Scarcity, Abundance, and Faithful Response

Scarcity, Abundance, and Faithful Response

Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44 for Nov. 11, 2018, Pentecost +25B

The texts can be found by following the links, and the sermon assumes you have just read them: 1 Kings 17:8-16,  Mark 12:38-44   The audio version will be available here for several weeks.

 I taught the Old Testament in Croatia for 10 years, and I came to understand that the stories in the Hebrew Bible are not cute or simple.  These stories were probably first told orally before they were written down.  People tell stories because they say something about who they are and how they believe the world is.  People remember and write down stories, and hand them on to the next generation because they believe something essential and important can only be learned and remembered through stories. 

We do that too.  We tell stories all the time, although in different forms.  There are the stories we read in books, the stories we see in films, the stories we hear in radio and podcasts.  Did you ever think about the news as a form of storytelling?  It is.  To say “story” doesn’t imply true story or fictitious story.   There are both kinds of stories.

Another word for story is narrative.  We hear narrators narrate stories all the time. Actually, in all of our heads is a mental narrator, narrating our lives to us as we live them.  It is the voice we hear in our heads that tells us that we like what is happening or we do not like it, telling us we are doing a good job, or failing, telling us we are good enough, or not good enough, that we have enough, or that we do not have enough of whatever we need at the moment, or for the future. 

It is important to believe true narratives.  It is important to live into true narratives.  True narratives teach us; they guide us through life, and help us to be the people we were made to be; the unique, beloved, children of God that we truly are. 

But bad narratives are destructive.  They mislead us.  They hamstring our ability to love, to grow, to blossom, to thrive as God wants us to. 

So, today we have two stories before us.  They were remembered and shared, written down and handed down to us.  That means they are part of our wisdom tradition, our scriptures.  Both stories are stories of widows.  We will look briefly at both of them and try to see the deep levels of meaning that they contain for us. 

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

First the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in Sidon.  Elijah is a prophet, so this is a prophet story.  We expect that prophets are agents of God, speaking for God, and acting as God’s instruments.   But this is also a widow story.  Widows are type-characters.  We know that this is going to be a story of scarcity.

scarcity, abundance

Widows were one of a set of three types of people, a trio of characters, that the Hebrew Bible draws frequent attention to.  The other two are the orphan and the stranger, or resident alien, or, what we call the immigrant.  This trio of characters is notoriously vulnerable, unprotected, without adequate means to maintain themselves.   So, the Law of Moses has many provisions for making sure that the community comes together to help them.  Every third year, for example, the tithes (we would call them taxes because they were not voluntary contributions) were specifically collected to support the widows, the orphans, the immigrants and the Levites who had no land of their own. 

But the Elijah story takes place outside of Israel, in the land of Sidon.  There is no Law of Moses there, so this widow has no social safety net.  She is on the brink of starvation, she and her little boy.  Scarcity is her narrative. It defines her.  She has no hope.  One more meal, and that’s it for them.   Then they die.

But something new enters the narrative.  The prophet of the living God shows up.  On the surface level, what Elijah asks of her is horrible – he wants her last meal.  But on the deeper level, we see that the prophet, as God’s agent, is there to reverse the narrative of scarcity and transform it into a narrative of abundance.  We see again and again that God’s orientation is directed towards the poor.  Not just the poor Israelites but the poor on the other side of the border, in a foreign land, in Sidon. 

Jesus will recall this story, according to Luke’s gospel, specifically to draw attention to the fact that God’s care for widows extends beyond the borders of Israel.  When Jesus said that, it made the nationalist of his day angry.  They tried to kill him then and there, but Luke says cryptically,

he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4)

Back to the story: when an agent of the living God shows up, hopelessness is transformed into hope.  There is a future where no future had been imaginable.  God is a God of compassion without limits and borders.  God is oriented towards the poor.  So the meal never ran out, and the oil remained abundant.  The narrative of scarcity was transformed into a narrative of abundance.

The Widow’s mite

Now let us look briefly at the other widow story.  This is a Jesus story, so again we expect it to be a story of an agent of God teaching us something important.  It is a widow story too, and so we are prepared to understand that type-character, with all the baggage of need, of vulnerability and scarcity, included.  But this widow is inside Israel where the Law of Moses has many provisions for widows, right?

Not so fast.  The Law is there, but is anyone paying attention to it?  Well, we may think, maybe many average people could have been neglecting the Law of Moses, but surely not the religious leadership?  We would be wrong if we thought that.  In Jesus’ day, the temple leaders were of the aristocracy.  They had their own vested interests to protect.

Pre-story Warning

How does Mark tell this story?  Before getting into the story, Mark recounts a strong warning from Jesus to his disciples about those aristocratic religious leaders.   He says,

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,  and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!   They devour widows’ houses…”

How would you devour a widow’s house?  The next story shows how.  I used to think of this story as quaint, or perhaps cute.  It used to be called the story of the widow’s mite, the old King James’ translation of the copper coins she contributed.  I heard it as an example story: we should all be like the humble woman who contributed her last two coins to the temple.  But that was a misread. 

This is not a cute example story.  It is a scathing criticism.  Instead of collecting money from the community to support this poor widow, the leadership was extracting money from her, making her scarcity even more extreme.  Her house was being devoured before their very eyes, by people who had more than enough, but whose appetites for more only grew larger along with their growing wealth. 

So what does Jesus, the agent of God do in this situation?  He draws our attention to the widow, to the one in need.  Maybe we had been paying attention to the big donors, but if so, our eyes were misdirected.  Our attention, like God’s, should be on the poor.  Jesus exposes and names the injustice.  The gap between the rich and the poor was widening before their eyes.  Widows’ homes were being devoured.  Look at it; face it; name it.  It goes against everything we believe in. 

There is no miracle here.  No endless supply of meal and oil for this widow.  Because the problem that has driven her to utter poverty and scarcity is not an individual problem to be solved individually.  It is structural; it is systemic.  The whole system is set up to squeeze her last coins from her bony fingers, and to stuff the bulging pockets of the wealthy.   

Our Story

How can we possibly hear these stories and not see our own situation being described?  We are surrounded by narratives of scarcity, telling us that there is not enough to go around.  Not enough food in this country to feed all of our hungry children.  Not enough money to provide adequate health care for everyone.  Not enough to end homelessness.  Right here, right now, we watch as the backpack program gets severely reduced.  And we are told that the poor people of other nations do not count.  In fact, we are told that we should fear them, as if God was partial to native English speakers.

We do not believe these narratives of scarcity.  We believe the earth has enough to support us all. We believe that our attention as a people is properly directed to the poor.  We believe that we are now the agents of God for our generation. 

So, it is important to look at the systems and structures of our day that contribute to the problem.  We have been fed the narrative that the free market always makes the wisest decisions.  But we are people who have had our eyes opened by a vision of abundance that we call the kingdom of God, which has helped us to see things.

We see that the market does not care if you have a job or not.  The market does not care if you have health care or not.  The market does not care if you are a widow, or an orphan or an immigrant and you are suffering.  The market does not even care if your water is poisoned or your air makes you sick.  The market is not a Christian.  It is not even a humanist.  The market does not believe that the poor in spirit are blessed nor does it believe the meek will inherit the earth, but Jesus did, and as his followers, we do.  We do believe that there is such a thing as enough.

So, we live into this alternative narrative. We will take some of our abundance, and we set it aside, dedicating it to God for the sake of this faith-community and for the sake of our mission to our neighbors.  We believe the narrative of abundance because we believe in a living God who lures us toward goodness, toward love, and toward compassion.   We believe that we are not isolated individuals but that we are a community.  That means we believe we have responsibility for each other, and especially for the poor.  And we do not believe that national borders confine our love.

And from here we will go out and work to make the structures and systems of our world more attentive and responsive to the poor.  We will work to do what the market cannot do: bring the values of the kingdom of God to bear on the structures of our world.  We believe in inclusion, in welcoming the stranger, and in making sure that everyone has a seat at the banquet table, because this is where we find our blessing, our joy, and our peace.  This is our response of faithfulness to our Living God of abundance. 

 

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Hannah’s song

Hannah’s song

Sermon on 1 Samuel 2:1–10, for October 28, 2018, Pentecost +23 B.  Audio will be available for several weeks here.

Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;

my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
2    “There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;

for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.

8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and on them he has set the world.

9    “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.

The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”

We just heard Hannah’s song.  It is the song of a mother about her son.  It seems intimate and personal, but it is much more.  The reason we have this song is that Hannah’s son is Samuel.  He will play a pivotal role in Israel’s history.  Samuel will eventually be the person whose decisions and actions will transform Israel from being a tribal confederacy into a monarchy.  He will one day anoint Saul, Israel’s first king. 

Then, after Saul’s utter failure, Samuel will anoint Israel’s second king, which will turn out to be David, Israel’s greatest king.  We know this song because of the significance of Samuel.  Centuries later, this song will become the basis for another song: Mary’s song, the Magnificat. 

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Amos’ Rant, Jesus’ Question, and the Disciple’s Incredulity

Amos’ Rant, Jesus’ Question, and the Disciple’s Incredulity

Sermon for Oct. 14, 2018, on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Mark 10:17-31  Audio version available here (for several weeks)

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg, and co-author Mark Robert Waldman, discuss exactly what the title says: that words can change our brains.  Negative words can damage our brains.  Positive words improve our brains. 

This is one of the reasons I am so thankful for Jesus, which will become clear in a minute. 

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Imagine

Imagine

Sermon on Matt. 8:5-13 for Oct. 7, 2018, World Communion Sunday   Audio here

Matt. 8:5-13

  When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.”  7 And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.”  8 The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.  9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”  10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.  11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,  12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

Sometimes I hear people say, “My father always used to say…” — and then they say something wise or useful that they learned from their father.  I learned a lot from my father too.  Not so much by what he told me, but by his example.  I learned by how he lived.  He was always respectful to my mother.  He valued her intelligence and skill.  He helped out in the kitchen, both in food preparation and in clean up.  As I was growing up he was always honest.  He was disciplined.  He was both kind and firm in his convictions.   And now that he is old, he is still all of those things.  That is what he taught me, not by repeated expressions, but by his life example.

Jesus’ Teaching by Example

In the same way, we learn from Jesus by his example as much as we do from his teaching.  We notice what he did with his time, where he went, the kinds of people he spent time with.  For example, though Jesus never taught meditation, he meditated.  He did not tell us how to treat women, but he treated women with dignity and respect.  He did not tell us who we should keep company with, but he was always with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and the impure and invited them to his table. 

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Unlearning as Step 2 on the Journey

Unlearning as Step 2 on the Journey

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50; for September 29, 2018, Pentecost +19B    Audio Version

Mark 9:38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

I have been walking the path of a spiritual journey in the Christian tradition for a long time now, as most of you here have been.  I have learned a lot over the years.  I am so full of gratitude for my many teachers — people who have taught me by the example of their lives, scholars, authors, literal classroom teachers, and lecturers.  Over the years my thinking has evolved, changed, and grown in so many ways.  Probably so has yours. 

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The Adults and the Children in the Room

The Adults and the Children in the Room

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37 for September 23, 2018, Pentecost +18B           Audio Version

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Not long ago I visited a person in the hospital.  On hearing that an email prayer request had been sent out, the  person’s spouse said, with a smile, “It was supposed to be a secret.”  I replied, “It is a secret; just one everyone knows.”  He laughed.

Our text begins with Jesus trying to keep secrets. It says,

“They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples…”

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The Self On the Spiritual Journey

The Self On the Spiritual Journey

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 for September 16, 2018, Pentecost +17B  Audio Version here

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

When I lived overseas, one morning I left the house to go to the corner market for bread and milk, but it was closed.  So I walked a couple of blocks up to the larger market area, but instead of bustling, it was deserted.  It took a while to become aware that it was a state holiday. 

There is a strange rule that seems to be in effect everywhere: “What everybody knows, nobody says.  For example, you would never think to tell your neighbor that there is no school on Christmas; we all know it. 

The same thing happens when we read the bible.  Sometimes the curtain is lifted a little and we get a peek at how Jesus and the disciples lived, like when we hear that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, “as was his custom” we learn that Jesus was a regular at synagogue worship.  (Luke 4:16)

Similarly, we know that Jesus went off to pray at night, and Luke tell us that Jesus “would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16) which means that he did that customarily; it was part of his spiritual practice.  But we are never told what he did in those long nights of prayer.  We are not given a method. 

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