Monday, November 23, 2015

The Thanksgiving Table

Matthew 6:23-34
It was around Thanksgiving many years ago when I met a woman who lived in one of the Bridgeport shelters.  Alice was her name and Alice had come with the social worker to the church where I was working to pick up coats that we had collected for distribution much like we did on Palm Sunday this year.  After loading up the van Alice and I sat down for a cup of coffee and she began to tell me how much she appreciated the coats.

Her gratitude was overwhelming.  She kept saying over and over again, ‘you don’t know how thankful I am for this gift, you don’t know, you just don’t know how thankful I am for these coats. You just don’t know, really.  You know it’s supposed to get real cold this winter and you just don’t know how thankful I am.’

Later in the day I was thinking about our conversation.  She was spot on!  I didn’t know.  I didn’t have a clue as to what it is like to not have a winter coat, or a roof over my head ever in my life.  I don’t know what it is like to be homeless. I don’t know what it is like to be down to my last buck and having to rely on the shelter and the outpouring of others for my daily bread.  I don’t, at least in this moment, have to worry where my next meal is coming from.  And I am thankful for that.

My life was blessed that day by Alice’s presence and by her profound gratitude and thanks. She opened my eyes to God’s extraordinary benevolence in my life.  God zoomed in that day in an unexpected way through Alice to help me understand the blessings I enjoy in a much different way.  Truth be told, I was a single mother and, at any point in time, could have found myself in Alice’s shoes.  Sometimes life was rather tenuous back then.  I worked for the YWCA in social services and was making only a pittance.  My children were eligible for free lunches at school and I took advantage of them. You see none of us are exempt from worry.  We just worry about different things at different times.  And yet Alice modeled for me a way in which I should be thanking God for my life and the things I enjoy no matter how great or how small.

Our text this morning finds Jesus in the upper Galilee, sitting on the grassy hillside with his disciples and hundreds of others.  Now these were not rich people.  They were fishers and farmers, those who struggled hard to put pita on the table.  They didn't have 401K's, or even checking accounts.  They too, had a lot to worry about; much that would keep them up at night. 

Let us now hear the Gospel reading from Matthew, the 6th chapter.

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Embedded within this well known sermon on the mount, Jesus begins to talk to this gathered group of peopl.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, (Matt 5:3) “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” (Matt 5:4). He continues his discourse interpreting and reinterpreting Judaic law.  He makes it plain and simple for these hard working folk.  “You are the salt of the earth”, (Matt 5:13); “You are the light of the world.” (Matt 5:14), “Give to everyone who begs from you”, (Matt 5:42), “Love your enemies”, (Matt 5:44), “Pray like this…Our Father in Heaven”, (Matt 6:9), “No one can serve two masters”, (Matt 6:24) and then after all of that, and to the point, Jesus says, “THEREFORE”.

Therefore do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body and what you put on it.  Heaven knows!  The big One up there in heaven knows exactly what you need and I’d add also what you want but that’s a whole other sermon.  If heaven can make sure that the little sparrows are fed without human intervention, and if heaven can expend all that energy to grow those stunningly gorgeous lilies and sunflowers that will wither and die tomorrow then don’t you think that your God in heaven knows what you need to live your life? 

Of course.  Of course heaven knows.

But Jesus does not turn a blind eye to his followers concerns and worries.  He accepts them, in fact he embraces them, that’s what his life and his work and his ministry are also about. His human nature is in full gear; he knows all too well about the human capacity for excessive worry.  He knows exactly what we are about, he’s on to us, at times he is even one of us!  I’m sure he too had worries of his own.
Norman Rockwell
Thursday – Thanksgiving Day – it’s a day for gratitude and goodies.  We will gather together to ask the Lord’s blessings around the Thanksgiving table. It will be warm, it will be satisfying, and we might feel as if we are the most blessed people on this planet without a care in this world.
Yet we know that’s not entirely the truth.  The Thanksgiving table is not only a place with fancy-schmancy decorations and flowers, succulent turkey, stuffing, pie and an enumeration all of the good things about your life.  The Thanksgiving table is also the place we will bring our worries and concerns – you know how they follow us everywhere like catalogs that arrive in the mail every fifteen minutes.  Hopefully it is a place where you can come and be accepted with our joys of life and our woes.
The Thanksgiving table is a place where you can recognize those worries, perhaps even give voice to them and then express your gratitude to God.  You have been brought to this point and God will see you to the next.  
The Thanksgiving table is a place where you can just look up to heaven and scream out thanks in total surrender! It was Meister Eckhart who said, “If the only prayer that you ever say in your entire life was thank you, it will be enough.”  I find that as I get older truly thank you is the prayer most uttered from my heart.

Cast all your burdens on the Lord and then say thanks!  Thank you God.  Thanks God for picking me up from that ally, what was I thinking?  Thank you God for having my back over and over and over again.  Thank you God that my child didn’t get any sicker, thank you God that when that tree fell on my house I wasn’t hurt and I still have my house to live in. Thank you God.

In Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”, she says, ‘My general-purpose go-to mystic Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”’[i]

She’s right.  She takes us to the next level of gratitude.  We can express our gratitude to God for all those pick me ups, all of those close calls, all of those reprieves from a potentially bad situation, we can express our gratitude in so many more ways than solely around the proverbial Thanksgiving table once a year relying on just those two words, thank you.  There really is more than one way to kiss the ground and there is more than one way to say thanks. 

We breathe in gratitude and when we breathe out our gratitude there is no other alternative than to put that gratitude into action.  Thank you God, now what can I do to help you out?  What can I do to help other people?  Heaven knows, the world does not lack for opportunities for us to give God gratitude and thanks way beyond Thanksgiving Day.  How about a Sunday of Service – we meet for an opening prayer, work in the community, convene again for worship and then have lunch or supper together?  The opportunities are endless. 

The real gift of Thanksgiving is that it opens our eyes to the blessings we have and more importantly the blessing that we can be to others.

So on Thursday after you have given thanks to God for hearth and home, family and friends, might you also give thanks to God for knowing deeply and intimately your every worry and fear, your every anxiety and pain and for the reassurance that heaven knows all about them.  

Let us then resolve to exhale our profound gratitude in this world through our actions.


As I was searching for images I found some riff's on Norman Rockwell's famous painting.  Please enjoy them and have a wonderful day.

[i] Anne Lamott, ‘Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers’. Penguin Books, 2012.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

From Ending to Beginning

Mark 13: 1-8
I hope that by now all of you have heard about the terrible killings and terrorist activity in Paris that happened on Friday.  France now is under a state of emergency with her borders tightened and over 350 people are hospitalized at least 129 people are dead by gun and suicide bomber attacks.  It has been a somber weekend. 

For several hundred families their world, as they knew it, violently came to an end on Friday.  For thousands of others their world has changed significantly.  You see what they knew, which was a sense of security, has ceased to exit, and the course of the survivors and the citizens of Paris and France is now charted in a different direction.  In fact, we all will probably take pause to repurpose a vision of security, peace and the essence of life. 

It is eerie, if not downright spooky then to read today’s passage in the context of the Paris attacks.  Keep all of this in mind as we hear today’s scripture from the Gospel of Mark, the 13th chapter:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

As Jesus walked out from the incense infused temple and to the Mount of Olives that very astute disciple of Jesus must have been very impressed by the temple, as well he should be.  It was very opulent.  “Look, Jesus, look at these huge stones, and this temple…have you ever seen such a grandiose and ornate building in all your life?”  I can see him now, trying to keep up with Jesus, dodging the masses of people who had come to the temple that day all the while torqueing his head and neck upwards at the temple maybe like we do when we are in NYC and pass by the Chrysler Building.

He was gawking and admiring the 2nd temple rebuilt by the master builder, Herod the Great. Gawk he should!  Those big stones were finely crafted ashlars and a grand example of Herodian masonry with a fine finish cut with such precision that no mortar was needed in between stones.  Their size?  They were up to 35 feet long and could weigh up to 70 tons!  Who would even think that they could possibly be destroyed? 

Yet Jesus was predicting future events, some 40 years later.  In 70 CE the Romans, under the Emperor Titus, will plough through Jerusalem destroying that beautiful temple and they will eventually erect a temple to the pagan god Jupiter.  The temple would be in ruins and just the retaining walls will be left.  Those large Herodian stones, still, to this day, rest where they fell.  I’ve seen them and touched them.  They are big.  They are impressive, but they are rubble.

And so Jesus sits on the Mount of Olives with his disciples, adjacent to the temple in full view and describes the end times; the temple will be obliterated, false prophets will be prolific, war, famine, earthquakes, nation will rise up against nation, whipping and beatings and that, he says, is the beginning of birth pains, of labor when the birth canal quickens and contracts to ready itself to birth new life.  It probably was hard for them to comprehend all of this yet we know that the people then were immersed in apocalyptic thought, they believed that the end of the world was imminent.  This was the MO, the modis operandi, for living. 

Jesus predicts doom and gloom in this passage, doesn’t he?  He knows all too well that that temple will soon lie scattered on the ground and the end of the age, the Kingdom of God will finally come.  Apocalyptic literature never does mince words and it can be awfully scary at times. 

I’m not so much of an end-time theologian.  I don’t believe that the world is coming to an end.  I don’t panic and fret, and wring my hands with worry with the predictions that rear up from time to time.  I just don’t see it that way because war, famine, and earthquakes still happen, people still whip and beat and terrorize one another…those things have been around since Jesus’ time and they haven’t stopped.   

But what I do take from this apocalyptic imagery of horrific proportions is that we are urged, and in fact strongly encouraged to live in the present moment knowing that what we have could be taken away from us at any given instant.  That life is most fragile even under the best of circumstances.  So consider your life.

What would you do if these were your last days?  If you knew that you would be at that stadium or in that concert hall in France last Friday night and would certainly die, how would you change your living or your day leading up to that night?  It is a sobering thought.  But I also think it is an important thought because it offers redemption from that which weight you down and joy and gratitude for what you have around you.

So take just a moment to think.  Silently answer this question, if this were my last day on this earth I would……

I, for one, would reach out to the people who I love the most.  I would reach out and try to reconcile any of the past wrongs that I have comitted.  And I would say that I love them over and over again.  I think I would be content with everything around me sorting out the essential from the non-essential.  I would be at home because that really is where my heart is and you know that I’ve had many homes.

I would pray to God that they way I chose to spend my life would have been pleasing to my creator.  And I would be grateful for this beautiful life that I’ve had and that while I would be reluctant to let go of it, I would pray that the ending would be just the beginning of something much better.  I would stop my longing and just be content.   

We live with end time doom and gloom all around us, all of the time, and what we need to remember and continue to live out is that the pains of labor bring forth a new beginning. And this is God’s grace.  And this is Christ’s promise.  Out of the ashes rises the phoenix.  From the darkened canal a baby is born.  From deaths cold tomb resurrection happens.  This is the rock foundation up which our faith is built.

As you will dedicate your pledge in just a bit can you also pledge that you will live your life in faith not in fear?  That you will attempt to make each moment count as if it were the last day that you have on this earth?  I think you will find your living more complete, filled with great gratitude for the gifts both big and small that surround you if you do so. 

God is with us and not against us, make no mistake about that.  May the God of the ages tend to your needs today and the needs of our community and my you always see the light of life before you. 

Amen and Amen.

Pastoral Prayer
O God of this aching universe hear us as we pray especially this day.  Fill our hearts with your healing balm as we come to you in gratitude for this beautiful life you have given us and the grief that often accompanies it.  Heap your compassionate care upon us as we try to understand yet again the nature of evil and console us when there are no answers that can assuage our heavy hearts.  We pray for wholeness to come upon us and your grace to envelop us.  We pray for peace in our hearts so that we can boldly step out of our places of fear into a life filled with faith.

Today we pray for the sick, the addicted, the recovering, the homeless, the indigent, we pray for the grieving, the heartbroken, we pray for the citizens of France and for the families of those whose lives have come to an end. 

Today we pray for all victims of violence, injustice, prejudice and hatred and we pray dear Lord for those who perpetrate violence.

Today we pray for soldiers in active military, for veterans, for our president, for men and women in authority, for our political system. 

Today we pray for our children of whatever age, and their children born or yet to come.  As they have been brought into this world let them see equality and peace.

Bless us O God and the gifts you have given us and please, accept our gratitude and love.  Amen.   

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Watchful Eye

Mark 12: 38-44

The Watchful Eye aka The Money Sermon

From the New International Version, a reading from the Gospel of Mark, the 12th chapter,

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. (the scribes) They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

At first glance you might think that this is the perfect passage to hold up for reflection for a sermon on the stewardship of money.  Stewardship and the widow’s mite go together like love and marriage, like pie…alamode, like turkey and stuffing!  I’m sure that the widow’s mite story has been used many times before encouraging you to give; she gives everything she has and Jesus lifts her up as a model of sacrificial giving.  She is generous, that’s for sure, and we think that she gives from a grateful heart.  In those sermons we would be encouraged to give like this woman. 

Thinking deeper and through a different portal however, this could be a passage of lament and an indictment against the religious system that was in place and what it did to its people.  Jesus warns against religious hypocrisy.  It wasn’t geared solely at the scribes and authorities but to anyone who professes to be faithful, and the their actions prove otherwise.  The temple was rather corrupt and scandalous back in the day, money changing, buying and selling and all. 

Jesus sees that.  Then, after he rails against this system, the Gospel transitions to the story of this poor, poor woman who gives two small coins out of her poverty.  But, think about it, she gives it to an institution that is sucking the lifeblood out of its people so that the leaders could continue their lifestyle.  That is an outrage!!!!!!  I can think of a few prominent preachers who have, unfortunately, done so.  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution?”[i] 

Yes, she gives sacrificially, she gives them everything, but shouldn’t the temple be taking care of her?  She was a marginalized woman and the scribes where the upper echelon of the temple, they were supposed to be serving others not sponging off of them.  So really, this isn’t quite the model passage for a stewardship sermon, I’d hate to think that we suck the lifeblood out of people, but it is the lectionary reading for today so we will examine it for our lives and for your making a plan for giving.

As I was reading this passage and thinking about it what struck me over the head like a ton of bricks over and over again was the line, “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.”  Does that strike you as odd?  It was a busy temple and people were coming and going, rich and famous, poor and obscure, widowed and married all dropping their hard earned coins in the treasury.  And Jesus just pulls up a chair and sits right down across from that treasury and begins to ‘people watch’.  And he observes.  He just watches.  He looks to see what is going on. 

By sitting there that day he is actually observed a lot.  And when this woman leaves destitute he had had enough.  He calls over his disciples and doesn’t praise her for her act of unselfish giving he merely asks them to notice her.  ‘Look what’s going on here folks!’ He left it up to them to decide if she was smart to do so, or not so much.  He left it up to them to figure out what was going on with the scribes, their selfish and corrupt behavior.  We read into it that she is the more worthy giver, but that is our emphasis.

I think what Jesus was saying is that there are people in power and there are the marginalized and we need to lift up and take care of those people on the fringes of society, not make a buck off of them.

And then, when he leaves the temple his public ministry is over and in four days, a very tense, confusing and torturous four days he will be crucified.

What if Jesus pulled up a chair and sat watching us?  What if he sat silently in this sanctuary and just watched when we brought up the brass plates filled our tithes, our gifts and our offerings?  It’s a bit spooky isn’t it?

What would he see?  What would he observe?  What would he think?  How might he describe us to his faithful disciples?  What and who would Jesus’ watchful eye see coming into this temple?  What might he say to his disciples about our giving? 

Well I think he would see a wildly diverse group of human beings and Jesus would say that each member responds differently to the call to give.  Some have millions and some have just a mite.  And yet we each have our own motivation for giving.  Each age and phase of life has different needs and desires and so we give accordingly.

Every person who comes our way is on his or her own journey of faith and we need to really honor that and be responsive to where they are on their journey.  So we need to give so that the needs of all people can be met, so that innovative ministry can be created and happen right here.

A new mother and father are trying to do the right thing by bringing their baby to church but we all can remember how difficult it was to keep that little one from yelping out in glee.  We need to give so that their needs can be met. 

Someone else has mobility needs that we will never ever think of unless we metaphorically walk a mile with their crutches; we need to give so that their needs can be met too.

Look, we all have our own reason for giving, but I think at the core of our giving is compassion, community, challenge and a deep love of our Lord.

Jesus is watching.  But he is not watching with a judgmental eye but with an eye towards justice and equality.  He is looking to bring about the kingdom here on earth, the reign of God.  Ultimately stewardship is what we do, with what we have, to accomplish kingdom living here on earth as a congregation.  We are the ones who will search for and embody God’s intentions here on earth.

“Generosity is a kingdom behavior”[ii], I recently read in an article. It is the generous giving of time, skills, gifts, money, and influence to bring about the kingdom of God right here on earth. These are the tangibles.

I suspect that Jesus would approve of the ministry that we are trying to offer here but his watchful eye is upon us, to push a bit harder.  I encourage you to do what Ernie Moritz challenged us to do last week.  Meditate.  Communicate.  And then Participate.

Meditate on your personal giving plan. How has God broken into your life?  How has God sustained you in the drought and benefitted you in a season of growth? Then, after considering all resources and facts determine how much you can commit to giving to our ministries.  Everyone has a financial plan and hopefully OCC is a part of that plan.  We are here today because of the generosity of others.

Communicate.  Talk to us.  Effective change doesn’t happen because of silence but happens when open communication takes place.  Consensus happens in ministry when we talk with one another to achieve God’s goals for this faith community.

Participate.  In the stewardship of giving it is to determine how much you can give to upholding God’s kingdom here on earth.  Walk this with me.   I am not afraid to talk about money in the church and from the pulpit.  Money is a fact of life.  I give $_____ a month. That is what I am comfortable with considering my life circumstances and needs.  Maybe you can give more, maybe you can’t even come close.  That doesn’t matter.  Each and every gift is really important and helps to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Giving is part of your faith journey while you are here at OCC.   It is just one way in which you can participate.

Jesus’ watchful eye is upon us, make no doubt about that. But it is not a critical eye.  He is watching an approving of all that we endeavor to take upon us and do as a gathered community of faith.  Let us not disappoint him.  Let us help to advance his life and ministry here on earth.

Pray on it this week and then next week on Generosity Sunday we will dedicate our pledges.  And then we will celebrate with joy and apple crisp the goodness and love of God’s kingdom.


[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown.  The Preaching Life.
[ii] How Congregations (and their Members) Differ on Generosity in Christian Reflection: A Series on Faith and Ethics from Baylor University.  #57, 2015.