing to physical and mental health services to job counseling.[2]

Just across the river, the story is a little different.  As of a year ago, Washington DC had the highest rate of homelessness in a survey of 32 cities across the US, with a 34% increase in the number of homeless individuals in the city from 2009-2016.  An increasing cost of living and lack of affordable housing are at least partially to blame.[3]

Perhaps you’ve walked through a city park here or elsewhere and noticed an arm rail in the middle of a bench, making sure no one can stretch out and take a nap there; or you’ve seen spikes sticking up from the low windowsill of an office building, preventing anyone from seeking shelter there.  In some places across the country, lying down in public or sleeping in a vehicle is a crime.[4]  For some, there is no room in our communities.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

Do not be so heartless.  Help us, we implore you.

God, who sees from heaven, surely will reward you.

 

I cannot assist you.  Find someone who can.

Leave now or I warn you, you will wish you had.

 

 

3

Today there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.  About half of those come from Mexico, others from elsewhere in Latin America, still others from China, India, Korea, and many other places around the world.  They come for many reasons, often to escape poverty and violence in the countries they are from.   You may have heard their stories over the past year: those who died in the back of hot trucks trying to cross the border; those who wait indefinitely in detention centers near the border; those apprehended by ICE as they left church.

For many of the people who cross the borders of this country illegally, there is simply no feasible legal route of immigration.  They don’t have employers who will sponsor them.  They don’t have close family members who are already citizens of the US or legal permanent residents living above the poverty line.  The economic conditions of their own countries of origin do not qualify them for humanitarian protection.  And even for those who are eligible to come, the wait might be 5 years.  Or ten years.  Or even 20.[5]

Of those 11 million people, 8 million form part of the US workforce, often doing jobs that people with legal status will not.  Seven million of them have been in the country for a decade or longer, working, going to school, buying houses.[6]  At least 1 to 2 million came to this country as children with their families and have effectively never known another home.[7]  They are part of our communities, but not also not quite welcome in them.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

We have come from Nazareth, walking all the way.

I am a poor woodworker, Joseph is my name.

 

Knowing what your name is does not change my answer.

Go and let me sleep.  Stop this useless banter.

 

 

4

According to the UN, there are today about 65 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world.  That number represents one out of every 113 people in the world.[8]  Every day, 28,300 people are forced to leave their homes due to violence and persecution.[9]

We hear their names and stories on the news: Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide in Myanmar, spilling over the border into Bangladesh.  Syrians waiting to be resettled in Germany, Greece, or Turkey.  Somalians and Sudanese who risk the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean on their way to Europe.

Those who make it will live in camps, some in tents and makeshift shelters, some surrounded by infrastructure that has been built up over time.  In 2016, just over 189,000 refugees were resettled in new communities.  Yet even those people do not always find a warm reception in the places they now call home, and as need has increased, so has opposition across the world from people who fear terrorism, declining property values, or even the cultural takeover of a community they once knew.  In our own country, as well, opposition to resettling refugees on US soil has grown, and a lower cap placed on the number of refugees who we will receive.  For many refugees, life is lived in a kind of limbo – they can’t go home, but there is also no room for them elsewhere.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

Please, sir, all we ask is one night of lodging.

For the Queen of Heaven – can you offer nothing?

 

I’ve heard many stories.  This beats every one.

Since when does a queen walk at night alone?

 

 

5

It’s not just in the news or on the streets or in the world around us that we encounter people asking for room in our hearts and lives.  Sometimes the “strangers” among us aren’t so strange after all.

Maybe there’s someone you know who is seeking spiritual refuge, who has been excluded from Christian community in the past due to their sexual orientation, or for asking the wrong questions, or who was more subtly snubbed for being from the wrong race or economic class.  Will they find the home they are seeking here?

Maybe there is someone who needs a friend, an elderly neighbor or someone new down the street or that person at work or at school who just doesn’t seem to fit in.  Will they find room with you?

Maybe there’s that friend or family member who is going through a lot and always seems to demand your time and a listening ear.  Will they find room with you?

Could these people – all these people who are part of our everyday lives – be Mary and Joseph among us?

“Behold,” says Jesus, through the words of the prophet John in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

 

Truly my wife Mary is a queen most blessed.

She will be the mother of the Word Made Flesh.

 

Is that you, Saint Joseph?  And the Virgin too?

I would have opened sooner if I’d recognized you. 

 

 

Final

One night long ago, a couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census.  They arrived in Bethlehem desperate for a place to rest, but there was no room for them.

It’s easy to think that if only we had been there, things would have gone a little differently.

And maybe it still can.

 

Enter, enter, holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims;

Welcome to my humble home.

Though it’s little I can offer, I can offer,

All I have please call your own.

Mary, Joseph and our Savior, and our Savior,

What a joy to have you here.

We are honored to receive you, to receive you;

May you stay through all the year!

 

 

 

[1] https://newsroom.arlingtonva.us/release/point-in-time-homelessness-count-up-in-arlington/

[2] https://www.arlnow.com/2016/04/06/arlingtons-homeless-population-down-64-percent-over-past-three-years/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-has-the-highest-homeless-rate-of-38-us-cities-a-new-survey-finds/2016/12/14/95487b3c-c18e-11e6-9a51-cd56ea1c2bb7_story.html?utm_term=.9d9aa3206368

[4] https://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place

[5] https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/why-don%E2%80%99t-they-just-get-line

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/06/us/politics/undocumented-illegal-immigrants.html

[7] http://www.newsweek.com/dreamers-daca-statistics-trump-deadline-657201

[8] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/06/20/482762237/refugees-displaced-people-surpass-60-million-for-first-time-unhcr-says

[9] http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

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Making Room for Jesus: The Hanging of the Greens

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

 

Introduction: Making Room for Jesus

There are lots of things that are cliché about the holiday season, and I want to say that one to say that one of them has become talking about how the season shouldn’t just be about busyness; that what we need more of is quiet time and reflection instead of just consumerism and mall traffic and endless social obligations and the pressure to create a magical experience for everyone else.

It’s cliché but there’s still plenty of truth to it.  If we who believe there is a deeper significance to the season than gift-giving and Santa and general festivity don’t choose to spend it a little differently than those for whom it is just a cultural holiday, what does that say?

But I also sometimes think about how for Mary, those nine months between the angel’s visit and the birth of Jesus probably weren’t all quiet meditative walks and holy moments of silence.  Because when a baby is on its way, there is a lot to be done.  There is a nursery to be prepared, a crib to be put together. There are hand-me-downs to sort through and diapers to stock up on and freezer meals to prepare and baby registries to create on Amazon and childbirth classes to take.

OK, that’s maybe not quite how it was in first-century Palestine, but still – when a baby is on its way, there is space to be made, both literally and figuratively.

And while lots of times when we talk about making room for Jesus in the midst of the busyness we mean quiet, reflective devotional time – and I hope you will make some of that, maybe using this Advent devotional I talked about earlier –there can also be something holy about the physical work of preparing a space: finding just the right places for the crib and changing table in the nursery; setting the table for a dinner party; moving into a new place and getting unpacked and finally adding whatever little touches make it home.  These are ways we prepare for something new that is happening or someone special who is going to be our guest.

These things can be spiritual disciplines, if we let them be.

The point, of course, is not to end up with a Pinterest-worthy tree, or the best-lit house on the block, or just another seasonal obligation to fulfill; the point is to end up with hearts that are ready to welcome Jesus, both as he is born at Christmas and in all the ways he shows up every day in people who challenge us, people who demand something of us, people determined to break down the walls we put up, people who show us mercy we didn’t want.  The point is to be able to echo Mary’s words: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”

But sometimes doing the work of preparing a space can be what we need to get our hearts and our hopes pointed in the right direction.

So that’s how we’re going to start this Advent, this season of waiting and preparation for Jesus to come into the world.  We are going to prepare our worship space for Jesus with symbols that remind us of who he is and what God is doing through him at Christmas.  We start today with a change in color: the altar, which was white last week and green for a long time before that, is now covered in purple, the color of repentance and expectation.

We’ve gotten started because it seemed unwieldy to put the tree up as a group in worship, but there is work for us to do together, and as we talk about some of the symbols that will decorate our worship space, I’m going to be calling on some volunteers to help put them in place.  I hope you’ll be ready to volunteer!  And, I hope this will just be the beginning – that the work of preparation we do with our hands will help open our hearts and make them ready to welcome Christ.

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 1

 

  1. The Advent Candles

Tradition says that the Advent wreath was invented by a German pastor at a mission school for the children of Hamburg, where the children would ask each day if it was Christmas yet.  Finally, the pastor constructed a wooden ring with 24 small red candles and four large white candles.  A new candle was lit each day during the season of Advent, with the white candles on Sundays, and so the children learned to wait for Christmas to arrive.[1]

Advent is a time of waiting – for the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas, and for the second coming of Christ at a time we do not know.  To signify our waiting, we too light a candle each week until all four are lit, then we light the white Christ candle on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  The purple candles traditionally stand for hope, love, and peace, while the pink candle, lit on the third week, stands for joy.  These are the attributes that characterize our waiting, if we let God make it so; they are also what we wait for: Christ our hope and joy, the God who is Love, the Prince of Peace.

[Volunteers place Advent candles on candle holders on altar; light one purple candle]

Today we begin our waiting in the hope of the One who comes to be God With Us.

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 2

 

  1. The Greens

Even before Christianity came to Europe, people used evergreen branches as signs of life in the midst of a barren season.  Though the imagery might be pre-Christian, the green of pine and fir trees became a reminder to Christians of the eternal life that Jesus invites us into, life that is more powerful than the death and barrenness we see around us.[2]

The prophet Isaiah writes, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish it and uphold it with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:6-7).   Like the green of the boughs that create them, the circular shape of these wreaths we hang remind us of the Kingdom of God which has no end.

[Volunteers place wreaths on wall by cross]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 3

 

  1. The Chrismons

The tradition of the Chrismon tree began in the Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia.  Instead of the ornaments you might put on your tree at home, the tree is covered with signs of Christ.[3]  If you look through these Chrismons, you might see, for example, an Alpha and Omega – Christ is our beginning and our end.  Or you might see a Chi Rho – the two Greek letters that begin the word “Christos,” and according to legend, the sign Constantine saw in the sky preceding his conversion to Christianity.  Or you might see the symbol of the Trinity, reminding us that Christ is coequal and coeternal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

These Chrismons were created by a previous organist here, Joan Vanasdalan.

[Invite people forward to decorate the tree]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 4

 

  1. Lighting the Tree

According to one History Channel special, “It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.”[4]

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read: “What has come into being in him is life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Like the Advent candles, the light of the Christmas tree reminds us that Jesus is the light in our darkness.

[Plug tree in]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 1

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath

[2] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[3] United Methodist Book of Worship

[4] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

 

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…: A Man Who Hired Workers For His Vineyard

Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16

When I say “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”, what comes to mind for you?

We’ve spent the past few weeks talking about images Jesus gave us for God’s Kingdom.  But if you had to describe what God’s Kingdom is or what God’s Kingdom is like to someone else, what word or definition or image or metaphor would you use?

Or how about – how would you finish this sentence: “The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where…”?

It occurred to me at some point that the Kingdom parables we’ve looked at so far this month – the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field, or like a mustardseed, or like yeast hidden in dough, or treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price – they all tell us something about the Kingdom, of course, how it grows or where to find it or what it’s worth – but they haven’t told us a lot about the character of God’s Kingdom itself.  What exactly is this thing that grows and is hidden and is worth risking everything else we have?

I don’t know why Jesus does that.  I suppose it’s because the Kingdom of God is such a hard thing to grasp, or define – the reason he tells us about it so often in stories in the first place.  Or maybe it’s because Jesus does already give us plenty of instructions and good examples of how to love, welcome, and show mercy to one another; if he is King of this Kingdom, I think it’s safe to say that this Kingdom is the kind of place where people play by the King’s rules, and there is a wholeness of life that comes from that.

Some of the stories Jesus tells do give us a glimpse into what that Kingdom is like, though, and the parable in today’s reading is one of them.

“The Kingdom of Heaven,” says Jesus, “is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

You know the scene, right?  A group of men standing around in the parking lot of Home Depot or 7-Eleven.  They are usually immigrants.  They wait for someone to hire them for the day, in the hopes that they will be able to feed their families that night.

The landowner agrees to pay them one denarius if they work for him for the day.  It’s the going wage for a day’s work – not high, but fair.  They will be able to put some food on the table.

But there is a lot of work to do, and so three hours later, the man goes back to the marketplace and sees other workers still gathered there.  No one has hired them yet.  “Come with me,” he says, “and I’ll pay you what is right.”  It’s a vague offer – risky – but the morning is wearing on, so the workers are not really in a place to quibble.  They’ll take what they can get.

He does the same thing at noon, and at three.  Each time, he says the same thing: “Come with me, I’ll pay you what is right,” and each time, the workers know better than to negotiate – after all, no one has hired them yet, and after all, there are hungry children at home.  Better something than nothing.  When the man shows up again at five, when the workday is already winding down, and sees that there are still workers gathered there, he asks them: “What are you still doing here?”  It sounds almost accusatory, as if he is implying that they are lazy, as if they aren’t looking for work at all.

But when they tell him the truth – “no one has hired us” – he believes them – that or he doesn’t actually care what the answer is.  “Come with me,” he says, and again, they do, even though it is already growing dark.

An hour later, when work in the vineyard is done for the day and it is time for the laborers to be paid, he instructs his manager to pay the workers who were hired most recently first, and they wait expectantly – but not too expectantly – to see what they will get.  Lo and behold, it’s one denarius – as much as if they had worked all day.  There will be dinner on the table that night.

When the workers who had been slaving away in the hot sun all day see this, they begin to get excited.  If those guys get a denarius for only working an hour, then they’re about to hit the jackpot.

But then the workers hired at three also get a denarius – as do the ones hired at noon, and at nine – and I have to wonder if the ones hired first are beginning to get a sinking feeling by this point – because when it comes time for them to be paid, they also receive a denarius.  Which was, of course, the deal.

But it doesn’t seem very fair.

If you’ve grown up in Sunday School and in church, you probably know this story already, and so you know from the beginning we are not on the side of the grumbling workers here.  They are not the heroes of Jesus’ story.  Because this isn’t a story about minimum wages and equal work for equal pay.  It’s a story about grace, and how God gives it to all of us, because God is generous.  And we know that grace is the cornerstone of our faith, and we know that God is generous, and we know that God can do what God wants, so the story doesn’t really shock us.  The landowner is a good guy and the workers hired first are negative Nancys.

And I’m making an assumption here – because maybe there are those of us who hear this story and really do identify with the workers who were paid last.  We know deep down that we have received more than we deserve.  If that’s you, you can stop listening; this one’s not for you today.  You are closer to the Kingdom of God than I am.

But Jesus does seem to tell this story expecting us to identify with the workers who were hired first.  And the story is supposed to shock us.  It’s maybe even supposed to offend us a little, because those first-hired workers are right: it isn’t fair for someone who slaved in the hot sun for twelve hours to receive the same wage as someone who worked for one.

And it begs the question: what if the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where all our earthly values are turned upside-down?  Not just the ones we know should be – the way we value money and appearance and status – but also the ones we usually think are pretty good: our values of justice, and equity?

That’s what Jesus’ audience, hearing this story for the first time, would have been forced to grapple with.

The thing is, we all believe in grace – amazing grace!  We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t believe in grace, right?  We all believe in grace – until it is made real, in our lives, for someone else who doesn’t deserve it.

Maybe you’re saying, no, I still believe in grace; I know that grace is God’s unmerited favor and that none of us deserve it but God gives it to us anyway because God is good – so I want you to close your eyes and think of the worst person you know.  Now, the workers in this story aren’t necessarily bad people, even the ones hired last – Jesus doesn’t comment on their moral character at all.  We’re just doing a little exercise here.  Think of someone, preferably someone you know personally, who as far as you can tell has no redeeming qualities.  They are mean to the people around them, even the people they ostensibly love; they cheat and exploit people and act only in their own self-interest; or they’re lazy and take advantage of others; they’re bigots; they’re stingy – I could go on, but I don’t think I have to.

Do you know someone like that?

Now let me ask you this – does this person still have a family who loves them?  Do they have an employer who values them?  Someone who selflessly takes care of them? Do they have good things in their life, not necessarily just material things because I don’t think material wealth is always from God, but can you look at their lives and say that God has been generous to them?

Sure, there may be some horrible people who don’t have any of those things, who life has truly given a raw deal, but my hunch is we’re not so mad about those people.

We’re mad about the ones don’t deserve to be loved, but are somehow loved.  We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to be valued, but are valued.  We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to get ahead, but always seem to get ahead.  We’re mad about the ones who have never had any regard for anyone else, who have never had any interest in helping anyone else, but who somehow still receive good things from God or others.  We’re mad about the ones who don’t deserve to get paid as much as we do, but get paid anyway.

We know those people, right?

I do – or at least, I certainly have.  And I believe in grace; but when I get thinking too hard about specific people like that I tell you that it fundamentally offends my sense of justice that they still have good things in this life.

That’s what grace does if we take it seriously – it should fundamentally offend our sense of justice.

A couple years ago I preached a sermon – I think it was on Jacob and Esau – where I quoted a line from a Relient K song, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”  Afterwards, in Bible study that day, we had a discussion about whether God was fair, and we did not all agree.  It occurred to me that maybe the problem is our definition of what “fair” is.

You know I come back from time to time in sermons to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa had after the end of apartheid, where people who had committed apartheid-related crimes confessed publicly and received amnesty, and forgiveness, as a way of moving forward.  As I’ve told you before, I was so inspired by this example of the Gospel playing out on the world stage when I began to learn about it that it made me think about going into ministry, really for the the first time.

I was thinking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in conjunction with this passage, and how some people said it was a miscarriage of justice for people who had committed horrible crimes to receive amnesty.  And how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who were leading it, said that it was the difference between retributive justice – the kind where people get the punishment they deserve – and restorative justice – the kind of justice that restores people to right relationship with each other.  That’s not always how we use the word justice.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not justice: we had to redefine that word for ourselves.

Maybe, similarly, God is fair – but fairness doesn’t mean that everyone gets exactly what they worked for.  Instead, it means that everyone gets what they need.  Everyone gets to put dinner on the table for their family that night, whether they worked twelve hours or one.

When I think back to those people I know who don’t seem to deserve the good things that God or life has given them, on my better days, I have to ask myself what I’m so resentful of.  Am I mad that they have people who love them?  But I have people who love me.  Am I mad that they seem to get ahead or to have so much?  But I have everything I need.  Grace isn’t a zero-sum game; if they get more, I don’t get less.

And maybe it will all get worked out in the end, right?  Maybe in the final judgment this will all be sorted out, and we will all finally get paid what we deserve for the work we have done.  And I agree that I want to hold out the hope that justice will be done; and yes, Scripture promises us that justice will be done – but then I have to remember that my definition of justice isn’t necessarily the operative one here.  Maybe justice looks a lot more like mercy than vengeance.  Maybe fairness looks a lot more like abundant generosity than crunching the numbers.

Because the Kingdom that is here among us – the Kingdom we can see in glimpses and snatches around us if our eyes are open –  is the same Kingdom that will come one day in all its glory; when Jesus will reign and all Creation will worship him as King.  And if God’s definition of justice and fairness is different from ours – well, it’s not that God’s is going to change one day; it’s that now or later ours is going to have to.

And maybe that’s the difference, even, between Heaven and Hell – whether we enter that Kingdom joyfully, grateful for the generosity that God has shown us and ready to extend it to others – or whether we enter it grumbling because someone got the same blessings we did, for less.

“The last shall be first,” Jesus says, but in this story, in the end, there is no first or last.  There are just people, all of whom rely on the generosity of One, and all of whom receive – no matter what they deserve.

The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…: Treasure Hidden in a Field

Scripture: Matthew 13:44-46

Do you remember the movie Good Will Hunting?

The movie is the story of Will, a janitor at MIT who also happens to be a mathematical genius, and his court-appointed therapist, Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams.  Early in one of their therapy sessions, Sean tells Will the story of how he met his late wife.  It was October 21, 1975, and Sean and his friends had camped out on the sidewalk all night to get tickets to Game Six of the World Series.  As they’re sitting in a bar waiting for the game to start, Sean sees a woman, someone he’s never met before.  The game turns out to be historic: it goes into twelve innings before someone hits a game-winning home run and the Red Sox win and 35000 fans stream onto the field.  But of course, Sean winds up missing all of it because he’s in the bar talking to this woman, who will become his wife.

Will asks, “Your friends just let you go?  What did you tell them?” and Sean responds, “I told them, ‘I gotta go see about a girl.’”

Meanwhile in the movie things are playing out between Will and his own love interest, Skyler, a student at Harvard, though he ends up blowing things with her when he won’t follow her to grad school in California.  At the very end of the movie he’s just about to begin a new job an MIT professor has set up for him when we learn he’s on his way to California instead.  On his way out of town he sticks a letter in Sean’s mailbox and it simply reads, “If the professor calls about that job, tell him I had to see about a girl.”

To which Robin Williams says: “Son of a ___, he stole my line.”

Every once in a while, we encounter something that is worth so much to us that we drop whatever else it is that we have going on, whatever plans or promises or investments we’ve made, and we go after it.  Have you ever done that?

I thought of one example from my own life, though it’s far less dramatic than quitting my job and moving to California.  When I was in seminary, I was inspired by my work-study boss at the time to run a marathon.  I was pretty hesitant at first, because though I did run, I am honestly not very naturally athletic, and this seemed to me like something that athletic people do.  But there was something about the challenge that captured me.  So I decided I was going to do it, and all of a sudden I was ready to sacrifice to make it a reality.  I ran outside in the rain.  (Some people will try to tell you they love running in the rain – don’t trust them, it’s terrible.)  I ran outside in the cold.  I spent money I didn’t have on new shoes.  On Saturday mornings, I ran – for three hours, or four, at a time.  I went to bed early on Friday nights so I would be well rested.  My Saturday evenings were shot because I was too tired to do anything else.  For maybe three months of my life, I was completely focused on this one thing.  Well – and graduating seminary.  But mostly on this one thing.

Why did I do it?  Sometimes I still ask myself that.  But it was something I wanted, and at least for that brief time in my life, it was worth the cost of all those other things.

In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus tells two short parables about things that are worth the most to us.

The first is the story of a man who finds treasure buried in a field.  Maybe he’s plowing the field, working for someone else who owns the land, at the time.[1]  When he suddenly comes across the treasure he quickly reburies it so no one else will know, then goes, sells everything he has, and buys the field.

The second is the story of a merchant who, in the course of his merchant-ing, discovers the most valuable pearl he has ever come across.  He knows what this pearl is worth, so he sells all of his other pearls and gems and invests in this one thing which will make him richer than everything else combined.

These stories, especially the first one about finding treasure in a field, may raise a few questions.  For example, is there some serious insider trading going on here?  How ethical is that?  What about the person to whom the field belonged?  Is the Kingdom of Heaven something we discover and then quickly cover up so that we can keep it all for ourselves?  I’m going to guess that that’s probably not what Jesus wants us to take away here.  He probably also doesn’t want us to take away the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that can be bought and sold.

But these two parables of the Kingdom are about people who discover something that is worth everything to them, and drop everything and do what they need to do to make it theirs.

One of them happens upon it by accident.  The other is searching for valuable things when he comes upon this one most valuable thing.[2]  But they both find it, they both instantly recognize what it’s worth, and they both give up everything else in order to pursue it.

The Kingdom of God is kind of like that.

If last week’s parables of the mustardseed that becomes a tree and the yeast that leavens a huge amount of dough were about God’s initiative in causing things to grow and expand, the commentaries say, these parables of the buried treasure and the pearl of great price are about our human response.[3]  What should our reaction be, once we discover God’s Kingdom by accident or in the process of seeking it?  We should drop everything else, sell everything else, set ourselves free from everything else and, single-mindedly, single-heartedly, take a risk on this one thing.  Because it is a risk, isn’t it?  The risk that we have somehow calculated wrong, that we are about to make an investment that isn’t going to pan out.  It might be turn out to be fool’s gold.  It might turn out to be a costume pearl.  We might miss historic Game Six of the World Series that we slept outside for tickets to not to meet our soulmate, but just to sit in a bar on a bad first date.

Hint: In Jesus’ stories, it doesn’t turn out that way.

We’ve all probably had some experience of discovering something valuable and sacrificing other things in pursuit of this one thing – whether we had to go see about a girl (or a boy), whether it was a career we were devoted to, whether it was family, whether it was a personal goal.  But of course Jesus isn’t talking about any of those things here.  As worthy pursuits as any of those things may be, none of them in themselves fully encapsulate or represent the Kingdom of God.  For Jesus, that is the only thing that is really to be treasured.  That, only that, is the true pearl of great price.

To be honest, though, I have to wonder sometimes if single-minded pursuit of the Kingdom of God is even possible in the midst of everything else, in real life.  Is it really possible to give up everything else, and then what does the Kingdom even look like, out of the context of everything else?  Maybe it is possible for a monk, or a nun.  There’s something to that idea of renouncing all other ties that really frees you to do whatever God might be calling you to do and go wherever God might be calling you to go, to put everything on the line.  That’s why it’s so often nuns we see doing things like going into war-torn areas and doing the hard and dangerous work of creating peace there.  When I hear these parables, I think of people like that.

But I’m not a nun and I’m not going to be a nun, and neither, I take it, are most of you, and so I wonder: how do you be a mother and single-mindedly pursue the Kingdom of God?  How do you be a partner and single-mindedly pursue the Kingdom of God?  How do you be a student, or just any sort of person in the world, and single-mindedly pursue the Kingdom of God?

Sometimes I really do get why Jesus told people to sell everything they own or to leave their families and follow him.  But for most of us who aren’t actually planning on literally doing that any day soon, there has to be some way to seek the Kingdom of Heaven within the mundane, within the day-to-day demands of our lives and among the people we love.  At least I hope so.

And the thing is I do have some idea of what it means to discover the treasure that is the Kingdom of Heaven, even among the everyday mundaneness of life.  It’s something that I’ve discovered in glimpses, here and there, rather than finding it all at once like a chest full of gold or a single valuable pearl.  It’s something I discovered in youth group handing hot dogs out to homeless people outside Metro stations, when I first started to learn what it meant to serve others.  It’s something I felt in college when I was sitting around the lunch table at the adult day care I worked at for a time – that though those of us gathered there were so different in age, and ability, and the roles we played in this world, we were a family, eating and laughing together.  It’s something I’ve felt in the humbling experience of being forgiven, really forgiven, by another person.  It’s something I see here whenever I see a rich person and poor person having coffee together after worship in our Fellowship Hall, or when I see people of truly all different backgrounds gathered together to worship or serve.  It’s something I glimpse whenever I turn on the news and somehow, somewhere, in some small way, justice seems to have won for once.

When I see those things I know that I have discovered treasure, hidden among the everyday moments of everyday life.  I know that these are the moments that make a person rich.  I know that these moments are worth something – maybe even everything.

As I sat around that lunch table at the adult daycare in college, I knew I had discovered something valuable, though I maybe couldn’t quite grasp it, and I knew somehow that what I had discovered would affect the rest of my life.  And it has.  Imperfectly, of course, and perhaps not single-mindedly – but it has.

And you know, the more I reflect on these twin parables, the less sure I am that they are actually about our human response to the Kingdom.  Not that that’s irrelevant.  But Jesus isn’t telling these stories to say, “Therefore, you should sell everything you have and leave your families and come follow me.”  He says those things in other places, but not here.

Here he’s not telling us about what we should do, but about what the Kingdom of Heaven is.  And what it is is buried treasure.  What it is is a pearl of great price.

What it is is something we discover, once in a while, whether we’re looking for it or not – and we know that we have found something valuable.  And when we find it – when we really find it – it does make us realize that yes, this is something worth pursuing, and yes, this is something worth sacrificing for, and yes, this is something I want in my life – because I know somehow that this thing is real and true and right.  Have you ever had a moment like that?  Because I really do believe that it mostly comes in moments, in glimpses – that it’s probably not something we can fully grasp or attain or hold on to, not until Jesus comes back.

But it’s there for us.  There in the middle of a field as we go about our day plowing.  There hiding among all the other pearls and gems we might have bought instead.  There in the everyday stuff of going to work, and going to class, and caring for our families, and being there for our friends, and just being people out in the world.  It may be hidden, but it’s there.  And then all of a sudden it’s not hidden anymore, and all of a sudden, in some small way, life will never be the same.

May our prayer be that we know it when we see it.

Because the Kingdom of Heaven is someone with less helping someone who has more.

It’s a child who “gets it” in a way adults do not.

It’s anytime someone welcomes another person into their life.

It’s anytime someone refuses to continue a cycle of violence, and opts for forgiveness instead.

It’s redemption, and hope, and courage born of faith.  It’s mercy and it’s grace, given and received.  It’s prayer that is unceasing and love that is unyielding and generosity that takes your breath away.

The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.

And once you find it – if you really, really find it – life will never be the same.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 313

[2] NIB, p. 313

[3] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 157

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…: A Mustardseed

Scripture: Matthew 13:31-33

 
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a group of friends who went on beach week together after graduation.

(I should note, before I go on, that though this is a real story, it is not about me.)

In the hotel that these friends were staying in there was a hot tub.  And one night, one of them said, “Hey, do you know what’s even better than a hot tub?  A hot tub with bubbles,” and another said, “Hey, here’s some dish soap.”

It didn’t take much.  Soon bubbles were bubbling over the sides of the tub and out the door of the bathroom.  The friends were collecting bubbles in whatever receptacles they could find, trying to stem the tide of suds, but the bubbles kept coming.

The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.

Of course, that’s not quite how Jesus told the story.

The Kingdom of Heaven, he said, is like a mustardseed that someone took and planted in his garden. It’s the smallest of all seeds.  But when it’s grown, it becomes the largest plant in the garden, and becomes a tree, and the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.

I wonder: when was the last time you saw a mustardseed up close?  They’re not actually that small, are they?  I’m not any sort of expert in seeds, but I could probably off the top of my head name ten seeds that are small than this.  Poppy seeds.  Sesame seeds.  Well, OK.  Jesus probably isn’t trying to give us a botany lesson here, but a mustardseed was the proverbially small thing.  Faith the size of a mustardseed – you might remember Jesus saying something about that too.

Jesus goes on from there.  The Kingdom of Heaven, he says, is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour.  That’s an odd word, hid, but we’ll come back to that.  Eventually the yeast worked its way through all the dough.  Do you know how much flour three measures of flour is?  One of my sources told me fifty pounds.  We’re talking about a lot of bread here.

Jesus tells these two parables together in a pair.  What, would you say, do the two have in common?

These are parables of growth.  Things that start out small – a tiny seed, a little bit of yeast.  And that grow big – a tree; bread.

The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.

The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells us, is something that may seem small or imperceptible or insignificant at first.  It’s a smile or a helping hand when it seems like no one cares.  It’s saying no to something wrong even though you won’t get rewarded for doing the right thing.  It’s inviting someone to church.  It’s that one conversation with someone who is different from you.  It’s one day sober.  The Kingdom of Heaven is kind of like that.

But then, we’re told, the Kingdom grows.  It doesn’t stop at a small seed.  The yeast doesn’t stay put in one place.  Instead the Kingdom of Heaven puts down roots, breaks through the soil, it rises, it bubbles, it grows, until all of a sudden it isn’t small or imperceptible or insignificant anymore, but we can see it everywhere, and smell its aroma, and stand in its shade, and what’s more, it’s not only us that can see it, but everyone around.

It’s beautiful imagery, but I have to admit, sometimes I wonder.

Do we really believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that?

Do we really believe that one small act of kindness can make a difference?  Do we really believe that one person can change the world?  Do we believe that these things can have ripple effects that make them grow from something small into something big?

I’d like to.  It’s just that we live in the kind of world where last Sunday, a gunman walked into a church and killed 26 people, and what’s more, it’s just the latest hashtag in a series of hashtags, and our leaders won’t do anything to respond.  Can one small act of kindness change that?

And meanwhile I turn my car radio on every morning as I drive to church and people are talking about the latest war that someone, somewhere, is fighting, and refugees are streaming across the border – some border, somewhere – and no one really wants them on the other side, and meanwhile we learn that the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is perhaps higher than anyone originally let on.  Can one small act of charity or hospitality change that?

And meanwhile in America we can barely even talk to each other to solve our own problems, those of us who identify as red and those who identify as blue.  Can one conversation across party lines really change that?

And yes, I realize that this sermon just took a depressing turn, especially considering it started with a hot tub on beach week, but really, don’t you have to wonder sometimes?

And yet Jesus asks us to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is a seed that will grow.  And he asks us to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is yeast that will rise.

It’s not that I don’t believe Jesus.  Somehow, small seeds do grow up into big trees.  Somehow, yeast makes dough rise, two times, three times, four times its original size.  Somehow, somewhere, the Kingdom of God is growing and expanding; somehow, somewhere, God is making something big out of small things.

It does make me feel better to remember that – God is making something big out of small things.

Do any of you bake bread?  What do you do when you combine yeast and flour?  You mix it, you knead it, over and over.  But instead, as I mentioned before, the woman in this parable “hides” the yeast in her dough.  It’s as if she is being secretive about it, as if the Kingdom of God is something hidden, something we can’t always see even though it is there.

I’m honestly not sure what would happen in real life if you stuck some yeast in a bunch of flour and went on your way.  Would the dough rise?  Would it partially rise?  Did this woman even intend to make bread?

But the point of the story isn’t that this woman made bread in the normal way of things.  The point of the story is that God kneads the dough.  It’s God’s work that the yeast mixes in and leavens the whole lot of it.  It’s the baker’s yeast – but God’s bread.

Can one small act of kindness change the world?  Well, it’s not my job to leaven the bread, is it?  It’s just my job to add the yeast.  Can one small act of kindness change the world?  Maybe that’s too lofty of a goal.  Do it, and let God take it from there.

Maybe it will grow into something big.  Maybe it won’t.

The parable of the mustardseed has a few odd details of its own.  Because just like the mustardseed isn’t really, technically, the smallest of the seeds, the mustard plant is hardly that impressive of a plant.  Have you ever seen a mustard plant in person?  I don’t think I have – though surely Jesus’ original audience would have.  I’m told it grows to maybe six feet high, eight feet on a good day.  It’s just big enough to maybe be considered a tree instead of a shrub, maybe.  In fact I have to laugh at how Jesus puts it here – when it’s grown, it becomes the largest of all “garden plants.”  It’s not exactly a majestic cedar that we have here.

And yet a cedar also grows from a seed.  Jesus could have used that image if he wanted.  But he didn’t.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells this parable a little differently.  In the Gospel of Mark, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustardseed, any old mustardseed, that grows into a tree.  Here, in Matthew, the story is about one specific mustardseed, that a man plants in his garden.  So it could be that we are meant to understand that the result of the growth of this mustardseed is unlike what comes from any other mustardseed; that this one time, he planted it and it became a tree.

Because again, it’s not about the work he does; it’s about the work God does, and God has a way of taking us by surprise.

But on the other hand, I wonder if it says something that this tree of which Jesus speaks is in reality more of a tall bush.  That when the Kingdom of God is fully grown, fully realized, fully in bloom, it’s still nothing more than a large shrub.  Which is to say – the Kingdom of God, even fully realized, doesn’t trade in earthly glory.  The Kingdom of God doesn’t become a cedar, which gets written about in poetry and whose wood is imported to build Solomon’s Temple.  The Kingdom of God is a mustard bush, and maybe the problem is not that it’s not grand and majestic but that we think a cedar is better.

The birds of the sky don’t seem to mind.  They still find refuge in its branches.

Maybe the reason I get pessimistic sometimes about whether the small acts of one person can really make a difference in this world is that I’m looking for the difference in all the wrong places.  I want to see my seed turn into a cedar.  Then I would know that God was at work.  Instead, it grows into a mustard bush.  And maybe I overlook it altogether.

But that’s not God’s problem.  That’s mine.  The birds of the sky seem OK with it.

And come to think of it, once that yeast the woman hid has leavened all of the dough, all 50 pounds of it, what do we end up with?  Bread.

It’s not a banquet set for a king, though in some places in the Bible God’s Kingdom is pictured as a place where all who are poor and hungry will come and feast on good wine and food filled with rich marrow.  Here, it’s food that anyone would eat – but no one is going hungry.

I have to tell you, on those days when I’m just not sure that anything small can make a difference, it helps to realize that I might be looking for the wrong kind of results.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is one of the Christian writers you’ve probably heard me quote from time to time, tells a story of a con man who started coming to her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.  His name was Rick Strandlof and she knew he was a con man because he was famous for being one – he had been investigated by the FBI two years earlier for appearing in a TV commercial posing as a veteran in order to raise money for an organization he had founded to help returning vets.  Only he was using a false name and had never really served in the military.  He wasn’t actually stealing the money; he was apparently raising it for this cause, he just lied in order to do it.  Even after all of this, the next summer he was going around Denver under a new name convincing everyone he had served in the Israeli army, which of course, he had not.

So Nadia Bolz-Weber said that when he first showed up at her church, her first instinct was to try to get rid of him. But he wanted to be a part of her community and he wanted to be loved and he wanted to be helpful.  So she told him, “Hang out here and work on just being yourself for once in your life.  You’re a mess, but I plan to love you – just – please get some help.”

And he did.  He got sober.  He got some medication, which Nadia was not sure he always took.  He was a helpful presence in the church and also loud and “spastically hyperactive.”  “Six months prior,” she said, “Rick had come to us a homeless, bipolar, pathological liar. Now, half a year later he was our homeless, bipolar, pathological liar.”[1]

Maybe the Kingdom of God is kind of like that.

When I first heard her tell that story, there was a part of me that wondered if she hoped for something that would preach better.  Because the kind of story that would preach is redemption.  It would preach if that man became a part of their community and God’s love present in that community completely turned his life around, and he became a leader in that church, and shared God’s love with others, and if he defrauded anyone he paid them back four times what he had taken.  We love those stories.

And there are those stories, but to be honest, I like hers better, because it seems to me that there are a lot more stories like that, we just don’t always tell them.  But those are stories of redemption, too – redemption that comes simply from being loved for who we are, and not from anything anyone would ever make a movie about.

So what can we do in a world with that kind of brokenness?  Well, we can love someone where they are, not worrying about whether or not that love will change them.

What can we do in a world where gunman show up in church?  Well, we can continue to gather and take a risk on hospitality – knowing that that won’t prevent the next incident.

What can do we do in a world where war and natural disaster seem to rule the day?  Well, we can give what time and money and resources we have and pray for peace to begin with us.

What can we do in a world where the only people we know are in our own bubbles and we can’t work together?  Well, we can have one conversation with one new person.

And maybe none of it will change anything.

Or maybe it will.

Or maybe it will in ways we never imagined in the first place, and before we know it, there where we planted our seed and hoped to see a cedar is a beautiful, fully grown, blooming mustard plant.  And God is at work, and the Kingdom of Heaven is alive, right now and right here.

 

 

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, p. 189

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…: A Man Who Sowed Good Seed

Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30

The Kingdom of Heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in his field.

It’s just the beginning of the story, but it’s an important part, I think.  The Kingdom of Heaven begins with good seed.  It begins with love, and justice, and mercy, and generosity, and hospitality, and persistence, and courage.  It begins with all those things that God created us for, all those things that God sowed in us and watered and expected to grow.

Some call this God’s “original blessing”: the Kingdom of Heaven begins with good seed, sowed here.

But of course that’s only the beginning of the story.

Exactly why the landowner would be so careless as to allow an enemy to sow weeds among his wheat, Jesus doesn’t really get into.  It happens while people are sleeping; we aren’t really privy to these things.  For our purposes here, it’s enough to recognize the reality we live in, which is one where love and fear, mercy and selfishness, justice and brokenness, good and evil coexist.

A little later in this chapter of Matthew, Jesus interprets this parable for his disciples, and he tells them the wheat is followers of the Kingdom, and the weeds are followers of the evil one.  Sometimes when I read the Bible I have conversations with Jesus along the way, and this is one of those times, because the truth is I struggle with that stark binary.  I’ve never really known anyone who is all wheat or all weeds, though I know or know of people who seem to tend strongly to one side or the other.  What I see when I look around at this world are, by and large, people who are both blessed and broken.  But that’s not what Jesus says, and maybe what Jesus wants me to hear is that we do get to choose, with God’s help, which will flourish in our hearts and lives – will it be wheat or weeds?  Which way will we follow?

And yet Jesus seems to recognize the ambiguity too, because in the parable he tells, when the servants ask the landowner if they should do some weeding, the landowner says no.  It’s not that easy to extricate the one from the other, he says.  They’ve grown intertwined, entangled, maybe even dependent on each other in some way.  Someday, at the end of things, the good will be separated from the bad and only the good will remain.  For now, though – maybe we can’t always see or know or understand all the things that make a person wheat or weed.

As you know already, today is All Saints Sunday.  If you’re Catholic, a saint is someone who has been through a rigorous vetting process, someone who after their death joins a special rank of people who can help mediate between those still living and God.  We Protestants tend to be a lot more informal about the whole thing, and for us, the communion of saints consists of all those who have gone on to be with God.  And more broadly, even, a saint might be anyone who has shown us something of what it means to be God’s people and follow in the way of Jesus.  What that means is, though we may count some larger-than-life historical figures among our saints, people like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero and Mother Theresa, we often know our saints, which means that we also know their brokenness and imperfections.  When I look back to the people who have formed my own communion of saints, this is what I see: relatives, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, people from the church I grew up in, mentors and colleagues and friends, some of who are still living and some of whom are not.  And I couldn’t name one of them that was all wheat and no weeds, but they each showed me something of what it was to follow Jesus as a fellow blessed and broken person.

Maybe the beauty of it all is this: that even though the weeds appear and grow, the wheat still flourishes; because the Kingdom of God is like a field where the good, blessed seed is bound to grow.

And our prayer should be that it will grow in us.

Today my daughter is being baptized, which means that she is being claimed as part of this community of God’s people, the Body of Christ; and in a few minutes you all will have the chance to promise to nourish Evelyn in the Christian faith, to show her how to walk in the way of Jesus, to teach her what it means to have a relationship with God.  And what that means is that all of you are Evelyn’s communion of saints.  Jon and I have already seen the way you loved her even before she was born, how you smile at the noises she makes during prayer time and walk with her at the back of the sanctuary when she gets grumpy and hold her while Jon does AV.  And no matter where life takes her, you all will be her first saints, because you showed her what it means to be welcomed into the Body of Christ.

And she’ll come to know one day that you, also, are blessed and broken people; that you haven’t got this whole following Jesus thing entirely figured out and sometimes you make mistakes and sometimes you go after the wrong things – just like me, and, as she grows, just like her.

But you’ll be her saints, anyway.  And my prayer is that as she grows and comes to embrace this faith as her own that she will be a blessed and broken saint for others who come after her.

The story begins with good seed: God sowing love and justice and mercy in us and among us.

And with God’s help we claim that blessing and live into it and pass it on, because even though the weeds remain, the good and blessed seed is bound to grow.

 

Giving God Our Best: Offering All of Us

Scripture: Amos 5:21-24

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – stewardship season, the time when I get to stand up here and talk to you about money.  And, specifically, about how the church needs yours, and about how God wants you to give some of it.

There’s a reason church people traditionally hate this time of year.  I know, because I used to be a church person in the pews and I hated stewardship season too.  There’s something that just feels a little bit disingenuous about it, like what we’re trying to do is put a nice spiritual veneer on this very worldly and unholy matter of the church budget.  And even if we know deep down that God does want us to give, and even if we know deep down that this community we are part of does need money, and even if we know deep down that you can’t entirely separate spiritual and earthly things, it can all end up feeling a little icky, like am I preaching the Word of God or fundraising?

I attended a church once that was in the middle of a building campaign, and for the children’s sermon, the associate pastor did some measuring and talked about the need for a larger youth room.  I was scandalized.  I thought, “the children’s sermon is part of the building campaign now?  IS NOTHING SACRED?”

Have I summed that up pretty well?  Do you have anything to add?  Why do we hate stewardship season?

When we read today’s passage from the prophet Amos, we may get the impression that he actually feels the same way.  It might seem strange for him to rail against worship and offerings because in the Hebrew Bible, worship and offerings are kind of a big deal.  From the beginning, Leviticus and Deuteronomy instruct the Jewish people to tithe, to present one tenth of their produce as an offering t God.  Ritual worship consists largely of bringing God offerings, in that time animal sacrifices – offerings when you’ve sinned, offerings when you are thankful for something, offerings at certain times of the year, offerings that help support the institutional religion as well as pleasing God.  The authors of Leviticus especially are concerned with getting those offerings right – the right animals, on the right occasions, prepared the right way.  When the Temple is destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE and then rebuilt again 70 years later, a major concern was that people be able to make proper offerings to God once again.  (And speaking of which, the Bible even records a couple building campaigns!) Despite this unmistakable emphasis throughout the Hebrew Bible on what we might call stewardship,  Amos seems to not be that impressed.  In fact, since he is a prophet and he is speaking these words on God’s behalf, it seems that God Godself, in fact, is not that impressed.

I hate your offerings, God says, in the words of Amos.  I don’t want them.  I don’t even want to look at them.  Instead, give me justice and righteousness. 

Across the board, the prophets share this same perspective.  “I’ve had enough of your burnt offerings,” God says in Isaiah 1; “bringing them is futile.  Instead seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,” God says through the prophet Hosea (6).  “Will the Lord be pleased,” asks Micah (6), “with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus himself rips on the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew (23:23) who, he says, “tithe mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

If you, like me, are someone who tends to dislike stewardship season, there is probably something about passages such as these that resonate deeply with you.  Yes, we say, of course, it’s not really our offerings or our money that God wants.  What God wants is holier than that.  What God wants is for us to be faithful and just people.  What God wants is for us to love one another.  It rings true, and it sounds much less icky than talking about money.

Only, as we probably also suspect deep down, it’s not quite as simple as that.

It may sound on the surface like Amos and the prophets are ready to cancel the whole Israelite worship system of sacrifices and offerings in favor of more spiritual endeavors.  But they’re not.  What they’re mad about is that people have started to think that because they make their offerings, they’ve checked a box and they’re all good with God.  They’re mad about people who feign holiness without actually fulfilling the basic obligations of loving one’s neighbor.  In Amos’s case, he sees the religious elite grandly writing large checks while trampling the poor and needy at the city gate.  This, the prophets say, is disgusting to God.

The prophets hate worship and offerings that are not accompanied by justice and righteousness.  But neither, I think, would the prophets be quick to accept a definition of justice and righteousness that didn’t involve generosity, or making God a priority in all aspects of your life, including but not limited to your bank account.

If we go back to the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus’ condemnation of the tithing Pharisees, we find that he went on: “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law…It is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

This is what I take from Amos and his fellow prophets: that God doesn’t want our time or songs or prayers or money if all we are doing with those things is trying to prove how holy or faithful we are while failing to love our neighbors.

What God wants, instead, is an offering of our whole lives.  What God wants, instead, is for our offerings to be one part of a wholly faithful life.

You may remember that back around Ash Wednesday this past year, I told you that I was giving up road rage for Lent.  I was not going to allow myself to get angry at the guy who drove all the way up to the front of a long line of cars waiting at the exit and squeezed his way in.  Instead, I was going to let him in. I was not going to react to the lady who honked aggressively at me to make a left turn while cars were still coming from the other direction.  Instead, I would allow myself to feel some compassion – she must be really stressed and in a rush. When someone cut me off on the way to church, I was going to take a deep breath and give it up to God.

It’s been a while since Lent, and I will be the first to admit that I have done some backsliding since then. But I remember during that time that one morning as I walked to the Panera in the Metro Mall for my morning coffee, a young man rushed to cut ahead of me in line as I walked into the store.  It was the kind of thing that ordinarily would have made me kind of fume quietly for a few minutes just on the principle of the thing; maybe I would have caught his gaze and held it a second like, yeah, you know what you did.  And I didn’t technically give up line rage at Panera for Lent.  But the thing was, because I had given up road rage, I was already primed to have a more gracious reaction were annoying or rude elsewhere in my life.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  Maybe he was.

I really believe that giving, like other spiritual disciplines, can work this way too.  I believe that when I am serious and intentional about making a financial commitment to God, it actually makes me a better person – not better just because I have done this one thing, yay me, but better because each month when I write my check I practice putting God first.  Generosity is not my spiritual gift.  But when I give money away, I honestly believe that there is something freeing in saying no to my own natural stinginess and yes to God’s abundance.  Because of this, tithing has actually become something that is really important to me, not just something I do so that I’m not a hypocrite when I ask you to do it too, which was maybe kind of true at first.

When I make the decision to put God first in my finances by offering 10% of my income before I figure out the rest of my budget, or by sitting down to figure out what in that budget might need to change so that I can offer God a little more than I did the year before, then I believe I am going to be primed to put God first in my life in other ways as well – like intentionally taking time out of my day to cultivate my relationship with God through prayer.  Like taking the time to notice someone else’s needs even when I have my own stuff going on that I am very busy with.  Like making a hard choice because I know it is the faithful one – I will have already had practice at that.

This also works the other way– if I’m a person who commits to a habit of prayer and devotion, not just for the check mark it gets me in heaven but as one part of offering my life that is more faithful and pleasing to God, then I believe that has the power to shape my heart and gradually make me more willing to give in other ways.  It all goes together, Amos and Jesus both tell us; you can’t separate a commitment to justice and righteousness out from a commitment to giving, just like you can’t separate giving out from a life of justice and righteousness either.

You know by now that there is this card in your bulletin, there for you to take with the purpose of going home, logging into your bank account, thinking, praying, and writing down how much you pledge to commit to the ministry of Arlington Temple UMC in 2018.  I’m asking you to bring this card back next week so that we can celebrate these commitments we are making together.

Here’s the thing: I am not claiming that giving to God is synonymous with what you fill out on this card.  There are lots of ways that God is at work in the world around us.  Maybe there is a particular cause that God has called you to be a part of by supporting it financially, as well as perhaps in other ways.  If you decide to start tithing or otherwise grow in your giving and part of your offering goes there instead of here, praise God.

Do you know why I’m comfortable saying that during stewardship season, when we also have a budget to plan for and do actually need your offerings for that?  Partly it’s because I think it’s more important that you all be the kind of people who give than for us to meet a budget.  But partly it’s also because I truly believe that if you all are the kind of people who give, we won’t have any trouble meeting our budget.  A person who is generous in one area of their life is more likely to be generous in another.

Now, do I think that making a commitment to give to Arlington Temple is a good way to make an offering to God? Yes. I do, and I try my best to live out that conviction through my own giving.  I believe that the welcome people receive here is something special, something that reminds each person that they are loved and worthy in God’s eyes.  I believe that we provide a necessary place for our community to come together to serve and be served, whether that is through the AA meetings that use this space during the week or our Wednesday morning Bible study for our homeless and hungry and other neighbors or our bag lunch and health kit making that blesses our community and world. I believe that Arlington Temple makes this world a better place because people come here and are empowered to go back and out and be God’s people in the world.  In the past year or so we’ve seen more people in worship, more people in Bible study, more people willing to volunteer and serve in more ways.  I believe that God is doing something here, and I want to be part of that with everything I have to give.  I also believe that we who form this community have a responsibility to each other.  We are the church together! Your offerings help us to practice justice and righteousness together in community.  Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, and do it even better in 2018!

On the back of this card is a place to note what besides money you want to commit to God in the coming year.  I don’t always emphasize the back of the card so much, largely because we talk about those commitments at other times during the year.  We have opportunities to engage in new devotional practices like reading the Bible in a year.  We have opportunities to offer our time and service when we begin new volunteer rotations.  But, don’t think that this side of the card is just to soften the blow of talking about money.  As the prophets remind us, the offering God wants from us is our whole lives.  Our time, our money, our prayers, our service, our justice and righteousness.  Maybe this is the invitation you need to think about how God is calling you to live a wholly faithful life.

God asks for your best: not your leftovers, not those offerings that cost you nothing, not an effort to prove your own righteousness.  God has already given God’s best to us, and in return God asks for all of us.  Not to check a box.  Not to make ourselves holy.  But to let God make us God’s people, little by little, generous and just.