The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14


What words or images come to mind when I say the word “Easter”?

I’m sure at least a few of you immediately thought, “Bunny!” — and that’s ok. But what else comes to mind? An empty tomb? A resurrected body? Joy and lilies and the promise of new life? Maybe that old song, “Victory in Jesus…”

I’ll hazard the guess that none of you quietly whispered, “Martyrdom,” or “Jesus’s last night on earth.” And yet, this morning, five weeks into the Easter season, in which we especially celebrate Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, these are the Bible readings we are given: the killing of the very first martyr, Stephen, and a brief sound bite from Jesus’s last words to his disciples before being arrested and executed. Weird, right? Yet for some reason, within the last few decades a bunch of bishops and pastors and scholars got together and decided that every three years our churches should read these stories during the Easter season. Why might that be?

Well, your guess is as good as mine: which is to say, you can probably reflect on what these readings have to teach us about living in the time after Jesus’s resurrection and come up with some pretty great thoughts of your own. But for me, the fact that these readings come during the Easter season kind of shocked me into thinking about what we expect from God because of Jesus’s resurrection. What do we expect the Christian life to be like? What does it mean for us that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death? Hows does the resurrection affect our lives?

It can be tempting to focus on the parts of the Easter message that we really want to hear: You are saved! Death is defeated! The victory is won! It can be tempting to think that those messages are the whole of Christianity, and then turn the gospel into something like, “Now we can take it easy, because Jesus did it all.” Or “God will give you so much happiness and success.” Preachers have been getting away with that stuff for a long time.

Today’s readings remind us that part of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that we are raised up to be the Body of Christ. Jesus ascended to the Father; we — the church — are here to represent him, to be his presence for one another and for the world, to continue his mission. The reading from 1 Peter tells us this with some metaphors about being living stones “built into a spiritual house.” In the gospel reading, Jesus says it a bit more straightforwardly: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

And the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in particular reminds us of something that it is easy for us to forget in the comfortable times of our lives as American Christians: if we are the Body of Christ, then we are a crucified body. We are a body who has faced ridicule, persecution, and violence for speaking truth, for staying faithful to our God, for caring for those whom others would rather push away.

Jesus’s first disciples could not have forgotten that, even if they’d tried. Even prior to the crucifixion, they knew they were walking a dangerous path with Jesus. And then after the resurrection they faced trouble and persecution, and almost all of them died martyrs’ deaths. And yes, they preached about all that Jesus gave them: peace, healing, power, hope, a sense of mission, forgiveness, love, a more intimate knowledge of God. But they also did not shy away from the fact that being a follower of Jesus cost them dearly, too, in life and in death.

We don’t hear that preached on too often — at least not so starkly; we usually don’t bring that up when we talk about what being a Christian means to us; we hardly ever sing about it. Yet in the last ELCA hymnal — the green one — there was this beautiful, haunting song that captured that truth perfectly:

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down

 

Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.

 

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.

 

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

Being people of the resurrection means that God comes into our lives with peace and with purpose. It means that God messes up our lives by making us part of God’s plan and God’s work in the world — which sometimes means we will have to set aside our own comfortableness or our own desires; which calls us to give more and love more and sacrifice more; and yes, sometimes, this may get risky or painful or even dangerous.

Those first disciples — the ones who kept this whole “Jesus” thing going — knew this well. They were hurt. They were imprisoned. They were killed. And yet through it all they continued to call Jesus their savior. They continued to talk about “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” They waxed poetic about their personal experiences of the love and grace of God in their lives. Something about following Jesus made all their sacrifices worth it.

I’ll confess that even though I’ve thought about this weird phenomemon of the Easter joy and the Easter call to sacrifice  a lot (especially in these last few days, as I’ve tried to come up with a nice pretty bow to tie on to the end of this sermon for you), and even though I often feel a sense of joy in the moments where I have felt called to sacrifice as part of my discipleship…despite all of that, what it is about following Jesus that makes sacrifice worth it is hard to put words to. It’s something of a mystery, by which I mean — something I know to be true, but also unexplainable.

Another martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tried to make sense of that tension between the experience of the gift of grace and the simultaneous experience of the cost of following Jesus in this way:

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”[2]

The closest I can come to explaining it, is that it must have something to do with love. I mean, it almost makes sense to us when a mother sacrifices for her children, because of her love for them.

Maybe, in a similar way, it is the love of God for us and our love for God that fills us with all those wonderful Easter blessings: love, joy, peace, meaning, life — and that same love that makes us part of the crucified Body of Christ, and makes us more willing to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult. Maybe there is not a contradiction there, between the gifts of God and the call to sacrifice — maybe it is just part of the mystery of love…that same mystery of love that caused God to take on flesh and sacrifice for us.

Let us pray. Holy God, in the times where we feel mostly clearly your blessings and in the times when we feel most clearly the cost of following you, may we always know your love, your joy, and your peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, our way, our truth, and our life. Amen.


[1] William Alexander Percy, “They Cast Their Nets in Galillee” (1924), Lutheran Book of Worship, #449.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

Lovestruck Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday in Lent + March 13, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8


 

Today’s gospel is full of things to talk and think about. The thing I’m zeroing in on this morning is an argument about what makes for good discipleship.

Mary poured an abundance of valuable perfume on Jesus’s feet; Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” The narrator tells us that Judas actually just wanted all that money for himself, but the way Judas phrased it was an accusation against Mary: That is not good stewardship. She is not being a good disciple.

This reminds me of another story: a story from the life of Dorothy Day. During the Great Depression, Dorothy helped to begin the Catholic Worker Movement, which sought to give a voice to those who were suffering from poverty, poor working conditions, and discrimination, and to minister to their needs. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality sprouted up all over the U.S., providing food and shelter to those in need. The story I’m thinking of took place in one of those hospitality houses; I’ll share it in the words of an eyewitness. One of her fellow Catholic Workers remembered:

One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”[1]

Dorothy and Mary both gave extravagantly, but not in what we’d say was the wisest or most reasonable way. Maybe that’s because they weren’t driven by being wise or reasonable so much as they were driven by love.

A discipleship driven by love is the kind of discipleship we see modeled and lifted up in today’s scripture readings.

To help us understand that kind of discipleship, I want you to think about a time when you fell in love. Like, really fell in love. The kind of love that makes you a little crazy, the kind of love that changes the way you want to spend your time, that reorders the things you care about, that makes you rethink the plan you’ve had for your life.

Maybe you’re thinking about a romantic love. Most of us have probably been there: those times in life when you’re totally distracted because you can’t stop thinking of that special someone, when you’d drop everything just to spend time with them. That’s the kind of love that leads us to commit to marriage, to building a life with another person.

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you felt at the birth of a child. Recently a friend told me about how having her first child totally changed her life, not just in terms of her responsibilities and how she spent her time, but also in terms of her desires, what she wanted to do with her life. Until then she had been all about her career, doing this job she loved; but then her daughter was born, and, she said, “I didn’t really care about work anymore. All I wanted to do was stay home and take care of this little person. I’d never thought that would happen.”

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you feel in a deep friendship. I always thought that when I finally had a paying job and vacation time, I’d want to go see all these cool places; now I’m realizing that what I actually want to do with that valuable vacation time is go visit my roommates from divinity school or my friends from college. And when my dear friend Shelly is in town, I will drive in Nashville rush hour traffic and stay up till three in the morning just to get every minute of time with her that I can.

There is a kind of love that has even greater impact on the way we see the world and the way we move in the world than reason does — and that’s the kind of lovestruck discipleship I’m talking about.

We see that kind of love in the Apostle Paul in this reading from Philippians. Paul described what his life had been like: he cared about his status as part of God’s chosen people; he cared about keeping the Jewish laws; he cared about protecting his faith and his culture from this upstart group of Jesus-followers. But then he encountered Jesus Christ, and everything changed. He said that all those things that used to be most important to him…not only were they less important in light of Jesus, they were nothing. They were less than nothing. Paul said he came to regard them as loss, as rubbish, as something to be thrown away in his pursuit of Christ. That is a life changed by love.[2]

And he wrote about Jesus in the language of a lover. His words are dripping with longing: longing to know Christ and to be with Christ. He was willing to suffer for Christ. All of this sounds like it could also come from the lips of Romeo (if only it were written the right poetic meter). In fact we have copies of four “romance novels” from around the time of Paul, and one of them contains a phrase that sounds like it would be right at home in Philippians; one lover says to another: “I have forfeited all things that I might gain you.”[3] And throughout his letters Paul uses marriage as a metaphor to talk about the church’s relationship to Christ and Christians’ relationship to one another as people bound together in Christ. Paul is a disciple in love with Jesus, and he encourages the Philippians to imitate him (Phil. 3:17).

We also see that lovestruck discipleship in Mary. She pours out her costly perfume on Jesus’s feet, then lets down her hair — which might have been scandalous in a culture that said women ought to cover their hair for the sake of propriety — and she uses her hair to wipe his feet. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for her love-crazy show of devotion. He lifts her up for showing him such love even as he is about to die, for loving him “until death do us part,” for loving him even beyond death, in his burial.

Apparently loving Jesus with reckless abandon was what this Mary was known for in the early church. Earlier in John’s gospel he told another story of Mary and her sister Martha, and how Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. To clarify exactly which Mary he was talking about (we all know there are a lot of Marys in the gospels), John wrote, y’know, the Mary “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (Jn. 11:2). This is before he’d even told the perfume story.[4] And you probably remember Mary from another story, from the Gospel of Luke, where Martha was running around playing hostess while Mary sat devotedly at Jesus’s feet. (Jesus says that she is the better disciple in this story, too.)

In so many places in the Bible this lovestruck discipleship is held up as the model to follow as we grow in our discipleship. Maybe that is because loving Christ like that comes close to loving God like God loves us. Throughout the Bible we hear that God loves us like a parent, like a lover, like a friend. God loves us with the kind of love that breaks God’s heart when we are unfaithful; God loves us with the kind of love that drives God to forgive us.

In Jesus Christ we see just how recklessly and foolishly God loves us: that God would become human, that God would become like a slave out of love for us, that God would go to the executioner’s block for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Like lovestruck Mary lavishly poured out her perfume, lovestruck Jesus lavishly poured out his life.

That reckless, lavish love is the foundation Jesus gave us for the Christian life. It is the model for our discipleship, for how we ought to love God, and for how we ought to love one another. It is the untamable basis for our ethics, our decision-making. It’s not necessarily wise or reasonable — at least not by the world’s standards (1 Cor. 1:18-31). But it is the way of the cross, the way of amazing grace, the way of God.


 

[1] Jim Forest in an interview with the U.S. Catholic, November 2010 (Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 18-21). Found online at http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2011/09/work-hard-pray-hard-dorthy-day-and-thomas-merton Accessed March 12, 2016.

[2] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14,” Working Preacher, March 13, 2016. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776

[3] Quoted by David Fredrickson in his course Philippians and Corinthians, Luther Seminary, Fall 2013; lecture on September 10, 2013. Much of this sermon is inspired by Fredrickson’s lectures and his book, Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[4] Pointed out by Susan Hylen in “Commentary on John 12:1-8”, Working Preacher, March 17, 2013. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582

Overflowing Cups

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 17, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Many of you know that I have not been a lifelong Lutheran — at least not in church attendance. (In terms of beliefs, I think I have always kept pretty close.) I was baptized in an ELCA congregation, confirmed in a Missouri-Synod Lutheran congregation, and worshipped with many other denominations in high school and college. I joined the ELCA while I was in divinity school.

All of that biographical information is just to introduce this story: one of the congregations I worshiped with from time to time while I was in college was a Quaker meeting house in St. Paul, MN. We met in a very simple room, with chairs arranged in a big circle. And then, together, we sat in silence for an hour. The idea is for each person to listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. If the Spirit moves you to speak to the group, you stand up and speak. Sometimes no one speaks at all; at other meetings there may be many speakers.

At one meeting I attended, a very elderly woman spoke. She couldn’t stand for very long, so she spoke from her seat. She told us about one of the strongest happy memories from her childhood: when she and her siblings would get a few cents from their parents and go down to the ice cream shop. The shop owner would always pack as much ice cream as he could into her little cup. That, she said, was where she first learned the meaning of the phrase “my cup overflows.” It was a very literal experience of that image from the Shepherd’s Psalm.

Then she gave more examples of how her “cup overflowed” in different ways throughout her life, talking more figuratively: children who grew up and established their own lives; the strength to get through difficult illnesses; faith that filled her life purpose.

wine_glass_splash

Philip Serracino Inglott via Wikimedia Commons

 

A theme overflowing cups, of feasts, of shared bounty is threaded through the Bible. In the histories of the Israelites the promised land is referred to as “a land flowing with milk and honey” — two rich, luxurious foods flowing freely for everyone to eat. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov. 9:5); in many other places, Wisdom is described as a gushing fountain (e.g. Prov. 18:4).[1] The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters: and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

We see overflowing cups and feasts in Jesus’s ministry. There are literal examples: like when a few fish and loaves produce enough food for thousands, and there are leftovers (e.g. Jn. 6:1-14). And there are figurative examples: like when Jesus tells a foreign woman that what he has to offer is only for Israel, and she responds “But even the dogs get the crumbs from under the table,” and then Jesus heals her daughter, letting his blessings overflow from Israel into the nations (Mark 7:24-29).

Saint Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that the Lord’s Supper ought to be a feast for everyone to enjoy equally (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In the Gospel of John, the very first miracle Jesus performs in public is literally an overflowing cup. At a small town wedding the hosts are about to be deeply embarrassed in front of all their friends and family, because they didn’t prepare enough wine for the feast. But Jesus saves them from disgrace by producing another 120 to 180 gallons of good wine. Overflowing cups all around!

And this miracle is an example of very generous sharing in another way, too. When Mary suggests that Jesus step in and fix the wine problem, Jesus says, “Why is that our problem? My time has not yet come.” Despite the fact that he had planned to start revealing his divinity at a later time, Jesus doesn’t hold back when a friend is in need. He overflows.

I’ve been talking about this turning water into wine as a miracle, but the Gospel of John doesn’t call it a miracle. John calls it a “sign,” and that’s the word he uses for all of Jesus’s displays of power. He emphasizes that they are more than miracles; they are signs telling us who Jesus is. Jesus is God, the Son of God, come to earth.

But what does that mean? What are the details? What exactly does God-on-earth look like? What does he do?

One thing we see is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who makes cups overflow, who shares a bounty so large that those who receive cannot help but share it, too. We see that not only in the wedding at Cana, but also in many other places throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus tells the woman at the well that he gives living water, water that becomes a spring inside of each person who drinks, so that the water of life is always gushing up (Jn. 4:13-14). After the sign of the fishes and the loaves (Jn. 6:1-14), Jesus tells the crowds: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35).

In the end it turns out that all this talk of literal cups overflowing, literal water, literal bread…all that is figurative. And the literal point is this: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). Or, in the words of a letter from John, “We love because he first loved us.”[2] Christ’s love for us is so bounteous that we cannot contain it. We overflow. We love others because of how fully he loves us — and because of how fully he loves everyone (Jn. 3:16).

The whole “overflowing cup” thing sounds beautiful and easy when we say it like that: God loves me, so I love others. God has made my cup overflow, and so I can’t help but share with others. It gets more difficult when it hits the ground, when we ask just how we should overflow with the love of God.

It is difficult, because overflowing with the big, wide love of God means we cannot be isolationists. I can’t love just myself, or just my family, or just the people who share my ideas, my way of life, my traditions. All of that is hard enough, but Jesus took this “overflowing cup” thing much further than that. He said we are to give and borrow to everyone who asks of us; we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who are out to get us (Matt. 5:38-48). These are some of the toughest words ever spoken.

Tomorrow our nation commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr., a man we remember for trying to put Jesus’s toughest words into action. He preached and worked and protested so that all people would be treated equally as people created by God and loved by God. First he focused on establishing greater equality for people of color in the Civil Rights Movement; and when he saw that improvements in civil rights did not improve the economic, material situation of the people, he began the Poor People’s Campaign to help raise people out of the degrading conditions of poverty. Even when he was insulted, attacked, and threatened, Rev. King strove to obey Jesus’s command to love our enemies, and he remained committed to the path of nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers us one inspiring, concrete example of how a cup can overflow.

Today, I challenge each us to think of just one new way that we can let our cups overflow, one new way we can be a little more generous with what God has given us. Listen, not just to me, but (like a Quaker in a meeting), listen for the Holy Spirit — what is one new way God is calling you to let God’s love flow? And then let that be your intention for this new year.

Maybe we can be more generous with our words: speak more kindly to those around us, or speak more kindly about those we disagree with, or stand up for others when they are being insulted or misrepresented. Politically, we can speak up for those who are in need of help.

Maybe we can be more generous with our attention: giving more time to our families, calling a relative or friend on the phone to see how they’re doing, visiting someone who is sick, volunteering, listening to someone with a different opinion and really trying to understand them.

Maybe we can be more generous with our forgiveness: for others, and for ourselves.

There are endless ways for us to love one another as Christ has loved us, to let our cups overflow with grace upon grace upon grace.

As you listen for what the Spirit is saying, please pray with me that God will be with us and fill us with the love we need in order to better love others. This prayer comes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us pray.

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.[3]


 

[1] Sharon H. Ringe writes about “Wisdom’s Bounty” in Wisdom’s Friends: Communitiy and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). pp. 60.

[2] Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John and the letters 1, 2, and 3 John came from the same early Christian community. They share many themes and values in common.

[3] Taken from a published collection of King’s prayers: Thou, Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits,” ed. Lewis V. Baldwin, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012). Found quoted online in John Dear’s blog On the Road to Peace: “The Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 15, 2013, http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/prayers-martin-luther-king-jr

Abundance for All

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday After Pentecost + November 8, 2015

Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146; Heb. 9:24-28; Mk. 12:38-44


I have to start off by saying how awkward I felt reading today’s gospel. Standing there in the midst of you all, in my beautiful long robe, and repeating the words of Jesus: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes…” Coming up from my special seat to read, “Beware the scribes, who like to have the best seats in the synagogues…” Proclaiming the faith of that poor widow, who gave everything she had to Temple…from a gold-covered book. I gotta wonder what’s running through Jesus’s mind this morning.

But at least that experience reminds me of my place in this story. I am one of the scribes. I’m educated about religions matters, I wear a collar around my neck that sometimes gains me special privileges, and I sure say a lot of long prayers in public. And — although it still feels weird to say — I have a place of some authority and leadership within the church. Yep, I’m a scribe. And this morning I think Jesus is warning me not to let myself get too much like “those” scribes: those scribes who get caught up in their honor and neglect the people God called them to serve.

There are a few of you out there who share this obvious connection to the scribes with me. But I want to invite everyone to see themselves as scribes in the story this morning: after all, we’re a pretty educated bunch, and Lutheran churches are run by the congregation, so you each have authority and leadership in this place. Plus, we subscribe to the “priesthood of all believers,” which is a reminder that each of you is called by God to a life of service in God’s mission. So, imagine with me that we are all scribes trying not to be one of “those” scribes that Jesus warns people about.

If we’re going to read Jesus’s words here as having a message not just for some Jewish scribes in the first century, but also for us today, I think that message is about faithful leadership and faithful stewardship, and that is something that applies to all of us — fancy robe or not. We are all stewards of what God has given us; we are all part of the miracles God is performing around us.

The Widow’s Mite, Jesus Mafa. (Image from Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s “Art in the Christian Tradition” project.)

This scene at the Temple comes soon after Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. He’s already made a public demonstration against the way the Temple is being run by flipping over some tables, chasing people out of the place, and proclaiming that its leaders have turned it into a “den of thieves” (Mk. 11:12-17). Since then he’s been arguing publicly with the religious leaders.

By the time we get to today’s reading he is once again condemning them in the Temple itself. He accuses them not only of hypocrisy, but of abuse: “They devour widows’ houses,” he says. And then he watches a poor widow give everything she has to the Temple. He points out how much she gives: it looks insignificant, just two small copper coins, but it’s everything to her. The widow is a beautiful image of trust in God and total dedication to God. And the question hangs unsaid in the air: Are the temple leaders doing right by this widow? Are they good stewards of her pure, faithful gift?

The Gospel of Mark continues: As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Remember: these are country bumpkins seeing the sites of the big city for the first time. I hear in this disciple’s voice the feelings of awe I get while standing in the streets of Chicago and looking up at the skyscrapers towering above me.) Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:1-2).

When all these passages are read together, we get a clear message: God is not happy with the way these religious leaders are running things. They are not good stewards of their position, nor of God’s commandments, nor of the faith entrusted to them. They seem to be under the impression that being chosen by God for their position means receiving a greater share in God’s blessings, means deserving the lion’s share of status and wealth.

How often does our culture give us the same message? It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that “God’s abundance” means God gives an abundance to each individual faithful person. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20).  But that’s hard to remember or understand when we’re surrounded by a different message: “Blessed are the wealthy, because…well, look at ‘em!”

But God’s abundance is not for individuals, but for the community. As Bishop Julian Gordy is fond of reminding us, when we see the word “you” in the New Testament, it’s almost always not “you,” but “y’all.” God works through the whole lot of us for the good of the whole lot of us.

So in contrast to the scribes and to the proclamation of our culture we have the story of Elijah and a widow. Elijah is held to be one of the greatest of the prophets. You may remember him from such stories as “Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2). It is written that God will send Elijah back to usher in judgement day, the day the messiah comes (Mal. 4:5-6). So throughout the gospels, when people are trying to figure out just who Jesus is, someone always wonders “Could he be Elijah?” (ex., Mk. 8:27-30). When Jesus is transfigured for a few moments into a glorious, shining figure, Elijah and Moses appear alongside him (ex., Mark 9:2-8). Elijah still holds a very important place in Jewish belief and customs; places are set for him at holy ceremonies like circumcision and Passover. All that to say: Elijah was most definitely a man chosen by God.

But Elijah didn’t enjoy a high standing in his community like the scribes did. And Elijah didn’t have wealth or even comfort. Elijah appeared in the Bible for the first time to announce that God was going to withhold the rain from Israel because King Ahab was running around building shrines to other gods. And of course people were loading up to shoot the messenger, so Elijah went into hiding, where God sent ravens to bring him food. But then the brook that had been his only source of water dried up in the drought (1 Kings 16:29-17:7).

This is the point where we see God work the miracle from today’s readings. But it’s not a spectacular miracle; God doesn’t teach the ravens to make jugs so they can carry Elijah water; God doesn’t make water spring from the dry ground. It’s not even an everyday kind of spectacular miracle, like God sending a rich person Elijah’s way to offer him access to a private well and rich food and a soft bed.

Instead, it is a miracle of unlikely companions and survival. In the midst of a culture war between those who are faithful to the God of Israel and those who worship Canaan’s god, Baal, God sends Elijah to a foreign widow, a woman who in all likelihood had been raised to worship a foreign god. God says, “Go to this woman; I have commanded her to feed you.” The first part of the miracle is that Elijah trusts God and goes to her.

I love to read this part from the widow’s point of view: a foreign prophet of a foreign God shows up in her town and tells her to give him some food. And she clearly didn’t get a warning message from the God of Israel, because, far from having food prepared for this prophet, she seems resigned to starve. She says, “I have nothing. I have just enough to make a last meager meal for myself and my son, and then we’re going to die.”

But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake out of what you have, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The second part of the miracle is that the widow does what Elijah asks. She doesn’t say “Who are you to ask for the first serving of my last meal?” She doesn’t say “Whatever, your God is not my god — why should I do what you say?” Instead, somehow she has faith enough to be generous with her last hope for survival.

And the third part of the miracle is where God is most obviously at work: the meal and the oil do not run out. Again, this is not riches: the jars do not suddenly overflow with milk and honey. But there is just enough supply to keep making bread so that the widow and her household can survive the drought. God gives them their daily bread.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarepheth, Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Both the gospel story and the story of Elijah are examples of God setting people up for miracles. God is putting people and circumstances in place for everyone to benefit from God’s abundance.

In the gospel story, in the Temple, the widow is doing her part in the miracle by giving two small coins, and the richer people are doing their part by giving some of what they have. But many of the scribes are not doing their part in the miracle: they are holding up the flow of God’s abundance, keeping too much of the money and the knowledge and the status for themselves instead of helping it continue to bless more of God’s people.

But in the case of Elijah and the widow, each person steps into the role God has called them to, taking chances in the faith that God will provide. And God does provide: through small miracles and through other people who put their faith into action.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

Reflections on the Charleston Shooting

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday in Pentecost + June 28, 2015

Texts: 2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27; 2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

This Wednesday Presiding Bishop Eaton asked all ELCA congregations to set apart today’s worship as day of mourning and repentance. She calls us all to reflect on the shooting of nine of our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel AME Church, to reflect on our culture, to repent of the ways our society still makes it so easy to treat people of color as though they were a lesser sort of people.

When we talk about these things, we often use the word “equality.” The Declaration of Independence stated “all men are created equal.” Since then many, many groups have fought to make these words into a reality that we all can feel.

St. Paul wrote over and over about our equality in Christ. We just heard one example of this in our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. But the equality Paul described there is not exactly like our usual visions of equality: He did not write, “We must all have equal opportunities,” or  “We must all be treated equally,” or even “God made us all equal.” He wasn’t writing, here, about a fundamental inner equality that we must all recognize — though he did write about that in other places (ex. Gal. 3:28; Phm. 1:15-16). Here, he wrote about our differences and our stewardship of those differences. He encouraged the Corinthians to use their differences in light of their faith that all people are equal in Christ.

Paul’s words are a good guide for us as we reflect on the shooting at Mother Emanuel. We offer some justice to the dead and to those who mourn them when we recognize that there are still differences between people who are black and people who are white in this country. We offer justice when we think about how we can be good stewards of these differences.

In this instance Paul was writing specifically about stewardship of money. He was in the process of gathering an offering for the church in Jerusalem, and he sent Titus to the Corinthian church to gather their donations (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-6). But Paul did not simply ask for money for the church in need; he wrote about why this sort of giving is a necessary part of the Christian life. We might say that today’s reading is his “stewardship drive sermon.”

For Paul, sharing what we have with those in need was just part of living in God’s grace. Take a look at today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. You won’t find the word “grace” printed there in some of the translations. But in the original Greek, the word that means grace — charis — is there. Twice. The first time is towards the end of verse seven: “so we want you to excel also in this grace.” Meaning, this grace of giving to those in need. And it appears again in verse nine: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

You can be a part of the work of Jesus Christ, Paul said to the Corinthians. You can be a part of the action of God’s grace, here and now. All that is needed is good stewardship of what you have been given.

This is where equality comes in. Or, as it says in the NRSV, “fair balance.” For though we are all equal in Christ, the reality of this world is that we are not the same. Some have more than they need, while others live in great need. God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice our abundance to the need of others, just as Jesus sacrificed all the riches and power of being God to meet our need for grace. God gives us the opportunity to balance out the economy of abundance and need so that all have enough. That is the state of equality Paul dreamed of: the use of what we have in response to God’s grace so that all have enough. Good, grace-full stewardship.

We are stewards of much more than our money. We are stewards of all that God has given us: our time, our talents, our words, our whole lives. This morning, we look at our lives through the tragedy in Charleston, and our hearts focus in on other areas of our stewardship.

Over all, let us remember that we are now the stewards of the shooting, of the moment when nine lives were taken. We are the stewards of their deaths. We are the stewards of their memories. We are the stewards of the way this story will be told. We are responsible for whether it will be an isolated tragedy, committed by a single man with his own ideas, or whether it will be a meaningful event, a call to change. We are responsible for whether that horrible moment will be a forgotten tombstone or a patch of ground from which something grows. We are responsible for whether they died in vain.

One way for us to be faithful stewards of this tragedy is to reflect on the ways racism is still active in our culture. Pastor Lippard led the way for our reflection in his sermon last Sunday. We must recognize that the experiences of people who are black and people who are white are not the same. People with black skin live their day-to-day lives in a world where they are more likely to get pulled over for going 61 in a 60 zone;[1] where they are less likely to get called in for a job interview;[2] where they are treated differently by real estate agents;[3] where their children come home from school and wish they were a different color; where they are more likely to be looked at with fear; where when another person of color acts badly, it is going to affect people’s opinion of them; and where their experiences of these prejudices are likely to be dismissed.

These cultural trends have a flip side: that flip side is that those of us who are light-skinned benefit in the places where people of color suffer. If a black person is less likely to get called back for a job interview, the necessary flip side is that a white person is more likely to get called back. This is what is meant by “white privilege.” I’m sure I’m not the only white person who gets defensive when I hear that. But these statements are not about whose fault it is that people of color are treated differently, and it’s not a matter of feeling guilty for our privileges. What matters is that these things are true, that there are consistent differences in the lives of black and white Americans, and that we are stewards of these differences. We, personally, did not take our higher place in society by force, but we decide what to do with it. We decide whether to continue a history of hoarding this status for ourselves, or sharing our riches in actions of grace.

To again quote St. Paul: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (NRSV).

Every day God gives us the opportunity to make this vision of equality a reality. Every day God gives us the opportunity to be good stewards, to give of our abundance to God’s continuing work of grace. We can be good stewards of our conversations and of our responses to any racism we hear from others. We can be good stewards of our own thoughts about others, and even our unconscious impulses to treat others differently, unfairly. We can be good stewards of our relationships by actively welcoming those who are different. We can be good stewards of our children and the way they are learning to exist in the world. We can be good stewards of our vote and our political voices. We can be good stewards of our attention by listening to others with an open heart. We can be good stewards of our own hearts by laying down our defenses and opening ourselves to self-reflection and repentance.

In all these things, we can be good stewards of the grace God has given us in Jesus Christ.

In even our smallest movements toward better stewardship of our words and our actions, we are exercising the power of God. Because even the smallest changes we make in response to the shooting of those nine Christians are an expression of Christ’s victory over death. If we are good stewards of their deaths and of their memories, then we are proclaiming the Christian message: “Death is not the end.” Their death will turn to life: not just their eternal life, but new, full life for those still in this world.

When Cain killed Abel, Abel’s blood cried out to God (Gen. 4:10). Now from the floors of Mother Emanuel blood is again crying out, and God raises its call: Join in the victory over sin and death. Let this world hear us proclaim: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).


[1] See Christopher Ingraham’s “You really can get pulled over for driving while black, federal statistics showWashington Post, Sept. 9, 2014 and David A. Harris’s report for the ACLU, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling on our Nation’s Highways,” June 1999

[2] David R. Francis, “Employers’ Replies to Racial Names,” The National Bureau of Economic Research

[3] George Gonzalez, “Racial and Ethnic Minorities Face More Subtle Housing Discrimination,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, June 11, 2013