Peace Within

This year, we are following the liturgical resources made available by The Holy Women Icons Project (see here for more info). The theme is “Bearing the Light.”

Scripture: Ephesians 5:1-2, 8-11, 13-14

Reflection Questions:

In what ways do you need to wake up?

Where do you need light in your life?

Wake Up!!

In what ways do you need to wake up?

I won’t presume to know how you answer that question. I trust that the Spirit of God will show you what you need to see—that God will convict you, as we often speak of it.

Instead, here are some things I hear:

I need to wake up to the fact that other people have very different experiences of life than I do.

I need to wake up to how my choices hurt others.

I need to wake up to how I am the only real obstacle to achieving some things I want to achieve.

I need to wake up to how there is more violence and pain in this world—and in the lives of those immediately around me—than I am aware of.

I need to wake up to how my silence on some things is often misconstrued as taking a side.

The more I prayerfully reflect—the more I meditate on these things—the more aware I am of how much I slumber through this life and how desperately I need the resurrection power of God that calls me to “rise from the dead.”

Wake Up to Our Identity: Beloved Children of God

The apostle Paul suggests some answers for us too—answers that are just as relevant now as they were nearly 2000 years ago.

It just shows you that people are people, and the Spirit continues to speak and work in our midst.

In our scripture reading, Paul challenges the Ephesians to wake up to the reality that they “are children that God dearly loves” (v.1).

The times I have been more deeply “woke” to the fact that “God dearly loves” me have been among the most humbling and overwhelming experiences of my life. They are the memories I return to again and again—especially when passing through a dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross describes those shadow experiences of faith.

As Christians, the awareness that God dearly loves us is a deep well of peace within us that we can return to again and again—no matter where we are or what the circumstances. As a pastor who listens to a lot of stories of “coming to faith” or “accepting Jesus into my life,” I’ve observed quite a few consistent pieces. More than anything else, it seems the greatest single factor that drives the strongest lives of faith is the experience of a intense awareness of God’s deep love.

Not a road-to-Damascus type of conversion at youth camp.

Not a coming down the aisle on the 25th verse of “I Surrender All” at a revival.

But a genuine an undeniable experience of knowing “Jesus loves me.”
Of course, I don’t belittle these other experiences. But it seems that unless they are coupled with the deep impression in your being that comes with truly experiencing God’s love, they are wells that eventually dry up.

 

Now coupled with this challenge of Paul to wake up to the reality that we deeply loved by God is that we are in fact God’s “children” (v.1).

There are a lot of images in the NT for the work that Jesus does for us—in the incarnation, in the life he leads, in his suffering and death, and in his being raised to new life again. But one of them—to oversimplify it and use language from my childhood—is that Jesus pulls a switcheroo with us. He takes our place and we take his. Now, when we’re talking about this, we usually focus on how Jesus—in taking our place—takes on the punishment that is due to us for our sins. But as the NT tells it in Romans 8 and other places, when Jesus steps into our place we are able to step into Jesus‘ place. Whereas previously, the sin in our lives separated us from God, and Jesus’ “son-ship” united him with God; in the Cross Jesus steps into our place of separation (“Why have you forsaken me?” in Mark 15:34) and we step into a place of “son-ship” or “daughter-ship” in union with God. We are “adopted as children” who can now call God “Abba”-daddy (Rom 8:15). We are “children of God” and “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17 ESV).

Or as 2Corinthians 5:21 puts it: “For our sake he made him [that is, Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (ESV).

Imagine what the world would look like if every professing Christian was willing to claim their heritage as children of God who are dearly loved……

Of course, as the NT makes clear, this is no name-it-and-claim-it path of self-empowerment. Nor does it suggest a Joe Cocker-esque path of self-fulfillment where God’s “love

lift[s] us up where we belong
Where the eagles cry
On a mountain high…

Far from the world below
Up where the clear winds blow

No, we are saved for God’s purposes. We are given life to advance God’s Kingdom. Everything in our power and under our influence is a temporary gift entrusted to us to be used to advance God’s cause of love and justice in the world. As the book of 1John reminds us:

 “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1John 3:10 ESV).

In other words, we must wake up to the reality that we individually are not the only people God cares about. In 2Peter 3:9, we are reminded that the apparent “slowness” of Jesus’ return is rooted in God’s mercy and love; Peter tells us that the Lord is “not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s” (VOICE). God’s desire is that all who are created in God’s own image come to accept the way that God sees us: as children whom God deeply loves.

Wake up, sisters and brothers.

Wake Up to Our Past Darkness and Our Present Embodiment of Christ’s Light

There’s a second reality Paul challenges us to wake up to. In v.8, Paul invites us to wake up to our past darkness and our present embodiment of Christ’s light. He says:

“At one time you were in the dark, but now you are in the light because of what the Lord has done” (NIrV).

Just as before, there are two dimensions. The first is to wake up to our past darkness.

It amazes me how many people who profess Christ are so reluctant to call themselves sinners. Foundational to the Way of Christ is the recognition that we cannot save ourselves—that it is only by grace that we are saved and become better. That means: If Christ is who we profess, then our sin is what we will confess.

But we don’t want to.

We don’t want to acknowledge the brokenness in ourselves.

We don’t want to admit we struggle and fail with temptation each and every day.

We mistakenly believe that the only way we can be witnesses to Christ is if we present ourselves to others without fault.

We must wake up to the reality that we were once in the dark, and that the dark still has its shadowy fingers in our lives. We must acknowledge our sin—past and present—if anyone will ever see the light of Christ through our lives.

But this is the other dimension: Paul invites us to wake up to the fact that because of what Christ Jesus has done, it is possible for us to “be in the light,” as he says here.

That means that we don’t have to hide our darkness—we can expose it.

It means we don’t have to be slaves to our secret sins—they lose their power over us when laid bare.

It means that it is genuinely possible for the parts of us we fear to be chased away forever, like shadows fleeing as a room is illuminated.

But sadly, this is one of those times where what is meant as a promise is perceived as a threat. Paul promises that “everything the light shines on can be seen” (v.13); he promises this as a means of encouraging us and giving us hope. But we don’t want everything seen. We don’t want anyone to know our weaknesses. We don’t want anyone to know our darkest parts.

And the reason—if we’re going to be honest about it—is because we care more what others think about us than what God thinks about us.

And if that is the case, we will never find peace.

Where do you need light in your life?

This leads us to that second reflection question Sam offered to us this morning: Where do you need light in your life?

If “everything that the light shines on becomes a light” (v.13) then the way to experience more light in your life is to allow the light of Christ to shine more fully and deeply within and through you.

All that darkness spoken of in v.8 and in some of the verses we skipped over this morning—I am not so naive to believe that it is all gone. God is not so naive as to believe that it is all gone. But that’s why Paul is writing here: to remind the Ephesians of what should be but is not yet.

 

That’s Advent in a nutshell: a reminder of what should be but is not yet.

The world should proclaim God’s love to us, yet our whole notion of love is perverted by sexual objectification and abuses of power.

The world should support lives of joy, but untold numbers are drained of life by its systems.

The world should be a realm of infinite possibility, but many have their hopes crushed and die.

The world should be filled with peace but we still lack peace even within ourselves.

Advent is our time of remembering what should be—what will be—but what is not yet. Advent reminds us that there is work to be done within us and within our world if we are truly people following in the Way of Jesus.

Advent reminds us:

All our efforts at sharing the Good News are meaningless if what we share does not instill a sense of hope and life—if it is not, in fact, “good news.”

All our efforts at “growing as a Christian” are pointless if they are all self-centered expressions of personal piety instead of participation in God’s mission to lift up the downtrodden.

All our efforts at being a church are futile unless we truly embody Jesus in the world, living and loving and sharing and caring in the exact, selfless, servant-way that he demonstrated.

The only way to peace within us and within our world is to wake up, to face the “Son” of God, and to allow the light of the Dayspring of Immortal Gladness to permeate every part of our being.

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The Release of Joy

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Salvation

Salvation is something we tend to talk about a lot. And for good reason: it is an important part of God’s work in the world, of God’s work in our lives.

Sometimes, though, our language about salvation can be to our detriment. Too often, perhaps, we talk about salvation in terms of “getting into heaven” or “avoiding hell.” I’m not saying heaven isn’t a part of it; but I am saying that God’s purposes and work of salvation are much bigger than that. And when all we focus on is the next life, we forget that God is working salvation into our lives in the here and now, too.

The salvation of which Isaiah speaks here is not the distant, far-off, other-worldly salvation of getting into heaven. No! It is salvation in the here and now. Salvation that is lived out in community. Salvation that has ramifications for the rest of the world. Salvation that is seen by those around—by “all nations.” It is a salvation that transforms the whole world.

Jubilee

In fact, in order to build his metaphor here, Isaiah reaches back to everyone’s favorite book of the Bible—(Leviticus). Written into the law way back in Leviticus 25 is a concept called the Jubilee year, or the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee, a time of rest, celebration, release, and restoration.

The year of Jubilee is supposed to be a sort of reset button for the world. Land is to be left fallow to rest. The sale of any property in the previous 49 years is voided—property goes back to it’s original owner or heirs. People who were sold into slavery are freed.

The Jubilee year is a dramatic turning back of the clock, intended to ensure that no one’s hardships in life have permanent consequences. It is a means of grace, building into the systems of this world an opportunity for forgiveness and a fresh start.

Back to Isaiah

It’ll be like that, Isaiah imagines, as he anticipates God’s future: Jubilee.

But remember that Jubilee won’t necessarily be a joyful time for everyone. There would be those who grew fat off the misfortune of others, accumulating properties, slaves, and resources. Their profit is theirs to keep, of course, but property must be returned. Unfortunate souls enslaved to the system must be freed.

But to these in power, these property and slaves—this economic and societal power they wield—this is what they’ve worked for. This is what they’ve “earned,” they might think. Here lies the wealth they have accumulated, and Jubilee is going to take it all away from them.

No, Jubilee did not bring joy to everyone. It only brought joy to those “unfortunate souls” for whom the intervening years had been fraught with trouble, turmoil, and difficulty. It was only joyful for those who became oppressed, brokenhearted, and captive; the prisoners, the mourners, those who lack, and those who are weary and weak.

These are the ones who benefit from Jubilee, and these are the ones that Isaiah sees as benefitting from this new work of God in the world.

This passage in Isaiah demonstrates what has sometimes been called “God’s special concern for the lowest and the weakest,” a concern that is taken up by—and indeed made central to—the ministry of Jesus the Christ.

Jesus

When Jesus reads from the scroll in Luke 4:14-21, it is these words of Isaiah that he seeks out and reads. It is these words and attitudes that Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and ministry, and his entire existence in this world.

They explain the incarnation—Immanuel—God becoming flesh and living among us. And they reveal the salvation—the deliverance—that Jesus works to accomplish.

The fullness of this salvation is not a heavenly retirement condo, but the complete and utter transformation of the entire world—all that is, even what is here and now.

The fullness of this salvation is not limited to our own individual benefit, but the deliverance of all of creation.

To be Christian is to be like Jesus, and that involves conforming our own commitments and expectations to that of Christ. It involves the proclamation of the fullness of this salvation through our words and deeds, through our actions and our choices.

Mission & Salvation

I was reading a book this week. The author was talking about mission and God, and he referenced this exact text. He said (and rightly so, I believe) that Isaiah reveals here what salvation looks like. 

But then he asked a question: If this is what salvation rightly looks like, what then is the proper form of mission that corresponds to God’s intentions of salvation?

We know how to do mission, if salvation means handing out get-out-of-hell-free cards. But what if God’s desires regarding salvation are the complete transformation of creation? How do we do mission then?

Drawing off this text in Isaiah, the author suggested two keys.

“First,” he says, “mission happens when [we] turn [our] attention to those who are named as the recipients of the good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit… In order to participate in God’s mission of restoration, the people of God are sent first to those who most need to hear that God will provide for them and will redeem their losses” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 52).

“Second,” he continues, “mission happens when the nations of the world notice that the people of God live differently” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 52). You see, twice in our reading we read that the nations will notice God’s blessing (vv.9, 11), which cannot help but remind us of Isaiah’s earlier words in 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

To be Christian is to live as a Jubilee community, standing as a sign of God’s blessing to those around us. “To be missional is to live as a people of good news, liberation, justice, and comfort in such a way that the world may take notice and be drawn to the ways of God…”

As that author stated: “So long as Christians live as divided people, known to the world as those who judge, fight, and exclude, the church will fail to be missional, no matter how much money it gives and how many missionaries it sends” (Bader-Saye, Feasting, 54).

Advent

Advent is a season of reflection—yes. But it is also a season of transformation. A time to look around and recognize that things are not as they ought to be. Remembering Christ’s first coming, we are prompted to continue the mission-work of Jesus. Anticipating Christ’s second coming, we realize there is much work to do in advocating the kind of justice that the Lord loves.

When we live into our calling, it will truly be “joy to the world.” We will “rejoice rejoice.” When we join with Christ in this task, we will experience liberation—the glorious release of joy that comes when we experience the deliverance of our God, transforming our lives in accordance with God’s desires for all of creation.

Then, we too will sing: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”

We too will shout: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God.”

For “as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

That ongoing work of salvation by God—in our world and in our lives—is certainly something to celebrate.

Hallelujah. Amen.

The Promise of Peace

Isaiah 40:1-11

Curiouser and Curiouser…

These verses from Isaiah chapter 40 are one of the assigned readings for this year’s second Sunday in Advent. On this week, when we light the candle of peace,

we read God’s pleas that Isaiah comfort God’s people,

we hear an anticipation of the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist,

we discover the assurance that God’s proclamation is eternal,

and we find the promise of a future anchored in God’s caring for us.

It is a curious passage—not because it lacks connection to the theme and season, but because of the greatly varied ways it is in fact appropriate and powerful for us, today.

Continual Conflict

Moving out of Thanksgiving and into the Advent and Christmas seasons, we tend to do more reflection than other times of the year. And some in our family of faith have had an exceptionally difficult year. Over and over, for them, everything has gone wrong. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” as the saying goes.

To them, and perhaps for them, God calls us to speak comfort: “Comfort [them]…speak tenderly to [them]…for [they have] received more than their fair share of suffering” (vv.1-2).

If this is you, God is working to bring your life peace.

If this is not you, then perhaps God needs you—like Isaiah—to be God’s presence of peace and comfort to others.

Death and Grief

These holidays (too) have a way of reminding us of those who have passed from this life into the next. We are keenly aware of the absences around our tables and trees, of the traditions that were most important to our relative and friend who is no longer present in this world to celebrate them with us.

Some of our families are a bit more aware this year of how “all people are like grass”: we wither and we fade and life is gone. There’s a raw and clinical detachment to comparing the life of our loved ones to a blade of grass, but it’s honest too. When we grieve, we see death all around us. Which is why it is so important as Christians to remind one another that “the word of our God will stand forever.” We must be reminded of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Of God’s care and compassion that endures forever.

Injustice

In addition, these last weeks and months have been filled with the disturbing realization that our nation and our world are even more broken than we like to admit. That there are deep divisions within and between us. That not all lives are regarded as equal. That not all persons experience the same freedom. That justice sometimes isn’t just.

In the midst of this increasing awareness of our brokenness, Isaiah’s words about the coming Day of the Lord are powerful and comforting. He anticipates in verses 3-5 a day of dramatic reversals. Using the analogy of a nearly impassible wilderness, Isaiah imagines a road made smooth and flat as glass: hills made flat, valleys and dips filled in, rough places smoothed out.

The symbols speak for themselves; they are easy to decipher.

There are mountains and hills in our culture and systems, seemingly immovable obstacles that prevent people from living the fullness of life as God desires it for them. Isaiah envisions these obstacles tore down. Jesus too, later on, will talk about how even a little faith can move mountains.

In our culture and systems, the experience of life for some is akin to flying down a pot-holed gravel road with the accelerator stuck down. Everything is out of control, and there seems to be nothing they can do, no matter how much energy they put into it.

Still others find themselves sunk in a deep, dark valley, with no hope of climbing out—they are held down by the relentlessly grasping hands of poverty, or racism, or bigotry.

God through Isaiah calls us to speak words of peace to them, reminding them of God’s promises and working within God’s desires to transform the systems of this world.

But transformation will not happen without the people of God allowing God to work through us. Psalm 146:3 reminds us not to “expect any rescue from mortal men.” Psalm 118:8-9 teaches us that “it is better to put your faith in the Lord than to trust in people. It is better to put your faith in Him than to trust in princes.”

Our hopes for peace (this day and this season) are not rooted in the powers of this world, but the next. And it is by responding to the movement of the Spirit within us that God’s hope for peace and life can be fulfilled. One person and one loving action at a time, and the revolution of Jesus advances us toward God’s Kingdom. The ultimate result will be as we read in v.5:

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Future

This look to the future (here and at the end of our reading) perhaps speaks to all of us in its own way. In my preparation, I kept finding myself drawn to verse 11 over and over again. Hear it once more from a different translation (Voice):

He will feed his fold like a shepherd:
He will gather together his lambs into his arms
He will carry them close to his bosom;
and tenderly lead like a shepherd the mother of her lambs.

Somehow, contained in this one singular verse, we might just find the answer to everything that keeps us from peace.

For those of us who struggle to have enough, God promises to feed us, to care for us. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who feel alone, God intends to gather us together into God’s arms. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who are too weak or broken to carry on, God swoops in to carry us and give us strength. ……to bring us peace.

For those of us who struggle to find the way, God will lead us—and gently so. ……to bring us peace.

Though we all journey together this Advent season, our paths are many. But wherever your path leads you, within these verses is found the means to peace.

Do not forget: we worship the God of peace—a God who has been proven to be trustworthy and true. Remember that Jesus (as Immanuel—”God with us”)—embodied that peace in life.

Therefore, as disciples of Jesus and the children of God, so are we to manifest God’s peace in the world.

May we be the peacemakers Jesus calls us to be, even as we seek to find peace ourselves. For as the apostle Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Benediction

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Thessalonians 5:23 ESV)

The Hope of Fools

Isaiah 64:1-9

Hopeless for Hope

Hope has a way of turning us into fools.

We are hopeless for hope–as though we are by nature wired to believe in underdogs, long shots, and lost causes.

A pair of star-crossed lovers……

The wild card game that opens to a World Series……

A bedouin immigrant named Abraham……

A rogue rabbi from Nazareth……

We are hopeless for hope. We are intent on believing that little girl on the internet can beat cancer, that maybe I have really won a cruise when that telemarketer calls, and that winning the lottery is only a matter of time.

I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m the most hopeless of fools in this world. You may not be able to fully appreciate this, but I’ve been a Chicago Blackhawks hockey fan for nearly 25 years. I know about foolish hope. But the past couple years, I’ve also learned the sweet and glorious payoff when our hopes are fulfilled.

Abraham & Sarah

There was a hope God breathed into the world way back in Genesis 12. God issues a promise to Abraham: that God will use Abraham’s family to bring about God’s blessing on the whole world. In order to do this, God promises to make Abraham a “great nation.”

It is the promise of children more numerous than the stars of the heavens, more abundant than the grains of sand on the seashore. To Abraham this promise was given, an old man, whose wife Sarah was well beyond childbearing herself. But what is it we read of Abraham in Romans 4:18? On account of his faith in God, he “hoped against hope”–a wonderful expression for how foolish his hope must have seemed to anyone else.

Isaiah

The hope of what was begun in Abraham & Sarah grew with God’s involvement in the world. After many years, Isaiah and other prophets catch a glimpse of what is coming–of a hoped-for messiah who will change the world.

They only catch glimpses; they never see the whole picture. But it stirs them to action and emotion as they dream an impossible dream with God. As they hope against hope for God’s victory, even when around them they only see defeat.

Isaiah is not very hopeful when he looks around and sees his fellow countrymen. In verses 6-7 of our reading in Isaiah 64, the prophet proclaims:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

The language here is vivid, but the outlook is bleak. Their best intentions are “filthy rags,” they are “shriveled up,” and “swept away” by their sins. It’s funny how across time and space, the same images can be used to talk about trying to make it in this world without God: dirty, empty, a dried up husk, abandoned, things out of control. Isaiah might as well be describing many in our own world, even as he describes his own.

Isaiah sees no hope for them……at least, no hope without God’s intervention.

So Isaiah intercedes with God on their behalf, begging God to forgive them and mold them again according to God’s desires. In looking to the future, Isaiah remembers their past with God (vv.3-5)

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

Since ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.

Isaiah remembers, and he hopes and prays for God to intervene like that in the world again, a hope expressed in vv.1-2:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!

As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!

Shut ‘Em Up?

Oh, boy! That God would do that again! Right?
That’d show them! That’d shut them up!

But would it?
Did it?

You see, this foolish hope of Abraham and continued through prophets like Isaiah does get fulfilled, through one known as Jesus. God intervenes in human history in an amazing and dramatic way. It is not just the heavens that are rent when God comes down, it is also the temple veil and the barriers we erect to try to control “God” and “religion” and one another.

According to Matthew 27, with Jesus’ death comes an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake, and even the resurrection of some others who were dead. It is all very extraordinary and apocalyptic, just like Isaiah hopes it will be.

But it “shows” no one. It “proves” nothing to those who do not already believe. There are rumors and conspiracy theories, and the whole thing seems to end up a wash at best, at least in terms of public opinion.

That’s not quite how Isaiah had hoped it would turn out. Even when his hope is fulfilled, I imagine Isaiah might feel a bit foolish for all the ways he imagined it wrong.

Confounding

But on some level, it will always be that way. It is part of the way God works. 1Corinthians 1 reads:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

God works the way God works in order to bring God (alone) honor. Weakness is power in God’s kingdom, in order to show how broken are our notions of strength. Faith like a child is required for salvation, in order to reveal how incomplete and arrogant is the wisdom of our world. Humility and a heart of service are necessary parts of the life of faith precisely because they are discounted by our “me-first” culture.

Selfish Hope

Here’s something I realized this week. When we, like Isaiah, want God to “tear apart the heavens and come down and show the world,” what we really want is for God to vindicate us. It actually has nothing to do with honoring God. It has nothing to do with God’s desires being fulfilled. It is about us. It is about God taking our side and showing the world that we were right and they were wrong all along.

But if that is our desire, then we do not merely look foolish, we are fools. And we have misunderstood everything about the God we worship, the Jesus who saves us, the Spirit who abides with and guides us, and the life of love and sacrifice that we are called to lead.

Looking Foolish

I’m not sure I can overemphasize this distinction between looking foolish and actually being the fool. But remember that when even the most certain hope is distant, there comes a time when it appears to be foolish.

Think Noah, building that ark, awaiting the coming rain that the earth to date had never experienced. His hope was solid, anchored in the faithfulness of God. And yet, how foolish he must have looked and even felt at times!

Think Gideon, challenged to lead the army against thousands of Philistines. Even though God acquiesced to Gideon’s “testing” God by insisting on a sign, what a fool he must have seemed as he pared down the military to a mere 300 men.

Think Hosea, who God calls to live out a radical symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness by marrying a prostitute. Just try to tell me he didn’t look like a foolish idiot every time she went back to her former life, and Hosea had to go to the brothel to bring her home again.

Think Mary Magdalene, tasked with proclaiming the absurd notion of resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples.

They all looked the fool, but their hope (anchored in God) proved them to be wise.

Our Foolish Hopes

Maybe we should pause to add our own foolish hopes–fulfilled or otherwise.

We hope that black-sheep-relative will turn their life around.

We hope that so-and-so’s chronic pain will ease.

We hope that we will be able to pay that bill.

We hope for forgiveness.

We hope we are strong enough to forgive.

We hope for peace in the Middle East.

We hope for enough peace in our families to simply make it through a holiday meal.

We hope for revival in our hearts and God’s church.

We hope for the return of Jesus.

In the face of apparent impossibility, these hopes seem hopeless. And the more time that passes–the longer our hope is drawn out–the more impossible it seems. The more foolish we appear.

It is just as with Isaiah, peering over the edge of today into God’s tomorrow. He saw the impossibility of his countrymen being anything other than what they were–hopeless sinners. But he also realized that his hope for the future was not rooted in them; it was rooted in God.

Let it be so for us, as well.

Our hope for healing is not rooted in medical science. It is firmly planted with the Great Physician, who knit our cells together and infused life in our mortal corpse with the divine breath.

Our hope of provision is not rooted in our jobs, bank accounts, or 401k’s. It is grounded with the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one whom Jesus describes as caring for us more than the grass of the field and the birds of the air.

Our hope for life comes not from a mere expectation of tomorrow, but on account of the Giver of Life, who draws for us Living Water, which wells up to eternal life.

We can look foolish for our hope, yes. And let’s.
But let us not actually be fools.

Let us hope in Christ, and trust in God, and rest in the Holy Spirit.

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1Tim 1:17).

Honesty Grateful

This sermon was delivered at the community Thanksgiving service sponsored by our local Ministerial Alliance.

Psalm 126

Matthew 6:25-33

The Texts

Our text from the Gospel of Matthew is not about gratitude—not really. It is about anxiety—specifically the anxiety that comes from trying to change things that we cannot. It warns us not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but to take each day at a time, because that is all that we have. It is about the provision of the God who desires good things for us, who loves us more than the birds of the air or the grass of the field. And it is about priorities—God desires that we pursue God with greater intensity than we pursue our very lives. If we look to God first, we are told, everything else will follow. All our other needs will be filled.

But some among us find ourselves with unmet needs, which raises our anxiety, and feeds doubt.

And anxiety, this text reminds us, often confuses our priorities, it often closes us off to God’s involvement and provision, and it often prevents us from living in gratitude.

The Psalm reading is also not about gratitude. But it does imagine a time of thanksgiving when needs are met, wrongs have been righted, sorrow has become joy. I love that phrase in the first verse about dreaming. To the author, the time of thanksgiving that is anticipated here seems so distant, so unrealistic, that to experience it would be like walking through a dream.

But still it is imagined.

And when we imagine with God, dreams do come true.

Hardship for the Holidays

Sometimes Thanksgiving can be a lousy holiday. The holidays in general—a source of joy for so many—can be the bleakest time of year for others.

I and my family are new to this community. We have been welcomed more heartily than we could have imagined. Yet our holiday celebrations this year will be different—we simply cannot celebrate in the same ways or with the same people.

More to the heart of things is the grief that I bear today. In the last six weeks, I have lost a dear friend to stomach cancer, a 21-year-old cousin was killed in a tragic car accident, my dog and constant companion of 11 years died suddenly from cancer of the spleen, and my uncle has lost his three year battle with the cancer that has ravaged his body. Add to this the sorrows of my new church family—grave medical diagnoses, serious illness, chronic conditions wasting away both young and old……

I do not easily stand in a place of thanksgiving this evening.

I find no voice in the thanksgiving psalms that are a regular part of my prayer and reflection. Texts like Ps 86:12—”I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.”—texts like these feel hollow in my chest.

In truth, I find greater voice with the grieving psalmist of Psalm 137 who wonders, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” That author mourns the passing of his church, his hometown, his homeland, his religion, the many who died in the war, and his entire way of life.

Grief has a way of being all consuming, like that.

This holiday season, I am likely to be more aware of absence than presence. I will be remembering those with whom I am no longer celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be noted vacancies around our Thanksgiving table. There will be empty spaces around the Christmas tree.

I have much to be grateful for; that is true. But it is tragic when guilt is added to our grief and we are forced to claim inauthentic expressions of thanksgiving. When I find myself saying that at least I have a home to live in, at least I have my family, at least I have food on my table, at least I have my health, at least this or that—that is when my BS meter starts to tick up.

These expressions are not honest, nor are they truly rooted in gratitude. To me, they sound more like the prayer of the unrighteous Pharaisee in Luke 19:11:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people”………homeless, bankrupt, quadraplegic, cancer-ridden orphans………

There is no honesty there. And gratitude, I believe, cannot exist apart from truth.

No, if I and we are to find gratitude this season, it will have to be found honestly, and in the depth of our emotion and human existence.

Max

The day my dog Max died, we knew the end was coming fast, so I picked up my kindergardener from school so she had a chance to say goodbye.

My voice broke as I tried to remember to be direct in what I said. That is best tactic with children, the experts say. So I swallowed hard and told her: Max is really sick. The animal doctor is going to try to fix what’s wrong, but Max might be too sick. He might die.

Without missing a beat, this is what she told me: That’s OK, Daddy, because I will remember Max in my heart. And Jesus is in my heart. And Jesus is God’s son. So Max is in heaven with God. And we can see him again there.

And I thought I was supposed to be the strong, wise one.

I don’t really care what you think about animals. There is truth in my daughter’s words, truth that can guide us to gratitude and thanksgiving, even in the midst of our sorrows.

If there is any hope in this world, if there is any thanksgiving or gratitude in my soul, it is because I realize that there is an ever after, when all wounds are healed, when all divisions are overcome, when all wrongs are righted, when everything and everyone we have lost may be found again.

The Bible talks about it as a day:

when “every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:10-11);

when we will no longer see through “a mirror, darkly…but face to face” (1Cor 13:12);

when “God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 7:17; 21:4);’

when “the lofty will be brought low” (Isa 10:33);

when the “lowly…[are] raised up” (James 1:9);

when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, [and] the leopard shall lie down with the kid, [and] the calf and the lion and the fatling together…… and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6).

I’m glad I have a little child to lead me to gratitude in this season of Thanksgiving. I fear I could not have found it otherwise. But then again, Jesus tells us that we must receive the Kingdom of God like a little child or we will never enter it (Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17).

This Thanksgiving, I challenge you: Dream a dream with God. Imagine a day when you are whole again. Remember that your God cares for you more than anything else in creation. Follow and watch a child, and they will surely lead you to joy and thanksgiving. Follow a child, and they will surely lead you to God’s kingdom.

May your season be filled with the peace and joy that is found in the presence and confidence of God.

Happy Birthday!

Mark 13:1-8

Words of Steel

My sermon title this morning is “Happy Birthday!” And to answer your questions, Yes, I know today is not Christmas, despite the prevalence of Christmas shopping adverts and decorations.

Today we consider beginnings: The beginning of new life in [a baby dedication], the beginning of new Christian service with our Nominating Committee presentation and the election next Sunday, and the beginning of the new Christian year with Advent quickly approaching.

But beginnings have a way of being overshadowed by endings, something that I believe Jesus is speaking to in our scripture lesson today. Here Jesus speaks to the end of the Temple, and even the end of the world as his audience knew it.

Sitting on the Mount of Olives, the location of so many of our incredible Bible stories, Jesus gives a word that cuts like steel.

The picture Jesus paints is not a pretty one. And you can’t watch a preacher on TV without these verses being referenced as they tell you how and why the world is coming to an end. They wave newspaper headlines and tell us to repent, because the end is near. The wrath of God about to be unleashed upon our world of sin. If you don’t want to be kindling in the furnaces of hell, to burn for all of eternity, you need to pray this prayer. Oh, and help us out by sending some money to the address at the bottom of your screen…

They sell fear and focus on God hating sin with the hope of making you worry. They want you to live in fear of Jesus’ Second Coming, because fear, psychologists tell us, is a powerful motivator.

But the intent of Jesus’ teaching is not to produce anxiety but to bring comfort. He gives this warning so that his followers throughout the ages will not be surprised by what they encounter. So they will not be alarmed at what they experience. The word of comfort that Jesus brings is that this is not the end at all, but the beginning of something amazing and beautiful. It is merely the birth of the Kingdom of God: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Pregnancy & Birth

Now I’m going to say something that will probably get me in trouble today with my wife and other mothers here today, but it is still true: the processes of pregnancy & birth are not beautiful.

Pregnancy is nine months of increasing discomfort as an alien life form takes over your body. Science has proven that a pregnant mother’s body is hard-wired to provide the needs of the baby first, so the baby is guaranteed to get the nutrition it needs. That means (for example) if you don’t consume enough calcium, the baby mines calcium from your bones.

For nine months the mother increasingly loses control of her body—it’s shape, her appetite, her ability to sleep, her emotions, even her mobility…

And birth?……Birth is a raw, gory, dangerous, and traumatizing experience. I have been present at the birth of both my daughters, and I still bear the scars of my fear—fear for my wife, fear for the baby, fear of the process. It is true that there were complications with and after my first daughter’s birth—so I readily admit to extenuating circumstances—but I still think there is some truth to what I am saying that many parents can relate to.

As the weeks of pregnancy tick by, the mother experiences more and more discomfort. The pain, lack of sleep, and hormonal emotions add up exponentially, and by the time the mother is nearing her due date, there comes a breaking point. Only one thing is on her mind: Get it out!

This is how the birth pains begin.

BEGIN. In the process of bringing a human being into the world, pregnancy requires the greatest amount of time, with increasing and unrelenting pain.

But the most intense pain—the actual pains of birth—are yet to come. When my first daughter was being born, my wife wanted to avoid the epidural if at all possible. I remember the moment when the pain simply became too much. After hours of intense contractions and a super-human effort on her part, my wife was simply overwhelmed. When she was ready, the anesthesiologist was in the middle of an emergency c-section; but my wife’s pain was such that she just couldn’t understand why the he wouldn’t take a few minutes to put in her epidural.

She reached a breaking point where the birth pains transformed her cries from “Get it out of me!” into “Just leave it in!” A point where the pain just didn’t seem worth it. Where she couldn’t see the beginning for the ending.

Breaking Point

Jesus, and the author of Mark, talk about our world reaching this point. Jesus has been preaching about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God—it’s birth, if you will. Creation, Jesus teaches, has been pregnant with the Kingdom of God for some time. The world has been expecting this Reign of God to be birthed into existence; messianic expectation is at an all-time high.

But just like human birth, the birth of the Kingdom of God in the world is going to be a dirty, messy, dangerous thing: false teachers, wars & rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, natural disasters, famines, and so on.

Ever since Jesus uttered these words, we human beings have looked around our world and said, “Gee, Jesus is talking about right now.” We thought it when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. We thought it as Christians were being martyred in 200 AD. We thought it as Christians gained political power in the Byzantine period. We thought it during the Crusades. We thought it during the Reformation. We thought it during the World Wars and Vietnam. We’ve thought it at the close of nearly every century and every millennium.

Our world has been pregnant with the Kingdom of God for some time. It is still both “now” and “not yet.”

And so we look at uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. We look at conflict between Israel and its neighbors. We look at natural disasters like the drought we have suffered through and Hurricane Sandy, which has devastated the northeast. We see false teachers spreading hate or the lies of the health-and-wealth gospel on TV.

And we, like previous generations, conclude that the end is near.

Birth is frightening like that. It makes it hard to see beyond the end of pregnancy.

But birth is not an ending. It is a beginning. The beginning of new life. The world forever changed. Transformation. New levels of wholeness.

Sounds a bit like the Kingdom of God.

This Thanksgiving will inevitably be difficult for some. We have lost those that we love. The farmers among our families and friends have had a terribly hard year. We have witnessed horrific natural disasters. Our nation has suffered through what may have been the most divisive presidential election in years. For some of us, our lives will never be the same.

Focusing on the endings this year will make gratitude hard to come by. But I am grateful for the children in our midst, who remind me of what happens after the harshness of the birth pains. Who show me that, somehow, beauty comes into being. That reality of pain is not negated or denied by the life that comes into being, but somehow—mysteriously—our amazing God can in fact transform our tears and sorrow into shouts of joy, as the author of Psalm 126 describes (vv.5-6).

I find no greater joy in the world than the joy I discover in my children. They have taught me more about the love, faithfulness, and compassion of God than have three years of seminary and nearly thirty years of living without children.

I see [the baby we dedicated] this morning and I see the hope of the world. I see the Kingdom of God, breaking into our lives. I see purity and love and power. I see not the end, but the beginning.

For that, I am grateful. For God, I am grateful. For the tomorrow that comes when today is too much, I am grateful. And for Jesus’ reminder that, when it feels like the entire world is crumbling to pieces, it is but the beginning. For with birth comes new life.

Happy Birthday! New life begins with God.

What “Mite” You Give?

Mark 12:38-44

Contrasts & Object Lessons

Jesus’ ministry is full of contrasts. There’s the story of the fates of the rich ruler and poor Lazarus. There’s the story of the prayers of the Pharisee and of the tax collector. There’s sheep and goats, wheat and weeds.

Jesus also seems to love object lessons. His most memorable teachings are times when he just happens to see or experience something and it sparks inspiration. When Jesus is at banquet meals, he tells parables of communal feasts. When Jesus is up on a hillside above the Sea of Galilee, he reflects on the birds of the air and the grass of the fields. And as Jesus eats his last meal with the disciples, he uses the bread and cup on the table to illustrate his imminent suffering and death.

How wonderful for Jesus then, that on this day these two favorite elements come together. Within this short reading, Jesus finds an object lesson in the people he sees in the Temple—an object lesson that also provides a wonderful contrast: contrast between the hypocritical religious practices of the scribes and the whole-self gift of a poor widow.

The Widow’s Mites

 “On a long day of controversies and teachings in the Temple, just before telling his disciples about the signs of the coming end of the world, Jesus watches a poor widow throw two coins into the Temple treasury” (Tolbert, Women’s Bible Commentary, 357).

Our story today describes a moment near the end of Jesus’ life. In fact, this is part of the last scene of Jesus’ public ministry. From here on, Jesus’ teachings are more private, and the narrative is more and more focused on the conspiracy that will ultimately lead to his death.

Our story—the story of the poor widow’s gift—is probably familiar to most of us. It gets brought out most anytime a preacher wants to talk about stewardship or monetary giving. We tend to talk about how Jesus commends the widow for her gift, and we challenge our congregations to give sacrificially, as does the poor woman.

That preaches well, I admit—and I’ll bet some of you have heard enough sermons on the Widow’s Mites that you could probably do one better than I could.

Unfortunately, however, our use of the text is not consistent with how Mark uses the text in his Gospel of the life of Jesus Christ. As Mark uses the story in his Gospel, the focus of this episode is not on stewardship or the widow’s gift, but rather on the Temple itself.

The point of Jesus’ exclamation is not to commend the woman’s gift, but to show that the object of the gift—the Temple—is unworthy of her gift.

The Temple

Jesus has been focused on the Temple ever since arriving in Jerusalem in the previous chapter, Mark 11. It is there, if you remember, that we learn Jesus’ first action upon arriving in Jerusalem is visiting the Temple, a visit that—shall we say—did not go well.

Mark 11:15-16 tells us Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” As the Gospel of John tells the story in chapter 2 verse 15, Jesus fashions a make-shift whip to aid him in this task.

Jesus’ justification for these passionate actions—”teaching” Mark graciously calls it—is that the Temple is intended to be a “house of prayer,” but they have made it into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).

The next time Jesus is in the Temple, he tells the Parable of the Vineyard, recorded in Mark 12:1-12. This parable describes the Temple and the religion of the Jews as a vineyard, which God, the planter & owner, has leased to tenants, the Jewish religious leaders. Every time the owner has tried to reestablish control of the vineyard, the tenants do horrible violence to the messenger. So the owner sends his son, hoping he will be able to establish authority, but they will kill him too. Thus, Jesus says, the owner will destroy them and lease the vineyard to others. Heavy stuff, to be sure.

Not too long after this parable, we get to our scripture reading for today. Here, Jesus points out that the temple leaders do not exemplify God’s concern for widows and those in need, but instead they are self-serving, they “devour widows’ houses,” and their religious concern and commitment is only skin-deep (Mark 12:38-40). As such, they look nothing like their God, and they contrast mightily with the poor, powerless woman who gives all she has to this failing institution.

And fail it will. Because of all of this, the Temple is worthy of destruction, a fact Jesus tells the disciples as soon as they get outside: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

So it turns out this story is not so simple after all. And it is a bit darker than we usually regard it, too. So where do we go from here? What instruction can we take away from this story? What does God desire we learn from it?

I want to propose three learnings for us today.

1. God sees and regards things differently than we do.

First, this story is a reminder that God sees and regards things differently than we do. It is a humble pill for the prideful sin of believing we know better, that we can be righteous judges of our world and others.

The Bible is clear in telling us that there is only one righteous judge, and he is not I. But over and over, we fall into the sin of Adam, believing that we know better than the God who formed us and sustains us.

It is so easy to be deceived in this way because, compared to our limited perspective, compared to our finite minds, God’s expansive perspective & infinite mind looks……well…crazy. To us, it seems like God has everything backwards, that sometimes—to God—down is up, in is out, rich is poor, weakness is power, and sometimes even good looks bad.

In reality, it is we whose perspectives are skewed by our human limitations and sin. But the desire—no, the temptation—to trust our own perception over that of God continues to readily deceive us today.

In our story in Mark 12, Jesus’ contrast between the scribes and the widow provides further illustration of this point. By looking deeper than appearances, Jesus speaks harshly of the hypocritical practices of the scribes, illustrating what we read in 1 Samuel 16:7: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

But the point that God sees things differently than we do is perhaps even more clearly illustrated in Jesus’ valuation of the poor widow’s gift. She gives two copper coins—the smallest monetary unit in the empire. It is, I imagine, the smallest contribution the Temple received that day, or maybe any day.

But Jesus, looking deeper, sees that it is her whole life she has given. This is what the Greek language reveals for us here. She gives the entirety of her worldly possessions, all the wealth she has in the world, the whole of her life. And as such, Jesus says, her gift is greater than all the other gifts put together: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had” (Mark 12:44).

Two pennies are worth more than the thousands and thousands of dollars of contributions that were already given?!? It sounds crazy, but God sees things differently than we do. And that is something we must learn as we seek to live faithfully and follow our God.

2. Follow Christ’s example in giving our life for those who do not deserve it.

But this text does more than merely teaching us again what Isaiah reveals to us in chapter 55, verse 8, where God says: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” This story also inspires us to live out the call of Christ to the church—a call “to give the whole of its life for the sake of those who do not deserve such a gift” (Pete Peery, Feasting, 289).

This is our second learning: the text inspires us to give our everything for those who do not deserve it, as did Jesus for us.

I think part of why Jesus highlights the woman is not just because she contrasts so wonderfully with the scribes he sees, but also because Jesus sees her embodying the kind of sacrifice that Jesus himself is living into. The woman gives her whole life—everything she has—to an institution that does not deserve her gift.

The Temple, as I have said, is a failing institution, something Jesus speaks very clearly about. But it is not only failing because it is like the vineyard that has been seized by unrighteous tenants—it is not only failing because it’s leaders only practice skin-deep religion—it is not only failing because those in charge look nothing like their God……it is also failing her.

The Temple is failing the widow, because instead of supporting her, taking care of her needs, and regarding her with dignity and honor—the Temple is instead “devouring her house,” so that these two copper coins are all that she had left—and now the Temple has taken them, too.

This woman gives everything to an institution that does not deserve her gift. But it is more than that, she gives the whole of her life to an institution that has done her great violence. And as such, I believe we should see her as an embodiment of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Jesus, the Bible tells us, gives the whole of his life for corrupt humanity. Romans 3:23 tells us that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” We are all in need of redemption.

Romans 5:8 tells us that “God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners—while we were undeserving—while we didn’t even know we needed redemption, Christ died for us.

Though God himself, and deserving of the highest praise and glory, the God-man Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” as the apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7-8.

What does this look like? Well, John of Patmos has a vision of the Son of Man—Christ Jesus—revealed in all his glory, recorded in Revelation 1:13-16. He says he saw:

The Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

This is Jesus in all his divine glory. But in life and on the cross, Jesus instead takes the form of the suffering servant, described in Isaiah 53:3-5:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

The result of this most radical sacrifice is our redemption, as we read in the Gospel of John, chapter 3 verses 16-17:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We are undeserving of the gift we have been given: the gift of redemption that leads to eternal life. But it is only through this gift that we truly know love, as we read in 1 John 4:9-10:

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The poor widow makes for an exceptional allegory for the work of Jesus for undeserving humanity. But there is a call in here for those who would be followers of Jesus too. Unlike the scribes whose actions do not resemble the God they claim to worship, we are called to be imitators of Christ. We are called to “walk as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6). And the path of discipleship, Jesus says, involves taking up your cross, denying yourself, and losing your life for the cause of Christ.

So just as the widow gives her life to the corrupt Temple, and just as Jesus gives his life for corrupt humanity, so the call of Christ to the church is a call “to give the whole of its life for the sake of those who do not deserve such a gift” (Pete Peery, Feasting, 289).

We are warned. We are warned that “the world [will] not know us [because] it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). We are warned that “people [will] revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).

But still we are told to “love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We are to give the whole of our life for those who do not deserve it, just as our Savior did for us.

3. We should strive to be worthy of the gifts we are given.

There is a third and final learning that we can take from this story, something that may not be as directly intended by Mark, but something that is clearly important for churches today: We should strive to be worthy of the gifts we are given.

Poll after poll shows that the general population of our country holds the institutional church in low esteem. A contributing factor in that is how many churches today, like the Temple in Jesus day, do not fill us with love and lead us to wholeness, but instead suck the very life out of us and bleed us dry.

A person only has to mention an idea, and suddenly she is the chair of a committee. Once involved, a single commitment quickly expands to many, and “church” rapidly becomes “work.”

But it is even more dangerous than that, because many church cultures ask not for service but for martyrdom. It is true that I believe Jesus asks us to be willing to give our whole selves, but that is for the Gospel, and not the institutional church. When we ask or expect our church members to martyr themselves to keep our programs running, we are heads of a Temple that is just as doomed to destruction.

But that’s enough negativity. We also respect and honor those who have accepted leadership positions when we recognize the sacrifices they are making, sacrifices of time, talents, finances, and other considerations. We might be more appreciative if we recognize that these committee members could be spending quality time with their spouses, parents, or children instead of sitting in this meeting.

We honor the service of our members when we try to make our church worthy of their sacrifice.

I watched an interesting altercation on Facebook this week. It took place between two college acquaintances, at least one of which was a pretty good friend back then. It was the eve of the election, and one friend—a former Special Forces member—was furious at the president for not doing more to save the Navy Seals in Benghazi. That anger was further kindled by what appeared to be a censoring on Facebook of information about Obama’s lack of action.

All of this came out in an emotional burst that included the statement “This president needs to be shot for treason!”

A mutual acquaintance, in what I expect was an attempt to tone down the rhetoric stated this:

“It’s never appropriate for a service member to say our president should be shot. Threatening harm to the president is a felony. Your political opinions are yours and may be freely shared. Suggesting murder or assassination, however, is out of bounds. Please act worthy of the country you serve.”

The counter response to this by my Special Forces friend made two primary points. The first point is that he is no longer a service member as a result of a “stupid political decision being made by senior level staff officers that negatively affected me and those I served with.” His second point was even more charged. This is what he said:

“Unlike you I have earned the right to express these opinions. What have you done? I have sacrificed my body in training, prepared mentally to engage in combat, been willing to die for my country, and all you have done is get some fancy philosophical and theological degrees. For you to sit there and tell me what I can and cannot say is utterly preposterous.”

Now I don’t bring all this up just to rehash a rather ugly disagreement between two people you don’t even know. It’s just that this confrontation has been simmering in the back of my mind as I have prepared this sermon, and as we have arrived at today: Veterans Day.

You might arrive at a lot of different conclusions about these two individuals based on this one low point in their friendship. I admit I react strongly against any sentiment that devalues another person’s opinion because you believe your own is more deserved.

But the main takeaway for me here is that my ex-Special Forces friend does not believe his sacrifice—his gift—has been respected or appreciated. He was maneuvered out of the military life he loved because of political decisions that had nothing to do with his service and commitment. And civilians just have no idea what it is like—that part I do believe he has right.

I don’t condone his emotional outburst or the words he says, but he does remind me to live a life that honors his sacrifice. He challenges me to consider how we can make our country a country that is deserving of the kinds of gifts he has offered up—the kinds of gifts that all the veterans here have offered up, too.

Today, I’m remembering that all of our veterans have offered up gifts of sacrifice and service for a country that does not appreciate or respect those gifts as it ought. Like the poor widow in Mark, and like Jesus Christ himself, our veterans give their very lives for individuals who are undeserving of those gifts.

The choice for tomorrow is how to live in a manner worthy of such gifts of sacrifice and love—the gifts made to our country, the gifts made to our churches, and the gifts made by our Savior.

What “mite” you give? How “mite” you live? Let us honor the gifts we have been given. Let us honor each other. And let us as well give our all for a world that needs Jesus.