20

Nov 18

November 20, 2018

giving our all

By Robert English

Read Mark 12:38-44

In our world we often hear things like, “bigger is better, and biggest is best,” or “it’s always better to have more rather than less.”  We sometimes idolize people and companies who have unbelievable amounts of money, the unbelievably ginormous mansions, or an ungodly number of twitter followers.  We lift them up as a society and sometimes put them up on this pedestal as folks to be admired and emulated.

Think about the hubbub we recently had in the news over the trillion dollar company Amazon and their decision to build a new headquarters, HQ2, somewhere in the United States.  This was a big news story because the shear size of Amazon’s wealth and their intention to build this huge facility and pump beau-coop bucks into a local economy.

It was just announced the other week that H2Q would in fact be split into two different locations, one in New York outside of Long Island and the second location outside of Arlington Virginia.  As a people, as a culture, we are drawn to these stories of the big, the powerful, the wealthy.  Our attention tends to focus on them as well as our imagination.

That’s where today’s story from the gospel of Mark comes into our consciousness and disrupts all of our norms and our expectations.  This story from the gospel of Mark almost reads like one of Jesus’ parables, which may be exactly what the gospel writer intended us to see.

A parable, in case you’re new to Christianity or need a refresher, is a short story that Jesus tells which is intended to take all of our assumptions about the way the world is supposed to be an turn them all over on their head.  It’s a story which is supposed to challenge the way that we view the world and we understand our place in it, in order to see more clearly where God is at work and how we are called to live and move and have our being in this life.

The story from today’s gospel does just that.  it is a short story that seeps into our heart and into our minds and reshapes our understanding of the world and how we are called to be in it.  Let’s unpack this a bit.

So Jesus is in Jerusalem, which is the heart, the very center of the holy land.  It was considered  the most sacred and important place on the face of the planet because it is the place where folks believed God dwelt closest with humanity, in the temple, which was in the heart of the city.  Jesus’ trek to Jerusalem brings his ministry to the poor, the marginalized and the outcast closer and closer to the heart of power, wealth and might in the region.  It was also a journey toward his crucifixion and resurrection.

But before that eventual end, Jesus spends time in and around the temple in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching.  That is the setting for today’s reading as the treasury was part of the temple complex.  Jesus is there with the disciples as people are coming to give their monetary offering to the work of the temple.

Jesus and the disciples see the most important and most rich people emerging from the crowd offering their large sums of money to the work of the temple.  It was a public display of power and prestige.  One of the things that might be lost on us as modern readers is that the currency of the day was entirely coin.  There were no paper monies.  So as these folks are making their large offerings, the sound of the coin being tossed into the treasury would have been noticeable to say the least.  It would have resonated throughout the entire area. This was a very public act in this very public place.

So Jesus is witnessing one person after another, after another, making these large donations which sounded out through the crowds.

Then, from among the crowd, emerges a widow, an older woman single woman, to make her offering.  Now it is worth pointing out that widows held a particular place in society during Jesus’ time.  They were the most vulnerable or all persons.  This was a heavily patriarchy society where a woman’s worth was dependent upon her relationship to a man; her father or her husband.

If a woman was widowed in her lifetime, there were laws and expectations that she would in fact remarry one of her late husband’s brothers so as to be protected and supported.  So if a woman were to remain a widow it meant that she had no one to care for her and she was unable, due to the views and laws of the time, to care for herself.  Widows were among the most forgotten, ignored and weak of all persons in all of Jesus’ society.

This widow emerges from the crowd to offer her offering.  Two small coins, which were called a mite, which together equaled the smallest of all the Roman currency.

This is who Jesus lifts up and puts on a pedestal.  This is the person who Jesus says to the disciples: be like her.  That would have been shocking and completely unexpected.  Jesus calling us to be weak, vulnerable, and impoverished and to give from that place.

That sounds pretty radical to me.  Jesus sums this whole thing up in this way, he said, ‘For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

There was a tremendous amount of faith, love and intention that prompted her gift.  It meant something to her in a way that the gifts out of the abundance just didn’t.

One of the things that Jesus teaches over and over and over again in the gospels is that the heart space behind our actions matters.  In fact, Jesus teaches us that it is our heart space, our intentions that matter the most.  He calls us to live with our hearts constantly in the right alignment with God’s will for our lives.

He calls us to examine our lives and allow God’s love to fill our hearts first so that our actions in this world can flow from this place of love and grace.  In other words, Jesus says that our spiritual life is an inside job turned outward.  It is a job of being transformed in love inside the very depths of our beings which then is turned out in how we live in this world.

That’s what Jesus is uplifting about this woman and her offering.  She offers more than all of those other large gifts and huge amounts of money because she offered her entire self to God, for God’s will to be done in and through every single aspect of her life.  She offered more than everyone else because she turned her will and her life over to the care and love of God.

Jesus says, see that woman, be like her.

So today is Thanksgiving Sunday as well as Consecration Sunday.  One thing we know in our faith is that generosity is intimately linked to gratitude.  When we are grateful we are not living in a mindset of scarcity, a mindset of there isn’t enough.  When we are grateful we can see more fully all of the abundance we have in our lives and we remember all that we have received.  When we are grateful we remember that the blessings we have in this life don’t come from our effort, they aren’t earned but they are received as a gift of God’s grace.

Pastor and writer Fredrick Buchner described the gift of grace in this way:

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring   about your own birth.   A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace.  The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace….The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Gratitude flows out from us when we remember that God is grace and that grace is bestowed upon us continually.  This week many of us will celebrate and give thanks around a meal with friends and family.  We will eat, we will talk, we will laugh, we may even get into any argument  with that family member who votes differently than we do about the mid term elections.

We celebrate this holiday with family and friends because this time we spend together is holy and sacred.  It fills our hearts to the brim with love so that we can be poured out in loving service for our neighborhood and our world.  There is a spiritual power in our gratitude, it humbles us, it inspires us, it grounds us.

And because of this today is the perfect day for us to consecrate our pledges for 2019 to God’s use and work through this congregation here in Mt. Healthy.  If you haven’t yet filled out a commitment card or if you forgot yours, there is one in your order of worship and you are welcome to fill it out now.

Every pledge matters.  Every single one.  No matter the size.  Every single gift matters because our spiritual practice of generosity, our giving out of love and hope for all that is to come, it transforms our hearts and our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Because what really matters most is what lies behind the gift, a willing and loving heart ready to be transformed.

In just a few moments we will come forward and place out pledges, our commitment cards into the basket.  I invite you to do this prayerfully, to do this intentionally, to allow this ritual action to bring your heart, our hearts, into alignment with our God who is self-giving love, who gave of himself by coming to be with us in Jesus Christ, forgiving, whole making love made flesh.  Amen

8

Nov 18

November 8, 2018

for all the saints

By Robert English

Today, All Saints Day, is a special day set apart by the church each year.  This practice goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.  A day to remember, to honor and give thanks for the lives of the faithful who have gone on before us in glory to be with God.  It truly is a glorious and difficult day, a day where we mourn and we celebrate, a day where we weep and we laugh, a where we embrace all of the beauty of this life and to remind ourselves of the truth of our gospel, that we are never for without hope for we are people of the resurrection.  

All Saints Day is also a day to reaffirm our faith, here and now, in the midst of the time that we live in.  It is a day where we recognize that we often look to the faith of others, those who are part of that great cloud of witnesses.  We their faithfulness, their love and their witness gives us strength to live faithfully, to live lovingly here and how.  As writer Shane Claiborne put it:

Since its earliest centuries, the church set aside a day to remember the great cloud of  witnesses who have gone before us in faith. However hard it might seem to follow the way of Jesus in our own time and place, this day we remember that we may be crazy, but we are not alone. 

It feels crazy sometimes to live in the way of Jesus in this day and age.  Sometimes we look out at our world and all we see is heartache, violence, apathy, and rage.  Sometimes it feels like the universe is a cold, dark and lonely place.  This week was no different as just over a week ago our world was rocked with the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  A shooting, another shooting at a house of prayer.  People whose lives were lost because they wanted to pray.  

Someone in my Facebook world posted in response to this shooting, “maybe love isn’t enough to overcome  such overwhelming hate.”  Part of me wanted to go there with my friend, but I remembered, “however hard it might seem to follow the way of Jesus in our own time and place, All Saints Day we remember that we may be crazy, but we are not alone.” 

Sometimes it seems crazy to try to live in the way of Jesus in these crazy times, in any time really.  It seems crazy to look out at the world in all of it’s glory and agony and still hold onto this belief that in the end love will always win.  

It’s not always easy because this road is tough, but there are those who have traveled it before us, who have blazed the trail for our generation and generations to come: the saints of the church, the great cloud of witnesses, all of those who have gone on in faith before us.  These are folks who lived real lives in the real world, these were ordinary, everyday kind of people; beautiful broken people, who tried and failed.  They were ordinary people who were seekers and doubters, people just like you and me who tried to live a life of humble sacrificial love.  These were people who sometimes got it right and sometimes they didn’t, but through it all they trusted in a love and power bigger and greater than us alone.

That word saint that we use in the church can be a bit tricky for some.  Most of us probably think of our Catholic friends and their belief around the saints.  But our Catholic friends have a different understanding of Saint than we do in the United Methodist Church.  When you hear the word saint, what picture do you conjure in your mind?  Is it someone who is perfect?  Someone who was pure and holy in a way that we could never be?  I think more often than not we picture heroes and heroines of the faith who we idolize but feel as though we could never emulate.  

This sentiment is captured in a quote from a wonderful and faithful Catholic woman named Dorothy Day.  She was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and worked tirelessly with the poor and homeless in our country.  She said once, “don’t make me a saint because I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

When we talk about the saints of the church on All Saints Sunday, we aren’t talking about people who are different or beyond any of us.  We are talking about ordinary, everyday kind of people.  People who lived this life in the way of Jesus, striving to follow his great commandment to love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.   People who heard that commandment and applied it to their life, to their family, to their community.  And sometimes when we live in this way and love in this way, we love with a love that is greater than our own, we tap into the flow of God’s unconditional, overflowing love for us and for our world.

Who are the saints in your life, people who loved with a love greater than their own, unlikely ordinary people who refused to give up on hope, humble people who gave of themselves for others, strong quiet types who did the right thing because it was the right thing?  

When I think about All Saints Day I often remember my great-grandmother Dolores Campos.  She lived a long and full life, dying at the age of 100.  She was an immigrant from Mexico and lived a tough life suffering persecution and racism.  She was a quiet, humble and faithful woman.  When I lived in El Paso as a boy I used to go over to her house every other week and mow her grass.  Looking back on it I feel so blessed to have had that time with her over those years. 

She had one of those old push mowers, no gas or electricity to power her mower.  She used to have me edge her grass with these sheers, which were basically a pair of scissors.  It was tough work.  Of course I would often complain to her about how hard it was to do the work with her mower and her garden sheers.   She would tell me, “Robert, mi nieto, this is good for you, it makes you strong.”  She would give me a 5 dollar bill and she would cook me breakfast.  The best breakfast you could ever imagine, pancakes, eggs and chorizo, beans, hash browns.  A breakfast made with love.  We would sit and talk. That was the best part of the whole morning.  My great-grandmother had a tremendous faith and because of her faith, she would talk with me about Jesus, about the power of prayer, about how no matter what happened to her she knew God was with her.  She would say things to me like, “Robert, nieto, you must always trust in his love, always.”

There is a power in our memories.  There is a power in that faithful act of remembering a loved one, for remembering their life.  It grounds us in our lives, it grounds us in the moment, it grounds us in love, it grounds us in the Holy Spirit.  When we remember we are inspired by that relationship, by that love which lives on in and through us, guiding us to this day.

On this All Saints Day, we give thanks for all those from our community who died this past year.  We give thanks for their lives, their beautiful love which we carry with us, which lives on in and through this beloved community, and for their lives which in God’s undying love, will never end.  

30

Oct 18

October 30, 2018

eyes to see

By Robert English

Read Mark 10:46-52

Today’s gospel reading paints quiet the picture.  Jesus and his disciples are in Jericho, on the road to Jerusalem.  The picture we have from scripture of this scene is one that is to be filled with energy and liveliness.  You can almost see the crowds of people following Jesus and the lone blind beggar Bartimaeus on the side of the road.  You can picture him, listening carefully to understand all that is happening.  Bartimaeus catches wind among the crowd, talk of this man called Jesus of Nazareth and something within him catches on fire, a desire, a longing, a deep rooted belief that this man can help him.

Welling from deep within his heart Bartimaeus cries out ‘Jesus Son of David have mercy on me.’  The crowd of people tell him to be quiet, they try to hush this beggar, this blind-man, this outcast.  They continue to push him to the margins.  But Bartimaeus is living on faith, he’s living on a desire to encounter Jesus, he is longing to be made whole.  Again he cries out to Jesus, “son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus hears, his voice among the crowds and responds, asking ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

You might remember if you were here last week that Jesus asked this same question to two of his disciples, James and John.  Jesus asked, “what do you want me to do for you?”  Do you remember their response?  Make us great Jesus.  Have one of us to sit on your right hand and the other to sit on your left hand when you come into glory.  Jesus goes on to teach the disciples that they’ve got it all wrong.  The spiritual life, the whole life, an abundant life isn’t about seeking power, it’s about living your faith, it’s about humility, and sacrificial love.

So we see the contrast in this story when blind, poor, and marginalized Bartimaeus is asked the same question by Jesus; “what do you want me to do for you?”

In a moment of raw humanity, Bartimaeus answers humbly, honestly: “Rabbi, let me see again.”  His sight is restored and Jesus says to him- ‘go your faith has made you well.’

And what is most striking to me about this story is the verse at the very end, it says: ‘Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.’

Now, we have seen in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus heals a variety of different folks.  Earlier in Mark’s Gospel Jesus heals another person who was also blind.  Upon completing this healing Jesus sends this person on their way.  In fact Jesus often does this with folks who he heals. Jesus sends them along and according to scripture they apparently did just that.  They returned home or went about the region.  This is the pattern of the healing stories in the gospels, except for Bartimaeus,  he chose a different path, he chose to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus offers us a model for discipleship.  He shows us in a unique way what it means to follow Jesus.  And what Bartimaeus embodies is the epitome of faithfulness.  Bartimaeus shows us what it means to persist, to insist in the belief that we can have a whole life, a bigger life,  life made new here and now.  He shows us a persistence in this belief that God is with us, that God is for us, that God truly does love us.   Faithfulness in our walk with God is an important thing to consider.  And in fact I find that often that faithfulness can be more helpful for people to think about rather than faith.

Perhaps to some these might be seen as synonymous: faith and faithfulness.  But I talk with lots of different folks and these words mean different things when we talk about them in the church, but also beyond these walls.

Let me explain what I mean by this.  When we talk about faith we aren’t really talking about it in a biblical sense.

Many times when I hear people talk about their faith, they talk about faith as something that they possess, or should possess.   She has faith.  He needs faith.  I wish I had more faith.  It is almost as if faith is something that is not within us, a part of us, but a commodity to be owned.   And more often than not we equate faith with belief, certainty and clarity.

This stands in contrast to how we talk about being faithful.  When we talk about being faithful, it just seems to more flexible, more adaptive.  Something rooted in a real lived context and relationship.  It is something that we are: we are faithful in our relationships, faithful to the Bengals, we are faithful in our work and our vocation.  Being faithful is not something a-part from ourselves, but something that is part of ourselves. And even when we talk about missteps we talk about as being less than faithful, or not as faithful.  There’s a varying degree to it all.

Perhaps it could be said it is God’s gift of faith which then prompts our faithfulness.

I think that we see this model of faithfulness uplifted today in the Gospel by blind Bartimaeus.  The crowd tries to silence him, but he is faithful, determined to meet Jesus.  Bartimaeus persists because he trusts in something bigger than himself to bring him new life.  He knows in a visceral way that he cannot save himself, but he trusts that Jesus can.  And upon regaining his sight, he does not return to his home, or remain in Jericho; he chooses to follow Jesus on toward Jerusalem.

When we hear the term follow Jesus it’s important to remember that Bartimaeus literally followed Jesus.  Like he walked right behind him or along side him as he traveled.

It is important to keep in mind though that Bartimaeus literally followed Jesus in his journey from Jericho to Jerusalem.  Why does this matter? It matters because the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was not an easy road to travel.  In fact, the road between Jericho to Jerusalem was notorious for being a dangerous road, a perilous journey.  If you are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan you might remember that it was in fact this road between Jericho and Jerusalem that was the setting for this parable, where a traveler is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  And this was well known throughout the land at this time.  It would be like talking with a friend about certain parts of Cincinnati, the parts of town that everyone knows you aren’t supposed to go to, unless your looking for some trouble.

This means one thing and one thing only, Bartimaeus knew that following Jesus might mean trouble.  He knew that going along this path with Jesus meant that he would encounter danger.  But none of that mattered to him, what mattered was following Christ.  See Bartimaeus knew what it was like to be on the losing end of things.  He lived life as a blind beggar in Jericho.  He knew what it meant to live on the fringes of society.  But after encountering the grace and the goodness of God made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord, he could not only see again, literally, but he could see the truth that lies beyond the truth: following Jesus is the only thing that really matter, truly matters in this life.

This world that we live in often promotes this understanding that if you are good, if you have faith, if you do everything right, then bad things won’t happen.  We sometimes call it the prosperity gospel.  If you believe enough God, will reward you.  It’s just not true and it’s not biblical.  Following Jesus means enduring the tough times of this life, it means persisting and insisting your way through it, it means remembering that no matter what it will not have the last word.  But life is not going to be a cake walk, something that is always easy to endure, as the Psalmist says ‘many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.’

There is the word of hope and life in the midst of it all.

As we uplift the blind beggar Bartimaeus and his bold faithfulness, we must also ask ourselves what does this story tell us about God?  Where is God when we feel those deep seated questions, or doubts arise?  Where is God when we are caught in the darkest valleys?

A man lost his son, unexpectedly and he came to church the next Sunday where the hymn of the day centered on the resurrection, our new life in Christ.  He said to me after church that day “sitting in the pew I decided I don’t need to have faith in the Resurrection today, everyone else is faithful for me.”

To put it another way, sometimes when the weight of our burden is too much to bear, when everything around us is crumbling, sometimes it’s too much for us to come to church and have faith in all this stuff, to have faith that God loves us, to have faith that Jesus has and will save us, to have faith that God is with us.  But when I can’t have faith, you carry it for me, and maybe one day, I will carry it for you.

God works through others, God speaks through the faithfulness of others.  Our community strengthens us through difficult times as God’s spirit works through us.

And we can always trust that our God is faithful enough for us, even when we aren’t.  We hear this truth about who God is in our psalm – that God hears the poor souls who cry out, and that our God is a God who saves.

This is the amazing and beautiful story of the whole bible, this is it in a nutshell; God loves us always and God is faithfulness extends to each generation.

We have this reminder that everything in this life will fade away, but that there is a rock on which we can always depend and that is the steadfast redeeming love of God.

I think that is why I think we need to rethink the way that we talk about faith.  Faith that word which seems so much more stagnant, stuck in a time or in a place.  Where at one time we had it, but over time we lost it; where once we questioned it, and once we found it.  And rarely, when we use the word faith at it’s best, is when we say that we are growing in our faith.  Perhaps we need to stop focusing on faith as something obtained but faithfulness as something lived.

Faithfulness is more about a living relationship with a living God, it flows and is fluid, it adapts and changes.

See we live these lives that are a like string of moments, one unto the next, which extend on out like an ever unfolding tapestry.  And powerfully, we believe, that God is present in each and every moment with us, that God’s grace and love extend to us at each and every step along on the way.

This grace which is present even when we forget, ignore it, or even deny it- God does not stop supplying it.

See God is faithful, always, and calls us to live in this way.

God calls us to be faithful even when we are on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, following Jesus, knowing that there are hardships along the way and knowing that the journey might end in death.  But we are people who know that struggle, pain and hardship will never have the last word.

We are people who know that God transforms oppression and tyranny into freedom and unbounded love, we know that God took death onto God’s very self, God took sin onto Godself so all of that it is forever redeemed and transformed into new and abundant life.

And so even in the midst of the darkest times in our lives we can look back with faithfulness and say just as the Psalmist- ‘I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be upon my mouth… I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.’

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, knew this and lived this in his life for his day.   He was a driven and faithful saint of the church.  One of the stories that inspires me as a Christian is this one: In his 87th year Wesley contracted pneumonia while trudging through the snow trying to raise money for an orphanage.  The story goes that as he laid there on his death bed, his family and friends gathered around.  With a feeble voice he said ‘Farwell, farwell, The best of all is God is with us.’ He lifted his head and said ‘the best of all is God is with us.’[1]

The best of it all is God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Hurst, J. F. (2003). John Wesley the Methodist. Kessinger Publishing, 298.

17

Oct 18

October 17, 2018

to keep it, you’ve got to give it away

By Robert English

Read Mark 10:17-31

When I was a teenager I remember watching a movie with my dad called ‘The Jerk.’  It’s a classic.  Steve Martin at his best.  There is a scene from the film where Navin, Steve Martin’s character, is arguing with his wife, Marie, about the man he’s become since becoming wealthy.  As they argue Marie kicks Navin out of the house.  But, as he leave he pushes a stack of papers off a desk saying, “I don’t need these things, I don’t need any of this…..except, this ashtray, this ashtray is the only thing I need.”  He starts to leave the room, but he sees a paddle board game on the ground, picks it up and says, “I only need this ashtray and this paddle game, that’s it that’s all I need.”  Almost out of the room, he sees a remote on the table, picks it up and says, “the ashtray, the paddle game and the remote control that’s all I need.”

As he makes his ways through the house he picks up matches, a lamp, and a chair.  Pretty soon he’s walking out of the house completely weighed down by all the random stuff he’s picked up on his way.  And he just keeps saying, “this is it, this is all I need, the ashtray, the paddle game, the remote control, these matches, this lamp, this chair, this is all I need.”

As I watched it again on Youtube this last week, I couldn’t help but think of our scripture text for this morning.  The gospel lesson that we just heard read from the Gospel according to Mark.  It is the perfect image to capture in a modern and humorous way the image we get from scripture today.

In the text for this morning Jesus is approached by a man who is seeking Jesus out to listen and learn from him.  The man approaches Jesus with a sense of honor and respect as he kneels before Jesus and addresses Jesus as Rabbi, good teacher.  It is apparent that this man not only has heard of Jesus but is seeking him out to learn the way to live an abundant life.

The man then asks Jesus a question, he says “teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  If you’ve read the New Testament it may seem like this is a question that Jesus is asked all the time.

But the fact is, this is the only time the phrase “eternal life” is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is much more interested in the kingdom of God, which is something that is yet to come for sure, but it is also drawing near…. the kingdom of God is something which is eternal and beyond this life and yet it is emerging right here and right now.

The man says to Jesus, “good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus says, you know all the commandments: you shall not murder, commit adultery, lie steal or defraud anyone, honor your parents, etc.  The man replies, yes, Jesus I know these commandments and I have kept them all.  We see that this man is a devout person who has faithfully followed the commandments as he has received them.

What is Jesus’ response to the man?  The text says that Jesus looked at the man and he loved him.  He looked at the man with compassion and love and says to him, you have kept all of these commandments but there is one more thing you are missing, sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, follow me and you will have treasure in this life and the next.

It is a moment of confrontational love that was shocking for the man and not only the man but all who heard it. But, Jesus knows this man.  Jesus knows him better than he even knows himself.  He knows that he is wealthy and that his wealth has become the most important thing in his life. And it’s important to remember that Jesus says this with love, he says this with compassion for the man.  He is not angry or judgmental, he isn’t trying to tear the man down, he is trying to build him up, to set him free, to refocus the man on what truly matters.

Jesus then goes on to teach that it is difficult, almost impossible for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom of God.  Jesus says, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  That’s one of those sayings that we have from scripture that’s really well known. It is a Jesus original.  We don’t really know any other origin for it which is pretty amazing really.

As I was explaining to the children during the children’s moment, when I was traveling in the Holy Land we learned a lot about ancient architecture.  In the ancient world, Jesus’ world, the main entrances to a city, a city gate was comprised of a large gate in the center with two small gates or passages on either side.  At night they would close the main gate so only the smaller gate is open.  It has been posited by some scholars that the side gates, given that they were smaller, were sometimes called the eye of the needle.

So perhaps what Jesus is saying, is that it is as difficult for a wealthy person to get into heaven as it is for a camel to go through one of these gates.  Our guide who is a scholar and pastor claimed that if a camel were to make it through the gate they would not have been able to carry any baggage or things, just a rider.  So maybe what Jesus is saying is we’ve got to give away our extra baggage in this life that’s weighing us down.

But let’s be real here:  this is a tough text to understand and to read.  Most of us, I dare say all of us, are really, really tied to our stuff.  One of the reasons I find it so easy to laugh at the scene from ‘The Jerk’ is because in the absurdity of it all, I can see the truth underlying the scene: I’ve got a lot of stuff that I feel like I really, really need.  But at the end of the day its just not really true, I don’t really need all the things I think I need.

But the thing is that this passage isn’t just about our stuff, although it is, it isn’t even just about wealth, although of course it is, it’s about something that goes deeper than that.

Let’s take a look at what Jesus is getting at here for us and our life of faith today.  First, the man comes to Jesus with this question, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  He is coming to Jesus with this question about what conditions he has to meet,  what he must do or perform in order to earn his salvation.  He’s also not living in the here and now; he’s living in a yet to be determined future.  He’s got one foot out the door of this life so to speak.  Maybe you know someone who lives this way.

They aren’t really tied down to the present moment because they are always looking for the next big thing that’s happening that they are supposed to be part of.   They constantly live that old saying, the grass is greener on the other side.  This man isn’t looking for the kingdom moments in this world, in this life, the moments of connection, the moments of love, the moments of forgiveness and grace, all the little moments where God’s presence is known and felt.  He’s looking for a way out of all of this in order to move onto something better.

When you live in this way you aren’t present to the current moment, you aren’t here with your feet planted firmly on this ground. You’re off living in the clouds.  The problem with this way of living is that you are missing out on experience the fullness of this life, in all of it’s glory, and it’s suffering.  If you are constantly living with one foot out the door then you aren’t really investing in relationships with those who are around you and everything in your life is more transactional: if I do this, then I’ll get that.

The gospel of Jesus butts up against this way of living and challenges it for what it is, surface level living.  Jesus wants us to have a whole life, a full life, a healed life, a free life.  That doesn’t come to us if we are constantly trying to be somewhere other than where we are!

Jesus teaches us to be attentive to each and every moment in all of its glory, all of its suffering, even if it’s mundane and kind of boring, because as we practice his way of living we come to see that every moment of our life is sacred, every moment is full and never empty, full of the grace of God who dwells with us, abides with us in love, no matter what.

So in Jesus’ answer to this man’s question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus challenges the man’s major spiritual issue- the attachment he had to his stuff, his wealth.  Jesus says, if you want to experience the kingdom of God, the fullness and richness of an abundant life, you have to be willing to give it all away, to detached yourself from all of your stuff, your wealth, your own power, and trust fully in God’s power, God’s grace and God’s goodness.

Jesus says to him give it all away and follow me no matter what, no matter how difficult the road and how uncertain the destination, trust in God more than you trust in yourself, recognize that you need a power greater than your own to save you, instead of thinking, you know what I got this.  Jesus says that if you want to inherit eternal life, you have to be willing to let go, to surrender it all to me and to God.

Man that’s challenging stuff.  That’s tough stuff because each of us, no matter who we are and how spiritual we are, each of us has attachments to things in this life that aren’t God.  Each of us trusts in something to save us other than God.  We all look to something else in this world, to make us whole, to set us free.

Whether it’s money, a relationship, whether it’s the promise of a politician or the power and prestige of a job, we sometimes seek all of these external things to try to fill an inner void or incompleteness.  Jesus is saying to the man, and to us all, that these things only satisfy for a little bit, they only work for a little while, eventually something is going to give and you will find that same sense of inner incompleteness because these things are of the world and not of God.

And the key to living a whole life, a life set free by God’s perfect love, is by being willing to let go of everything else and live in the flow of God’s humble sacrificial love always, to be willing to give it all away, in love, to build a bigger, better, more inclusive world, the kingdom of God in our midst.

I’ve talked with lots of people in the church over the years and when we talk about giving of ourselves, giving our financial gifts or the gift of our loving service, there’s this one theme that always seems to emerge: when we give of ourselves, when we give our money away to the church or we give our time and energy to make someone’s life better,

people will say- Pastor, I get so much more out of it than those I’m serving, or when I give my money away I get so much more in return.  Usually this is followed up with a question- is that ok?  It feels like it’s selfish to get so much when we give of ourselves.

It’s not selfish to feel that feeling of wholeness when we give ourselves away in love, that’s the gift of God’s grace, that’s what Jesus is getting at here, when we give ourselves away that’s when we get it, that when we experience the fullness of God’s love for us because God is self-giving love, poured out constantly for each of us, making us whole, complete, free from all other attachments in this world.

So the key to journeying in this faith together is that in order to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. In order to stay in alignment with God’s will for you, for us and for our world, we need to be willing to give it away.  We need to be open to and to seek out ways to be of service to others in this world.  It doesn’t mean that we have to travel to a 3rd World Country to participate on a service trip, that’s an awesome experience no doubt, but to paraphrase Mother Teresa, don’t worry about the size of the good you do, don’t worry about how big your gift or your service is, just help others, and always start with those who are closest to you and work your way out from there.

As we go about this week, may the spirit of Christ meet us where we are at, may Jesus point out to us to all those things in our life we are too attached to, may he call us to a willingness to give it all way in his service, the service of building the kingdom of God, where the last are first, where the lost are found, where the poor and the weak are made strong and whole in grace, where all are welcomed as children of the most high God.  May it be so.  Amen.

18

Sep 18

September 18, 2018

when we in the church practice functional atheism

By Robert English

So I’ve been thinking about the attractional church model a lot recently.  Mostly because I recently started serving in a new annual conference where it seems like this is the method of choice for new ministries and church revitalization.  Forgive me if I am missing other models that are out there in West Ohio, but the attractional church model definitely gets the most attention/PR.

For those of you who don’t know what I mean by that phrase let me explain.  The attractional church model is essentially: if you build it cooler, more modern, more hip or trendy, then they will come.  It is usually pretty obsessed with worship numbers and giving units.   It is really hard not to get caught up in this style of ministry or this mode of thinking.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen into this trap, this trap of thinking that if I just did the right THING/PROGRAM my church would grow.  The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s stuck in a conditional/consumer driven understanding of what church is and how the church should function in the world.  Really what the attractional church says is that we have a spiritual product to offer to our neighbors and our job is to make it really, really pretty and enticing so they will buy what we are selling.  Eugene Peterson, who I quote way too often, put it this way: “The vocation of pastor(s) has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”

One of the larger problems for the attractional church is that it creates a dynamic that is sometimes called functional atheism.  Functional atheism is when people who identify as faithful people, i.e. they believe in a relational God who is acting in the world on behalf of our salvation, act as though it’s all up to us.  The attractional church model says to church leaders: you can and should be growing your church by doing X,Y, and Z…. And if the church isn’t growing it’s because you’re doing something wrong.  This often leads to depression, stress, exhaustion and burn-out.  The reality, though, is that I can’t save a church because I’m not the church’s savior.  I can’t even save myself even though I’ve tried and tried.

The crazy thing about our faith is that it isn’t until we give up trying to save everything and everyone ourselves that we finally experience that profound transcendent moment of powerlessness and grace (unearned love).  It’s in this moment we see the truth of our existence which sets us free, as St. Paul put it: “ But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)  I’d rather be part of helping a community live into state of humble recognition of our powerlessness together, boasting of our weakness as we walk faithfully to our death together, because anyone whose read the whole story knows that God’s greatest work is done in a graveyard.