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November 12, 2015, 2:26 PM

Seeing with New Eyes


Mark 12:38-44      CEB
38 As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets.39  They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40  They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”
41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny.[a] 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.”
 
Seeing With New Eyes
 
Going to Jerusalem was a HUGE deal and an incredible experience, especially for the followers of Jesus from the rural regions of Galilee. Imagine the first time you went to a big city—such a New York City or Washington DC. It is a little overwhelming; the size of the buildings, the fast pace, the sounds, smells, sights. It is hard to take it all in and you find yourself almost spinning in place to see it all, register it all.  That is what going to Jerusalem was like for the disciples and followers of Jesus, and four times bigger. Jerusalem was not only so much bigger than anything they had experienced, it was also the center of their religion. It was the city where God dwelt with the people, in some fashion. There on the Temple Mount was the Temple of God, in which resided the Holy of Holies, where the high priest would enter into the presence of God on behalf of the people. Think about going into one of the might cathedrals—St. Patrick’s or St. John the Divine in New York City, the National Cathedral in Washington DC, or one of the mighty cathedrals of Europe, such as Notre Dame. The sense of awe and majesty and wonder is almost overwhelming.
 
As we encounter our story today, Jesus and his followers have just arrived in Jerusalem two days prior, and boy, did they arrive. Jesus entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Bethany riding on a donkey, as King David did for his coronation. Crowds of people lined the road shouting “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” They waved palm branches and cloaks and lined the road with them as well. The powers that be certainly took notice.  Though Jesus and his followers popped by the Temple quickly upon arrival, Jesus visited the Temple in earnest the following day, and he created another ruckus. As he entered the Temple he encountered the money-exchangers, those who converted Roman coins into Temple currency so that the tainted Roman money did dirty up God’s holy space. Those exchangers charge a rate for making the exchanges, sometimes as much as 50%! Right next to them were the dove sellers, whose purpose was to sell doves to the poorest of the poor, so that they might make a meager offering to God. However, they had so inflated their prices that those poorest couldn’t offer anything at all. Jesus enters the Temple and encounters these who make their fortune on the backs of those they are supposed to serve and he flips his lid… and a few tables. The powers that be certainly took notice.
 
In our reading, Jesus and his followers have returned once again to the Temple for the day. They are wandering the vast Temple precincts, from court to court, portico to portico, teaching area to teaching area. And as they wander, those powers that be descend upon Jesus. Chief priests, elders, scribes, all the Temple leadership engage with Jesus, angry and alarmed over his actions in those few days. They challenge and question his authority, and test his knowledge and interpretation of scripture. And in all those encounters, Jesus turns the questions and testing back on those leaders, making fools of them in the eyes of their people, mocking them and shining light on their corruption. It is no surprise that the week ends with Jesus’ death on the cross.
 
 
As Jesus and his followers continue their wandering, they pass a group of scribes, richly dressed in their long robes.  These are the Temple lawyers, those who interpret and apply the law for the people, for a nice fee, and who also receive an impressive income from the Temple coffers. Jesus notices them and voices his disgust at their behaviors. “Look at them, those scribes in their long robes. They are all about honor and privilege, power and position…in the marketplace, the synagogue, and of course, at any banquet. They put together systems through which they can devour widow’s homes upon the death of their husbands and cover it up with showy, long prayers full of false piety! I tell you, their judgement will be harsh indeed!”
 
Just as Jesus finishes saying this, their wandering brings them to the Court of Women where the Temple treasury coffers are houses.  Thirteen large wooden chests line the walls with large funnels on top to funnel in the offerings.  People are coming and going, wealthy and power people. They walk up to the chest, cast in their offering, and loudly share the amount.  What Jesus was just lecturing about is come to life right here in front of them. Jesus sits down over opposite the treasury and watches this spectacle taking place.
 
And that is when he sees her, one of the poorest of the poor—ptochoi in Greek—a beggar widow woman, one of those widows whose houses are devoured by the scribes, putting her whole livelihood into the Temple coffers that will support those Temple lawyers. Putting her money into the system that has left her destitute instead of protecting her as it should. What must Jesus be feeling? Anger? Certainly, and we hear that anger in next week’s reading, where he and his followers are leaving the Temple and he declares that “not one stone (of that Temple) will left standing.” Is he heartbroken to0, witnessing this widow giving to a system that won’t care for her? But he is also moved by her courage and the beauty of her faith, as her love of God moves her forward into the crowd of the wealthy and privileged, to cast her offering alongside them, for the glory of God.
 
Jesus quickly calls closer his followers. This is a teachable moment. Perhaps here he can help them to see with new eyes, to see past their wonder and awe at the majesty of God’s Temple, and to see the corruption and abuse of the leadership that preys on the vulnerable, and to see the wondrous faith that still burns in the hearts of the people. “Do you see her? Look, right there, that ptochoi, that beggar widow? I tell you that she has given more than anyone else here making their offerings! They are all giving out of their abundance. They won’t even notice anything missing tomorrow. But this woman has given her holon ton bion, the whole of her life. She has given her whole life.” And we know that Jesus will give his whole life in just a few short days on Calvary’s hill.
 
What a mix of emotions, to see the ugliness of human corruption and the beauty of pure faith displayed here side by side! Do Jesus’ followers now see? Can they see beyond the pomp and circumstance of the Temple? Can they see both the ugliness and the beauty? Can we?
 
Too often this passage is shortened to only include the widow’s offering, the widow’s mite…and the moral of the story is, “we should give as the widow gives.” Well, yes…and no. Of course, God wants us to give our whole selves to God. But this passage is so much deeper than that moral of the story. This story is about our call to follower Jesus. This passage is about our call to discipleship. Jesus calls us to see as he sees, to put on our Jesus glasses, to see with new eyes. Jesus calls us to see the places where systems abuse the most vulnerable, especially in the Church. Jesus calls us to see those who are invisible to the world, left behind by the world, cast aside by the world. Jesus calls us to enter those spaces and to minister to those vulnerable and invisible people, and in doing so, to witness to the stunningly beautiful faith and grace we will encounter there.
 
That happened to me this week. On Monday. Monday is my day ‘off,’ which means it is my day to do laundry and house cleaning and grocery shopping, etc. I was returning from Hannaford’s, on Main Street, about to turn onto Chestnut Street at the light, to go past the church on my way home. And, as usual, the light caught me and I was waiting for it to change. I was paying particular attention to the intersection Monday because a pedestrian had been killed just a few days before while crossing the street. And that is when I saw him, a young man, maybe 20 years old. He was sitting on the curb in front of The Yellow Deli, facing Clinton Plaza. He was so thin he was skeletal. His hair was matted and greasy. He sat hunched, arms on his knees, and a cigarette between two fingers, as his hands, and much of his body tremored. Any of us with social service/psychology/law enforcement backgrounds would recognize it instantly—the man was in the throws of painful withdraw symptoms, probably from opiods. But he wasn’t alone. Sitting next to him on the curb was a man from the Twelve Tribes, who own the Yellow Deli. The Twelve Tribes member sat next to the young man, an arm wrapped about his shoulders, and just held him in silence. The trembling man leaned into the embrace. This member of the Twelve Tribes community was wearing his Jesus glasses and he saw what no one else in that intersection saw, and he offered the ministry of presence to that young man in desperate need. He saw what was invisible to the world and he responded. He had eyes to see. May we have such eyes as well. Thanks be to God.  Amen. 



October 28, 2015, 9:39 AM

Earn, Save, Give (an adaptation of John Wesley's Sermon 50-The Use of Money


Luke 16:1-13, CEB
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’[b] He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11  If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12  If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13  No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
 
“Earn, Save, Give”
Our message today is an adaptation of John Wesley’s sermon, “The Use of Money.” I have tried to make the language more 21st century friendly and to shorten the message a bit, as Wesley came from a time where sermons were much longer.
 
Jesus is in the midst of parable-telling. He just finished the beautiful parable commonly called “The Prodigal Son,” which he told to those who were murmuring about his welcome of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus then turns to his disciples, perhaps with those murmurers listening in, and tells this strange parable of a dishonest steward being commended for his shrewd dealings. The steward is commended in the story because he has made friends for himself using the worldly wealth. Jesus declares that people of the world are more clever, are wiser, in their dealings than the followers of Jesus, the children of the light. People of the world are wiser in the use of money than those who follow Jesus.
 
We have to admit this is true. People who do not follow Jesus but subscribe to the world’s priorities and values know how to use money to the best advantage for themselves. They make money their tool for what it is they want. Disciples of Christ have an uncomfortable relationship with money. How many times have we heard the saying “the love of money is the root of all evil?” How many of us feel that our faith calls us to reject money as ‘bad’ and yet we struggle with it for we need it to survive in this world? Yet, here we have a story from Jesus where shrewd use of money is commended. What do we do with this story?
 
Of course money can be used for corrupt purposes. It can cause greed and avarice, disparity and inequality. But it depends on how it is used. Money can also be used for good. In the hands of Jesus’ followers, money is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, a place to rest for the stranger. In this story, Jesus is calling us to “use worldly wealth to make friends.” Jesus is calling us to use money as a tool for God’s kingdom building. And by making those kingdom-building connections, we will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
 
John Wesley boils down the right use of money into three simple rules.
Rule #1-Gain all you can! Here, he says, we may speak like the children of the world. Earn all you can. However, we should earn all we can without jeopardizing our life, our health. We should make sure we take time for nourishment, for rest, for self-care. We should earn all we can, but not at jobs in unhealthy working conditions that hurt our bodies. No amount of money is worth our health and our strength. We should earn all we can but not in jobs that hurt our minds—pulling us into places of darkness and temptation. To gain money we must not lose our souls. And what is a healthy workplace for one person might not be for another. Use wisdom to determine where you may earn and still flourish in health and life. And finally, we should earn all we can but not at the expense of our neighbors, all our neighbors around the world. Wesley would love fair trade! We should do nothing that hurts a neighbor’s home or property, their work or business. We should do nothing that hurts our neighbor; body, mind, or soul. We must gain all we can by honest work; hard work; our best work. Always seeking improvement and learning. Always seeking to put our whole self in the work. As John says, “that you may make the best of all that is in your hands.”
 
Rule #2—Save all you can! Here John gets a bit blunt and direct. Here is where he brings the gospel to step on our toes, so to speak. He does so because Jesus is a bit blunt and direct when it comes to how we spend our money and our resources. Saving all you can means no “idle expenses.” Jesus and John challenge us to truly look at our spending, and therefore our saving; what the Apostle Paul calls the ‘desires of the flesh.’ How much do we spend on extravagant food, clothing, decorations, on things that others will admire and praise? How much, John asks, do we spend on our vanity? What example do we set for our children? What do they learn from us about the use of money? As we consider our spending and our saving, we lift up rule three, for this conversation continues into the third rule.
 
Rule #3—Give all you can! As disciples of Jesus Christ we cannot stop our use of money with earning and saving. Money must be put to use and that use is in creating the commonwealth. It is found in giving. When the Creator of heaven and earth brought us into being and placed us in this world, it was not to be as proprietors but as stewards, as caretakers. All that God created is God’s, including us. We are God’s, we belong to God. This church is God’s church. All that we enjoy in this world is God’s. God has made it clear how we are to employ what has been entrusted into our care, it is to be lifted up as a holy sacrifice, acceptable through Jesus Christ. Therefore, all the money entrusted into our care through our earning is in fact for us to give, but to give in four ways.
  1. The money is given to provide the necessary things for ourselves, for our health and strength; food, clothing, shelter, etc.
  2. The money is given to provide the necessary things for our family and their health and strength.
  3. The money is given to provide for our family in faith; our church family.
  4. The money is given to provide for our family on this planet—all of humanity, all of creation.
If we live with and use our money in this manner than it is all given to God, to the glory of God.
 
We are called to examine the use of our money. When we are considering a purchase, an outgoing of the money earned, we examine our motives. Am I acting in this moment as a steward of God’s goods? Am I keeping true to what scripture calls me to do and be? Can I offer up this action, this expense, as a holy sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ? Is this act part of living God’s kingdom now? And as we send forth funds, can we pray over them, dedicating them to God, for God, and for all God’s wondrous creation? Gee, that would change bill paying and shopping, wouldn’t it? John says, “Render unto God not a tenth, not a third, not a half, but all that is God’s by employing all to God’s glory as a good and faithful steward.
 
If we earn all we can through hard work and dedication, if we save all we can by examining our desires against the desires of God, and if we give all we can for the health and strength of ourselves, our families, our faith community, and God’s world, we use the money entrusted to our care to further God’s realm in this world.
 
Hear John’s closing words to his sermon:
Our kingdom, our wisdom is not of this world: Worldly custom is nothing to us. We follow no one any farther than they are followers of Christ. Hear Jesus! Yes, today while it is called today, hear and follow Jesus’ voice! At this hour, and from this hour, do Jesus’ will: Fulfill his word, in this and in all things! I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling! No more laziness! What your hand finds to do, do it with all of who you are! No more waste! Cut off every expense which the world demands! No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all humanity! So, ‘laying up in store for yourself a good foundation against the time to come, that you may attain eternal life!” Amen!



October 6, 2015, 11:32 AM

A Table for ALL


Mark 10:2-16, CEB
Some Pharisees came and, trying to test him, they asked, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife?”
Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a divorce certificate and to divorce his wife.”
Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your unyielding hearts.  At the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.[a] Because of this, a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.[b] So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
10 Inside the house, the disciples asked him again about this. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12  and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15  I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
 
“A Table for ALL”
Today is World Communion Sunday (10/4), where followers of Jesus connect with one another through the holy and sacred table around the world! This year it is also the Feast of St. Francis; that beloved saint whose heart was wide open for all of God’s glorious creation. I think Francis would be pleased that the day which honors him is also the day where we gather at a world-wide table. For World Communion Sunday is that day on which we unite across all the borders and boundaries that seek to divide us: national boundaries, denominational boundaries, race, ethnicity, economics, and so on. This table today is a table of justice. For, as we see one another across all those borders, as we ensure that all at the table are fed, we are reminded that this is our call each and every day. We who have easy access to the table, we who have access to the necessities of life, are called to help others access the table, and to have enough of the necessities to thrive. This is the table of Jesus Christ. It is meant to be a table for all!
 
And, as First UMC Oneonta, we embrace that message. We are a reconciling congregation and have proclaimed a message of open tables for over 25 years; a table for all, a table of welcome. Last Sunday we were reminded of who we are, caretakers and stewards of one another, a people called to love kindness, to love mercy. We come to the table to offer that love and mercy to one another. Last Sunday we were reminded that our mission statement as First UMC is the call from Micah 6:8—to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Holy Communion embodies all three parts of that call. World Communion Sunday, however, really lifts up that first part of the call-to do justice. This is the table of justice, the table for ALL! We are called to act to create a truly open table.
 
So what in the world was the lectionary committee thinking when they set the three year schedule and had this reading from Mark as the gospel text for World Communion Sunday? The temptation to preach off lectionary is extraordinary. This is another type of clobber text, a passage that has been used to inflict pain and heartache on many, and it is our text for a Sunday when we are supposed to be uniting across boundaries, not strengthening them. It is tempting to avoid the hard pieces and just spend time with Jesus and the children.
 
But the text is here in our holy scriptures and we need to know how to follow Jesus even through these tough parts of our journey.  And, this passage is part of a longer story line which we have been living with these past few weeks, a story of identity, our identity. Let’s remember this story. It began about a month ago for us as we heard the passage of Jesus and his followers traveling near Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asked an important identity question—“Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question also says much about who we are as followers of Jesus. As Jesus and followers continued the journey, now headed toward Jerusalem, the disciples began to bicker about which of them will be the greatest, an argument that didn’t seem to let go of. Jesus gives them a visual by placing in their midst that small, vulnerable, powerless, status-less child—“Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.” This is who we are, a people called to welcome the vulnerable.
 
And that story almost repeats itself at the close of today’s reading, when the disciples try to prevent the children from coming to him, and Jesus must correct them yet again. Those two incidents with children bracket this hard reading today. Two stories about welcoming the vulnerable stand on either side of this conversation about divorce, and give us guidelines for how to read this story.
 
There are a few things to note as we encounter this story. One, Jesus did not initiate this conversation. This is not a chosen teaching of Jesus. Pharisees have selected this difficult piece of law and are using it to test Jesus. Which brings us to point two, this is a conversation about interpreting and apply God’s law, not about marriage and divorce. The Pharisees have chosen a particularly difficult and sensitive law for this confrontation, a piece from Deuteronomy 24 that is hard to interpret. Three, we need to remember that Jesus’ culture is highly patriarchal. Women and children have no power or status on their own, but only through the men they are connected to. Women are literally sold into marriage as a business transaction. Marriage is about status, power, and making connections. And fourth, this conversation is not about individuals and their marriage situations. It is a conversation about a nation and the laws that government. It is about how a society lives together.
 
The Pharisees are using a difficult, sensitive piece of law in order to test Jesus and his interpretation of legalities…and Jesus is having none of it. Jesus instantly turns this conversation from legalities to relationships and justice. If a man writes a certificate of divorce for his wife he is stripping her of everything. She loses her reputation, her status, and her security—physical protection, economic resources, all security. She loses her home. If she has children with her husband, she loses them as they are his property. She can even lose her community if she is from another village. She is left absolutely and completely vulnerable. Jesus essentially asks these Pharisees, “is this the community you want to be, one that can write down a few words and cast out a member of your own people?” The law of God was giving to the people as instructions for living God’s way in the world, and gives specific attention to protecting the vulnerable. To use the law for any other purpose is wrong, and to use it to victimize the vulnerable is doubly wrong. Though Jesus’ words are hard to hear 2000 years later in our vastly different culture, we must learn how to read past the cultural differences to hear what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is standing up for the vulnerable and against a practice that makes the powerless more vulnerable.
 
What message could be more appropriate for World Communion Sunday, as we come to the table for all, the table of justice? Jesus challenges us to examine our own community and how we live together. Who are our vulnerable? What rules, laws, policies, doctrines are making those vulnerable even more so instead of offering protection? How are those vulnerable being hurt by legalities?
 
This is the table of Christ which stretches around the world—holy, sacred, mysterious. It is not yet a table for all, but it can be. This table is the model for how we are to live our lives in the world; as a church, a members of a larger community, as individuals. Are we living a table for all? Where does our openness break down? Where are some cast out or left behind in our own community?
 
It is Stewardship Time, as we have been playing with these last few weeks, a time to examine how we give…a time to examine how we LIVE! Where do we spend the majority of our resources? What consumes most of our time? How are we sharing our talents? What takes priority in our lives? How are we supporting justice with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness? Do our lives embody a table for all? Amen and Amen.



September 30, 2015, 12:22 PM

Who We Are


James 5:13-18, CEB
13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. 14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 17 Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. 18 He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
 
Mark 9:38-50, The Message
38 John spoke up, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”
39-41 Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.
42 “On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.
43-48 “If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.
49-50 “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”
 
“Who We Are”
Today’s message is participatory! We are going to talk to one another as we explore today’s scriptures!
 
We are gathered here this morning/evening in this beautiful place, a place we call church. However, many of us remember that (using hands) here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people! We know that the church is really the people. In the New Testament, the word we translate as church is ecclesia, which literally means ‘gathered community’ or ‘gathered assembly.’ The church of the New Testament had no buildings so wherever the people gathered, that was church.
 
Jesus was very intentional in creating this unique community we call church. He prepared his followers to call people into this community after his death and resurrection, as they proclaimed Jesus’ good news across the known world. Why? What is the purpose of the church, or the purposes of the church?
Congregation’s responses: supporting each other, teaching, connection, mission in the world, we are not alone, doing Christ’s work, worship, education, service, prayer, community, sacrifice, gathering with friends, spread the gospel, heal, fellowship, make disciples for the transformation of the world, meet people, take care of each other.
 
From those early beginnings, the community called church has spread throughout the world. Today we have many gathered communities, many ecclesia, even here in Oneonta.  Some of these churches are connected to one another through denominations: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and as we saw in the media this week, our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.  And, of course, the United Methodists. What, in your opinion, is unique about the United Methodist Church?
Congregation’s responses: connectionalism, world service, prevenient grace, good piano playing, singing in harmony, well fed gatherings, apportionments, willingness to change, inclusiveness, casseroles (giggles), open-mindedness, accepting, grace, social justice
 
And now, let’s bring it home. If someone new walked in right this moment and asked us, as First UMC of Oneonta, who we are, we would say, “we are…”
Congregation’s responses: reconciling(all 3 services), awesome, welcoming, moving on to perfection, community, family, people who care, love, inclusive, the gathering, friends, structured stable environment
Does anyone know our church’s mission statement? It comes from a piece of scripture. (all 3 services had people who knew the mission statement). “And what does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, and to love kindness/mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” Micah 6:8. Is this a part of who we are? Yes! Absolutely! (nodding heads).
 
I ask these questions today because our scripture readings gifted to us by the lectionary are all about identity—who we are—being church. In fact, that is the purpose of scripture, to guide the people of God, the followers of Jesus, the ecclesia into being God’s people here and now. And the focus of these passages today is on the 2nd part of our mission statement. They are all about our call to love kindness, to love mercy…even the gospel reading from Mark.
 
Our reading from Mark today is a continuation of a story that we have been exploring the last two weeks. Two Sundays ago Jesus and his disciples were walking near Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asked them an important question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered quickly, “You are the Messiah!” and then got the definition all wrong. They continued their journey and, in last week’s reading, they stopped at a destination for a bit and Jesus asked the disciples what they had been bickering about while they were walking. Do you remember what it was? Who was the greatest. Right, which one of them is the greatest. Do you remember Jesus’ response? He used a visual. Jesus lifted a small, peasant child, a person of no power or status or social position, and he placed that vulnerable child in the midst of them and embraced the child. He told them that whoever welcomed such a child in Jesus’ name welcomed Jesus, and the One who sent Jesus. Jesus has literally just said that line about welcoming the child in his name, and our reading today opens with the disciple’s response.
 
John says, “Hey Jesus! We saw this guy over there casting out demons in your name and we stopped him because he wasn’t one of us.” Jesus just gets done talking about welcoming in his name and this is John’s response! What does this say about the disciples? They aren’t listening. Exactly, they are still having the argument from the road about who is the greatest…and it isn’t that guy over there casting out demons.
 
The next line is one of my favorites. Jesus has been traveling with his followers for some time. He has been teaching them, healing people in front of them, performing miracles. He has been showing them all about living God’s way. He corrected Peter for getting the Messiah definition wrong, strongly corrected him. “Get behind me, Satan!” He gave them the demonstration of welcoming the child. And still they are arguing about which one is greatest. And what is the next line after John’s statement? Jesus wasn’t pleased. Talk about under-translation! “Jesus wasn’t pleased.” I think Jesus was feeling a little more strongly than that. At this moment I imagine Jesus is tempted to take Peter and John and knock their heads together! Jesus is angry!
 
This man is doing good in Jesus’ name. He IS one of us! These followers are to be the pillars of the ecclesia. They are the founding parents of the church. They must understand what this community is about and how it is to live together in Jesus’ name! These followers have to get this! They are to be the stewards and caretakers of one another. They are to welcome and protect the last and the least. They are to open their arms wide to the vulnerable, the powerless, the child. They have to get this! And if this tiny child still standing there in their midst doesn’t bring the point home, perhaps the image of cutting off hands and feet, of plucking out eyeballs might get their attention. This is about the sharing of the good news through the community of faith. They need to see who they are!
 
James approaches this church identity from a different angle as he closes his letter to the church. Look at the picture he paints of life within the ecclesia. Consider the level of intimacy that this picture requires. This gathered community prays with and for one another. They send for one another when they are ill, seeking the ministry of presence and touch. When they are burdened, they confess to one another, sharing each other burdens, praying for forgiveness and restoration, for wholeness. Here is a glimpse of the blessed community Jesus intends for us all. Here is the call to love kindness and mercy embodied. James imagines for us a people called church as stewards, as caretakers of one another, especially those most in need. This is our membership vows lived out in day-to-day life. Here is the pledge to support one another with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness! This is who we are!
 
We joked last week using the Home Improvement/Tool Time call—“Hey everybody, what time is it?” “It’s Stewardship Time.” And we have been and will continue to be talking about finances and material giving, but stewardship time is about so much more than that, it is about how you gift the ecclesia with your presence, with your time, with you. How will you give of yourself within our gathered community? Will you help teach our children and youth? Will you embody James’ letter and enter into the ministry of presence, perhaps adopting a homebound or nursing facility member, giving them an hour of your time once a month, sending them a card each week to let them know they are not alone, but are loved and cherished and wanted? Will you commit to worship regularly? Will you participate, as we saw at our awesome rummage/book/bake sale this week, in church events and activities?
 
Because this is who we are, welcomers of the vulnerable! This is who we are, those who pray together and stay together! This is who we are, nothing less than stewards and caretakers of the body of Christ! This is who we are! Thanks be to God! Amen!

 




September 25, 2015, 10:55 AM

The "T" Word


Proverbs 31:10-31, Jewish Study Bible (italicized words from Dr. Wil Gafney’s translation)
What a rare find is a woman of warrior-strength!
    Her worth is far beyond that of rubies.
11 Her lord puts his confidence in her,
    And lacks no good thing.
12 She is good to him, never bad,
    All the days of her life.
13 She looks for wool and flax,
    And sets her hands to them with a will.
14 She is like a merchant fleet,
    Bringing her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is still night
    And supplies provisions for her household,
    The daily fare of her maids.
16 She sets her mind on an estate and acquires it;
    She plants a vineyard by her own labors.
17 She girds herself with strength,
    And performs her tasks with vigor.
18 She sees that her business thrives;
    Her lamp never goes out at night.
19 She sets her hands to the distaff,
    Her fingers work the spindle.
20 She gives generously to the poor,
    Her hands are stretched out to the needy.
21 She is not worried for her household because of snow,
    For her whole household is dressed in crimson.
22 She makes covers for herself;
    Her clothing is linen and purple.
23 Her lord is prominent in the gates,
    As he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes cloth and sells it,
    And offers a girdle to the merchant.
25 She is clothed with strength and splendor;
    She looks to the future cheerfully.
26 Her mouth is full of wisdom,
    Her tongue with kindly teaching.
27 She oversees the activities of her household
    And never eats the bread of idleness.
28 Her children declare her happy;
    Her lord praises her:
29 “Many women have warrior strength,
    But you surpass them all.”
30 Grace is deceptive,
    Beauty is illusory;
    It is for her fear of the Lord
    That a woman is to be praised.
31 Extol her for the fruit of her hand,
    And let her works praise her in the gates.
 
Mark 9:30-37, CEB
30 From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. 31 This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One[a] will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” 32 But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.
33 They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” 34 They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” 36 Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said,37 “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
 
 
Aidan was recently watching YouTube videos where people were tested to see if they could match TV theme songs with the show from the 1990s, and I found myself playing along, since the 90s seem so recent to me. I didn’t do very well, but there was one I knew instantly—Home Improvement! Tim Allen starred as a local TV fix-it show host who was lousy at home improvement. His fake cable show began each time with their announcer, Heidi, asking the crowd, “Hey everybody, what time is it?” The audience shouted in response, “It’s Tool Time!” (the name of the fake show). We, the Church in America, could play our own version of Tim’s show announcement every fall as the leaves begin to change and thoughts turn toward the close of this year and the beginning of the new. I could call to the congregation, “Hey everybody, what time is it?” Why, it’s Stewardship time! (yay! crowd roar) Let’s try it… “Hey everybody, what time is it?” (congregation responds, “it’s Stewardship time!”—hopefully with enthusiasm)
 
Our Finance team has been working toward that end and a member of the team asked me a question recently about tithing…the dreaded church ‘T’ word! So, what is a tithe? The quick answer is ‘giving 10%.’ But that is not a clear answer. In fact, I must confess, that simple answer leads to tons of other questions that are hard to answer, even for clergy—or especially for clergy. Ten percent of what? Income? Which income figure? Net? Gross? Is it every inch of income all factored together? Is it just my main salary? Ten percent given to what? Just the church? All charitable giving? There are no easy answers to those questions. Though the concept of tithing is biblical, as is the 10% figure, all our other questions aren’t so easily answered thousands of years later in a very different world.
 
And if those questions weren’t enough, here are some others. Many young adults and even middle aged adults discover the concept of tithing a little later in life, after the accumulation of quite a bit of debt. How do we then conceive of tithing when much of my income is tied up in this debt? Can I factor that debt into my concept of tithing? What if I am literally living paycheck to paycheck? How can we talk about tithing then? And doesn’t the concept of tithing primarily come from the Hebrew Scriptures-Old Testament? Does it then apply to us who follow Jesus? If so, how?
 
Can we go back to singing our hymn, or move on to praying for the world?
 
My home church never talked about tithing or giving, not in any way that left an impression on me and I was very active. My parents are faithful givers. I know this because they let me put their offering envelope in the plate every Sunday, but I never knew what was in it. I had never heard of tithing until I joined a mega-church in Baton Rouge as a young adult with my husband—and let me say, the mega-church in that Southern city was clear and concise in their required membership classes on their definition of tithing. Tithing was 10% of your after-tax income. At the close of the class, you would be pledging. A tithe was preferred, other percentages were offered as options. Doug and I chose an option. We were still figuring all this out.
 
We are still figuring all this out.
 
And then, Peter Storey, retired bishop from South Africa, messed up my neat definition received from that Louisiana UMC. He stood in front of our seminary class and declared that tithing is where we start in our giving and generosity. Ten percent is what we pledge to our church home as a start in our generous living, and then we give above and beyond. Many in the room gasped, audibly. And then he began teaching about sacrificial giving and sacrificial living and our little heads just spun in circles. He has that way about him. Wow!
 
So let’s stop with the barrage of questions and ask the important one, what does Jesus say? Here is the hard answer, Peter Storey was pretty much on target as to Jesus’ teaching on giving. But before we start gasping, let’s look at it from the scripture readings we have before us today. Jesus, and Proverbs, offer us a way into this Jesus way of living that might be less anxiety provoking.
 
I do want to take just a moment and talk about Proverbs. Chapter 31 is probably the most well-known passage from Proverbs and can stir up some strong emotions. I hope you noted the opening of the passage as it was read today—a woman of warrior strength. The Hebrew word, Isshah, is used for both woman and wife—there is no word that speaks specifically of one or the other. It is hard to know which one Proverbs means as the literal word for ‘husband’ never appears in the passage, only the word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’ So this woman could be the wife, or she could be in another type of relationship in this household, even the household manager or steward. The word used to describe the Isshah is actually used earlier in this same chapter, where it is translated physical strength and literally means the strength exhibited by a warrior.  This passage, which closes Proverbs compilation of teachings on following Woman Wisdom and not Woman Foolishness, is a testament to Wisdom living—whether we see this strong woman as Wisdom herself, or an example (exaggerated for effect) of wisdom-living.  It is about more than tithing. It is about giving to God and community 100%, not 10%. It is about living always conscious of God present in oneself and in the world around us and treating all accordingly.
 
But chapter 31 is the end, not the beginning, of this journey of Wisdom. It is not our new ‘to-do’ list on discipleship. This is a glimpse of glory, a promise of full living to urge us on in our journey of life with God. We need to start at chapter one, and work, step by step toward that vision—what John Wesley called ‘moving on to perfection.’ We too strive for that warrior strength and that wise living—a life of peace and justice as one.
 
Now back to Jesus. First, Jesus does speak of tithing, in Matthew 23:23. He points out that his audience tithes, some Pharisees he is none too gentle with, and indicates that this is a good thing, BUT they are neglecting what he terms the ‘weightier matters’ of justice, righteousness and faithfulness. God wants more than the 10%, God wants 100% committed to God’s way.
 
Second, Jesus, in the way he guides his followers on a journey, clearly understands that kingdom living is a journey for us. In our reading today from Mark we find another confrontational moment between Jesus and his disciples on this journey. It is another moment where Jesus is pushing his followers beyond the popular understanding of living, the worldly understanding of power and greatness and privilege, and into a greater understanding of the upside-down way of God’s commonwealth. Jesus speaks for a second time of his impending suffering, death and resurrection. The disciples were too afraid to ask questions—they really didn’t want the answer. Instead they revert to their previous understanding of Messiah-ship, the popular and familiar one, where the Messiah comes in, kicks Rome out on its bum, and establishes the golden rule of God—King Jesus. And when that happens, they will be powerful! They begin to bicker about which one of them will be greatest, who has the best connections.
 
When confronted by Jesus, when their reversion is brought to light, Jesus is much gentler than last week’s “get behind me, Satan!” Jesus gives them a visual to stand in contrast to their fear and to their desire to define God’s way by worldly standards. Jesus takes the most powerless person in their current culture, places this tiny, no-status child in the midst of them, and states that greatness will be determined by how they welcome someone with no social position or status; not the world’s way where greatness is determined by being able to welcome the most powerful, wealthy, and privileged.
 
Fear makes us want to cling to what is familiar and so visible around us. Fear makes us want to do what everyone else is doing. There is comfort in numbers. Jesus calls us to step out in faith, step by step, even if they are baby steps at times. God’s kingdom assesses and assigns value very differently than the way the world does, and Jesus calls us to move toward seeing the world God’s way, not the world’s way. Tithing can be a milestone on that journey, a marker on the way. I don’t think it matters as we take baby steps toward tithing how exactly we define it—net income, gross income, debt figured in, etc. The vast majority of church goers, across most denominations, do not tithe under any of those definitions. I think the first thing we do is define our goal for ourselves and start moving in that direction. As we evaluate what we need to change to make those steps-what we will give up, what we will do differently-we begin to evaluate our lives through Jesus’ eyes. Our financial changes begin to affect our daily living—so that we start giving more and more of ourselves to God in an active way. We begin to assess and assign value in new ways, Jesus’ ways.
 
Tithing becomes a gift for living more of our life for God, giving more of our resources for God’s work. Those first steps are hard. Fear clings and pulls, making us want to go back to singing that last song/hymn or go forward to the pastoral prayer. But perhaps this year, Stewardship Time can be true discipleship time, as we step together in faith forward with God.
 
So, let’s try this again, our little spin off of Home Improvement and Tool Time… “Hey everybody, what time is it?”

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