[Jesus said:] "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
Does this scripture remind you of an end-times novel? “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world!” Or maybe a zombie apocalypse movie. “On the earth distress among nations confused.” I even scratch my head a bit at the language “The Son of man coming in a cloud.” Just yesterday we flew back from Denver among the clouds-they’re certainly mysterious, but nothing much to them up close. Why this strange language from Jesus to his disciples? Here’s an interesting fact. Jesus is paraphrasing scripture here. Yes, from the book of Daniel. Okay, cool- but here’s what I really want to know: where’s the hope?
In these visions and parables of monumental proportion, what are we to hope for?
Jesus says this: Yes, the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Yes, the Son of Man will be coming in a cloud- telling all who have ears to hear that love wins. Yes, the world as we know it-with its abuse and lies and striving to be better than one another- will be no more. And that’s GOOD news. At least for those who are longing for redemption, people to whom the world has not been kind. It’s good news for anyone in need of a do-over in life. It’s good news if you can’t seem to find the strength to go on alone. Because you aren’t. Jesus’ good news is this: none of us have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps- that’s just a lie the world tells us. The Son of Man is coming- and with him all the glory and power we need in this life. All our grasping for human significance will fade away, for our redemption in Christ is drawing near.
Not only is this scripture NOT an end times novel, okay, it’s not futuristic at all! Here’s why. Immediately after this teaching, Jesus sits down to his final supper with his disciples. The heavens being shaken? He’s talking about tomorrow on the cross. This hope is not some far off fantasy for Jesus- its the motivation that called him to lay down his life. HE became the sign of hope- for a world he believed deserves better than violence. He is the sign of hope for a new kingdom on earth, one fashioned by the Prince of Peace. And that story of redemption begins in a manger.
Whatever you know of Christ’s birth-the story of Christmas in its nostalgic fondness, remember it includes the radical truth that God became incarnate (flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone) so we don’t have to be alone in the struggle. We are worthy enough for God to save us from ourselves- by becoming one of us. A God willing to meet us where we’re at is a God I’m willing to worship.
Friends, I don’t know what your struggle is today, but I know you have one, or two, or a few. I know we all wrestle with fear, with inadequacy, with uncertainty, with our sense of worth. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world;” YES, and if that’s us today, Jesus with a strong and sure voice commands us: be alert and pray so you have the strength to overcome those fears. When I am afraid of what’s to come, here’s what helps me: I believe what Jesus says is true: “The kingdom of God is near.”
“Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In fact, friends, it’s already here. We get to enter the anticipation of Advent knowing how the story unfolds. Jesus creates this eternal realm of hope for each of us to live into today. That’s what the kingdom of God is: a place filled with every hope that life-change is real.
How does it work, exactly, this kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? First- we pray it, and we mean it. Every week we usher in the kingdom of God (a new way of living in love that counters the evil around us and within us). And then we become the answer to our own prayers. This is where you all join the Christmas story: you become the hands and feet, the body of Christ. Where’s the hope? YOU are the hope. YOU are my hope. We are hope in the flesh. And not because we’re super-human enough to do it alone, but because we choose to join Christ in the story of showing up for one another.
So how about it, church? Are you in need of a life change today? Is your heart weighed down by the worries of this life? If advent isn’t a time to embrace hope, when is? Listen, if you can’t seem to muster hope in your soul today, don’t worry. “Stand up and raise your heads,” look around you. We are gifted this beloved community (just like our baptism today affirms) for this very purpose. Holding onto hope for one another, trusting Christ to give us strength, our daily bread.
It was no accident that God entered the world as a baby, vulnerable enough to know the struggle is real. Hopeful enough to know it gets better. Advent is when we begin to see our story of redemption unfold yet again. And we wonder- what hope will it hold for me this year? for all of us?
My prayer is this: That we would find new strength by inviting someone else to hold hope with us this season. This requires sharing something deep of ourselves, asking something deep of another. Reaching out for help can be more of a challenge than the struggle itself. Yet being vulnerable enough to acknowledge the struggle in our lives might also be the path of hope- our journey toward redemption. You are the hope- we are hope in the flesh when we choose to join Christ in the story of showing up for one another. If Advent isn’t a time to embrace hope, when is?
In the same sermon Jesus offers The Lord’s Prayer, which we reverently offer as a holistic reminder of our identity each week, he says this:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Our decisions around money begin forming at an early age. A lot of life does, more than we might admit. So I think it’s interesting for us all to consider what we learned about finances from our families of origin. It wasn’t until I began filling out the FAFSA worksheet for student loans in HS that I paid much attention to my family’s income. We were fairly well-off, but didn’t live extravagantly by any means (I wore hand-me-downs and home-sewn clothes, and we NEVER ordered drinks at a restaurant--the few times we would eat out); but we had a large house, a beautiful acreage, lots of animals- none of that comes without solid income and hard work, I now know.
So this one day, I’m at the computer plugging in numbers for the FAFSA, my dad sitting next to me, and he says something pretty shocking. He and my mom chose to give away roughly 20% of their income each year to ministries and non-profits. 20%! That’s way above the 10% tithe I learned about in the bible! But as I look back at my family’s values, it makes sense. A life of faith was always the highest value in our household- not eating out, not expensive clothes, not the newest shoes. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” To this day, I’m pretty blown away by my parents' convictions around giving; although I strive for similar generosity, I definitely am still not giving 20% away.
Here’s the truth we all must face: Money and other material objects drive SO much of our life decisions-and our values. We also don’t talk about it with each other to the degree it matters to our wellbeing. Talking about what’s enough (and ensuring equitable resources in our communities) and what’s too much (how the weight of hoarding resources is actually bad for our health) just doesn’t happen in ordinary conversation. When’s the last time you shared with someone the percentage of your income you give away each year? When’s the last time any of us attempted to figure that out? The way we use money matters not only to our physical and emotional wellbeing, but to our spirits. Rev. Molly Baskette & psychologist Ellen O’Donnell in their book “Bless this Mess.” say it well: “Money is a deeply spiritual issue, because it has so much power over our feelings and relationships.”
Jesus knows it matters to be clear about the grip of finances and material possessions on our lives; he’s acutely aware of our physical needs, because he had them too, and he wants us all to have “enough,” but not at the expense of losing our wellbeing by having “too much.” In Jesus’ sermon on the mount today, he’s teaching something totally counter-cultural. He’s explaining the paradox of generosity.
Here it is: we humans are not created for hoarding more than we need. That kind of excess actually becomes real spiritual baggage. We have to worry about someone stealing it, or whatever our modern day moths and rust might be. When we hold onto more than we need, we acquire more headaches, more guilt, more trouble.
Jesus offers an alternative to this suffocating way of living in excess- and it’s brilliantly counterintuitive. Give more away and you’ll have more spiritual treasure. The paradox of generosity. I want to acknowledge that some folks find themselves on the other end of the inequality divide in this country- struggling to make ends meet as income trends don't keep up with cost of living. It’s also true in 21st Century America, most of us can spend less and give more away. How? By doing a simple reflection of our everyday practices around money. So let’s do it! Guided by wisdom from Molly & Ellen, we reflect on three basic units of financial health: How we spend, save, and share our money.
First SPEND: Molly & Ellen suggest, “It’s easy to confuse our wants and our needs. It’s easy to buy into the myth of personal financial scarcity when the buzz of advertising reinforces what we don’t yet have. We measure our success by how well we are doing in comparison with (how we imagine) our immediate neighbors. Even our biology works against us: the dopamine hit of retail therapy provides instant gratification, unlike the slow, lasting soul-satisfaction of giving that same $75 to a refugee camp or local shelter.” p. 117
I have no interest in telling you exactly how you ought to spend your money; I can tell you that reflecting on the values your money reveals is worth it. I’ve learned, for example, that eating out can occasionally be a great use of our resources (maybe even buying a drink), because it meets a basic need and allows local service industries to flourish. That’s a value I now hold. I’m curious what examples you might add to this conversation about “spending your values?” Maybe that means supporting local and ethically-managed businesses; maybe your value is caring for the environment, so you frequent Hospice Thrift Store (there’s a shameless plug); maybe for you it means spending on behalf of bringing people together for an event. Whatever your values may be, let’s keep this conversation going.
So what about SAVING: This matters too, right? “How much is enough,” is what Molly & Ellen titled their chapter on finances. It’s a great question. How much do we, the Munger family of four looking toward college, retirement, future unknowns, choose to save? And in what ways ought we save responsibly for the future? These are hard questions with no easy answers, so I’d like to focus on the ethics of our decision-making more than the dollar amount. In the same sermon on the mount we hear today, Jesus also offers this reminder: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”—Matthew 6:34 What I hear in this brilliant sermon from Jesus is a call to release fear from our decision-making. Are we squirreling away every penny we’ve earned for some future catastrophe- in fear of what COULD BE? Are we afraid to give money away, even when our needs are being met, because worry consumes us? Are we saving too much that it’s become a burden to manage and a conflict in family relationships? If fear is driving your decision to save money, perhaps it’s time to revisit the values that guide your saving plan. Jesus wants us to be set free from fear, living into the abundant mindset of faith.
The best for last: what about SHARING: My third-grade SS class, under the direction of my mother, sponsored a child through a ministry program called Compassion International. In my teen years, my sister and I chose to share sponsorship of a young girl from South America through Compassion, because it was a compelling premise: we send money directly to local churches serving the holistic needs of an impoverished community. Like making sure they have a school to attend, shoes on their feet, food for strength, birthday and Christmas gifts for dignity; best of all, they prioritise relationships- ensuring kids who are sponsored get a chance to correspond often with their sponsor families.
I’ve been a sponsor for several kids over the course of 20 years now. Wanna know how I acquired a third sponsor kid in addition to the two I already had? I married AJ! Yes, that was part of my attraction to him- he’s the kind of guy who sponsors a kid? I’m in! So if you’re single, just sayin. Here’s what I’ve gained from 20 years of sponsorship: It’s one of the best ways to refocus my values. Do I really need this new pair of shoes, or could Tiger, my 16 year-old sponsor kid from Thailand benefit more? My values become more obvious with real people’s lives in the balance. I can tell you what settles my soul more than a new pair of shoes- sharing with others.
A large national survey that became the impetus for a book entitled “The Paradox of Generosity” by Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson, “reveals a direct correlation between generosity and joy. Regularly giving of our time, money, and effort makes us less anxious, less afraid, and downright happier.” Do we need more reason than that to believe the paradox of generosity is real?
There is no magic formula for how you and I best spend, save, and share- but you’ll feel the paradox of generosity when it happens. You’ll know deep within that it’s worth investing wisely, storing up spiritual treasures that outweigh material wealth every time. Investing our personal resources for the spiritual good of ourselves, our families, our church, and our world matters. One intentional decision at a time creates a world in which our hearts are truly reflected in our use of money.
Thank you for being the kind of generous community that inspires me to keep reflecting on my own financial values; heck, maybe one day I’ll even reach that 20% giving I learned long ago from my parents. May the paradox of generosity be within each of us in this season of giving. Amen!
Today is All Saints Sunday, a time of powerful reflection on what matters most in life. It’s a day when we allow grief and loss to focus our priorities. What’s this life for, anyway? In our search for meaning, we turn to Jesus in Mark 12: 38-44
“As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
What’s this life for, anyway? Jesus makes this much clear: it’s NOT about keeping up appearances. Oh but how we try anyway; at least that’s what advertisements sell us: the idea that gaining things will give us respect in this world- AND publicly making large contributions to causes will too. Be showy, go big, even if it's at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing. Not unlike the Pharisees, yes? So what is it about this woman, this widow, that Jesus lifts to prominence today? What of her story might move you and I to be more mindful of our life’s meaning?
Jesus says she’s put more into the treasury. That her two small copper coins meant more, somehow, than the larger sums of others. Why? We know faith institutions rely on small and large gifts alike to function. So here’s what we need to know about this woman’s situation. She risked all she had to worship. Her two small coins were a mighty declaration of her God-given right to be in that space...to occupy her place at God's holy table.
You see, it's possible she was one of the widow's whose houses were devoured by powerful religious community leaders. A scribe who said long prayers in public and in darkened corners made rules that stripped this widow of her home and dignity-maybe even her ability to attend a place of worship. The most likely historical situation is either a scribe demanding too much of a tithe to enter the temple OR a scribe mismanaging a widow’s assets, because they had that kind of power.
Here’s what we know for sure: Jesus declares the last shall be first and the first shall be made last over and again in the Gospel. Of this we can be sure: Jesus lifted those oppressed by their lot in life and systems that kept them from rising. And this woman is no stranger to risk; as those coins fall into the box, I can almost hear her thoughts: “I deserve to be here too.” She takes a remarkable risk--her whole life-- for the sake of worship, because she knows her worth in the eyes of God. Because she believes.
And here’s what I love most: Jesus notices her. I sense it’s not the coins so much as the statement she makes. The value she places in being a part of a worshipping community; that is why Jesus honors her and not the scribes seeking public attention.
I struggle at times knowing how best to prioritize my energy, my finances, my time, my patience, do you too? It’s tough with a thousand flashing messages daily consuming our attention. And then I hear a story like this, one that’s stood the test of time- and I KNOW deep within my soul, this is the kind of saint I want to learn from. The kind of woman who embodies generosity and fortitude and a belief that being together in worship is what makes us stronger; a woman who takes risks to confront unjust systems around her. She uses her very presence to counter the hypocrisy she sees in the temple she loves. She shows up to say everyone belongs here, even widows like me.
You are in church today, so I’m guessing you know something of this deep need to worship, to feel closer to your God, to belong. On All Saints Sunday, as we lift the names of our beloved who’ve gone before us, let’s never confuse honor and prestige with belonging. A saint is not made saintly by good works- but by God’s grace alone. And lest we be tempted to pursue honor or prestige like the scribes, we have this saintly widow to guide our way. To remind us our lives were created to worship the one who counts each hair on our head.
Of course we have plenty of saints guiding us. Who’s yours? The person whose life spoke deep and worshipful purpose into your life? I have a suggestion- you can take it or leave it. I would like to receive a letter from you (an email is fine too) sometime this week, about a saint whose life influences your own. I’d love to learn from them too. And I’d love to hear what it is about their being that leads you closer to God’s grace. That kind of living, purposeful reflection and giving of oneself is how our church thrives. It was in the days of Jesus and the widow, and it remains true for me, for you.
Friends, I’m excited about what God is doing among us. Like, really excited. Each year, All Saints Sunday leads us into Stewardship season, when we get to refocus our priorities, to ask the question, “what’s this life for, anyway?” If you find the widow’s answer of worship true for you as well, won’t you look for information in the mail this week about our pledge drive? Won’t you discern with me what of your energy, finances, time, and patience you might like to invest in our worshipping body in 2022?
And as we all consider what we might offer this church’s future vitality, we recall this saint of a widow and her story. It’s not the dollar amount that matters to God, it never is- it's the heart of generosity and risk for the sake of something greater than our own ambition. So this November, let’s set our priorities with generous spirits, giving out of hearts of worship. Amen!
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.