Living with Hope in Times of Fear

StewardsofHopeA sermon preached for the 26 Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 13:1-11, Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 on Sunday, Novemeber 18, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas 

A few days ago I read a story about a family who plays a game as they watch the news, both the local and national broadcast. They would notice and make a list of the things they were told to fear, paying attention to when the newscast crossed from information-sharing to fear-mongering. I encourage you to try this at home. This family found an average of 6-8 fear-inducing reports ranging from race and terror groups, to vaccinations and sunscreens, to the economy and crime (There is healthy fear, but that’s a different sermon).

Fear sells. Perhaps you’ve heard the TV news motto that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Fear sells products, news advertising, political candidates, and public policy. Judging from the ads run during the recent elections, fear as a tool to persuade voters on both sides of the aisle doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Sociologist, Brian Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear just updated his book on why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. He reports that 75% of Americans feel more fear than they did a couple of decades ago. We have an increasing fear in crime and drug rates even though those rates are declining. We fear losing jobs to immigrants when the unemployment rate is 3.7%, the lowest it’s been in decades.

Religious fear of God’s judgement and eternal damnation has been a big seller over the centuries to get believers to remain committed, to convert, or even to give. The Left Behind series or the Apocalypse Diaries are a few examples of our fascination with a corrupt theology base on a God of fear and malice rather than a God of mercy and steadfast love.

It sounds like our Scripture readings for today are right in line with the fear-mongering. Both our Gospel reading from Mark and the Old Testamnet reading from Daniel are considered “apocalyptic” passages that are concerned about the end times. Jesus talks of wars and rumors of war, the temple being destroyed, and the proliferation of earthquakes and famines. There’s a lot to be afraid of in this passage.

But Jesus’s words in this passage are more descriptive than predictive. Scholars date Mark’s writing shortly after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE (Common Era). It was a terrible time of chaos and conflict when the Christian community as well as Jewish communities, struggled to find meaning and hope as their Temple and their life was shattered.

The book of Daniel was the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures to be written---about 165 years before the birth of Jesus when the Jews were terribly persecuted by the Seleucids, a Greek Empire. The Israelites lost control of the Temple and therefore were not allowed to read the Torah, circumcise their male babies, nor practice their religion. The Jewish revolt that resulted led to the Festival of Chanukah when one day’s worth of lamp oil in the Temple burned for 8 days.

Instead of inflaming small fears into massive campaigns or creating fear where none existed, these apocalyptic passages were written to do just the opposite: to give people hope during challenging times. Our texts today are an antidote to those selling fear; they are the opposite of fear-mongering. Daniel promises that times of great anguish are also the very times that God’s angels come to offer salvation and strength. The persecutions last for only a limited time, but God’s power will stand forever. So be encouraged and stand firm--look for and live with hope in the future that God promises. Daniel promises, “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

In the Gospel, Jesus acknowledges the difficulty in being faithful to his mission of love, healing and wholeness when the powers-that-be would rather kill the Jesus-movement and him with it. But Jesus says in no uncertain terms, “… the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” Jesus reminds the disciples that they have a job to do, and that’s to spread the good news of God’s love and unconditional grace and acceptance which is offered to all.

“You will be opposed,” Jesus promises. But then he promises the Holy Spirit will speak for them and through them. It may not look as though God is control, but the Holy Spirit will give you the power you need. These passages are not designed to predict what’s going to happen, but to affirm that God always wins in the end. Therefore, we can live and act in hope, even in times of difficulty.

Psalm 16 offers the very same message: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”

Hebrews offers the same hope: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful….when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’”

Fear sells, but as Christians, we’re not buying! God calls us to be stewards of hope, who can see beyond the immediate difficulties and trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is working out more than we can ask or imagine.

Last spring, my husband, Dan traveled to Cuba with Presbyterians from northern Texas. He met an 80-something female pastor named Ofelia, who was the first woman of any denomination ordained in Latin America. During the Communist revolution in the 1960’s, as the government was confiscating land, and the church didn’t know if it would be able to keep its property, Ofelia heard the Lord call her to purchase a plot of land for children to go to Bible camp. Most people thought she was crazy because there was no guarantee they would be able to keep the land—people were afraid—and making decisions out of fear. But Ofelia was a steward of hope. She bought the land, and over 50 years later, children are still going to Bible camp on that piece of land!

Ofelia’s story reminds us that fear sells, but as Christians, we’re not buying! The good news of God’s love calls us to be stewards of hope. Today as we offer our pledges of time, talent, and treasure, we offer so much more than support for a church budget or the work of a committee. To commit ourselves, our lives, our time, our resources, and our abilities to the work of God in this congregation is an act of defiant hope in a culture of fear. We’re following Jesus’s instruction that the good news must be proclaimed to all nations and no amount fear-mongering, is going to stop us.

As stewards of hope, we offer not just a pledge card and a Time and Talent sheet, but rather, we’re letting the world know that life precious, that in this community Christ reigns, and that there is no fear or difficulty that can divide us nor deter us from standing firmly on the power of Christ’s once-and-for-all-sacrifice for the salvation of the whole world.

• To offer our building as a place of ministry for music, Special Olympics, the Boys and Girls Club and now, in January of 2109, a preschool, is to be stewards of hope.
• Those who offer daily and weekly prayers on the prayer chain are stewards of hope.
• To fill the pantry shelves at Network of Community Ministries is to be stewards of hope.
• To participate in the Richardson Interfaith Alliance and work with other religious partners in our community is to be stewards of hope.
• To send quilts and school kits to people in need around the globe is to be stewards of hope
• To sing praises to God no matter what, is to be stewards of hope
• To fill Christmas stockings for developmentally disabled adults through Mosaic ministries, is to be stewards of hope.

As Jesus says, we have a job to do, and that’s to spread the good news of God’s love and unconditional grace and acceptance which is offered to all. The Holy Spirit will give us all the power we need to get the job done for there is so much more to which God calls us—more than we can ask or imagine. It won’t always be easy, but we will always be blessed—because all we need has already been bought by Christ, who vanquished death and the enemy forever. Therefore, we do not fear.

I invite you to offer your time, talent and treasure to God as a steward of hope at St. Luke’s! For I see you shining like the brightness of the sky, and like the stars forever and ever.

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Revealing the Layers of Living Generously

Layers of Living GenerouslyA sermon preached for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 12:38-44 on November 11, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

In the first Shrek movie, there’s a scene where Shrek and donkey are on their journey to rescue the princess and Shrek tries to convince the donkey that there’s more to ogres than just being mean and nasty. Shrek says, “There’s a lot more to ogres than people think--ogres are like onions--they have layers!”

Our Gospel reading, often called the “Widow’s Mite,” is a story with several layers. Today, I’m going to try something different and describe the layers of meaning and see where it leads us. I invite you to listen for what connects with you in each layer as we consider this “mite” of an offering the widow brings, which means a very tiny amount.
The first layer is, the widow is a model of generosity. She doesn’t have much, but that doesn’t stop her from giving what she has. The widow gives not out of her abundance, but out of her necessities—she’s not offering God her leftovers, but she offers what we call “sacrificial giving.” Even though it’s only a penny, she will notice it and miss it because it’s all she has. It’s not an accident we read this text in Stewardship season when we are preparing next year’s budget and being encouraged to support it; the widow and her tiny offering gives us a model for what it looks like to “Live Generously,” our stewardship theme for this year.

When we peel back that layer of meaning we notice the contrast Jesus draws between the powerful and the poor—between the appearance of righteousness and the reality of righteousness. The religious leaders, in this case, the scribes, like accolades and public recognition; by contrast, the widow just comes forward, unnoticed by anyone except Jesus to make her offering of one penny. This is a dangerous text for me since I am the only one in the room wearing a robe and saying long prayers! Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss the application to my own life, I had an experience recently that this text describes. I attended the prayer vigil at Shearith Israel Synagogue after the anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh. It was standing room only with people standing along the wall and in doorways. I stood near front side door on the far side where there were fewer people. A gentleman who noticed my clergy collar got up and gave me his seat—I just received one of the best seats in a synagogue!

Jesus points out the contrast between the religious elite who get their sense of identity and satisfaction from outside themselves in others’ opinions, whereas the widow worships privately and quietly, getting her sense of identity and satisfaction from her inward relationship with God.
The religious professionals are supposed to be righteous, but it’s the widow who actually is righteous. She doesn’t need or expect anyone to notice her and no one does.

Here we notice another layer. In the third layer, we hear Jesus’s critique move from the personal level to the institutional level as he condemns the religious establishment. Jesus’ words are not a judgement of this slice of Jewish history alone, but of the affluent elite and their institutions in any time or culture who accumulate wealth while people in their community go hungry. In addition to being a religious institution, the Temple was also a business that made money from the purchase of animal sacrifices in order to run the institution and provide livelihood for the priests. Often those fees made it difficult for the poor to atone for their sins, not unlike the Indulgences from Martin Luther’s day. Earlier in Mark, Jesus cleansed the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers for this very reason. Jesus criticizes this practice of any religion that seeks to accumulate wealth for itself, “devouring widows’ houses,” rather than ensuring justice for its people.
A “just” religion would return the widow’s offering and then add to it to ensure that she, and other vulnerable people had enough to eat.

This brings us to the fourth layer: Jesus looks for and lifts up faithfulness at the bottom. Everyone else is looking at the big sums of money wealthier people are putting in the treasury. That’s what’s impressive to our untrained eyes. We want to see good and therefore God in the big, the flashy, and the dramatic. I drove by Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano for the first time yesterday and I was astounded at how enormous it is. I’m not saying they’re not doing great work, I’m sure they are; I’m admitting that it really caught my attention, and I kept looking at it from every angle as I drove. The big and dramatic captured my attention.
Groom, Texas outside of Amarillo is home to a 190-story cross with life-sized stations of the cross all around it, captivating our attention. There are enormous and gorgeous cathedrals all over the world; the Vatican has about $50 million in gold and precious metals.

We want to experience God in the big and the beautiful—on mountaintops, and in rainbows that span the whole sky. It’s not that God isn’t in all of these places, but that’s not where Jesus looks for a “God-sighting.” Jesus sees God where we never think to look—at the bottom, not the top. Jesus finds faithfulness in the offering of a penny, in a lost sheep, in a mustard seed, in a grateful leper who was healed, in salt and light and leaven, in a criminal beside him on a cross. Jesus has a bias for the bottom—he looks for God in the small and insignificant. To see the righteous and the faithful, Jesus looks down, not up.

The fifth layer brings us back to the one who offered that penny from the bottom—the widow who gives not just her resources, but she gives her whole being to God. Jesus says that the widow, “out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” She gave her God her all, her whole self—not just her copper coins, but she gave her whole life, entrusting it to God.

As we recognize our veterans today, we see that this is the kind of trust our veterans and those serving in the armed forces today give to God—you can’t enlist in the military, and not put your whole life and being in God’s hands. That’s what the widow did—maybe she would live another day, maybe she wouldn’t—but she left that up to God.

When we pull back a final layer, we find we’re back to Jesus. The widow’s offering of her whole self—her whole being—is a foreshadowing of Jesus himself. In her, we see a glimpse of Jesus’ own offering on the cross for us, where he gave all that he had—his very life, body and spirit—entrusting himself to God and surrendering his life for our sake.

The widow lives where Jesus lives—in the heart of God—entrusting everything to him—and that’s where generosity flows, that’s where the peace that passes all understanding comes. Living in the heart of God as the source of our being and identity means we can entrust God with our whole life—our needs, our livelihood, our body and spirit—and that’s when generosity flows, that’s when we Live Generously, no matter how much we have to give.

As we peel back the layers of the story, we join the widow and Jesus living in the heart of God. With them, we trust that God’s might covers our mite as we offer our whole being to God.

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Beyond "If"

Beyond IfA sermon preached for All Saints Day on John 11:32-44 on November 4, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

One of the harshest words when we’re struggling with grief and the death of someone we love is, if. “If’s” can haunt us in the throes of grief: "If he had tried a different medicine...If I had one more chance to talk with her…If I would have done what I said I was going to do before he died…If we would have found out about the tumor sooner…" If, if, if.

My husband, Dan’s sister, Cynthia died of a congenital heart defect at age thirty-five. Last week we marked the 25th anniversary of her death. Today, doctors would have fixed the hole in heart in utero, but Cynthia didn’t have heart surgery until the age of 7, and her system was compromised. It turns out she lived to the exact life expectancy of someone with her condition. Even so, my mother-in-law, Joan was so troubled by “if’s” after Cynthia died. “If only I helped her more with the directions she got from her different doctors. If only I had gone to all her appointments with her. If only I had been with her that day.” And there were so many times we heard her lament, “If only I had thought of diuretics to take the pressure off her heart. Why didn’t I think of diuretics?”

No one expected Dan’s mom to have come up with the right medical answer for Cynthia, even if there was one. But that’s the irrationality of grief. We bargain, negotiate and imagine different outcomes if—if only we could go back and change the past. If only we were omniscient and omnipresent, we would have seen what was coming and made a different choice before our loved one died. We grieve the physical loss of the person, and then we lament our powerlessness to prevent death. If there is one area of life where we must confront our own powerlessness, it is in the face of death. Imagining “if’s” and ways we could have prevented death is like standing on the beach and shouting at the ocean to stop the waves.

At the death of her brother Lazarus, Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, lamenting his absence and her powerlessness in the face of death. “If” is the second word out of her mouth, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha said exactly the same thing earlier, “If you had come right away, Jesus; if you had made a different choice—things could have turned out differently.”

When Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill, he waits two more days before coming to Bethany. Mary and Martha had good reason to be mad. Jesus could have come sooner. He could have prevented Lazarus’s death. But instead of coming early for a miracle of healing, Jesus comes later, explaining that it is to show God’s glory. Jesus repeats this to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

We might jump to the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection as the real sign of God’s glory that Jesus has in mind, but I think God’s glory begins a little earlier with Jesus’s emotional reaction. He is greatly disturbed and moved and begins to weep, to weep for his now dead friend. And so, the beginning of God’s glory is in God’s identification with, and participation in our suffering and grief. What does it mean for you that Jesus weeps with you in your grief, is moved deeply in your sadness, and joins with your family and community in your lament? Is this not the very reason the God of the universe pressed down into human DNA—into finiteness and limitation—so that we might know that God knows what it is to weep, to rage against death, and to be caught in the swirling “if’s” of what might have been? Isn’t Jesus’ expression of emotional pain a sign of the immediacy and intimacy of God’s glory, as are a stable and a bed of hay, the rough hands of a carpenter washing his friends’ feet, the simplicity of bread and wine and blessing?

From this stance of solidarity with human sadness and powerlessness in the face of death, Jesus moves toward the tomb, and more than any other miracle story, Jesus asks for help. Jesus asks for the participation of the community. First, he asks for someone to “take away the stone”—a foreshadowing of his own resurrection (well this whole story is a foreshadowing of Jesus resurrection!).

After offering a prayer of thanksgiving, Jesus then calls Lazarus forth by name, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man walks out. In this moment we see that in Jesus, we have life with God now and later—we have life with God on this side of the grave, and we have life with God beyond the grave—God’s glory is seen on both sides of the death. Jesus stands with us, weeps with us, and strengthens us in this life—and Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven through his power over death.

But the miracle doesn’t end there. Lazarus is bound with the grave cloths of death, wrapped around his hands and feet and head. Jesus asks for help from the community once again, “unbind him and let him go!” Lazarus’s resurrected life does not begin until the community unwraps him and releases him. Why does Jesus wait two days until after Lazarus has died? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus wanted to focus Mary and Martha’s attention, and ours, not on scrambling to prevent a death over which we have no control, not on swirling in regret, and not agonizing over “what if’s,” but instead, on participating in life, aiding in resurrection, and helping with the miracles God is working in the midst of life’s grief. And there’s the fullness of God’s glory—in the community who joins Jesus in completing the miracle of new life by unbinding another.

Grief is real and expressing its emotions is essential, but that’s not where God calls us to remain. Jesus calls to participate in life, even in the midst of our sadness. This is what eventually happened with my mother-in-law, Joan. She never got over the sadness of Cynthia’s death, of course. But she let go of the “if’s” because God called her and Dan’s Dad, a Presbyterian minister, to new ministries, even in retirement. Through this bigger heart of compassion created by her grief, Joan helped unbind others whose hearts were broken. God called her to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping the miracle of healing for others, and thereby revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.

How do we help unbind those caught in the stench of death, “what if’s?” and the “if only’s?”

For our Jewish neighbors in the aftermath of the anti-semitic murders in Pittsburgh, we can bring the gift of our own sadness and worship with them, stand with them, praying with and for them. In so doing, we can help unbind them from the grave cloths in which hatred has tried to wrap them. Jesus calls us to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping with miracle of healing for others, so that God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through.

Two weeks ago, St. Luke’s hosted a training for Building an Inclusive Church that is fully and unconditionally welcoming of our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers. For generations, so many have lived and continue to live in fear of rejection by family, judgement by the church, being fired from their job, denied medical care, or worse, being victims of hate crimes. To make an explicit, public welcome and to hold fast to this banner on the altar that All Are Welcome, no exceptions, is to begin unbinding those grave cloths, and affirming that like Lazarus, there is life and community when you come out. Jesus calls us to help him unbind them from fear and rejection by affirming they are loved by God and welcomed by us, revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.

Today we remember the saints who have gone before us. As we give thanks for the witness of their lives and hold fast to the promise of their resurrection with Christ, we remember that Jesus is life for us here and now, and in the life to come. We cannot stave off death, and we cannot change the past. But we can trust that Jesus weeps with us, and then calls us from larger hearts of compassion, to participate with him in bringing life, aiding resurrection, and helping the miracle of healing as we unbind others. There are “no if’s, ands, or buts about it,” God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through us as we help others unwrap life anew.

Image: Unbinding of Lazarus by Anthea Craigmyle (1933-2016)

 

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Thank you for your Good Behavior: Doing What’s Ours; Letting Go of What Isn’t

Thank you for your Good Behavior Doing Whats Mine Letting Go of What IsntI truly hoped I would graduate from regular oncology check-ups when I moved to Texas. Gratefully, I’d passed the ten-year mark since completing my breast cancer treatment, and I believed I was finally beyond the time frame within which I was most at risk for a recurrence. I knew I wouldn’t be in the five-year class, since I’d had two kinds of cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. But ten years? I thought I was done!

But that’s not what my oncologist in St. Louis said. Instead, I learned about some new risks I had not quite heard before (maybe denial protects us from hearing more than we can handle all at once). Now I know that one reason for me to continue with regular oncology check-ups is that there have been recurrences beyond ten years with my kind of cancer. In addition, one of the chemo drugs I took can cause cardiomyopathy, and as an oncologist, she listened to my heart and other symptoms differently from a regular internist.
This sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I thought I had already dealt with my fear of death, the uncertainty of cancer returning, the dread of treatment, the waiting after tests, and pondering the unknown; instead, I discovered that such fears can resurface even after ten years. As I went through a whole new battery of tests (a full blood panel, an echo-cardiogram, and a PET scan) with my new oncologist in Frisco, I started obsessing about toxic ingredients in personal care and make-up products, constantly trying new ones that were organic and free of anything not approved by the Environmental Working Group. I splurged on a 10-stage water filter when Dan was out of town. I couldn’t control whether I got cancer again, but I could control my environment and what products I used as much as possible.

The fear driving my new obsessions was hard to explain, to name, and to face, partly because they were unexpected after ten years. Dan was mad at me for spending money unnecessarily and I was mad at him for not trying to understand how terrified and alone I felt. But we got there. It took some painful conversation, but I was finally honest about what was churning inside, and he was able to embrace me in it. I have stopped making irrational purchases while burying my feelings; he fills the water filter at night so we have filtered water ready for coffee in the morning.

I went to my new oncologist to get the results of this whole battery of tests, providing my new baseline for health. He is a soft-spoken, balding man with a gentle spirit and a slight Spanish accent who looked at me with a sweet smile and said, “thank you for your good behavior.” All my tests were negative and all my numbers from my white blood cell count to my cholesterol looked great. Such relief!

But the whole experience reminded me not to be lulled into a false sense of control. I am so glad that regular exercise and a careful diet show up in my test results; however, this experience taught me once again that I need to let go of the illusion of control over cancer or anything else that might happen. I can do what is mine to do regarding reasonable and responsible self-care and let go of the future and the “what-ifs,” giving them back to God. In every arena of life, this is the challenge of living a daily life of faith: doing what’s mine and letting go of what isn’t.

PS Please do your monthly self-exams and know your body! I was saved by self-exam because my tumor was in the 10% that did not show up on a mammogram. Remember that men can get breast cancer as well!

 

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