The Cheerful Giver

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

The reading we heard this morning from second Corinthians takes place within the context of fundraising. You probably don’t think of Paul as a fundraiser, but he did a lot of that on his travels. To set the context for you: You need to know that ‘Achaia’ is a province in which the city of Corinth was located. While the letter is titled ‘to the Corinthians’, in the text itself Paul refers to these people as ‘Achaia’. (It would be like titling it ‘Letter to the church in Munich’, but referring to us as ‘Bavarians’ in the body of the letter.) Evidently, this congregation had previously pledged some money to support the Jerusalem congregation. And Paul has sent two brothers, one being Titus, to Corinth to collect the money.

Listen carefully as I read the first five verses of 2 Corinthians, chapter 9:

“There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. 2 For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. 3 But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be. 4 For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to say anything about you—would be ashamed of having been so confident. 5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.”

So (hand motion) – pay up on your pledge.

Now the very next verse is a real gift. It is rare in the scriptures to have such a large red arrow as these next words: THE POINT IS THIS -ie pay attention – “The one who sows sparingly, reaps sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully, reaps bountifully.” Now that is just common sense, but very applicable to us as well. If enough money is not given or pledged, then the Vestry has to cut things out of the budget. If the budget is cut too much, the church eventually ceases to exist.

But how you give is also important. Notice he doesn’t want them to feel coerced into giving reluctantly. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Now, we all know want a reluctant giver looks like. In the ballet, The Nutcracker, the first Act takes place in the home of a Burgermeister who is throwing a Xmas party. Invited to the party is a mysterious toymaker named ‘Drosselmeyer’, who appears to have magical powers. Drosselmeyer gives a beautiful present to his goddaughter, Clara. It is a wooden Nutcracker dressed as a soldier. Clara’s younger brother is very jealous. He grabs the Nutcracker out of her hands and runs off with it. A chase scene ensues, which only ends when the Burgermeister stops the young boy and demands he return the gift. Fritz screws up his face and throws the Nutcracker on the floor at Clara’s feet, and it breaks. THAT is a reluctant giver. We have all seen that scenario among children. Maybe you were the Fritz or Clara among your siblings. As adults we internalize it. We may not show that feeling quite in such a raw and dramatic way, but don’t we sometimes feel it? ‘Oh! Hear comes that man. I hope he doesn’t ask me for money again.’ We cringe inside when asked to part with our money.

God wants us to give cheerfully. Why? Because to give reluctantly shows a lack of trust in God’s ability to provide. God shows us over and over again, not only in scripture, but in nature as well, that the Lord is the creator and sustainer: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” Some of you may be familiar with the ‘prosperity teaching’ that is popular in places in the USA. This particular interpretation of scripture teaches that ‘for every dollar you give, the Lord will multiply it a hundredfold and make you rich.’ It promises that if you give to their particular ministry, you will be able to drive a fancy car and own a big home. That is NOT what scripture says. Or more precisely, like any good lie, it is only partially true. Verses 10 and 11: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us…”

You are familiar with the Christmast Carol, right? Tell me, do you think that Scrooge after his night with the ghosts had more money in his coffers after paying Tiny Tim’s medical expenses, buying Christmas gifts, and raising his employees’ salaries? Of course not! It is only when he started giving the money away that he became truly rich. Heavenly riches are not made of this tool we call money. The “harvest of your righteousness” is more souls saved. It is the Image of God sitting in the pew next to you. Look left, look right. If you want more souls in the pews, be a generous giver.

I want to address briefly what it means to trust God. I have heard people say things like, “How can I trust the Lord when I prayed for God to heal my child who later died?” and “How can I trust the Lord when God allowed the storm to take my house? or fire… or war that tore up my country?” Trusting God isn’t about having things resolve the way you want them to. It is, in fact, just the opposite. Trusting God is about handing over the power, putting a situation in God’s hands and saying, “You are the Lord. Your will be done.” It is scary to give up that power. We can trust in God’s ability to provide because we know who God is: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Now I am going to take you back to 1876. (Hmm, lots of examples from the 19th century in this!) Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago whose business burned down in the Chicago fire. He decided to send his family to Europe while he cleaned up and tied up loose ends. Now, I am certain that Horatio Spafford prayed for the safety of his wife and four daughters as they crossed the Atlantic in 1876. But there was a shipwreck, and when he heard that only his wife survived the ship’s sinking, and that he had lost all four of his daughters ages 2, 7, 9 and 11, he penned these words, „When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‚It is well, It is well with my soul.“ THAT is trust in God.

But the Spafford’s story doesn’t end there with the pretty words of a hymn. Anna and Horatio Spafford had lost everything. He lost his business in the great Chicago Fire, and then they lost their 4 children at sea. (Sounds a bit like Job, doesn’t it?) So what did they do? Scream at God? No. They regrouped, trusting in God-the-Provider, and decided to bring a little piece of Heaven to Earth. Along with 16 other members of their church, they set up the American Colony in Jerusalem. At that time, Jerusalem was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. And if you think the city is fractious now, it was much worse then. The lines between peoples and faiths were thickly drawn. The American Colony accepted whoever came through its doors, not caring what race, religion or nationality they had. The colonists treated all human beings as bearing the image of God and deserving of respect. It was, at times, a hospital for the wounded, at others an orphanage, but always a place where the weary traveler could arrive and be welcomed with open arms. Eventually many more Swedes, and Americans joined the Spaffords and purchased a much larger venue. The American Colony eventually (thanks, in part, to the grandfather of Sir Peter Ustinov) became a hotel. Quoting from the archives:

“The American Colony Hotel has a unique place in the history of the area, having endured countless challenges and a series of wars. It was the venue from which the white flag—made from a bed sheet from one of the Colony’s hospitals, currently displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London—was taken in 1917 to initiate the truce that ended Ottoman rule in Jerusalem.
The Colony has always been known locally as a neutral island, remaining outside the turbulent politics of the land. Owned neither by Arabs nor Jews, but by Americans, British and Swedes, it has always had friends from all sectors of Jerusalem’s mixed society. An oasis where Jews and Arabs comfortably meet, it is also a favorite haven for international journalists, high-ranking officers of the United Nations and diplomats from across the world.
The original founders retained their former home in the Old City and used it for charitable purposes, providing care to needy children with services that grew over the decades. Today this building houses the Spafford Children’s Center, which runs medical, infant welfare and social work departments for local children.
Although the daily management of the hotel was handed over by the Spafford’s grandson, Horatio Vester, upon his retirement in 1980, to Gauer Hotels of Switzerland, the American Colony is still owned and run by the descendants of the original founding community. Its board of directors is composed of family members who remain closely involved. The Colony is a part of their family history, just as it is a part of the history of Jerusalem.”

Note the comment about the Spaffords’ grandson. The Spaffords had three more children, two of whom lived into adulthood. Now to steal Paul’s words, THE POINT IS THIS: The Spaffords’ greatest contribution came AFTER they had lost everything. They trusted in God’s ability to provide. And that is exactly why we also can give cheerfully.

God isn’t Superman who swoops in to right all the wrongs in your life upon your request. The story isn’t about you and your little piece of the world. The story is not about me and my little piece of the world. It is about ‘us’ collectively. God is the sovereign Lord, who is in charge of eternity, the fount of life and love.

Be a cheerful and grateful giver, money is only a tool, a means to an end. It is not the end in itself.
Praise be to God!

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Faithfulness and Abraham’s Wobble

When you think of the word ‚faithful’, do you think of an object? The word ‘faithful’ reminds me of a rock.  While ‘faith in Christ’ may be solid and as reliable as a rock, faithfulness is something altogether different.  Faithfulness isn’t the same as being stubbornly immovable – like a rock. It is in fact, quite the opposite.

Think about it. What did Abraham’s faithfulness cause him to do? It caused him to pack up all of his belongings, his family and his servants, and set them on a trek far from home – far from everything that was familiar to them. His faithfulness pushed him out of his comfort zone.

Most of us here at Church of the Ascension know exactly what that feels like. Many of us are far from our families and the culture of our childhood; that place where we felt truly able to move and communicate fully and freely. We knew the rules – even the unspoken ones – of the community. Here we know them only partially. As well as I know the German language and culture, I am still surprised by the occasional reprimand that I have behaved unseemly when I thought I was being perfectly polite. It is a harsh thing to step out of one’s zone of familiarity.

‘Faithfulness’ implies a relationship. Abraham had faith in God because God promised, and then acted faithfully on those promises. God had Abraham’s trust. Other Biblical characters, like Ruth, shows this kind of relationship to other humans. Ruth trusted Naomi, her mother-in-law. When Naomi told her to return to her people, she refused, and declared that she would follow Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.’ Ruth had faith in Naomi that her people and her God would be just towards her.

Faithfulness is toward another being.  It is the willingness to bend your will to someone else’s. We are not faithful to a dogma or a line of belief. If we were, then the image of immobility would be correct. Dan Migliore in his book Faith Seeking Understanding puts it like this:

“The act of faith is not rightly understood when it is viewed as mere assent to propositions presented to us by the church or the Bible. Christian Faith is the act of personal trust in God made known in Christ, not bare assent to propositions about God or Christ. The Reformers distinguished between two ways of believing. One way is to believe certain things about God – for example, that God exists, or that Christ performed miracles. Luther called this historical or factual knowledge rather than faith in the proper sense. The other way is to believe in God. When I put my faith in God (and here he quotes Luther), “I not only believe that what is said about God is true, but I put my trust in him, surrender myself to him.” (p. 236)

This kind of faith – believing in – presupposes a relationship, a relationship built on a history together. Abraham was considered righteous not because he always did what was right, but because he had a faithfulness in God that was based in a relationship. And that is all that is required of us. Paul says, just trust in the gift that God has so freely given. There is no need to ‘earn’ the gift, just trust it.

It is true that the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, hope, etc. will come about as a result of that relationship with God. Good works will also be a result, but one does not receive the gift of Christ’s salvation, or God’s love and attention, by notching up a certain number of good works first. You cannot earn it. You do not need to earn it. You need only accept the love and trust the Lord who continuously creates, who gives life to the trees, the grass, the fruit, the birds, the animals, the humans. The Lord who never asks if you deserve to eat the food that is so freely provided. This is the same Lord who continuously, year on year brings the dead back to life. Spring is coming.

But Abraham… and this is important… was human. He wobbled. I love this. You know those little dashboard doggies with the heads that go up and down? I would like a little Abraham that sits on my dashboard with a bobbling head as a reminder that even the great faith-filled Abraham wobbled. It is worth your time to read Abraham’s whole story. Not only did he tell Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister – out of fear for his own life – he also decided that maybe God needed a little bit of help with the whole business of descendants. Sarai was getting too old to get pregnant, so Abraham kind of second-guesses God. You know, maybe Abraham thought he needed to do more in this relationship.

You know that feeling, right? Someone close to you has promised to do something, but time is moving on, so you decide to take matters into your own hands? How well does that work out for you?

Abraham expresses his worry to Sarai, who suggests that maybe he should impregnate one of her slave girls, Hagar. Hagar does indeed get pregnant from Abraham, and she bears him a son, but she is also so angry with Sarai that discord is brought into the household. God is watching this, and shaking His head, and probably rolling His eyes. It doesn’t say that in the scripture, but the implication is there. Hagar’s child is named ‘Ishmael’. Ishmael means ‘God is hearing’.

Then 13 years later, God comes to Abraham and makes a covenant with him. Maybe he felt Abraham needed to do something this time. A promise is one-way, but a covenant is two-way. Abraham is to have all the males in his household circumcised. (Now come on, that could not have been a pretty picture!) God will then bless Sarah, and she will bear a son. The scripture actually says in Genesis 17: 17, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” He laughed! At God. And lived. But Abraham took the covenant seriously. Abraham also asked God to bless Ishmael. God repeats his promise about Sarah, but also says, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you (remember the meaning of his name?); I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.’ And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.”

This was a relationship of trust, love, and negotiation. Yes, Abraham wobbled. Yes, Abraham feared. Yes, Abraham got anxious. But he never left the relationship. Being faithful means staying IN the relationship – with all its ups and downs. And that is all God asks of you: Stay with Him.

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Fiscally Faithful (a sermon on Luke 16:1-13)

It is hard to give away money.  Think about it. What goes through your mind when you see a beggar on the street? My mind gets filled with so many questions, it is like a brain gridlock. How much will help? Will the money be used for alcohol or drugs? Is this person begging for him or herself – or are they a slave to human traffickers? Will money really help? Should I just buy him or her a cup of coffee? Or maybe something more nourishing? The list of questions is endless, and I end up decision-paralyzed.Catan - Germany

If you think giving a few coins to a beggar is difficult, imagine how much harder it is to give away a lot of money. Let’s say I have 3 million to give away. (I don’t, but just go with me on this.) Who do I give it to? How do I know that a charity is trustworthy – not a front for a terrorist organisation, for example? Who will vet it for me? How am I going to have time to sift through the thousands of begging letters that have arrived in the mail? How much will it cost me to give this money away?

Soon after we moved to England, that country started a national lottery. Ten years later, there was a documentary on 10 of the winners about what they did with their windfall – and whether or not the money actually made them happier. Only 2 of the winners were ‘happy’ sort of. Those two had remained anonymous. They had also moved out of the country and lived where they could spend their money without questions asked, which they said felt like a ‘necessary exile’. Most of the winners had blown through their money – had as it were a whirlwind date with a wealthy lifestyle, but ended back in their original job and pre-lottery win lifestyle. One man tried to give his money away. He was the most unhappy of all of them.  He thought he would be generous and pay off the mortgages of his family members. That sounds great, right? No sooner had he told them he was finishing off their mortgages than the fighting began, “But their house is more expensive than ours! That’s not fair. We want a bigger home!” The fight was so intense that it tore his family apart. Many of them won’t talk to each other now.

So what is money anyway? It is a representative tool. It represents something else. In cultures where there isn’t printed or minted money, families have to barter goods. So let’s say I have a dozen eggs and need some wool to knit a sweater. I go to the shepherd and ask him if I can trade my eggs for some of his wool. Now that works if he needs eggs. What if he doesn’t? What if he says, ‘Well actually I need milk.’ So I take my eggs to the milkman and ask if he will trade some milk for my eggs so I can buy wool, and he says, ‘Actually, I don’t need eggs, I need shoes.’ Money was introduced to make purchasing goods easier. It allows for a more complicated trading economy – an economy which we inhabit. Our church, like anyone else, has to use cash to pay its rent, lighting, salaries and missions. We send money to a children’s hospital and orphanage in Romania. Why money? Let me read a passage to you from the novel, Cutting for Stone. This is the story of a young man of Indian descent growing up in Addis Ababa, discovering his identity and his surgical talents. In this short passage, a man from a church in Houston, Mr. Harris, has come to visit the mission hospital in Addis. He is visiting with the woman in charge of the hospital, the Matron:

“Harris stared at the stack of Bibles by the wall. He hadn’t seen them when he first walked in.

“We have more English Bibles than there are English speaking people in the entire country.” Matron had turned from the window and followed his gaze. “Polish Bibles, Czech Bibles, Italian Bibles, French Bibles, Swedish Bibles. I think some are from your Sunday-school children. We need medicine and food. But we get Bibles.” Matron smiled. “I always wondered if the good people who send us Bibles really think that hookworm and hunger are healed by scripture? Our patients are illiterate.” (Verghese A., Cutting For Stone, p155)
We send money so that the hospital in Romania can buy fresh food and the right medicines and medical supplies in the quantities that they need. A cash economy allows us to do that.
Money is representative; it is also a tool, like a hammer. Which is why we don’t worship it. Can you imagine worshipping a hammer? ‘Oh hammer, you are so glorious. You make the most beautiful houses!’ (Well, in the right hands perhaps, in my hands, the hammer would just create a mess.) Money is just a tool, and like most tools, it is only useful when it is moving around. If money sits still, it is useless. You may say, ‘I have money sitting in savings’, but a)ctually it isn’t sitting. It is being loaned out to other people and businesses. Remember the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when there is a run on the bank, and George has to tell the people he doesn’t have all their money in cash because it is in their neighbor’s homes, Joe’s Home, Mrs. Makeland’s home, the Kennedy House. It was loaned out to people as mortgages.

The worst thing you can do with money – is bury it. That renders it completely useless to everyone. That is why in the parable of the talents (which was a currrency), the master is so upset with the servant who buried his ‘Talent’ (money. Not only was the servant distrustful and even fearful of his master, he took what value the money had and removed it completely. It is as if you gave me a beautiful crystal vase, and the moment you walked out the door, I smashed it on the floor so no one could use it. Money has to move around to have value.

Okay, now let’s look at today’s parable in Luke chapter 16. This parable is not very well communicated to a modern audience. There is context missing, which – like a Shakespeare play alludes to something that was well-known to its current audience, but is lost in time to us. Again, you have a master of a large estate and his financial manager or bursar. The master has learned that his bursar is dishonest and tells him he will be fired. While the master is looking through the financial books, the bursar goes to the villagers who owe his master goods or money and reduces the amount owed. Now that sounds to me like it would make the master more angry. We don’t know if the reduction was short-changing the master or was simply the lowering of interest that the Bursar would have pocketed in any case. He was probably indulging in usury, charging interest way over the top – like loaning out 6 jars of oil, but demanding 18 in return. In any case the master praises him for his ‘shrewdness’ because the bursar knew he was going to need the mercy of those same villagers after losing his job. There wasn’t an unemployment office for him to turn to for sustenance, he was going to be relying on the local villagers for food and shelter. Basically, the bursar was buying mercy. And Jesus says, ‘Okay that kind of shrewdness may be acceptable here on earth, but it doesn’t work in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Verse 9 is about as close to sarcasm as scripture gets: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Mercy can’t be bought there. Then we have a statement, which comes like a Greek Chorus at the end of the parable, ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little, is also faithful in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’ (vs. 10 and 11)

I worked for 14 years in the development office of a christian college in a major university in England. In my desk, I kept a newspaper article about a church congregation in the USA which had inherited a lot of money. An elderly member of the congregation who had been in a care home for many years, passed away and left his entire estate to his local church – $30 million at today’s rate. What do you think this congregation chose to do with the money? Any ideas? (build a church?, a mission hospital?, a school?) Well, you would think those are good ideas. No. They fought. They fought over the money so much that the church dissolved. The money reverted back to the estate and was distributed as the executor of the estate saw fit.

For years I thought this was an example of being given too much money. But actually, over time I saw that I was wrong. The amount of money wasn’t the problem. The spirit of the congregation was the problem. Donors give money to institutions and causes that touch their hearts – and that makes great sense when you think about the representative aspect of money. This money represents the sweat of our brows, the stress of hours of work and achievement. We want it to matter. At some point in time, that congregation must have meant a LOT to him for the donor to leave his entire estate to it. What happened? Over time, the congregation had shrunk in size. Usually, that means that a core of people in the church had taken their eyes off of the Lord. They completely lost sight of their raison d’être. Instead of a spirit of generosity and love and acceptance, they had developed a spirit of meanness and control. The amount of money only excerbated the already existing desire for power that had developed amongst the handful of families still in the church. They had already shown themselves to be unfaithful with a ‘little’, and therefore, could not handle the ‘much’.

Today, I want to ask the question, ‘What kind of a congregation are we?’ Are we faithful with a little? Can we be trusted with a lot? Earlier in Luke, we find the words, ‘give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your lap;…’ Those words are speaking not about money, but about forgiveness. Yet they exemplify the magnitude of God’s generosity. Throughout scripture we are reminded of God’s abundant giving nature: ‘The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.’ (Psalm 33:5) ‘For of His fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’ (John 1:6) ‘…the riches of His grace He lavished upon us.’ (Eph 1:7-9) ‘For God so loved the World, He gave his only begotten son.’ (John 3:16)

When people give to us whether it is money, goodwill or forgiveness, will we give back a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over? Will we reflect the immense generosity of our God, a god who gives so very freely and who entrusts us with his Kingdom here on earth.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. AMEN.

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Spiritual Generosity

Generosity is most often aligned with the idea of giving money, time or talents. And that is correct. There is, however, a generosity of spirit that displays itself in somewhat surprising ways. A person who is spiritually generous makes room for the faults of others. Let me unpack that. I do NOT mean that a spiritually generous person allows others to abuse them. What I DO mean is that a spiritually generous person is not offended by other’s mistakes, inabilities, or weird behaviour. Spiritually generous people are centered. They know who they are, and that strong sense of identity allows them to look beyond the imperfections of the person in front of them.

A spiritually generous person will respond to the fact in another’s speech and overlook the emotion with which it is communicated. (This is a distinctly good trait to have when dealing with a tantrumy two-year-old.)

A spiritually generous person will treat disabled people as humans first, and disabled second.

A spiritually generous person will listen until the person speaking has completely finished their thought, and even let the other speaker have the ‘last word’ while completely disagreeing with them.

A spiritually generous person will recognize the fault in another person, but will choose to help train or encourage the person to correct behaviour rather than criticize. (Being quick to voice criticism is distinctly non-generous, and rather smacks of simply trying to show that you are smarter / better / quicker than the other person.)

A spiritually generous person is quick to forgive. (But don’t push it, they are still human.)

A spiritually generous person is not easily offended. Period.

People who give of time, talent and money are often also spiritually generous, but not always. Sometimes, people give of money because it is easier than giving spiritually. That is not necessarily bad. It is rare for anyone to be centered all the time, and sometimes one is simply too drained emotionally to be able to give spiritually. Still, I think that practicing spiritual generosity is a good thing.

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The God of One

IMG_3473(When Rev Steve asked if I would preach today, he said that “it is about the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and it would be nice to have a woman preach on this because it would give a perspective that I may not have”. Really Steve? No experience of pregnancy, are you sure?

I was happy to take this sermon for many reasons – not least that 6 servicess in 11 days is an awful lot during the Christmas Season. As Senior Warden I want to thank Rev Steve for his hard work especially at this time of year. While the rest of us are gearing down to rest and party; pastors are gearing up to help us celebrate the holiness of the season. We need to remember to support them especially at this time with our prayer and words of encouragement.)

Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, makes a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant. Elizabeth is about 6 months along, while Mary is just at the beginning. Does Elizabeth know before the visit that Mary is pregnant? It doesn’t say. I rather doubt it. We are told that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb lept. Now, while I was pregnant I learned there are three main reasons why a baby jumped in the womb: The first is hiccups. Two of mine had them quite frequently. It was one of the few times in my life that I laughed until I cried. The sensation was so weird. The second is when the baby flips over to get ready for birth. My first child flipped so fast and so furiously that it threw me off-balance, and I found myself holding the wall up. The third reason is a sudden, loud noise. One day when I was high pregnant I was washing dishes, and I dropped a pan in the sink. The baby jumped so high the bump nearly hit my nose, the baby was clearly startled out of a deep sleep. I turned to my husband and said, ‘Good news! The baby can hear!’

But what happened when Elizabeth’s baby jumped? She, the mother, was filled with the Holy Spirit. She was carrying a prophet. What does she do next? She prophesies. Prophecy is actually not so much about telling the future, as it is drawing back the curtain on the present in order to see it more clearly. Sometimes in the pulling back of that curtain, it makes things so real to us that you see the logical consequence in the future of what is happening now. A prophet will speak to the situation at hand, and call it what it is. Elizabeth tells Mary what is happening to her. That is already worth noting, but there is more to the story.

Do you remember Hannah, Samuel’s mother? Hannah was barren for many years, and it really wasn’t a good thing for a woman at that time to be barren – especially a married woman. You were seen as not “good enough”. Maybe your husband didn’t like you. I can imagine what the pettiness of the attacks of the other ladies would be like, ‘Oh he’s not going to sleep with her!’. It could get pretty mean. Hannah prayed for years, and promised to give her child to the Lord if he would only open her womb. When Hannah takes her child to the priest, she sings a song of praise. Elizabeth parallels Hannah in that she too was barren for many years, and in an earlier verse in Luke it says that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months and then said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” But that is all she says. Hannah also gives Samuel, her son, up to be a Nazirite. The Angel, Gabriel, tells Zechariah that Elizabeth’s baby will not drink wine or strong drink, which is also part of a Nazirite vow. So there is a lot of parallel between Hannah and Elizabeth. With those parallels you would expect then that Hannah’s song of praise would come out of the mouth of Elizabeth, would you not? Instead, Elizabeth takes her blessing and throws it onto Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed (and that is the key word!) that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Why did Elizabeth do this? Mary believed. Joseph believed. Zechariah did not believe the message of the angel, and his speech was taken from him mid- worship service – not the nicest thing to do to a priest. There he was officiating in the Synagogue. It was his turn to go behind the curtain to the Holy of Holies, and who is waiting for him there, but Gabriel. Gabriel tells him his wife is going to have a baby, and he says, ‘Prove it. Prove you are who you say you are.’ You know what? Don’t ever ask God to prove something. Because he did not believe Gabriel’s message about Elizabeth bearing a child, the angel said, ‘Okay, you will not speak from now until the baby is born.’ This is the middle of a worship service. Zechariah comes out to the people waiting to hear him unable to say anything to all of you. He’s going (lots of gesturing). Who knows what he was doing, but he did all the motion with his hands because he couldn’t speak.

Elizabeth did not believe either, at first, and waited 5 months in seclusion for the proof. That means she was waiting until the pregnancy showed. At 5 months, most women will look pregnant. She waited. But Mary believed. Okay, she asked the question ‘how’? – a little bit of confusion on the logistics of it all. But that is okay. She did not ask for proof. She just believed. Not only is Mary carrying the Messiah, she believed the message when she heard it and obeyed. In the words of David Tiede in his commentary on Luke, for a woman of that time “the blessedness of bearing children is surpassed by the blessedness of faithful obedience.” So Elizabeth hands the honor over to Mary, and out of Mary’s mouth comes the ‘Magnificat’, a song of praise. It parallels Hannah’s Song of Praise. So I want to read that to you from the book of 1 Samuel. You may want to read the Magnificat along with it. But before I read it, lift your mind out of thinking that the Lord does all of this within one generation, and think about the sweeping nature of time and history.

“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.[a]
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my[b] victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.

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.

The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.

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.

The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

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

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.[c]
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

“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.

The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High[d] 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.”

Both songs are reminders of the power and sovreignity of the Lord; how just His decisions are; how faithful He is. But even then – in the midst of all this raising up and tearing down of kingdoms and wealth He remembers the lowliness of his handmaiden. He cares even for her.

And Mary says,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Martin Luther recommended to his Serene Highness, Prince John Frederick, to remember these words as a standard for good governance “in all of Scripture I do not know anything that serves such a purpose so well as this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God, which ought indeed to be learned and kept in mind by all who would rule well and be helpful Lords.”

Perhaps we should all learn these words and keep them in mind. Why? God is not just God of the big picture. God is also the God of ‘me, myself and I’, the lowly handmaid. I see written on Facebook comments like, ‘What is my suffering when innocent people are gunned down in Paris or small children watch their families and homes destroyed in Syria?’ Your suffering is still suffering whether you suffer it collectively or individually.

I was once in a Sunday School class led by a Biblical scholar in Princeton who himself was a child in a concentration camp after WWII. He was emphasizing that you cannot compare pain. What causes one person to suffer only a little, can devastate another person. Pain is pain. Whether you suffer it alone or with others. And it matters to God. Even if your prayer is simply two words, ‘I HURT!’, Our heavenly parent, our creator hears it. It matters. He does care, and for those who fear Him enough to come and say, ‘I hurt’, there is mercy. There is healing.

Kingdoms rise. Kingdoms fall.
Dictators kill. Dictators die.
Rich become poor.
Poor become rich.
From generation to generation.
God remains.
Love remains.
The pillar that the world was set on.
So wrap yourself in that eternal pillar of Love.

The love exemplified by God coming to earth as one human, as one poor helpless human, to experience our childhood, our teenage angst, our pain, our joys, our laughter, our illnesses, our anxieties, our betrayals, our death. He came alone to a lowly handmaiden. He will come to you.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Come Lord Jesus.

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The Rewrite

(NOT a sermon – well in the strict sense)
“I killed a Bible study once.” Those were the words I had planned as the opening to my sermon on Hebrews – until the attack on Paris – and that event made this opening sentence completely inappropriate. Between Friday night and Sunday morning, I set myself to a rewrite. The story I was going to tell was of a time when a small group of American women in Germany (some 30 years ago now) gathered to have a study on the book of Galatians. The leader of the study was going verse by verse asking us how that particular verse could be applied to our lives. I looked at her rather stunned when she asked me that. The verse she gave me was the first part of a longer argument – at the end of which the author was saying that that verse (and those around it) should NOT to be applied to our lives. So I answered her that I thought we should read to the end of the argument to see what the author says we should do. The leader was shocked that I would counter her. When the other ladies agreed with me, the leader threw up her hands and declared us unteachable. We never met as a group again. I was sad about that, but I was right about the text.

Chopping up a book into bits can lead us straight down the path to misunderstanding (nearly every extreme right religious group is guilty of this). Whenever my children tell me that they have ‘read a book’, and then I find out they actually didn’t read to the end, I respond with, “You cannot tell me you have read the book if you did not read to the very last page!” Why? Because everything can change with that last word. The whole meaning of the book or passage can be turned on its head. My son recently said to me about a book he was reading, “But it was so depressing, and I could see where it was headed.” My response was, “Really, how do you know for certain? Everything can change on that last page.”

Just like we shouldn’t chop up scripture, we should also not chop up our lives. My story (and yours if you are reading this) is still being written. If you were to cut one area out of my life and knew about that one area only, you would be misunderstanding quite a lot about me. There are several intertwining storylines in my life – some are very depressing and others unbelievably inspiring. But my story is not finished. And neither is yours.

I can choose to focus on the negative – or get busy doing positive, choosing encouraging words, choosing love, choosing to author my own story as much as I possibly can. That, my friends, is where hope is found. Yes, things can go wrong, but they can also go right in ways you could not even imagine. Don’t get stuck on page 32 of your own story….

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The Ocean of Hebrews

BodenseeA Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25
Persecution is not new. It has been around for centuries – groups of people being tormented or killed for what they believe, or in the case of the IS terrorists, for what those people don’t believe. Our reading this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews was written for a persecuted community, a community being destabilized in its faith through fear. It is not really a letter. It is actually a sermon. Just listen to the opening lines: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.’ It is expository writing, which is a fancy term meaning to inform or teach, and the author’s tool is a rhetorical device of comparison ‘if you think this was good, how much better is this’. Jesus used this technique also: ‘If you who are human fathers know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more does the Father in Heaven know to give good gifts to you.’ Hebrews is in the words of one commentator, ‘One long sustained argument.’

It is an argument for belief in Christ that unfolds in waves. Reading Hebrews is like standing on the beach right where you are ankle deep in water and watching the waves roll in. Some waves are bigger than others, and knock you off your feet. Other waves are smaller and more refreshing. The waves in Hebrews consist of rhetorical arguments showing that the angels are good, Jesus is better; Moses was a good leader, Jesus is better; Aaron was a good High Priest, Jesus is High Priest forever in the order of Melchizidek; Abraham was faithful, faith in Jesus is better; the first covenant was good, the second one is better – for it completes the first one; the tent (first temple) was good, but Jesus went to the real Temple in Heaven; the sacrifices of the priests are good, but Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and complete.

Our reading today is one of those HUGE waves – the kind that knock you off your feet. The daily sacrifices made in the Temple for sins were useful, but the sacrifice of Christ is SO perfect, so complete, that it wipes out the need for a daily sacrifice: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” I love the crest of this wave: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds…. I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” NO MORE, No More, no more. Just let those words sound into eternity. Your lawless deeds are remembered no more. The wave continues with a word of encouragement, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary…. and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith…Hold fast to your faith… do not waver… encourage one another to good deeds… and don’t forget to meet together.” Very encouraging words. Words to live by. Words that tell us the author was talking to a persecuted community of Jewish Christians.

Our liturgical reading stops there, which leaves you feeling quite uplifted, but this is Hebrews and you need to keep reading. The wave hits hard with a HUGE warning. The next verses emphasize that the sacrifice of Christ is such an extraordinary gift that continuing to purposefullly sin is simply unacceptable. That was exactly why the daily sacrifices were ineffective. They did not cause the people to change their ways. You knew that if you sinned you could simply take an offering to the Priest for sacrifice and the sin would be forgiven, but you could go out and sin again.

Christ’s sacrifice is so wonderful that it should be honored with a change of lifestyle on your part and mine. The words in these next verses are very strong. This is where all the hell-fire and damnation preaching of the Puritans came from: “For if we wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowlege of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” The section ends with the words: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Now this text is NOT talking about sinning out of ignorance. What do I mean by that? We have a limited knowledge base, and we certainly cannot see the future.

I was once at a panel discussion in college about making end of life decisions on behalf of others. The panel members were getting increasingly negative and depressed about whether someone would be held accountable by God for a decision that he or she took which ultimately led to the death of another person – like unplugging life support for someone who is in a coma. I kind of blew up like a small bomb because our God is not like that. He is not going to hold us accountable for taking a decision based on our limited knowledge. That is just splitting hairs. God made us. God knows that we cannot see the future nor always know exactly what is right in every situation. God will not hold us accountable for something we could NOT possibly have foreseen. Basically, the text here in Hebrews is saying, ‘Don’t take Christ’s sacrifice for granted. Don’t bite the eternal goodness of the Hand that has saved you in such an amazing way.’ Intentionally sinning is just beyond disgraceful in light of the sacrifice of THE High Priest who spilled his own blood. It is about respect.

But do we stop reading here? No! This is Hebrews, so keep reading, another wave is coming. The next words of encouragement are reminders of the joy we experienced when our faith was new: “But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings… for you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something that was better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward.” This wave of encouragement ends in the famous chapter on faith starting with the words, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’

So what does the Letter to the Hebrews mean to us today? We are feeling collectively the effect of distant wars as their scared, scarred, and hungry land at our doorstep. Their fear is real. Their worries become our worries. Their trauma feeds our deepest fears. Their presence impacts our daily lives. Our boat is rocked. We hear and see the pain and death inflicted by terrorists in Paris, Beirut and Palestine. Our boat is rocked. We lose loved ones to disease, or our jobs to the greed and lies of corporate executives. Our boat is rocked. If your boat is rocking – and especially if your faith is rocking with it – get out of the boat and stand in the ocean of Hebrews. Let the waves of that ocean remind you of the one perfect sacrifice that defines you for all eternity. Do not give into fear, for we who have faith in Christ, have NOTHING to fear. We can stand solid – and more than that – we have the power to act, to love, to do good deeds, to encourage one another and to persevere. That is the message of Hebrews. Persevere in doing good. Do not grow weary. Do not lose heart. The perfect sacrifice was made already for you. Praise be to God. It is right to give Him thanks and praise. Amen.

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