Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Second Blessing

Luke 17:11-19
November 22, 2015

            English: Thank you. French: Merci. German: Danke. Spanish: Gracias. Arabic: Shukraan. Italian: Grazie. Swedish: Tack. Norwegian: Takk. Greek: Efcharisto. Swahili: Asante. Hindi: Dhanyavaad. Russian: Spasibo. Indonesian:  Terima kasih. Yiddish: A Dank.
            Downloading the translate app on my phone was a decision that has paid off time and time again. I used it to find these examples of the word “thank you.” There were far more languages than I could list here and far more ways to say, “thank you,” than I could pronounce. I decided that it might be easier to find out if there is a language that does not have its version of “thank you,” rather than seeking out a list of all those that do. The one example I found was Nepali. Nepali does not have a spoken word meaning “thank you,” instead thanksgiving is indicated through gestures and body language. Expressing gratitude seems to be universal. Whether we say it in words or through our hands our other physical cues, saying thank you, giving thanks seems to be innate to our natures.
            Yet just because we have the words to express our thanks does not mean that we always use them. That seems to be the case in this passage from Luke’s gospel. Jesus was walking in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee. The accuracy of the physical geography listed in the gospels is questionable, but I often think that the gospel writers – and Luke is no exception – focus more on spiritual geography rather than the physical distance between one location and another. This would be an example. Jesus never hesitated to walk the knife’s edge between what was thought to be acceptable and unacceptable. He spent a significant amount of his time in the borderlands – or perhaps we should call them the no-man’s lands – between cultures and peoples. At the beginning of these verses Luke tells us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Once again, in terms of spiritual geography, Jesus was not just making a trip to the city. He was on the way to the cross. Along the way, he was approached by ten lepers. If ever there were people who lived in the no-man’s land of culture and social mores, it was lepers. They were unclean. They were unwelcome. They were marginalized, physically and emotionally. They understood being kept a distance, so it is no surprise that although they wanted Jesus’ attention, they knew better than to get too close. They kept their distance from him just as others kept their distance from them.
            Just as others who were on the outskirts seemed to recognize Jesus for who he was, so too did these lepers. They saw Jesus and called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
            Jesus did not utter words of healing per se. Instead he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. If they were healed of their leprosy in any way, that would the step they must take in order to be named clean and welcomed back into the community and the synagogue. They were obedient to Jesus’ command. They did what they were told, and on their way to see the priests they were made clean.
            One of the ten noticed what happened. He saw that he was healed and he turned back, “praising God with a loud voice.” He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. It is only at this point in the story that we learn that this tenth leper was a Samaritan.
            I often hear death described as the great equalizer. It would seem that so too was leprosy. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was pronounced. They would not have been seen hanging out with one another. But in a lepers’ colony, ethnic and racial heritage must not have mattered all that much. Yet at this moment in the story, Luke takes care to point out that this tenth leper, the one who loudly praised God and took the time to turn around and thank Jesus, was a Samaritan – a person who would have been doubly marginalized, for his ethnicity and his skin condition. It was the Samaritan – an outsider – who returned to give thanks.
            We need to be clear on something. The other nine lepers did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. Too often I think we take this story as a rebuke of their behavior. But their behavior was not out of line. They acted obediently. The text also clearly states that as they went on their way they were made clean. The healing was already accomplished. We don’t know that they weren’t grateful. They may have seen the priests, been welcomed back into the community of faith, and spent the rest of their lives rejoicing. We don’t know. What we do know is that at least in that moment, it was the outsider who voiced thanksgiving. It was the one most marginalized, the foreigner, who returned to speak words of thanksgiving. The Samaritan was already healed of his leprosy, but when he returned to thank Jesus, Jesus pronounced that his faith had made him well.
            I wonder if Jesus was speaking to more than just the healing of an external disease. Perhaps in saying that the Samaritan was well was Jesus’ way of saying that the Samaritan was whole – whole in body, mind and spirit. Maybe that is what being thankful, speaking thanksgiving does. It makes us whole.
            There is increasing scientific evidence to support gratitude being the foundation of wellness. I read an article from Forbes[1] that listed the ways gratitude contributes to health and wellness. The article listed seven ways that developing “an attitude of gratitude” benefits us. Saying “thank you” isn’t just about being polite, it also “opens the door to more relationships.”  Being gracious may help you make new friends or business contacts.
            Gratitude keeps us physically healthy. Grateful people take better care of themselves. If they have the habit of being thankful, they probably also have habits that keep them healthy like exercising, eating well, and making time for preventive check-ups.
            Gratitude ups our emotional and psychological health. Grateful people tend to be happier, less resentful or envious of others’ success. Frustration, regret and depression are reduced when gratitude is increased.
            If you want to be a more caring, compassionate and empathetic person, get grateful. Grateful people are less aggressive and vengeful and more empathetic and caring. People who model gratitude sleep better. They have higher self-esteem and mental strength. People who are grateful are more resilient in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
            I was taught that “please” and “thank you” were magic words. This list takes the magic out of it and puts the science in. But I think a word of caution is needed. I do think that being grateful needs to become habit. I do think that showing gratitude and thankfulness does increase our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. I’m grateful that science is making us more aware of this. It helps to remind me of how important gratitude is and how often I forget to show it. Yet here is my caution. It would be far too easy to see gratitude as another thing that benefits us and us alone. The more grateful I am, the happier and healthier and more whole I will be. I just need to count my blessings.
            Yet maybe being thankful is also a blessing. Maybe being thankful doesn’t just open us up to more blessings in our own lives; maybe it widens our vision so that we can be a blessing to someone else.
            Isn’t that the second blessing? When we voice our gratitude for the blessings in our lives, we also open the door to bring the bounty of those blessings to others. Thanksgiving is a response. Gratitude is a response. When the Samaritan turned back and thanked Jesus, he was responding to the blessing of healing given to him. Our gratitude doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a response to God. And as we read and hear and learn over and over again, responding to God walks hand-in-hand with responding to others. We are blessed. Thanks be to God. But our blessings are not privatized. They are not ours alone. We are blessed so that we can share our blessings, be a blessing to others. I mean isn’t that how we most often receive the blessings of God – at the hands of another person? We are blessed so that we can be instruments of blessing. That is the second blessing.
            Let all of God’s blessed and thankful children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Forbes, Amy Morin, November 23, 2014.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Appearances Deceive

Mark 13:1-8
November 15, 2015

            On a podcast I listen to called Selected Shorts, I recently heard a short story read about a cautious man. This is my paraphrase of the story.[1]
This cautious man had always been cautious. He was a husband, a father, a businessman. He took care of the people he loved. He did what he could to make sure they were safe and protected from harm. But he, his wife and his children also lived and worked and played. One day the man’s house burned to the ground. He rushed home to see his house destroyed, but his wife and his children were safe. The man was terrified. Yes, he still had his family, but what if? When he rebuilt his house, he built it of materials that could not burn thinking that would ensure his family’s safety. But even with an inflammable house, he realized that robbers and marauders could still find a way into his home and harm his family. So he built a moat and filled it with dangerous animals. He built a wall around the moat which went around his house to keep that which could harm away from his family. He feared that even these physical structures could still not keep danger out, so he hired guards to watch for danger on a regular basis. Fearing that the guards might turn on him, he hired more guards to watch the guards. But still this cautious man was not satisfied that his family and his home were protected from all danger. So he built protections around them specifically. But that wasn’t enough, so at last he had them enclosed in pods. They were able to breathe and be nourished inside the pods; they were on monitors to make sure that all of their vital signs stayed within the normal ranger, but no illness or danger or harm could reach inside and take them from him. For a while he would visit them in their pods, but whenever he did their vital signs, their heart rates and blood pressure, would swing wildly high and low. The cautious man realized that his presence affected his wife and his children too much, so he stopped visiting them. He hired other people to tend to them while they stayed safely in their pods.
But one day a servant came to him and said that his daughter was dying. She was wasting away in her pod designed to keep out all danger and harm. So he had her taken out of the pod. The cautious man had his wife and his other children taken out of their pods. He realized that being alive is not the same as living. The cautious man removed all the obstacles to harm that he put in place. He fired the guards who guarded the guards. He filled in the moat and tore down the wall. He opened the doors of his house. He was still cautious. He still wanted his family safe and protected from harm, but as long as they were alive they would live.  
My original intent for this sermon has changed in these last days. It changed because evil has been alive and well this past week. It reared its ugly head in the horrific attacks in Paris on Friday evening. It also made its presence known through devastating suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad on Thursday and early Friday. In a period of 24 hours, hundreds of people were killed, hundreds more injured, and people in three cities who were just living their lives had their lives altered irrevocably.
Since September 11, 2001, we have had one other terrorist attack with the bombing at the Boston Marathon. While it may seem that the violence of terrorism is low, the latest statistic that I read was that we have also not gone one day this year without gun violence claiming the lives of at least one or more people. Not one day. Evil and hatred and violence have many names, and take on a variety of appearances, but the result whether it is on a large scale or small is the same. Devastation. Loss. Destruction. Senseless waste of lives.
The world’s response to the terrorist attacks in Paris has been heartening, just as it was on September 12th. It seems that in times like these we remember that we human beings are more connected to one another than we are otherwise. But along with the response of shared mourning, sympathy and support, there have been other expected responses. We want to know why. We want to know who. We want to know what can be done. Fingers are being pointed and blame is being assigned. Sometimes the blame falls on the people who deserve it, but too often it lands on those who do not. Brene Brown said that blame in sociological terms is “the discharge of pain and discomfort.”
Our pain and discomfort are great. They are so great that we not only blame, we try to find better ways of preventing these atrocities from happening again. I am all about safety and prevention. I’ll gladly wait in long security lines at the airport if it means I have a better chance of arriving at my destination safely. But even as I say that I realize that the appearance of security deceives. When the disciples pointed out the large stones and large buildings of the temple in Jerusalem, I suspect that they believed that nothing could bring those buildings down and turn those stones into rubble. But Jesus told them otherwise.
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
That was probably not the response they expected. Later, when Jesus sat opposite of the temple on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John and Andrew went to him privately and asked him to tell them when this would happen. What will be the signs? How will this be accomplished?
It isn’t surprising, really, that the disciples wanted to know the end. That way they could be prepared for what was to come. Don’t we sometimes wish we knew this as well? I can’t even read a mystery without turning to the end first. I just want to be prepared for what’s going to happen to the characters I’ve become attached to. The disciples want to be prepared, and so do we. We want to be secure and safe. We want to be certain of what will happen. So just like the disciples we ask to be told about when this end time will come. Tell us when our temples will be torn down. Tell us what to look for, watch for, so we can be prepared.
But Jesus said, as he did at other times and in other places, that this was not the question they should be asking. That should not be their worry. Instead beware of those who will lead them – and us – astray. Beware those whose appearances deceive. Beware those who come in his name and claim to be doing his work, but their appearances deceive.
I tried for a long time to think of examples of people who fit this bill. We can look to history, to Hitler and Napoleon and other tyrants and dictators who unleashed evil on the world under the guise of good. We could point to current politicians and leaders and prophesy that their intent is the same – evil in the name of good. But what I kept coming back to is that it isn’t necessarily a person who presents a deceiving appearance. It seems to me that what is truly deceiving is the idea of Certainty and our belief in Security.
O how we long to be certain that what we believe is right and other beliefs are wrong. O how we long to believe that if we build enough walls and patrol enough borders and keep the wrong people out while we hunker down within that we will be secure and safe. We want to be like that cautious man and wrap the ones we love in pods of protection. But that is a falsehood. That is a falsehood that leads us astray time and time again.
The older I get the more reluctantly I realize that certainty and security are illusions. They are smoke and mirrors. They blow away with the slightest of breezes. So what is left? The only answer I can find is faith – faith that God is with us, faith that good will overcome evil, faith that we humans were created to and for love. That’s the key, isn’t it? Love. We were created out of love to love – to love God, love our neighbors, love ourselves. We were created and we are called to love without limits or boundaries. The amazing thing about love is that the more we love, the more love grows. Love expands us.
But the problem is that we say in great faith that love is stronger than hate and that good will triumph over evil. We proclaim that in the end Love wins. And then we go back inside our walls and wait for the cosmic arm of God to reach through the heavens and make it happen. Yet it seems to me that Love will only truly win when the people who say it actually live it.
Isn’t that what Jesus did? He lived and died as though Love would win. Love is not a passive emotion in response to the atrocities that are happening all around us. Love is not a nicety, a cliché or a bumper sticker that we say when we can think of nothing else. To Love is our most defiant act of rebellion in the face of evil. Love is defiance. Hatred just cannot stand up to it. That is why we love our enemies and we turn the other cheek and we give the shirts off our backs because it diminishes evil’s power. Love is our defiance against evil. Love is our rebellion against those who hate us. Love lessens our need for security and certainty. Love triumphs over hatred and good wins out over evil, because we who claim Love also live Love. I think that we are called not only to recognize those people and especially those ideas whose appearances deceive; we are also called to love them. Our lives, now more than ever, cannot be just about living. They must be about loving. We must love defiantly as if our world depends on it.
It does.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Selected Shorts, podcast – I searched the site to find the actual title and author of this story to no avail. If you know the origins of the story, please let me know.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Going All In

Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015

            Money talks. That sounds like an overused cliché doesn’t it? Yet cliché’s are based in truths, and I think this is a prime example. Money talks. It talks in business, politics, sports, academics, everyday life, and in matters religious. The implication of these two words is that the more money you have, the louder it speaks.
            I became fully aware of money’s power to talk when I was a new pastor and attending presbytery meetings on a regular basis. We are a denomination of great love and compassion. We are also a denomination of great conflict and controversy. Nowhere are those dynamics reflected more clearly than when we gather together in large groups. As I said, I first started noticing how money talks at presbytery meetings. As our denomination would wrestle and debate over some particularly difficult and controversial topic, churches who felt that we were heading the wrong way would show its disapproval through its pledge to the presbytery. A church would withhold its pledged money as a way of stating clearly and succinctly that it did not agree with whatever was happening or not happening.
            I have no statistics whatsoever to back up my next statement. This is only a pattern that I have observed over the years. Yet I have noticed that large churches that contributed large sums to the presbytery, and ultimately the denomination, seemed to be the churches that most often withheld financial pledges because of theological disagreements with the larger body. While every church, large or small, does matter to a presbytery and the denomination’s well-being, at the presbytery level when a large church withholds pledging, it is felt. Why? Because money talks. Lots of money talks loudly.
            I do not dispute an individual or a congregation’s right to not financially support something with which they radically disagree. There are lots of things I do not want my money to support. Beyond the church walls, I think it is vital to be mindful of not only how I spend my money, but where I spend my money. Thinking globally and buying locally is another phrase that may seem overused, but it is also of utmost importance. Boycotts and divestments are all used to express people’s desire to stop supporting practices or policies that are believed to be wrong or unjust. Money does indeed talk. We may agree or disagree with how much or how little money contributes to a conversation, but it talks.
            So how does money talk in our story from Mark’s gospel? This is perhaps a story we think we know quite well. It is one that is used intentionally at this time in the church year when stewardship campaigns are in full swing. It seems to emphasize the importance of giving our financial all to our church – no matter how large or small a sum that equates to.
            This widow who gives all she has to the temple treasury is lifted up as a shining example of “the cheerful giver.” As Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
            It would be so easy, and make for a much shorter sermon, if I just said, “See, we all just need to be like this poor widow. We need to give our all, and all shall be well.” Alas, I cannot do that. What I can do is paraphrase theologian David Lose and say that there are two ways we can hear Jesus’ words. We can hear them as commendation or lament. Is Jesus commending the widow? Or is he lamenting her great sacrifice? There are indications from the larger context of this passage that it is the latter. Looking at the timeline of Jesus’ life shows that if Jesus was sitting opposite the treasury of the temple, that means that he was in Jerusalem. He had made his triumphal entry into the city. In the timeline of our church year, this story happens during Holy Week. Jesus is most definitely headed for the cross. In Mark’s telling, Jesus had barely crossed the city limits when cleansed the temple of the merchants and money changers who made his Father’s house a market place. Immediately following this story is Jesus’ prophecy of the temple’s destruction, so it would seem odd that he would lift up a poor widow giving her all to the temple as a model of stewardship.
            In the first verses we read today, Jesus condemned scribes who put greater emphasis on appearances and status then they did on faithfulness. These scribes may be greeted with groveling respect and get the best seats at the table, but “they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
             If Jesus warned against being like those scribes and denounced them for exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable, also known as widows, then why would he laud the widow’s great sacrifice in the very next breath? Cause and effect suggests that what she did was the end result of that exploitation. She shouldn’t have had to put into the treasury all that she had; her whole life. This is not to say that the wealthier people who put in greater amounts were stingy. But I suspect that they felt their giving less. The widow in giving all that she had, probably felt the consequences of her generosity a great deal more. To use yet another cliché, she gave until it hurt.
            But here’s the thing, no matter how we want to interpret the actions of this widow, it seems to me that our interpretations do not grasp the complexity of this story or this woman. We leave her as little more than a two-dimensional character. She was there only to be used as an example, an illustration, by Jesus and by us. But whoever she was, she was much more than that. I do not doubt that she was exploited by the larger systems in play around her. This is not a critique of ancient Judaism. In that society, and quite frankly in most societies, she would have been one of the weakest, most vulnerable of persons. In any patriarchal culture, a woman with no man in her life has no protection. Marriage, family, kept you safe. Is it really that much different today?
            The thing is, I think this widow knew that. I think she was well aware of where she stood in her culture and what that culture was capable of doing to her. I don’t think she gave blindly. She gave because she had to, certainly. There was a temple tax. But I do not think she was unaware of how her giving affected her and how it contributed to a greater injustice that worked against her.
            She gave her whole life. I wonder if she did this not because she had to but because what else could she do? She was driven by her need. Not giving was not an option, so she went all in with everything she had, everything she was. What did she have to lose? I think, I believe, she gave out of her need. I’m not saying this to taint her actions. In fact, I think it shows how faithful she truly was. Going all in with all of her money, with her whole life may have been driven by her great need, but it also required an even greater trust. Did she go all in with her money, her life because she trusted her leaders? Or did she go all in because she trusted God? She went all in, giving her whole life, because she trusted that she was in greater hands than those who sought to exploit her. She went all in because she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
            I know I’ve used the movie, Leap of Faith, in sermons before, but there is a scene in the movie that astonishes me every time I watch it. Steve Martin plays a traveling evangelist, aka con-artist. Debra Winger is his steadfast partner in crime. One of their busses breaks down outside of a small, broke, drought-stricken Kansas town. Martin’s character decides to set up shop anyway based on his thinking that the town may not be able to afford him, but they really need him. Liam Neeson plays the skeptical sheriff who tries to do everything he can to stop them from taking advantage of and exploiting the desperate people in his town. At one of the revival meetings, he tries to dissuade the people from giving to this “ministry,” by exposing Martin’s character for the fraud he is. He looks at one woman and says, “The bank is about to foreclose on your farm. You and your husband haven’t worked in months. How much of your hard earned money did you put into that bucket? $20?” The woman looks right back at him and says defiantly, “I put in $40. I need all the help I can get.”
            I need all the help I can get. We can look at this woman in the movie or at the widow in this story and cry foolishness. Why would they give to a system that they know is exploiting them, taking advantage of them? Why would they give anything at all much less go all in with everything that they have, with their whole life?
            Maybe because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Maybe because when you are in desperate need, going all in with your money, your time, your whole life is all you can do. Or maybe you go all in because you trust God more. This widow who gave her whole life is an example, but not of a cheerful giver or of someone exploited by an unjust system. She is an example of someone who trusted God more. She went all in with everything she had, not knowing what would happen to her, but trusting, somehow, that God did.
            We are called to go all in – with our money, our time, our resources – because we trust God more. It sounds easy. Yet it is so hard to do. But still we are called. Over and over, we are called to go all in without expectation or knowing the outcome. We are called to go all in, giving up control over what might happen. We are called to go all in because we trust God more. And here is the good news. God has gone and is going and will go all in for us. Think about that. Let those words sink in. God has gone. God is going. God will go all in for us. Let us go all in for this God who goes all in for us. Let us trust God more than our fears of what we’re giving up. Let us trust God more. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.