Friday, November 8, 2019

Hebrews 12:1-2 "All-Saints' Remembrances"

         It first was celebrated in the Spring, not the fall – All Saints’ Day, that is.  It was designated so on the Christian calendar in order to overlap with a pagan holiday that pre-dated Christianity.  
Situating Christian holidays smack up against pagan festivals was a common practice in the early and medieval church, a canny way for the church to diminish the significance of those festivals without actually taking them away from the people.  Take Christmas, for example, and its celebration so near the Winter Solstice. 
Later, All-Saints’ Day was moved to November for the same reason. The Christian observance then coincided with the Celtic celebration of Samhain (sow-win), a festival that welcomed the harvest and ushered in the dark half of the year.  Because of its origins, Samhain has always been associated with dying and death.  
According to author Selena Fox, “Samhain's long association with death and the Dead reflects Nature's rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back with killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air. This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead .”
Overlapping All-Saints’ Day with the festival of Samhain was a smart move for the Christian Church in the Middle Ages.  After all, both celebrations acknowledged the dead, and the Church wanted to set aside a day to honor those stalwart and often martyred Christians who had gone before. It was perfect!  All-Saints’ Day sought to bind together church folk of all generations and root them into their ancestral spiritual family.  Hence, the “great cloud of witnesses” came to life.
Initially, All-Saints’ Day focused on exemplary Christians, real saints.  However, as theologian Frederick Buechner points out, those people were by no means perfect.  He writes, “Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, ""I am foremost among sinners"" and Jesus himself prayed God to forgive him his trespasses.
In other words (Buechner writes), the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not now,’ that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.”
It is like the children’s song, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”.  Here is the final verse:
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
And so it is not surprising that eventually All Souls’ Day was added to the Christian calendar as a way to acknowledge all believers who have passed away. Over time, particularly in the Protestant church, All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days have merged into a single Sunday, the first Sunday in November.  
And so, for us, on this All-Saints’ Sunday, we remember those in our families and in this congregation who died during the past year.  In addition, because of the tendrils of those pagan roots that still reach out to us, we are particularly sensitive to being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” as our reading from the Book of Hebrews proclaims.  This almost mystical sense of time (Kairos time we call it in the church) and the consequent merging of past and present leave us wondering - with great high hope even - whether the veil between our world of the living and their world of the dead will be thinner than usual today.  
This focus on the past and on those who have passed on can help us gain wisdom for the present too.  As we remember the stories of these loved ones who have died, we can learn from them.  And, of course, as Christians, we trust in an afterlife.  So, as Anglican pastor Greg Goebel noted, “We aren’t just pining for the past, we are looking forward to a grand reunion.”
Obviously, we rely on our memories of those we have loved and lost.  Perhaps those memories will bring tears, perhaps a smile, perhaps both.  My hope is that we can approach these all-saints’ remembrances in the manner and spirit about which Frederick Buechner commented. 
He wrote, “There are two ways of remembering. One way is to make an excursion from the living present back into the dead past. The old sock remembers how things used to be when you and I were young, Maggie. The faraway look in his eyes is partly the beer and partly that he's really far away.
The other way is to summon the dead past back into the living present. The young widow remembers her husband, and he is there beside her.”  It is a mystic sweet communion – and we know it is real.
Let’s come together then and remember those we have loved and lost, not retreating into the dead past, but rather summoning the dead past back to the living present.….
PAULINE CADOTTE:  Pauline was Robert and Michael Cadotte’s mother.  Robert recalls that “although she had a stern side, she also had a very big compassionate side in raising two boys, one with a lot of mental challenges, the other just a little rebellious. 
She made time for them at the expense if her time.”  Pauline worked as a nurse for many years and was particularly sensitive to Michael’s developmental needs.  She was a longtime member of this church and was elected an elder, an honor bestowed on men and women who have volunteered and supported our church in longstanding and significant ways. 
Pauline was a deacon and came to worship very Sunday until her health failed.  She assisted with telephoning when baked goods were needed for a church fair or event, helped with the Christmas Fair, and loved doing crafts.  In fact, her small apartment was filled with all sorts of craft material, as Linda and Caryl discovered when they cleaned it out.

Pauline cherished her independence.  I remember when the Lions Club here in town helped her get new hearing aids.  Was she ever happy!  She was also feisty and did not hesitate to state her opinions.  In that regard, I remember that she was not too keen on much decoration on the altar.  She particularly disapproved of the colored fabric I sometime used, that “flowy stuff” she called it – and she let me know exactly how she felt.
As her son, Robert, wrote to me: “She will be sadly missed by us and

the people that knew her.  Rest in peace, Mom!!!!!!”

PAM ELDERKIN:  Pam is Chan Roach’s sister.  She lived in Hoosick Falls, New York and passed away quite suddenly this past summer.  Pam worked as a switchboard operator for Albany Medical Center and later for Samaritan Hospital before retiring.  However, Pam’s calling was as a foster mother. 
Over the years, she took in and raised as her own a variety of children in need of the warmth and security and unconditional love of a real home.  Here is what Chan said about his sister:  “Pam was a mother above all else.  She had her own two children and she had her found children that were beyond hope in the system and she gave them everything she had.  She took the Word of God literally reaching out to the least of these whatever the cost.” 
JEFFREY LAMBERT:  Jeff is Lori and Dan Lambert’s son and their young grandson, Nate’s, father. Dan and Jeff’s wife, Beth, wrote his obituary, part of which I now share with you.  Jeff “passed away peacefully at home after a long illness. He was surrounded by his loving family and friends.. Jeff worked as a Security Specialist with Millennium Partners in Boston for many years, where his teammates were more than co-workers - they were friends. 
He was an avid fan of Star Wars, vintage comic books, video games, and making models. He spent many happy hours building intricate Lego sets with his son. 
Jeff enjoyed spending time with friends and family, and he loved camping and hiking. Jeff never saw the Dark Side, and he always encouraged others to stay positive. Though he was battling a serious illness, he kept his wonderful sense of humor. He was quick to reassure loved ones that there is always a silver lining, no matter how difficult the situation. He was heard to say many times, “If I can smile, so can you.” When asked what should be remembered about his dad, Nate said, ‘He was really awesome, and he gave great hugs.’” 
JANICE WALLER-BRETT:  Janice is Joan Morton’s sister.  She was born in Portland, Maine but lived most of her life in Connecticut where she worked as a secretary for several companies in the Groton area.  She was known by all as a kind, selfless, funny and irreverent women who loved everybody, who always looked for the goodness in people, who lived for parties, and who loved most to make the people around her happy.
Janice volunteered as a Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader as well as with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and Chorus and Connecticut Lyric Opera of which she was a co-founder. She was elected Treasurer of the City of Groton multiple times and also served as Assistant Registrar of Voters. Janice an active Democrat for 50 years and part of the Connecticut Federation of Democratic Women. 
She died peacefully in her sleep after a long battle with several illnesses. However, knowing that her death was imminent, she made certain to vote in last November’s election and admonished every citizen to exercise that right.
MAY WELCH:  May was Frank Sullivan’s aunt whom he loved dearly and misses tremendously. Frank said that he “loved her like she was my mother.  We were very close.  She always told me to call her if I was having a bad day.”  Frank shared with me that just a week before she died, she called Frank to make sure he was OK.  
Frank said, “This was the kind of person she was, a giver.  She was  always there for me since I was a child.    She wasn't like an Aunt; she was like a real mom.”  Frank went on to tell me that “May and her husband, Cliff, attended a church in Lewiston where they would bring food and other needed items to hand out to the people in need.”  Frank ended his email to me by writing this:  “I could keep going on.  The biggest thing was she loved me with all her heart – as I did her.  I tried to make this short, but she did so much for me, I shall miss her all of my life.”
JAMES YEAGER – James is Margo Fournier’s younger brother and Muriel Yeager’s son.  Because he and Margo were born 13 months apart (I think that makes them Irish twins), they were very close growing up.  Jim died very suddenly a week after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, a disease he had beaten once before a few years earlier.  Margo described the essence of James in one word – caring.
         His sister, Donna, had this to say about Jim:  “He loved his family and his country. His wife, children, dogs, and home were his true happiness. He spent his leisure time swimming, sunning himself, working in the yard, or planting the best tomatoes for all to share. He served his country in the Air Force and was once stationed in Iran.
Jim worked for Grumman for over 40 years.  He and his fellow workers built the Lunar Module for the Apollo moon landings.  When the Module was completed, their photo was taken and placed on the moon at the first moon landing and it is there still!  Though Jim is now with the Lord, his spirit and love remain with us forever.”

         And so we have remembered those in our families and congregation who have died this past year.  We have remembered all that they brought to the world:  Pauline’s feisty independence, Pam’s loving kindness, Jeff’s trust in a silver lining, Janice’s passion for civic duty, May’s unconditional love, and James’ love for family and country. 

Surely there is something holy about taking this time to remember. In closing, perhaps this kind of remembering is as Frederick Buechner speculated:  ““Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that: to render the distinction between past, present, and future ultimately meaningless; to enable us at some level of our being to inhabit that same eternity which it is said that God himself inhabits.”

May those we have remembered this morning rest in peace and find eternal love in the arms of God.  Amen.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Acts 4:32-35 "It's No Joke"

         There was a tailor named Mendel who was worried about his business and family/work balance.  You see, Mendel was down to his last $50 and was torn between buying a sign for the business and getting food for his family.  Rather than continuing to agonize over such an important decision, Mendel decided to pray.
“Dear God,” he said, “I do not know what to do. If I buy a sign, it may bring in business, but I need to buy groceries for my family…and if the sign does not bring in sales, we will starve.
God replied, “Mendel, buy the sign. Do not worry, your family will not starve.”
So, Mendel the tailor bought the sign, and business took off.  He fed his family, and all was well. 
However, as time passed, Mendel could not  keep up with all the orders flooding in just by himself. He contemplated hiring a helper but wondered if he could afford it.  So, he turned to God again and asked God if getting help would be a prudent move.
“Go ahead,” God told the tailor. “Hire some help; you will do okay.”
And so Mendel did. And his business took off beyond his wildest dreams. In fact, after a time, the tailor decided to move to a larger site that would accommodate the growing demands of his business. As he surveyed various locations, he found a perfect storefront, but the rental price was really steep.
“God” Mendel prayed once more, “I found the perfect place to relocate my tailoring business. But the cost of the lease worries me. I certainly do not want to get in over my head.”
“Go ahead and a get a lease on the store, Mendel,” said God. “Trust me, you will be okay.  I haven’t steered you wrong yet, have I?”
So Mendel the tailor signed a lease on an expensive 5th Avenue storefront in the heart of the high tone shopping district in Manhattan.   The move was a smashing success for the tailor, and he was deeply thankful to God.  And so, out of heartfelt gratitude, Mendel the tailor proposed that he dedicate the store to the Almighty.
“How do you like the name “Yahweh and Mendel,” the tailor asked.
“Nah,” God said. “Let’s go with ‘Lord and Taylor.'”
Just like last Sunday, that was a joke to get us in the mood to talk about money – and to remind us in a backhanded sort of way that money is no laughing matter in the church nowadays.  In fact, it is a most uncomfortable theme for worship.  However, as we noted a week ago, autumn is stewardship season here and in many churches -  and, just as hunters this time of year go after deer, we in the church go after money.
However, last week, I as your pastor did not try to pick your pockets or guilt-trip you into making a financial pledge to our church.  Rather, I talked about your spiritual commitment to the courageous vision that is emerging.  
Do you remember what that vision is?  That we will maintain a building that is accessible to all and so can welcome all people.  That we will both encourage the arts and feed the hungry. That we will enhance communication and programming among community groups. That we will support the aging and elderly.  That we will worship a God that is still speaking in our world today.  
         Similarly, this morning, I promise not to overtly persuade you to empty your wallets.  Trust me:  it will not be like the two men who were marooned on an island in the middle of nowhere.  One man paced back and forth terribly worried while the other man sat back sunning himself as if he did not have a care in the world.  
Finally, the first man said to his companion, “Aren’t you afraid that we will never be rescued?  Aren’t you afraid that we could die out here in the middle of nowhere?” 
“No, not at all” said the second man confidently.  “You see, I make $10,000 a week and tithe faithfully to my church. It’s Stewardship Month there. My Pastor will find me.”
That too is a joke to keep our spirits up as we look closely at the significance of those most uncomfortable verses we just read.  Share everything?  Hold all things in common?  Give until it may hurt but then keep giving?  
As Methodist pastor John Holbrook queries:  Is this ”a rich call to Christianity or a dangerous call to the life of socialism?  Christianity at its most demanding or Karl Marx on steroids?  Or neither?  Or both?”
Before we make any rash judgments, let’s take a look at the origin of this passage.  Put bluntly, these verses describe what it was like to be part of the early Christian church.  
Now understand that the word “church” is probably a misnomer – or at least could be confusing for us 2000+ years later.  The early church was not a sacred building, nor was it professional pastors bedecked in robes and colorful stoles.  It was also neither boards and committees nor five year growth plans.  The early church was a loose association of small communities, house churches we frequently call them, that were scattered around the eastern Mediterranean. 
What made these newly born faith families so remarkable was that everyone who joined them did so because they had experienced something amazing, and their lives had been transformed.  Something had given them a joy and a hope they had never imagined possible.  
Those newfound emotions had become the central focus of their lives – even more important than material possessions and worldly success and wealth. Because of this remarkable change each of them had experienced, they were exceedingly grateful to the God who had made it so.  In short, these were truly grace-filled communities, defined by three characteristics.
The first was unity of purpose.  A courageous vision for God’s dream for a world grounded in compassion and justice held them together in spite of a complicated culture that was often difficult to navigate.  Though they certainly did not agree on everything, they focused on the vision they held in common rather than on what divided them.  
As one blogger I read this week observed, “We know from earlier in (the Book of) Acts that they were very different in many ways – there were rich and poor, locals and foreigners, men and women, old and young, religious and not-so-religious, privileged and oppressed. And this wildly different, weird, unlikely group came together with “one heart and soul.” That is unity for you!
The second characteristic was, as another blogger I read described it, “incredible, selfless, foolish generosity… Luke writes: ‘There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.’”
Most Biblical scholars agree that throwing all of one’s possessions into a common pot was not a requirement in this new faith community.  Rather, it was a grateful response to God for Jesus, who, as we know, embodied in his own person God’s dream for the world.  
Sharing on that scale was joyfully and courageously living out the early church’s calling to care for the poor, which, as we know, was paramount in Jesus’ ministry. 
The early church was not at all like the tiny elderly lady watching a circus side show.  Central to the show was a strongman who demonstrated his power before large audiences every night.  Toward the end of one performance, he pick up a turnip with his bare hands and squeezed from it a few drops of juice.  He proudly and confidently said to the onlookers, “I will offer $1000 to anyone here who can squeeze a single drop from this turnip.” 
The wizzled old lady hobbled up onto the stage. She picked up the turnip and clamped it between her two frail, bony hands. She squeezed – and out came a whole teaspoon of juice. 
The strongman was amazed. He paid the woman $1000, but privately asked her, “What is the secret of your strength?”
“Practice,” the woman answered. “I have been treasurer of my church for forty-two years!”
Sharing one’s wealth in order to lift the needy out of their downward spiral was a communal attitude of gratitude in the early church. An atmosphere of thanksgiving and personal responsibility demonstrated that the community was living out its call to be all that Jesus stood for.  
The third characteristic of the early church was its proclamation.  Our blogger continues, “They are proclaiming Jesus’ death and resurrection, but not just that! They are proclaiming the good news that through Jesus’ resurrection life abounds, spills out and over into our own hope for the future AND into the way we live and are brought to life by God NOW.” 
In the end, then, it all goes back to Easter.  Interestingly enough, these verses we read from Acts is a lectionary passage assigned to the Sunday after Easter, also known in unofficial circles as Holy Humor Sunday, perhaps because of the outrageous claim it makes on us as followers of Jesus.
Baptist pastor F. Scott Spencer writes that “as in our own day, the early church worked out its resurrection faith through regular communal practices, such as baptism, the Eucharist, scripture study, and prayer.”  In addition, the early church engaged in the radical resurrection practice of grand scale sharing we have focused on this morning.
Spencer goes on to say, “Of course, however much we might admire this radical…practice of the early Jerusalem church, we may also pity, even decry, their shortsighted, impractical economic vision.. (After all, they believed that they would live to see the end times and the consummation of God’s promises.)…Turns out they were in it for the long haul, or at least a longer haul than they expected. And the clock is now ticking well past the 2000-year mark. It is all too easy, then, for us not simply to pity the early church's practice, but to dismiss it altogether.”
However, I think these verses are significant as we reflect on our church.  Could the same three signs of grace that characterized the early church (unity of purpose, foolish generosity, and bold proclamation) define us too?
I think so.  Look around, and you will see tiny glimmers of such grace:  a bit of unity of purpose, a tad of foolish generosity, a whisper of a bold proclamation.
The siding project is our unified commitment to our town to maintain the biggest community space outside of the schools.  Hopefully, we will soon embrace handicapped accessibility, so that everyone feels welcome here.  
We encourage the arts through our partnership with the Raymond Arts Alliance, and we fill hungry stomachs  with our Thanksgiving baskets and at the Table of Plenty at Maine Seacoast Mission.  In addition, we fill the hearts of those hungry for neighbors and friends at our community friendship meals.  We bring community groups closer as we work with Fire and Rescue to install smoke alarms and to initiate a new program to fund carbon monoxide detectors.  We support the aging through Age Friendly Raymond.  And each Sunday, we continue to worship, not a God who has given us all the answers, but a God who embraces us as peace-makers and justice-seekers, a God who is still speaking in our world today.  All that is unity of purpose!
A tad of incredible, selfless, foolish generosity characterizes us as well when you support our ministries and when you dream of expanding them as I do.  It characterizes us when you give to this church in a way that people around you think you are a bit crazy, but you know you are not crazy, but simply filled with early church hope and joy and promise for the future, simply filled with gratitude for Jesus and all that he stood for.  All that is incredible, selfless, foolish generosity!
And finally, if you listen carefully, you might even hear a certain boldness in our proclamation of who we are as 21st century Christians.  You might hear in a whisper that we are not simply good doobies or model citizens.  We are reminders even now in this jaded cynical world we live in, we are reminders of the promise of the resurrection and the hope of transformation. 
We are reminders that what is dead and dying all around us -  in this church and in this world - really can take on new forms of life.  We are the promise of the resurrection and the hope of transformation in fearful and doubt-filled times.  That is bold proclamation!
Even though the world as we know it teaches us to hold on tight to what we have, God says to us as God said to Mendel the tailor, do not be afraid. Take unified, generous, and bold risks.  Open your hands and hearts – and, dare I say it, your wallets - in order to take care of one another – in order to be unified in purpose, foolish in generosity, and bold in our proclamation that we are the hope of the resurrection in fearful times.  Open your hands and hearts – and, dare I say it, your wallets – in order to be the church.  
Each one of us is part of the promise, is part of the hope – and that is no joke.  So – let us thank God – not just using words but also by sharing what we have – thank the Holy One for the wonder-filled life that this church can offer to us and to it touches. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

1 Timothy 6:17-19 "A Tangled Web"

 The pastor was off in another world one Sunday morning before worship began.  You see, he was thinking about the most effective way, at the end of the worship service, to ask the congregation to pledge additional money to cover repairs to the church building, repairs that were costing significantly more than anticipated.  
On top of all that, the regular pianist was sick, and a substitute had been brought in at the last minute. Having received no direction from anyone, the substitute wanted to know what to play. 
          “Here:  Take this copy of the bulletin.  The hymns are all listed,” the pastor said impatiently. “However,  you will need to think of something to play after I make the announcement about the finances.”
            As the end of the service, the pastor made the difficult declaration.  He said, “Brothers and sisters, we are in great financial difficulty here at church.  The roof repairs cost twice as much as we expected, and we need an additional $4,000.”
The preacher paused for a long moment before he made the ask.  “Any of you who can pledge $200 or more, please stand up.”
There was silence.  Parishioners looked down at their bulletins or intently picked pieces of lint that were invisible to the human eye from their jackets and sweaters.
It was at that very moment of deep discomfort that the substitute pianist broke the silence and launched into “The Star-Spangled Banner” – and the money problem was solved.
         That is a joke – unless, of course, you take a knee when the National Anthem is played.  But really, joke or no joke, money is not a laughing matter in most churches nowadays.  The story we tell is that there is just not enough of it.  
And so, particularly around this time of year, we talk about money in church.  Part of the reason, I suppose, is because in many churches – ours included - the stewardship season is unleashed in the fall.  And so, similar to those outdoor folk who hunt for deer and turkey and moose, here in the church, we hunt for money .  
However, there is more to this money talk in church.  You see, Jesus spoke about money during his ministry a lot. In fact, more than 25% of the 40 parables he told had to do with money or used the concept of money to point to a profound spiritual truth. 
Jesus spoke about money more than he spoke about prayer and faith combined.  What is more, congregations and leaders of the early Christian church followed his lead. And so it should come as no surprise that the author of this first letter to Timothy focuses in the verses we just read on money, wealth, material possessions, riches - and the impact all of them has on each one of us. 
 One blogger I read this past week had this to say about the background of the author’s advice to Timothy.  Do you remember Timothy?  He was the young and still wet-behind-the-ears pastor who had been left in charge of the small church in Ephesus.  He was currently having trouble with false teachers.  
The blogger writes, “One thing that characterized these false teachers was that they thought they could get rich from their teaching. They were first-century versions of televangelists; they were people who said, ‘If you give me your money, the Lord will bless you with whatever you want!’
This kind of teaching was appealing to people then, just as it is appealing to people now, because it is a half-truth. Sometimes God (seems to) reward us financially. But (God) never promises to do that (and certainly not that all the time) because that is never the point. The point is we should be more interested in the Giver/God than in the gifts (the Giver) gives.”
In addition, Timothy had to contend with the close association between wealth/money and politics at the time in the Roman Empire.  As university professor Christian Eberhart writes, “For the most part, riches could only be acquired through continuous cooperation with the Roman administration. Those who were rich, therefore, usually supported a system that oppressed the vast majority of the population for the benefit of only few at the center of the Empire. Being a counter-cultural movement, early Christians opposed this system and envisioned a more equal distribution of material resources.” 
Money wove a tangled web back in Jesus’ day and in the early church – and that web is no less tangled today.  Our personal relationship with money goes way back.  For each one of us, it has a history as big as our family tree and as expansive as the culture in which we were raised.  
Perhaps we were brought up believing that we were poor with no choice but to live paycheck to paycheck, and consequently no room existed for generosity and compassion.  Perhaps we were taught early on the 80-10-10 rule (spend 80%, save 10%, give 10% away). 
Either way – or somewhere in between – money and how we use it is part of our persona, part of who we are as human beings.  Where we have come from is so important as we develop spiritual practices for dealing with money going forward.  You see, in the end, our values and our fears define our relationship with money.  
Methodist worship consultant Marcia McFee reminds us that Jesus preached that the choices we make about money have profound spiritual implications.  How we navigate the web of the money system we find ourselves in deeply affects our sense of Christian call and our ability to use that money for good. 
And so this coming week, I encourage you, as Christians, to think about and talk with whomever you are closest to about your money web – its history, the values it reflects, and the spiritual practices you have, up to this point, developed around it. It will be a difficult conversation, to be sure, because here in the church, we simply do not like to talk  - even to ourselves - about money.
In their book, Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life. authorsMaggie Kulyk with Liz McGeachy, write this:  “We want to be honest and engaged with our money but also spontaneous and trusting; involved but fluid; living in the present moment but not in denial about the future. Balance is possible in relationship to this thing we call money, but it’s not easy to attain. If fact, working on these issues is like holding a knife by the blade. Money will bring out some of the best and the worst in us, but this is of course what makes it such a rich and important spiritual practice.” 
         In his ministry, Jesus embodies God’s dream for the world – that it be fully immersed in mercy, compassion, and justice.  And so he rails against economic inequality, exclusion based on health and welfare, and looking the other way in the face of poverty and injustice. Likewise he calls us as his followers to create a “courageous vision” for ourselves and for our churches, a vision that cannot help but, as McFee states, “transform our money practices to align with our values.” 

         And so we come full circle to those verses in the letter to Timothy and the brief words of advice the author provides about wealth.  The advice is not just about the dangers of money either. It is also about that better path we are called to take, the path that reflects the Gospel message and lies at the heart of Christianity.  

         First, the author writes, do not place your hope for the future in your finances, which are so uncertain.  Now, any of us who watched big chunks of our 401Ks evaporate in 2008 or who today carefully listen to NPR’s Marketplace, hoping to glean any economic signs that might point to recession:  we know about financial uncertainty.  Instead, the author advises, rather than putting your great high hope in the vagaries of the stock market, put that hope for the future in God’s dream for the world.  Put your hope in justice, in compassion, in radical hospitality. Put that hope in a courageous vision.

Second, the author of this letter to Timothy advices, be generous and share with others.  Pretty straightforward!  

Third, do numbers one and two (place your hope in God’s dream and share generously), and your life will begin to be as God meant for it to be.  If you intentionally do numbers one and two, you will understand what living a wonder-filled life is like.  You will experience a life  overflowing with love and grace and peace.  

What the author of the letter to Timothy is trying to tell us is that a wonder-filled life will not be found in an obsession with wealth and possessions.  It will only really be found when we are pursuing God’s dream, when we are looking outward in faith rather than inward with fear, when we open our hands, our hearts, and our wallets – and live trusting that there will be enough to go around.

         OK – I know what probably some of you are thinking.  It is along the lines of what one Presbyterian blogger I read this week wrote, “It's very tempting for us to say, ‘Well, (the author) must be speaking to someone else other than me, because I'm not rich.’”( Did that maybe cross your mind?)
The blogger goes on to say: “We (imagine) some secret boundary which we have not crossed in terms of personal wealth that constitutes ‘rich.’ But let me just remind you of one thing: the one in our midst (here today) who has the least has more than the wealthiest person who first heard this letter read in his own congregation. 
We live in the most affluent society, the most affluent culture, in the history of the world. And we are among the wealthiest Christians in the history of the world, and the least of us has more than those who had the most in this congregation when (the author) first wrote to Timothy.
So God's words are for all of us, no matter how little we relatively have in comparison to some others in our community, or even in this congregation. Paul's words are for all of us.”  Enough said!
Where and how we spend our money says volumes about our priorities and values.  Not sure what those are for you?  Look at your checkbook register or your bank statement.  There you will find that your priorities and values are all listed.  
As blogger Kevin Pierpoint stated, “ Chances are if you hang on tightly to a small amount money, you’ll do the same if given a larger amount, and if you’re careless with what you have you’d be careless with a lot of money.”
         In the next few days, you will be receiving that annual stewardship letter.  It will ask you to prayerfully consider your role in the courageous vision emerging at our church here in Raymond.  
What is that vision?  That we will maintain a building that is accessible to all and so can welcome all people.  That we will both encourage the arts and feed the hungry. That we will enhance communication and programming among community groups. That we will support the aging and elderly.  That we will worship a God that is still speaking in our world today.  
As you decide how you will support – not this church’s budget – but rather its ministries and its programs, ask yourself these questions:  Do you give out of obligation or because you believe your gift serves this church’s courageous vision? Does this courageous vision serve the wider community? Do you give freely or with hesitation? Does giving make you feel joyful or afraid? To what extent is your giving about gratitude – gratitude for this church, for the transformative power of Jesus’ message, for all the blessings God had bestowed upon you?  To what extent is your giving simply an act of sharing what you have because that is the right thing to do?
         As many of you know, I admire Presbyterian pastor and theologian Frederick Buechner.  And so I will end this sermon with his words about money:
         “The more you think about money, the less you understand it. The paper it's printed on isn't worth a red cent. There was a time you could take it to the bank and get gold or silver for it, but all you'd get now would be a blank stare.
If the government declared that the leaves of the trees were money so there would be enough for everybody, money would be worthless. It has worth only if there is not enough for everybody. It has worth only because the government declares that it has worth and because people trust the government in that one particular although in every other particular they wouldn't trust it around the corner.
The value of money, like stocks and bonds, goes up and down for reasons not even the experts can explain and at moments nobody can predict, so you can be a millionaire one moment and a pauper the next without lifting a finger. Great fortunes can be made and lost completely on paper. There is more concrete reality in a baby's throwing a rattle out of the crib. There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up.
Jesus says that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they're kept out of the place, but that they're so out of touch with reality they can't see it's a place worth getting into.”
Maybe the way we begin to untangle this web of money is by first looking inward at the ways it has strangled us – and then looking outward at the ways it can lay a strong foundation for making God’s dream for the world and the courageous vision for this church a reality.


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15 "Faith and Risk"

         If the Israelites thought they had been through the worst already in their 800 years of history as God’s Chosen People, they were in for a gigantic surprise.  You see, they were about to hit rock bottom, a place toward which they had been dangerously cascading for some time now.  Not that they should not have been prepared for the inevitable!  
After all, Jeremiah, the prophet of Yahweh, had been warning them about their upcoming destruction for years now.  Everyone knew Jeremiah as the prophet of doom and gloom, and he had been preaching words of judgment and despair for most of his career as a mouthpiece of God.  
In fact, the first half of the Biblical Book of Jeremiah is full of the prophet’s warnings and dramatic symbolic actions to get the attention of the Jewish people.  The shattering of a clay pot is perhaps the best known one.  
And now Babylon, the imperial power of choice at the moment in the ancient world, was threatening the complete destruction of Judah – just as Jeremiah had said.  It finally seemed obvious that the handwriting was on the wall. 
         The historical prologue that we just read in the opening verses of this passage – the first of these verses with some of those strange and hard to pronounce names – places this particular prophetic declaration in 588 BCE.  The date is significant and corresponds to the second siege of Jerusalem shortly before the eventual fall of the Holy City, the epicenter of Jewish culture and thought.
         Baptist pastor Calvin Miller describes the situation like this:  “The city was encompassed with soldiers. It would soon fall. The siege had gone on for a couple of years by this time, and the people were starving in the streets of Jerusalem. There was not enough water! There was not enough food! Typhus and death were reigning in the streets.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Jewish King, Zedekiah, did not at all warm to Jeremiah’s despondent and disheartening announcements.  When the king desired light, Jeremiah preached darkness.  When he wanted happy thoughts, Jeremiah spoke words of despair. When he insisted on emphasizing a rosy future, Jeremiah shattered clay pots and declared the worst.  And that is why the old prophet found himself in prison for treason, insurrection, and prophesying that Zedekiah himself would fall victim to the Babylonian onslaught.  Jeremiah was a loser among losers, imprisoned by a loser king.
 Of course, the prophet’s prediction was not farfetched, what with the Babylonian army having camped outside the city gates for a couple of years now.  And then, in 587 B.C., Jerusalem finally fell and became (as Miller described) “the habitation of wolves and jackals — a city of tumbleweeds and stark, empty streets.”
That is the setting for this extraordinary story that we read this morning.  It is a story of such great high hope in the midst of such overwhelming darkness, and it is difficult to find its equal in all the pages of the Bible.  
We find Jeremiah sitting in his dank prison cell when his cousin, Hanamel, approaches him, giving him the absurd option of purchasing a plot of land, acreage that is currently occupied and ravaged by the Babylonian army outside of Jerusalem – at full price, no less.
         Now, we all know about land deals – Florida swamps and Brooklyn Bridges.  I remember when Joe and I were looking for land here in the Lakes Region, so that we could build a house and be closer to this church and my ministry here.  We eventually found our Little Farm in Naples, as you know, but prior to that, we looked at dozens of parcels of land.  
Each one sounded terrific – forested, gently rolling, excellent drainage, butterflies and acres of wildflowers every summer.  What, of course, we found out as we looked at these parcels was that they were not all they were cracked up to be.  
One was situated next to a working quarry.  Another had dicey sounding neighbors. Yet another was advertised as 50 acres with all the natural world amenities.  However, it turned out to have a tiny amount of road frontage, and the 50 acres stretched backward from there, forming a very long and very narrow rectangle that encompassed a fair amount of swampland.  
Land purchases are risky ventures.  And we all know about the number one maxim in assessing real estate value – location, location, location.  Anyone with half a brain would understand that the deal offered to Jeremiah was completely ridiculous!  Who would ever purchase land trampled and laid waste by an army?  Land that was currently occupied by a foreign power and would be so occupied for – how long?  Possibly forever?
And yet, in spite of all that common sense was screaming at him, Jeremiah buys the land at Anathoth - despite what every real estate investor worth his or her salt would have advised him.  He signs and seals the agreement and weighs out the purchase price, which ends up being seventeen pieces of silver – not an insignificant amount.  
Then he orders the deed and its copy to be placed in a clay jar – rather like the Dead Sea scrolls – in order to be preserved for generations to come.  Finally, he issues a reminder: that the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, Yahweh, has said that houses, fields, and vineyards will once again flourish on this very plot of decimated land – and, of course, with God, all things are possible.  In prophetic literature like this, symbolic action was a common way to convey the Word of God.  And this act of Jeremiah, this land purchase that logic and rationality would say was sheer folly, is no exception.
I find it fascinating that Jeremiah specifically mentions a vineyard in his final reminder.  As Franciscan Brother Garret Galvin remarks, “Few things speak more hopefully about the future than a vineyard. Vineyards take a number of years before they are able to reward their investment. This is not a short-term investment or a quick fix financially. Jeremiah definitely looks to the future here.” Jeremiah’s great act of courageous faith was not for himself, but for future generations.
And so, in the middle of the catastrophic events that swirled about the prophet and the people of Judah, when the world seemed so dark, despair so close, and the end of everything they knew so near, once again, God/Yahweh injected hope through the prophet’s symbolic action of buying the land.  Jeremiah put his money where his mouth was – quite literally.  In doing so, he outlined the beginnings of a new reality that could hardly have been envisioned previously.  
Presbyterian pastor Frank Yamada sums up Jeremiah’s action this way: “Today's passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious and specific financial act, symbolizing God's declaration that judgment and destruction would not have the final word. 
Judah would certainly suffer the judgment that God had announced. Babylon would destroy Jerusalem and Judah and carry off its inhabitants into exile. The prophet, however, activates the future in the present through a symbolic act of purchasing a field. God's people would be restored and would again thrive in the land.”  Yamada goes on to say that “perilous times require the faithful to put into embodied action the hope that God has announced, which is already here, but not yet.”
I think we in our church would do well to embrace this story of Jeremiah’s land purchase as a symbol of courageous faith in the promises of God – and make it our own.  After all, our future is not clearly defined, rosy, and bright.  
We are existing on a deficit budget, one where we have cut expenses year after year, because we have lost some generous contributors to changing family circumstances and because not everyone sees the need to pledge his or her financial support.  Our Sunday morning attendance numbers are down.  We have no Sunday School.  Many of our most ardent volunteers feel burned out and just plain tired.  Some wonder if there even is a future for this church.
And then, this passage from Jeremiah pops up in the lectionary to remind us that God is still speaking.  God is still acting in mysterious ways, God’s wonders to behold.  
How relevant to our situation!  The words in these verses announce to us that this is the time to, like Jeremiah, have faith in God’s promises even when the outlook may seem bleak.  
Faith is an investment in the future. What that future looks like for this church, I do not know.  That being said, I do know that this is not the time to back down or hide or become uninvolved.  This is not the time to let fate take its course, but rather it is the time for faith to lead us.  Instead of focusing on doubt and fear and relying on excuses, Jeremiah knew this was a moment for faith – faith in God but also faith in the Jewish people – and so it is for us.  
Faith is real only when we exercise that faith. Hudson Taylor is accredited with saying it a bit differently, “Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”  Faith is a bold embracing of the future – even in the midst of darkness and the unknown.
There is a story of a man who fell off a cliff.  As he tumbled downward, he managed to grab a tree limb. He hung there and shouted to the heavens, “God, are you up there?”
“I am God. I am here to help,” came the reply.
“Save me, then!” shouted the man.
“Do you really think that I can save you?” queried God.
“Of course, you are God, you can do anything,” the man responded with a note of desperation in his voice.
“Then let go of the limb…” said God.
“WHAT?!” replied the man incredulously.
“I said, if you have faith that I can do anything, let go…I will save you,”  God continued.
The man thought for a moment, pondering his dilemma, and then asked, “Is there anyone else up there?”
         United Church of Canada pastor Stephanie Vermette commented on the man’s situation and, perhaps for some of you, on our situation as a congregation.  She writes, “When there seems to be no hope for the future, when everything seems to go down the drain, when everybody is ready to give up, we receive the promise that God will remain with us.  No matter how bad and crazy things appear to be at any given moment, we receive from God the assurance that the future has something to offer us when we accept the challenge to act courageously.”
God is not done with this church yet.  I truly believe that. And to that end, Caryl Gilman and I are leading worship for the next two weeks on the theme of “brave change.” We want to engage all of you in defining those core values of this congregation that we cannot lose, but also reflecting on what may be ripe for letting go of or changing in order to fulfill our Christian mission in the 21st century.  
We have also invited someone the second week to tell us about her church’s recent journey though brave change.  I hope you will be part of this worship series, and I hope you will invite others who do not often come to worship. This is not the time to hide in the known past.  It is the time to embrace the unknown future.
Where we as a congregation will end up, I cannot say.  However, I can say that I am pretty sure it will be different from where we are now.  I do not know what action our faith will prompt us to take.  However, I do know that, as one blogger I read this week wrote: “to place our ideas and our dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss, to live is to risk dying, to hope is to risk despair, and to try is to risk failure.”  
I also know that faith involves risk, but that faith increases when we become willing to exercise it.  Likewise, I know that light and life and a path forward emerge when we make a radical investment in the future – just as Jeremiah did by purchasing that plot of land.
And finally, I know that Patrick Overton’s wonderful quote might well be our mantra as we move forward to envision our future as a church:  
“When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon, or you will be taught to fly.”