This sermon makes more sense if you read John 11:1-45 (Yes it is that long)
Bishop Desmund Tutu wrote these lyrics to a hymn:
‘Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through him who loved us. Victory is ours.’
Poignant words for times such as these. We hear this powerful truth reflected in the very long scripture we just read, the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus. This is a strange and mysterious story for us and I just want to start off by saying, if you are hearing this story thinking to yourself, I just don’t know if I believe this story be literally true, like I just don’t know if I believe that Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead, it’s ok. That’s ok. This is a strange story, a mysterious story. It’s ok to not be sure about this text.
You can still be Christian, you can still follow Jesus and not be sure about everything. In fact it’s actually better that way. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it is certainty. Faith is radical trust that we don’t have it all figured out. It’s radical trust that we don’t or can’t know everything. It’s radical trust that there is a movement, a love and a power which is greater and bigger than each of us, which is at work in this world. The only thing that really puts a stop to this whole faith thing is certainty.
So let’s look at this story and more importantly see this story in the larger framework of John’s gospel so we can fully understand what it is saying to us today, here and now.
This is the last bit of Jesus’ public ministry in the gospel of John. This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, this is the event which causes the powers of this world to arrest Jesus and put him to death. What does that say about us as human beings? The power of Jesus rooted in unbelievable compassion and grief, the power of his love to bring a friend back from the dead, that’s the act which causes such overwhelming fear.
Fear is a tricky thing. It’s a part of who we are as human beings and it is absolutely necessary to our survival There are healthy fears that we have in this world. The fear that leads a parent to stop a child from wandering into a street, the fear of a sober alcoholic to take that first drink, the fear of a pandemic which leads us to take prudent action, staying at home, to save lives. These are all healthy fears.
But fear can run wild in our hearts and our lives. We can be consumed by fear. One pastor used to always say, ‘ fear can’t be in the driver’s seat, fear’s gotta be sitting in the back seat, and fear can’t pick the music.’
When we are consumed with fear, unacknowledged fear, unconfessed fear, when we are trying to hold onto power and control, that’s when fear typically makes a mess of things.
Ok so back to the story, so Mary and Martha reach out to Jesus to let him know that their brother Lazarus is sick. But Jesus remains away. After a few more days Jesus comes to their home. Many people had come out to mourn the death of Lazarus, the community has come to grieve together. Martha, upon seeing Jesus says to him: ‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.’
How many of us have felt this way in our lives? Upon experiencing the death of a partner, a friend, a child. In the midst of our grief and confusion, as we shrink before the mystery of death, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
Jesus responds to Martha, saying I am the resurrection and the life. This is one of the I am statements that Jesus makes in the gospel of John. Statements revealing to us the very nature and the heart of Jesus, the very heart and the nature of God. I am the resurrection and the life.
One of the things that is absolutely essential to understanding John’s Gospel is this resurrection, this salvation, this wholeness, this the fullness of life, this joy and undeniable hope is something we experience here and now. We use a really fancy word for this in seminary, it’s called a realized eschatology. Jesus says I am the resurrection and the life, right here, right now, in this very moment, even in the midst of death and grieving.
After this had happened Jesus asked to see where Lazarus had been buried and they took him to the tomb. And then we have the shortest verse in all of the New Testament, this short but profound verse: Jesus began to weep. Jesus began to weep. Deeply moved with compassion, feeling the weight of grief and loss, feeling the unbelievable and undeniable love we share with one another as we journey through life together, Jesus stood at the tomb and began to weep.
This is our God. This is the power of our God. Radical compassion, radical solidarity, humble sacrificial love in the face of all circumstances. Jesus acknowledging the pain, naming it with his tears, not wishing it away with platitudes and clichés, not stuffing it down deep within, trying to make sure that he is keep all his stuff together. He wept.
And then in a moment of overwhelming love and hope beyond all hope, Jesus does the unthinkable calls “Lazarus come out.’ Lazarus comes out, bound by strips of cloth. Jesus says ‘unbind him and let him go.’
What an incredible, sacred, moment this must have been. Astounding, confounding, overwhelming. Light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through Jesus who loves us.
And then do you know what happens to Lazarus? The very next chapter Lazarus is eating dinner with Jesus. In the presence of divine grace, divine light, the resurrection and the life, Jesus has a dinner party with his friends, Lazarus included and love abounds.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. This resurrection is not something that just happens when we die, but that this resurrection happens right here and right now, in the midst of this life. In these moments of undeniable pain, moments of despair, when we are feeling a deep sense of loss, those lonesome valleys we walk through,
it is in these moments too, Jesus is there with us, He is weeping, he’s standing outside the tomb calling life to spring forth from death, these are the places in our lives and our world where God is stirring with unbelievable compassion and radical unconditional solidarity.
I wanted to end with a story from our family self-isolation, a story of resurrection joy. On Friday afternoon our girls were playing out in our backyard. It was just a beautiful day, like perfect afternoon, sunny with a cool breeze, it reminded me of a nice California afternoon.
Self-isolation hasn’t been the easiest transition for any of us, we’ve all be adjusting to our new normal. This beautiful afternoon was a gift of grace for us all. My wife Allison and I were in cooking dinner as the girls were running all around the yard. As we were cooking were we chatting, when out the window of the door we saw our oldest daughter Olivia coming to the door, just covered in dirt, all over her hands her feet her clothes, everywhere, dirt. And she was just beaming, just beaming, a smile as wide as the horizon. We opened up the door and before we could even ask what she was up to, she opened up her hand and started screaming with joy ‘MOM, DAD, I FOUND EARTHWORMS! I FOUND EARTHWORMS!”
‘Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours through him who loved us. Victory is ours.’
This sermon makes more sense if you read John 1:29-42.
Today we begin a three part sermon series during this season after the Epiphany. The sermon series is named: Called. Sent. Blessed. Each of the three gospel lessons talk about these three movement in our discipleship, our life of faith. Called. Sent. Blessed. These are the movements. God calls us through a deep longing in our heart to live and love in a different way, God calls us through a moment of curiosity, a moment of seeking, God calls to us in a moment of great pain when we’ve tried for the millionth time to fix it all ourselves, God calls to us when were in the midst of an ordinary day of fishing, Jesus calls to us and our lives can never be the same.
That call is deeply intimate and personal but it isn’t individualistic. In other words, God’s call to each of us bring us into a larger sense of community and sends us forth into the world not only to share the story of what God has done in our life, but to also be part of what God is doing in this world, to be part of building that bigger, better, more loving and just kingdom here in our neighborhood.
And God’s calling and this sending always leads us to a deeper understanding of God’s grace at work in our hearts and in this world. We come to understand on a new level that blessing which Jesus and the great faithful people of old talk about, that deep blessing where we know, even when things are tough, even when the world is falling apart around us, even when our journey following Jesus has led us to confront the hard truths of this world, racism, extreme poverty, oppression, the blessing we know from Jesus is that even in these moments God’s liberative spirit of unconditional love is at work.
We can say and know and feel, even then the presence of a God who is on the side of the weak and vulnerable, always working for the good. We can say that we are blessed.
These are the movements of a spiritual life. Being called. Going into the world. Receiving God’s blessing. Then coming back and hearing God’s call anew.
It’s a cycle. It never stops. No matter how long we’ve been following Jesus. No matter how old we are or young. God calls each of us. God send each of us. God blesses, each and every one of us.
So I’ll talk more today about calling, our brother Gerry will preach next week on sending and I’ll end with a sermon on blessing.
Let’s take a closer look at the gospel because as I was I was reading and preparing for today, I was struck by this commentary which pointed out this odd verse in the gospel that we read. Jesus is walking along when all of the sudden John the Baptist sees Jesus and says: ‘look it’s the Lamb of God.’ Then, two of John’s followers hear John say this and they turn to look at Jesus. Jesus then says this wonderfully cryptic question as they are looking at him, Jesus says, ‘what exactly are you looking for?’ In other words: what are you seeking?
They say ‘Rabbi, where are you staying,’ to which Jesus says, ‘come and see’ and they went with him and remained with him and this odd ball little verse and all of this happened at about 4 ‘ in the afternoon.
Let’s unpack this a little bit. One of the ways that we experience God’s calling to us is when we have that deep seated human desire to seek some sort of spiritual understanding for our life and our world.
Sometimes, by the way, that spiritual understanding could be non-spiritual in its origin, it could emanate from a ‘secular’ realm of our world, whether science, or humanist, but at some point along the way I think all of us are going to ask the question, what does it all mean? What is our purpose? How do I understand my place in the universe? What is my worldview? These are questions. Deep meaningful questions that call to us as we live this thing we call our life.
We are all at some point along the way a seeker. We are a seeker of truth and understanding , a seeker of wisdom or knowledge, a seeker of a purpose and reason for moving and having our being that is bigger and wider than us alone, that’s bigger than the things we desire in this world.
And, if we follow Jesus, if we live a spiritual life, if we are active in our discipleship, then that seeking, that questioning: it will never leave us.
Our journey following God’s unconditional love in Christ will open us up more and more to a bigger and wider and more inclusive understanding of our small but incredible part in the story of God’s saving love unfolding for the whole world.
Because this call we have from God, this curiosity that God places on our heart, these moments of undeniable grace where we can feel the Spirit of God holding us in mercy and guiding our feet in this world, they are never just a one and done. God’s calling is continual and relational and perpetual.
These disciples come to Jesus with this open mind and open heart. And Jesus says what are you seeking, and their first reply, at least as I read it is to say we want a rabbi, a teacher, someone to show us the way.
They wanted someone to learn from. A few years ago I had this Epiphany, this moment of revelation where God led me to this truth: it is awesome be a student. It is liberating to always be a student. If you are perfectionist like me, this is incredibly freeing because when you start to realize that ‘you’re not doing this right’, or if you make yet another mistake, you can always remember oh yeah, that’s right I’m a student, I am not a master, my spiritual life isn’t perfect but it’s moving in the right direction.
This is awesome. WE don’t have to be in control. We don’t have to be the one holding everything together. As one pastor says: there is a center of the universe and it isn’t us! We can live recognizing and celebrating our call but at the same time know that there is one from which we can learn and grow and follow.
In the story, Jesus then instead of giving them some sermon about what to believe or what to say or how to act, he invites them to come and live with him for a day. Where are you staying teacher? Why don’t you come and live with me, come and see, and all of this happened around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
I love that little throwaway verse. And all of this happened around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It just doesn’t seem all that important, not really all that significant, but at the same time it seems kind of strange that the writer would include such a detail in the midst of this story.
But, take a moment to think about this, what are those moments in your life where you know exactly what time it was when something extraordinary happened? Our lives are marked by these days, dates and time when something so incredible happened to us we couldn’t help but change the way we live and move and see this crazy world that we live in.
What was it in your life? The date and time when your child was born, the day and time your loved one took their last breath, that moment you let go of it all and finally decided to ask for help, the time you got married, the moment of that first kiss, the time you felt extremely small and yet cherished.
Maybe this happened around 10 in the morning, or 2 in the afternoon or at 12:29pm on Saturday August 2nd 2014, or Tuesday January 31st at 11:18pm. There are these indications that we hold onto, these moments where our life shifted and changed. We mark these moments and revisit these moments and this allows us to bring ourselves back to these sacred times and to re-center ourselves and remember who we really are…..
For these disciples meeting Jesus, the Lamb of God, was that moment for them, they knew that things wouldn’t ever be the same because once you’ve known unconditional love you can’t really ever go back.
These are moments where a call is realized. These are the moments when we recognize and understand if only for what seems like a fleeting moment, that we are about to embark or are in the midst of a new season in our life, these are the moments when those questions about who we are, what our life is about, where we are going and where God is in the midst of it, come to the forefront of our mind and Jesus says to us, come and stay with me, come and learn from me, come and be with me.
Called. You are called. God is speaking in your life. God is longing for you and with you to live a big and bold life in this world. God has given you everything you need to do what God is calling you to. And here’s the best part: you are not alone.
The spiritual practice of hearing God’s call is something we in the church call discernment. It’s a fancy word for prayerful listening. As a pastor I was in a process of discernment for ministry from the age of 23 until I got ordained at the age of 30. Seven years or praying, practicing ministry, reflecting on where God was working in and through me in the church.
Seven years of writing papers and being interviewed and then writing more papers and being interviewed again, and then writing more papers and being interviewed again. I share this just to say that some in the church have said that our discernment process, our ordination process is too long. There are too many hoops for pastors to jump through- especially young pastors, because well there just aren’t many of us going into ministry these days.
But I for one am grateful that the process was so long. I am grateful that there are parts of it that I didn’t like. I am grateful that the church made me rethink and reword and re-communicate this feeling that I’ve had deep within my heart for most of my life. Because in and through it all I have come to know this on a much deeper and experienced level, our call from God is a dynamic and wondrous and fluid thing. It changes and grows as you change and grow.
Alright, so here is what I want to end with. This is a very wonderful and doable spiritual practice of discerning what you are called to do by God. People will often ask me, pastor I think I might be called to this but how do I know its from God and not from me? That is a great question. Here is the practice. Take an inventory of your life. Think about where you are in your life, in your relationships, in this world. Then ask yourself: where is God giving you life? Where are you experiencing that fullness of an abundant life? Where are those places where you find yourself so energized and jazzed about the things you are experiencing that it just bubbles up and overflows from the deepest part of your being?
The other question to ask yourself, where is your heart breaking? Where in this life and this world do you see a longing and a yearning which just gets stuck right there in your chest. Where do you see a need that isn’t being met which could in some small way, offer hope and love to a vulnerable persons. That longing for justice, that heart that breaks for those in need, that anger you feel at a real injustice we experience in this world, those are moments of God calling us to participate in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, a place that doesn’t reflect our country or our world no matter how much people in power tell us it does.
This is the call of God to a prophetic witness in our world. This is the call of ordinary Christians and the giants of our faith like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On this weekend where we remember his life, it is always worth remembering that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian and a pastor. When he preached ‘I have a dream,’ he was capturing and articulating a vision of God’s kingdom here on earth. He is part of that great lineage of prophets who reflect for us that the way the world is, is not the way God longs for it to be.
His words continue to echo because they are so rooted in a truth of our experience that they bring to light the things most of us would rather ignore or turn away from. But God calls us to live in the truth of our faith, the truth of our gospel, that all people are created in the image of God, each person has sacred and inherent worth in this world, that each of us, no matter who we are, where we come from, what we look like, all of us matter to our God, that Jesus in his life death and resurrection breaks down all the barriers we place around ourselves with his unbelievable love.
Thank God for those who have said yes to God. Thank God that the spirit raises up people in our midst, right here in our congregation, no matter how small and ordinary we might feel, to lives of loving service. How is God calling you today? Right here and right now? Are you full of life and energy? Is your heart breaking? Its about 10:55 in the morning.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
read Philippians 4 for some context.
We are in this season of thanksgiving, a time which we set apart as a culture to remember and to give thanks for all the many blessings we have in our life. It is a wonderful time for many. A time for family, for friends, a time to sit and reflect on our lives. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes this is a particularly difficult time for people. Persons who are lonely, folks who are caring for loved ones, people who are grieving. One of the added challenges is that we are told by our culture, during this season in particular, be happy, be grateful, be content.
But the thing is, and I can’t speak for you, but I know in my life, I just can’t will myself in or out of a particular way of being, a way of feeling or a season of my life. It just doesn’t work that way. I can keep showing up during that time. I can keep doing the spiritual work. I can keep on being present for worship and attentive in my life of prayer, I can be with my community, but I have to do all those things and then release the outcome over to God.
As a mentor of mine always says- we gotta do the work and stay out of the results. In other words, keep showing up, keep on keeping on even if your inner life feels a little bit off, even if you are carrying that extra weight, and I don’t mean that thanksgiving weight,
even if you don’t feel grateful in this very moment, keep on keeping on and release those feelings of having to fix yourself, release those things prayerfully to God and let God do what God does best- save us when we can’t save ourselves.
I know this is an odd way to begin a sermon about gratitude and thanksgiving, but I think it’s important for us as a community of faith to say sometimes we don’t feel grateful, sometimes we don’t see things in our life that we can be grateful for. There might even be people in our midst who are struggling this very moment to see the light shining through the darkness, even if they believe it in their heart of hearts, they are struggling to see it in their lives. And that is Ok. It is ok.
We all experience that in our lives, sometimes these seasons are short, sometimes they are long, but the one thing we believe is that God is in it all, at work in it all through Jesus our Lord, redeeming all things. That’s why we are people of the resurrection. Because we believe that Jesus, in his resurrection, proclaims that these things which happen to us , no matter how lonely and dark and twisted they might seem in the moment, they will not have the last word. Man. That is so amazingly hopeful. What a way to live in this world. To live this truth, this counter cultural truth in our world. What a blessing and what a challenge.
So having opened the sermon with all this I want to talk a little bit more about gratitude and why it is so hard to preach about in our churches, and why it is in fact a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline that we need to put into action in our lives.
It is tricky because gratitude is something that we experience genuinely and naturally as a response to what happens in our life. It isn’t always something that we can just manufacture.
Let me give you an example from my life as a parent to two young children.
Often I will get home after a long day of work and parenting and I will start to cook dinner. The girls will be in the other room watching a show and I’ll just be cooking away. I put together a simply but absolutely delicious meal and call the girls in from the other room. I’ll make their plate and we will all sit down as a family to pray and then, the girls will just start digging in.
Usually I will say something like, girls, “what do we say?”
To which they will look somewhat confused or baffled and say , “Please?”
I’ll say, “No girls, the other one.”
“oh, yeah- thank you.”
All this is to say something that is very obvious but needs to be pointed out, thanksgiving, gratitude, is a strange thing because it is something that has to be genuinely experienced but at the same time is something that we can cultivate or grow in.
That’s why parents teach their children to say thank you. It is something that we can learn and cultivate but almost paradoxically it is something that we just have to experience on this deep and profound level and then express.
That’s where the reading from Philippians enters in for today. The reading for this Sunday is taken from the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The tradition goes that Paul was writing this letter to the church when he was imprisoned by the Romans for spreading the good news of God’s all inclusive and unconditional love in Jesus Christ.
I share this to say that Paul is someone who knew what it was like to be kicked around. He lived quite a life, a difficult life after his conversation he suffered a great deal for the sake of the gospel. But, sometimes when you read his writings you might think that his life was all honkey-dorey.
I mean listen to these words that he pens here:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.
Do those words sound like words of someone in prison? Do they sound like the words of someone who is being persecuted for preaching that God is love? Do they sound like the words of someone who is living with the boot of the empire on their neck?
They don’t sound that way at all but they are the words of a person who lived this deep and spiritual life connected and rooted in God’s grace, so much so that he was able to say rejoice, at all times, again I say rejoice.
There is a spiritual depth here which is so inspiring to us as modern believers, modern followers of Jesus. A spiritual depth which empowers and emboldens us to find ways to be ok when things aren’t OK.
Paul then goes on to say that we as people of God are to rejoice in all circumstances and to hold in our minds, whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. Paul says if there is anything excellent and worthy of praise, hold onto these things in your mind.
This gets to the heart of a spiritual life and a life of cultivating gratitude and thanksgiving, it is about what we notice. That’s really at the heart of the matter, what we notice in this life, where we choose to focus our attention. This makes an impact how we react, how we respond, it affects whether or not we have that genuine experience of thanksgiving in our heart.
Maybe you’ve had this experience in your life before. You woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You get out of bed and the coffee pot didn’t go off the way it was supposed to, and your walking in the dark and then all of the sudden you trip over that small step up which is always there but because you didn’t have your morning cup of coffee and you weren’t awake yet, so you missed it.
And your day goes down hill from there. It is just one thing after another. You hit every red light on your way to work so your late, your computer gets stuck in that never ending updating cycle, so you’re later getting that email to your boss which was supposed to be timestamped before noon and on and on and on. By the end of the day you are just a host mess of anger and frustration and resentment.
You went through the whole day without noticing anything good, anything that was unexpected, any signs of hope or connection or joy, and you end the day stuck up in your head, with a narrative of self-pity.
But Paul tells us here that we as Christians are supposed to shift our ways of seeing the world, we are supposed to put on the lens of Christ to see through his eyes and hear through his ears. We are called to notice the world for what it is, what it truly is, not a place of scarcity, a place to be feared or to withdraw from, but an overflowing creation of love and goodness, which God has blessed and continues to bless.
It is powerful to allow that Spirit of God, that Holy Spirit, to transform our minds and to shift our perception so that we can notice and see all the good that is bubbling up and emerging all around us all the time, even in the darkest places and the most difficult circumstances.
Paul believed this very thing when he wrote these words from a prison cell, celebrating the Philippian church and the love and the witness they were offering in their neighborhood and their city. He was celebrating even in the midst of his own personal trials, he was focusing on the excellent and the just and the commendable.
Now this practice doesn’t mean that we are called to be “Pollyannas”, for we know that Paul, and for the larger point Jesus, were not naïve about the real darkness we experience in this life. No we are called to name the pain and the suffering for what it is, name it for what it is in our life but to not let it have the last word. For we are people of the resurrection, we believe that love will always have the last word.
During this season of thanksgiving, this time where we reflect on our lives and our world, I was reminded of the words of the poet Mary Oliver who wrote:
Instructions for living a life:
- Pay Attention.
- Be astonished.
- Tell about it.
These are instructions we can carry with us into the coming week and the coming months. Pay attention to what is happening. Notice where you are feeling connected and inspired, where you are feeling depressed or stilted, notice where you feel deep pain and tremendous joy. Starts first by paying attention and noticing.
Then be astonished. Don’t ever forget that your life is a beautiful mystery to be explored, that you move about this wondrous creation, with this amazing body which is a gift, that you get to see incredible things and taste a thanksgiving dinner infused with love, be astonished at all that you see and hear and experience in this one life you are given.
And then share about it. Share the highs and the lows, share in words and in silence, share in songs that make you want to sing out loud at the top of your lungs and share through rhythmic movements of the dance you do when you know nobody is watching. Tell about it in how you share your love with others. And please for the sake of this world, this world which needs you to share, don’t be stingy with your story, the story of God’s saving love unfolding in your life, don’t be stingy with it. Share it generously. With everyone. Because everyone needs to hear it.
two scriptures to read: 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31
A few weeks ago I got the chance to visit one of my favorite places in the whole world: Costco. Every month or so my wife and I compile a big list of things we need from Costco. I usually am able to convince one or both of the girls to go with me, you know samples can be a compelling argument to a 5 and 2 ½ year old, and we load up and drive up on the 75 to Costco. I love Costco so much. There’s just something about it. The food, the household supplies, the hot dogs, it truly is a magical place for strange people like me.
I think I love Costco so much because of the feeling I get when I’m done shopping there….I am out in the parking lot loading up my SUV filled with 600 rolls of toilet paper and 3000 rolls of paper towels, the feeling I get is one of deep satisfaction, contentment, a feeling that this one trip is going to meet the needs of our family for a long, long time. I mean we once bought a box of trash bags from Costco that lasted two years. We didn’t need to buy trash bags for two entire years, that purchase was a purchase which satisfied…
I know it sounds a little silly to admit this aloud to you all, but hopefully you know me well enough by now to know that silly and strange are just part of who I am.
I bring this up because it relates to our texts this morning, and for this sermon I wanted to focus a little bit on each of the readings, the first reading from 1 Timothy 6 and the second reading from the Gospel of Luke.
First from Timothy. Timothy is a short Epistle, a letter, in the New Testament. Church tradition holds that St. Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, one of his younger colleagues, in order to give Timothy some guidance on how to organize a church community. The reality is that Paul most likely didn’t write this letter himself but the letter’s authorship is neither here nor there for us today.
In the section we heard read this morning the author is giving Timothy and his community some instructions on faithful living. The passage begins:
“of course there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these.”
One thing that I’m just so amazed by, struck by and challenged by, is that these spiritual reflections ring just as true today in our life and our world as they did over 2000 years ago. We still need this same instruction because we still struggle with the same human drive to accumulate, to build, to amass.
When I was a kid growing up there was this shirt brand called No Fear, which was super popular. I loved No Fear shirts. They were edgy and cool, kind of grungy and a little bit skater, all these things that I desperately wanted to be but wasn’t. I remember going into a store in the mall, which itself seems like a strange and foreign concept today, and looking at all the No Fear shirts I couldn’t afford to buy. I was sitting there looking at all the shirts when I saw this one which I still remember to this day. It was a simple black shirt with this sayings: “He who dies with the most toys, still dies…..No Fear.”
I wanted that shirt so badly. I was coveting that shirt so badly. I mean the irony of that is just too much to miss, coveting a shirt which essentially is pointing out that we came into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing, focus on being content with what you have, offer it all to God for service of God’s will.
Contentment is tough though. It’s a tough spiritual practice to take on and to cultivate. It seems like we are really prone to coveting, to desiring what others have, to seeing all the areas in our life where to lack and to focus on those instead of focusing on the abundance of riches and blessings we experience, each and every day. Maybe you don’t struggle with this, that’s awesome, you have a spiritual gift my friend, you have had great gain of Godliness through the power of contentment.
But for those of us who do struggle with this, I, for one, take comfort in the fact that Christians, even going back to the first and second generation, struggled with this too. So much so that they needed a letter with some spiritual reflection and teaching written just to them, addressed to them personally as a community, offering them some hope and a different way of life.
I think this is good news, great news actually, that although the writer of Timothy didn’t live in a world with Amazon Prime or a world of Instagram Influencers whose lives look picture perfect for all the world to see. But still, although the writer didn’t live in this world, the writer still addresses this same spiritual concern we should all be aware of- wholeness, fullness, the abundance of life doesn’t come from the things we own, the things we have, it doesn’t come from rearranging the external circumstances of our life- that can only be found when we experience God’s lifegiving love, God’s unbelievable and unconditional and underserved love for us, inside our heart of hearts- peace, contentment, serenity is an inside job turned out.
That’s tough though, at least for me. I still have this tendency to want to gain satisfaction and contentment from all the stuff I have around me, from the big old box of trash bags and toilet paper rolls from Costco, and not from that which is eternal but intangible, that which is always present and yet of which I remain mostly unaware- the ever beating heart of God for me, for us and for this world.
One of the spiritual practices that helps us to cultivate that heart of contentment, that life which is whole and rich connected to God’s life-giving presence, is the practice of making a gratitude list. See gratitude is the spiritual remedy to coveting. Whenever you start to covet, to look with desire upon someone else’s’ stuff or life, gratitude is just what you need, because gratitude draws you back into you, back into your life, instead of living in the fantasy of someone else’s life. And I’ve lived long enough to know that living in the reality of the present, even if it’s hard and difficult, is always better than living in a fantasy, because the present reality is all, we, have.
So whenever we might be particularly envious of another person, when our coveting is causing us great discomfort, perhaps we can find some time, to take out a pen and a piece of paper, and simply make a list of what you are grateful for. Make a list of all the things in your life you can give God thanks and praise for. Even if you can’t write it down, just take a moment and go through a list in your own mind.
For your breath, this quiet force which surges through your body, in and out
For the beauty of this world that we get to move around in. for the anticipation of this new season and all the changes we experience.
For the people in our life who love us, especially when we don’t deserve it. For the people in our life who love us with a love that is truly unconditional.
For the gift of a church, a place for us to come for prayer and community. A place where all are welcome, no matter who we are, what we’ve done, what we believe or don’t, a place of compassion, wholeness and accountability to the call of Jesus.
Here’s the thing about the list, even if you can’t find much to be grateful for, and there are those life moments, there are those times when things around you seem to dark that there isn’t much light shining through, even in those moments there is probably at least something we can be grateful for.
Gratitude and contentment are powerful because they bring us back to our own life, back into our own self, to the moment we are currently inhabiting, but at the same time they draw us out of that smaller self of desiring what we don’t have, and into our bigger self, our true self, our spiritual self, of seeing what we have and what we can share with others. Contentment, leads to gratitude, which in my experience leads to generosity.
This brings us to our second reading for today, the reading from Luke’s gospel. The story for this morning from the gospel is a parable, a story which Jesus tells us about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. It is a challenging text where the rich man passes by Lazarus every single day, sitting outside the rich man’s gates, asking for help, and the rich man ignores his cries of help day in and day out. The story goes that the rich man dies and goes to hell because he ignored the cry of the poor.
There are a couple things which are just fascinating about this story. First, the fact that Jesus chooses to name the poor beggar but leaves the rich man unnamed. Man, I love Jesus to much. That is like such a bold and counter cultural thing to do. See back in the day, well not too much unlike today, the poor homeless beggar would have been a non-person, an invisible person, while the rich person would have been someone who everyone would know by name or reputation. Think about our world, think about all the wealthy people who have been gone for year but whose names we still know- Procter, Gamble, Dater, Rockefeller, Carnegie. But Jesus flips this upside down, naming the poor, homeless beggar, Lazarus.
Alright, so the next thing that stands out is that this rich person ends up in hell, which is metaphorically depicted here as a place of torment, for what reason? For not acting in love. For not serving with compassion. For ignoring the needs of the poorest around him. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t believe the right thing. He didn’t end up there because he didn’t say the right prayer. He didn’t end up there because he couldn’t recite the right creed. He ended up there because he didn’t act beyond himself.
The rich man was blind to the neediest around him. He didn’t even try.
I think that this is what Jesus is getting us to consider in our own lives of faith, to ponder these question: who do we see? Who do we see? Are we living fully present in each moment as we move about this world, enough so that we are attentive to those around us? Are we living with a heart of compassion which is big enough to start with acknowledging the person who others ignore? Are we seeking to see and serve Christ, the presence of the holy, which dwells in each and every single person we meet?
In order to do this we need to be living that life of contentment and gratitude which leads us into Christian service, which leads us into lives of generosity, which leads us into living lives of life-giving love.
This story from Luke is an unsettling one for me and for people throughout Christian history, it’s another hard story that Jesus shares with us that can work on our hearts from the inside out. One of the things that can bog us down is when we start to think about the overwhelming needs that exist in this world, all the people who are hungry, all the people who are poor, all the people who are homeless. Sometimes these thoughts can lead us to withdraw because we don’t think we can really make a difference.
The reformer, Martin Luther, once preached on this passage and he said “we can’t feed every beggar in the world, but we can feed the one at our gate.”
Who is outside our gate? I tell you, our church is in a neighborhood where people are hungry, there are poor people in this community. I am so proud of us for serving our neighborhood through the pancake breakfast, for our support of the food pantry and all the other ways you all serve the beggar at our gate, but what are we missing, are there ways for us to not only serve but be in relationship with those who other ignore or push aside?
Let’s continue to dream together, to pray together, to serve together in love. And may Jesus, who sees the beauty and fragility of every human person, who sees us completely and wholly for who we are, may he work inside our hearts to give us eyes to see all people in this world. Amen.