17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Jesus is creating a new standard for what it means to be blessed. The religious elites of his day had convinced themselves that they deserved more than others, because their status in society aligned them closer to God. Maybe because they studied hard. Or because their family lineage was stellar. Or simply because it was their job to pray, to maintain temple standards, to be a visible likeness of God in the world. Have you ever faced that feeling yourself? I’m deserving of what I have, I worked hard, I’m important, I maintain standards. These feelings aren’t inherently bad or even wrong (it’s true- we work hard, right?). It’s when we allow these attitudes to divide us from others that becomes problematic.
How so? Well here’s one poor person you’re pulling away from with that logic. Jesus: He comes from nothing. He is a REFUGE. He doesn’t own a home or land or anything that would make him important in our day. And he is still the SON OF GOD. Jesus comes to set the record straight for you, for me, for anyone who thinks they are more worthy than another because of material wealth. True blessing is found not in earthly wealth or prosperity. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
We know Jesus desires all of us to have enough, not to be poor. He says it like this: I have come so you may have LIFE and have it in abundance. Enough food, enough friends, enough purpose, enough to live fully. I also know Jesus could smell excess a mile away (case in point: those religious elites of his day). You know the problem with having too much? It deceives us into thinking we’re self-sufficient. Maybe we start to believe we don’t even need God. This is the lie Jesus confronts when he preaches to those who are rich. He shakes us free from this false sense of security in earthly wealth. No matter how much we own, it’s never enough to save us; heck, it may even hinder our wellbeing.
I love the gospel; I’m also fascinated by science. As it turns out, Jesus teaches us what science tells us over 2000 years later. Excess wealth is NOT a predictor of happiness.
According to a study called “The Psychology of Wealth” published in 2014 in the Journal of Financial Planning, “The strongest predictor of financial satisfaction is the level of material desires one has, and his or her ability to afford them (Johnson and Krueger). As such, psychological perceptions about financial matters may be more important to life satisfaction than the actual financial matters themselves.”
Or as Fred Rogers says, “It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have.” In 21st Century America, many of us (even in the lower tax brackets) have MORE than any human society in history. It makes a difference to acknowledge that for many of us, what we have IS ALREADY enough.
Even still, income inequality continues to be a real thing. According to research published in a 2009 Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, “ Inequalities in wealth are strongly associated with psychological distress, over and above other demographic variables and baseline health status.”
Fred Rogers offers a remedy: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
What does all this mean? Having enough improves our wellbeing, something Jesus is concerned about. Keep in mind, he’s also concerned about our neighbors, every blessed one of them. Having too much becomes a distraction from what truly matters, if we let it. As humans, the more we have, the better we become at hoarding. We can also become pretty judgy about who is and is not deserving of nice things. I absolutely can.
Jesus comes to set the record straight for anyone who thinks they are more worthy than another because of material wealth. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” If we spend our lives chasing “more,” we will always come up hungry in the end. BUT, if we allow what we’ve been given to flow freely- meeting our needs AND the needs of others around us, we won’t be tempted to hoard. We won’t be deceived by the lie that we are more worthy of wealth than another. Giving in grace saves us from coming up empty-hearted in the end.
Are we Christians perfect at it? Of course not, but the most dedicated and selfless folks I know give freely of themselves and their resources. And they’re also the happiest people I’ve ever met. This church is home to many of you. Thank you for extending yourselves each week for our local non-profits. It’s been such a life-giving experience for me to witness all this generosity. We give to others because we believe what Christ offers us is already enough. Remember, even if others think you’re crazy for living so generously, Jesus says, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven!” Amen and amen.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I often wonder how those early disciples had the guts to drop their lives and follow Jesus. Just like that- the guy predicts where fish might be, and Simon Peter is sold! So are James and John. Sure, Jesus, let’s fish for people! They couldn’t have known what they were signing up for exactly, no one could. But they believed in Jesus, they were compelled by his message. Here it is- it’s the same one he gives us today: “You are worthy of belonging.” Let’s not get caught up in the fishing- or even the miracle Jesus performs. The main truth is that Jesus chooses regular people to do extraordinary things. All the time, even today. And the invitation remains the same: “Come, follow me; not only will YOU belong, we’ll help others believe they belong too.”
When I hear this story in terms of belonging and purpose, I get it. That message compelled me to follow Jesus early in my life. I belong to a God who loves me enough to believe I can make a difference with my life? Yes, please! That’s powerful! And it continues to be the deep truth that compels me into a life of service. The older I get, the more that truth is affirmed. I believe that deep down, none of us actually needs (or even wants) a fancy car or amazing job or all the friends. We simply want to know we belong- that our lives have purpose.
This is all that interior “big feelings” stuff we don’t really make space to talk about much; and we ignore it to our own detriment. As people, and especially as a society. Our sense of belonging and purpose influences a heck of a lot of our decisions. Jesus doesn’t ignore any of that gritty emotional stuff, because he knows sorting out our interior selves is the path to abundant life. That’s salvation at work, friends. And Jesus has paved the way for us, if only we have ears to hear and hearts to believe.
What’s it going to take before you believe that Jesus wants to have you on board? Maybe you chuckle as you think, “I wouldn’t mind a miracle!” What if that miracle was the voice of a caring person reminding you that you belong? That you are worthy of love? One voice of affirmation CAN make all the difference. This is the mission of SD Kids Belong, and it’s an essential part of making real change in this world- instilling this belief in every single child among us.
Ever since I was a kid myself, my heart has ached for kids who weren’t sure where they belonged. My friend Holly knows the foster care system intimately. Growing up in NJ, she was five when her mom told her she was heading to the store for milk, only she never came back. Holly waited and waited, but her mom never showed. Families are complex, and in Holly’s case, her mother never relinquished her parental rights, so Holly wasn’t adopted. She just lived in perpetual wondering- did she belong anywhere? Even more, was she worthy of a family?
Listen, I have no desire to demonize her mom. We make the decisions we do bc of countless variables always at play in our lives. But I share Holly’s story today from the point of view of a 5 year-old girl who never could figure out who she might count on- even well into adulthood. Thankfully Holly had a supportive foster care mom for parts of her childhood, but the deep ache in her soul remained.
I met Holly through a ministry of RCHP- my church in NJ that turned the roof of their church into housing for girls aging out of the foster care system. I’ve known no population that’s more vulnerable AND capable of transforming their lives and this world with the right support. Holly and her peers taught me how powerful sharing a little time and focus can be. I won’t tell you I changed her life, exactly, because I didn’t. But I came alongside her in the midst of it. I was an older sister of sorts. We went shopping, I cut her hair, we ate out at fun restaurants, we played games, we decorated her room, we bought groceries and cooked meals together. Sometimes we’d just sit and chat. I made sure she had something special for her birthday.
I’ll be truthful- it wasn’t always easy to make the time or gather my focus enough to really be present. She also had strong opinions and a pretty negative take on things. But as I’d drive back to my apartment after time spent with Holly, a remarkable truth washed over me: she is worthy of every second I offer. Fred Rogers captures this human need to feel worthy just the way we are:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair– But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you– Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
Friends-it’s you I like, every part of you. You belong, right here in this faith home. More importantly, you belong to Christ. And if you know that, the invitation is simple: help spread the good news that every single child of God is worthy of belonging too.
If your heart is moved by the idea of giving children in our Pierre/Ft. Pierre area space to feel loved and appreciated, let me know! Your gifts may just be the exact thing a WRAP team needs to support a foster care family. I’ll create a list of names and how you might like to get involved, then I trust God to bring it all together. Because God is definitely in the business of belonging! And so are we!
When Jesus invites these unlucky fishermen into his service, he’s calling us all. He says, “I will use whatever gifts you have to help draw people into my love. That’s it! That’s the key to abundant life!”
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
When Christian and I were talking about his baptism a few weeks ago, I told him I was the exact same age when I got baptized. He turns ten this week (hurray!)’ Being ten is a beautiful time in your life, because you begin to recognize what it means to live beyond yourself. Sure, developmentally it’s important to let kids be kids. It’s equally important that we give avenues of meaning and purpose to young people. This helps us all (those teaching, those learning) claim WHO WE ARE in a sea of contradictory messages. I gave Christian an example of this within the baptism liturgy. When it says, “to resist oppression and evil,” that means we ignore any message that says we’re not worthy of love or purpose in this world. The world may say we are too young or too uneducated or too inexperienced to make a difference, and that’s simply not true. Resisting evil means shining a light on false messages that try to tell us we’re not worthy.
Theologian Fred Rogers assumed this work wholeheartedly, as he describes in his book: The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. He says, “Whether we're a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we're acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”
Yes, and making a difference often opens a pathway to feeling loveable- to feeling worthy of living a full life, a vibrant and messy and wonderful life- no matter our age. And sometimes that requires breaking down the messages we’ve received that are the exact opposite of what God intends.
Take Jeremiah, called as one of God’s prophets from a young age. Charles L. Aaron, Jr. tells us, “The Lord’s charge to Jeremiah contains six verbs, four of which involve breaking down. Only after the way has cleared can Jeremiah create and construct.” In order to help God’s people hear the truth that God’s way leads to life abundant, Jeremiah needed to start by deconstructing the culture of his day with the truth of God. No, young people are not meant to sit down and shut up. “You are NOT only a boy, Jeremiah,” God says, “You are MY son, and you are worthy of doing big things with your life. Before you were born, I knew you. That is your value- you are a child of the living God.”
In the UCC, we baptize babies and toddlers and 4th graders and adults. The truth is, there’s no such thing as the “right age” to say yes to God in our life. Scripture reveals as much. If we have the heart to believe God’s word lives within us, God WILL use us to draw all people, even ourselves, closer to eternal love. Here’s a question we all get to ask ourselves on a Baptism Sunday: Do you trust the word of life written on your heart? Do you know that you are lovable? Do you believe you are a child of the living God?
Fred Rogers knew the value of young people and the fresh perspectives they bring this world. He said, “We need to help people to discover the true meaning of love. Love is generally confused with dependence. Those of us who have grown in true love know that we can love only in proportion to our capacity for independence.” Baptism is a quest for spiritual independence, grounded in the truth that spiritual connection with Christ IS freedom; None of us can save ourselves- and we certainly can’t save one another. But you better believe we can hold each other’s hands along the way. This is church at its finest, friends. Practicing love, growing faith, and embracing hope. Even as we live into our vows of baptism with Christian and his family today- may we reclaim our own connection with Christ.
A final quote from Fred Rogers “The connections we make in the course of a life--maybe that's what heaven is.” Jesus so badly wants us to connect with him. While each of us does this our own way, we also share the path, that’s the joy of it all, isn’t it? We see Christ more clearly when we witness Christ’s work in the life of another. If you need a reminder that you are indeed a child of the living God, take a cue from Jeremiah- and look to the children in our midst!
We thank God for Alaya, Luca, Henslee, Evelyn, Merritt, Charlotte, Otto, Theodore, Hugh, Fio, Grady, Veronica, Rayna, Pearl, Ike, Blaire, Truly, Tayson, Polly, Fox, Tayden, Zed, Clara, Wendalynn, Briggs, Logan, Emry, Emersen, Zach, George, Christian, Seth, Taylor, Maddox, Howie, Sawyer, Lorelei, Asher, Annaliese, Lizbeth, Helena, Jamiah, Luke, Avery, Jack, Sarah, Jenna; our college students and young adults. Everyone we strive to love and support through our baptismal vows. Each child & youth who has yet to make a connection with our church. All of us, better off for the vision and purpose children & youth provide. Praise be to God for our young neighbors!
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
Just this week I rediscovered my love for the PBS show Call the Midwife. Has anyone seen it?
Or maybe you’ve enjoyed the drama of Downton Abbey, another gem set in England. Something I notice at work in every scene of these two shows is the idea of “class” or “social status” and how society is both segregated by it and drawn together in the great ecosystem that is a neighborhood. It matters where you came from. Who you are in comparison with another. What your education opportunities may have been. The servants, the midwives & nuns, the police and news reporters, those who went to war and those who aren’t expected to put their lives in harm's way. And of course the nobility. Each with clearly defined positions in society, specific roles and expectations always at play.
The scene is similar as we listen to how first century Christians were operating when it came to church work. Paul hears that some in the early church felt their gifts were more significant, placing them in an elite spiritual position. It’s no surprise, is it? For as long as humans have organized ourselves, we’ve dealt with systems of privilege and oppression. Get this, the same body analogy Paul offers was used in the Roman Empire of his time for a very different reason: to describe WHO was the head- and who wasn’t. The Emperor gets the power simply by claiming his part of the body is more important. Knowing this, I’m even more drawn to Paul’s use of the body as an image of equality and mutual respect. Paul clears up any confusion about who is important within Christ’s body: no one and also, everyone. “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
The truth is, we don’t have to watch a period piece from England to see classism at work. We humans are very good, in all times and places, at creating artificial hierarchy in our cultures. Fred Rogers knew this well. We look back at his theology of neighbor now and think “oh how wonderful,” but the truth is, he wasn’t always well received for saying things like: “Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other’s achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undo thought of gain.” With such firm conviction, Fred Rogers brought to life the Gospel message for countless children and adults for over 30 years.
He believed, as does the Apostle Paul, that Jesus has an entirely new paradigm for community; people interested in following “the way” to abundant life for all have to dream bigger than social status or class. We need to claim the inherent goodness and key role each part of the body possesses- if we are to thrive together. This analogy of the body works for the church, yes; and for the towns we live in, our schools and hospitals, government, non-profit and for-profit institutions alike. Our families, and most of all, the neighborhoods we call home.
In what ways do you affirm this truth in your life? Respect for all, acceptance of each distinct ability, appreciation for how we each can make the whole better than the sum of its parts? I’ll give you one great example- each time I meet with our boards and executive council, I am moved by the way our decisions and work are more thoughtful and robust because we cherish one another’s distinct gifts. Want a tangible look? Check out the details of 2021 in our Annual Meeting booklet. It’s amazing to see the breadth of ministries we engage. And some of our coolest ministries occur when we choose to take gospel love outside the walls of church, right into our neighborhoods. Healthy communities, like healthy church groups, depend on co-existing neighbors who know each other well enough to appreciate what each offers the world.
What if it is really that simple? What if the ONLY goal we created for this year was to learn more about the gifts our neighbors possess? When we pay attention to what others offer the world, something sneaky happens…we begin to discover more of our gifts too. Fred Rogers offers this final word for us today: “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” If you think this work is pithy or trite, I challenge you to name one person in your neighborhood that you don’t know well- and initiate contact in some way this week. Send a card, share a conversation on the sidewalk, ask them where they work, if they have siblings, if you might be able to help them with a chore? The more we practice, the easier it becomes to acknowledge and appreciate the other parts of this big, beautiful body we call humankind. All in the name of the one who inspires equality and respect for others, Jesus our Christ.
On Thursday, we celebrated Epiphany as the climax to the 12 days of Christmastide. The new year is underway, and we begin it with the Infant Savior lighting the way.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I imagine Mary reacted to the arrival of the Magi in much the same way as when the shepherds paid the holy family a visit in the stable: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Much of our faith is found in the earnest questions we ask- maybe even more than the answers we get. In fact, we continue to question today exactly WHEN the magi arrived at Jesus’ side. We don’t really know when, but we know what occurs when they do. Jesus’ divine nature is affirmed yet again. To live in faith like our ancestors Mary & Joseph is to receive the gifts of the divine in our lives, with wonder and awe- unanswered questions a part of the journey.
I suspect it’s the wonder that brings the Christmas story to new life each year. Will Joseph dismiss Mary upon learning of her pregnancy? Or will he stay by her side? Will someone allow Mary a place to lie down as she endures the pain of labor, or will she be denied entry yet again? Will King Herod find Jesus and put an end to his story so soon? Or will he live to be the savior of the world?
The concept of journey is a deep part of the scriptural narrative. And as we begin a new year, it’s the perfect time to recommit to our own pathway of following Christ. What does that look like? For one, it means we’re on the move- we’re learning, growing, adapting, coming into the potential that is our birthright: to bear the image of God. Like the Maji, compelled by the signs of the stars, embarking on a meandering journey to discover the divine within a human. Some mysterious Spirit compelling them onward.
Have you ever tried to explain to someone else that feeling you get when a prayer or shared experience or an image of nature catches your breath? It’s weird, right? The rational world seems to fade just a bit, because you KNOW you’ve encountered something real, a connection within your soul, even if you can’t find the words to express it. That, my friends, is the journey the Christ-child inspires in us- something divine experienced on earth. Stories are often how we choose to convey that type of spiritual connection, which is why I love to lift the story of the Maji- the strange unveiling of Jesus’ divine nature. Scripture is a gift, meant to be pondered like Mary, a word of life and hope.
This year we missed opening gifts with my family- stupid flu. But I made certain the kids opened their grandma’s gift (my mom) over our video call, because I knew it was an experience that would connect us across time and age.
On Christmas Eve, I shared a bit about my Grandma Yvonne, who has since passed away- but whose spirit remains very much a part of my family. She had a few tricks up her sleeve come Christmas. She LOVED laughing, mostly at herself. Like, you tell her she spilled chili down the front of her white shirt, or that she had butter smeared all over her face… and instead of getting upset or embarrassed, she would let out a great big belly laugh- and she meant it. Joy found in the strangest ways.
We always knew what gifts grandma brought, because she wrapped hastily: sometimes with duct tape or three types of paper; often we’d find loose popcorn as a filler. We never quite knew what grandma was up to, but we could count on a surprise. In particular, one gift each year would be wrapped a certain way. One of us four grandkids would luck out and get this gift. On the outside it looked like any of the others. We’d peel back the paper, open the box, only to discover-- another wrapped box inside. Maybe you know this trick, yes? We’d unwrap that box, open it to find yet another. With each unwrapped gift, my grandma’s laughter got louder. On and on, sometimes 5-6-7 layers deep these boxes- until we’d get the actual gift. We enjoyed what she gave us, of course, but what we learned to look forward to most was the sound of her voice filling the room. The journey she would take us on, filled with joy in not knowing what came next.
Obviously, I needed to keep this tradition alive, so when the kids opened my mom’s gift over video, she watched box after box unwrapped, until shared laughter filled the screen.
Our lives of faith are like unwrapping that kind of gift. Part of the delight of living is not knowing what we’ll find when we open another box. Who knows what 2022 brings our way? I don’t, but I do know where I intend to direct my gaze: toward Christ who lights up the world with wonder and awe. The one eternal mystery: God in the flesh.
I know it can be unnerving not knowing the outcome of another year. Can you even imagine what must have raced through Mary & Joseph’s minds as they heard news that the King was trying to take the life of their firstborn son? Forced to live as refugees in a foreign land? They show us the way to live in faith. Keep on moving, follow the guidance of the wise ones, and receive each day as a gift that it is- to be opened with wonder and awe. Oh- and use those star words to guide your hearts toward greater awareness of the gifts you bear in this world.
Philippians 4: 4-7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Have you heard the term “toxic positivity?” Generally speaking, it’s “a denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” A rule of thumb I like to use is this: is someone telling me how I ought to be feeling about a circumstance in my life? Or am I doing that to someone else? Am I saying, “Cheer up, it could be worse,” when I have no clue the depth of emotion this person is experiencing? My guess is somewhere along our way- we’ve been at the receiving and giving end of such comments. I bring up toxic positivity for this reason. It’s the opposite of true joy. Often, people insist on the need to feel happy all the time (or worse, insist that someone else just cheer up already), because they’re scared of dealing with the breadth of human emotion. Grief and doubt, pain and rage find their origin in discomfort. Who likes to be uncomfortable, right? So denying that discomfort is what can create a toxic positivity mindset. “I’m just fine!” (when inside I’m actually gripped with fear.) And sometimes it’s honestly more convenient to leave it at that, right? “I’m just fine!” Because we can’t trust that our vulnerabilities will be treated with dignity. So the cycle continues. Don’t deal with the pain, cover it up with niceties.
Enter the Apostle Paul’s writing to the believers in Philippi. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!” How do we know that Paul’s words speak of real joy and not toxic positivity? Because Paul’s joy has been forged in the fires of pain. Paul writes these words from a prison cell--held captive by a regime intimidated by freedom & justice in Christ’s message. Paul has been thrown in prison at least three times by this point, endured mental, emotional, and physical torture. Why? Because he just won’t shut up about Jesus. And somehow, in the midst of real pain, Paul has chosen joy.
Paul’s rejoicing comes from his commitment to live beyond himself. Paul’s spirit of joy is not about his momentary circumstances, it's about what’s happening in his heart. He is alive with the breath of Spirit, he is set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even him. He has chosen a way of life in which the joy of Christ surpasses momentary (even long seasons of) pain. And the very people he writes to, about this peace of God that surpasses all understanding-- keep his joy alive. Joy is a shared experience, and we get to choose it as a way of life despite whatever circumstances come our way.
Each year as we usher in the story of an expectant Mary, the way we romanticize Jesus’ birth brings me back to my first days as a mom. Ten days into Briggs’ life I wrote in my blog, “If I think about my past week-and-a-half while simultaneously stripping away my support network, income privileges, education, sound mental health, environmental calm, etc., I am honestly not sure how I would have gotten through without dangerous thoughts.” I went on to say, “I get how moms recovering from the bodily trauma of birth, struggling to breastfeed, might just lose it.”
Now my own mom, who once upon a time used to want to read my writing, commented to me after this post on my blog, “well, it sure wasn’t very positive, was it?” No mom, it wasn’t, and the fact that we insist on new moms being positive- well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I get it, it's uncomfortable to hear a new mom’s pain when you simply want to ooh and aah at a newborn.
But here’s what I think is SO important to understand. Being positive is not a prerequisite for joy. And dismissing negative human emotion is antithetical to experiencing real joy. See, joy is a glimmer of hope you hold within, even when life sucks. True joy is not a fleeting feeling. It’s a chosen identity, a narrative we set for ourselves, that might just see us through the pain to the other side.
Here’s the key phrase: we set this narrative for ourselves. No one can tell us how to feel about something or how to respond to pain. See, if the letter to Philippi had been the other way around, if Paul’s associates outside of prison were writing to him, “Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul, it’ll be fine!” as he sits in chains, we might call that toxic positivity. But when Paul, in his authentic and diverse experience of human emotion proclaims, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” That’s joy as a way of life. Because that’s the identity Paul chose for himself.
Friends, we too can embrace a spirit of joy beyond our momentary circumstances; we too can be made alive with the breath of Spirit; we too can be set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even me. I know for many of you, momentary life circumstances are not good. Finding true joy takes a willingness to embrace our discomfort, to acknowledge its effect on us, and to choose joy even in the midst of the pain.
I will never quote you Apostle Paul, “Don’t worry about anything, just pray and give thanks!” as a prescription for the Christian way of life. It’s not. But I will invite you to consider choosing joy in the midst of pain, if that’s the identity you wish to claim. I’m happy to be a conversation partner along the way. Joy is a shared experience, forged in the fires of generations who've known deep struggle & chosen to rejoice in their Creator anyway. I give thanks for the saints of old, like the Apostle Paul, who reveals that joy IS possible in the depth of human pain. Lord knows I’ve needed their witness more often than not.
In my same blog post as a new mom, I wrote: “My first week of being a new mom was not awesome. There, I said it. Positive, happy-go-lucky Emily did not have a great week. This is not to say that I didn’t have moments of joy, because I couldn’t help but discover joy in Briggs’ serene face after a feeding. He is truly remarkable, and it gives me pleasure holding him while he happily coos. Even so, Briggs and I are still working on his latching issues, I’m still fighting off mastitis, and those pesky hormones still arise to remind me of how well I cry.”
As we move our hearts toward Christmas, the sacred story of Jesus’ birth, I hope we make space in our hearts to hold both joy & the depth of human emotions, whatever they may be for you. This is what God reveals in the birth of a divine child to a human mother. Joy moves us toward hope beyond current circumstances. Mary believed holding joy, alongside every single emotion a new mom faces, is possible.
May we find ourselves moved beyond momentary happiness to claim an identity as people of joy. Rejoice in the Lord always- again I say rejoice. Paul & Mary lead the way.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Last Sunday afternoon Blaire came home and shared the story they learned in Sunday School- in great detail. The story of Jonah and the BIG fish. She gets to the part when the fish burps Jonah onto shore (and although she wasn’t quite sure of the details there) Blaire proclaims with excitement in her eyes, “And God gave him a second chance.” Jonah had been running away from a hard thing, God’s command to be a leader who proclaimed a baptism of repentance to the people of Ninevah; his job was to say “your violence makes God sad, turn over a new leaf; Start again. The irony in the story is that Jonah is also in need of a second chance. So, clearing the seaweed off his shoulders, he decides to proclaim a baptism of repentance in Ninevah after all, because that’s exactly what has saved him.
Prophets often share the way of the Lord with others because of a compelling spiritual moment in which rough ways are made smooth, in which they’ve experienced inner clarity like never before. Think Saul who becomes Paul on the road to Damascus- blinded in order to truly see Christ. John the Baptist is another prophet, sent to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching a baptism of repentance--a fancy way of saying turn in a different direction; choose a new path; if you’re truly sorry, don’t do that thing again. Whatever choices are in your control and are hurting you, hurting others, even making God sad, make better choices. John the Baptist is passionate about this message, because he believes we are people worthy of second chances. Because turning away from the world’s insatiable hunger for more (more power, more popularity, more possessions) is what saved him; what can save us all. What can bring us actual peace on earth.
Did you notice where John finds himself when the word of the Lord comes to him? He’s in the middle of nowhere--wilderness; not surrounded by a crowd, no warm and comfortable home; certainly not holding any high office. His story begins, though, with a long list of important people in Jesus' day. It’s as if this contrast matters: the Emperor, the governor, the rulers of Galilee, even the high priests- yet none of them are given the word of the Lord. Only this dude who eats bugs & weirds everyone out by how badly he smells; telling folks that a baptism of repentance is how you find peace of mind, heart, and soul.
Why repentance? Why is repentance the way to peace? I’ll say it again: Because true repentance hinges on the belief that people are worthy of second chances- yes, even us.
Do you believe this? I think it took Jonah a good long while before he believed the violent folks in Ninevah were worthy of a second chance. Heck it took awhile for Jonah to believe HE was worthy of a second chance. I bet John the Baptist would have even doubted his own message had he been alive to witness the Roman Empire torture and kill his cousin Jesus. Are even those who murder worthy of repentance? Jesus says it's true with his dying breath: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
That my friends, is what makes Christ the Prince of Peace. He does the unfathomable- gives a second chance to those who kill him. If that’s not counter-cultural in our day and age, what is? If you are searching for peace, Jesus says you won’t find it in rage, in resentment, in restless searching for more.
No, only in repentance. And as a people forgiven, we practice forgiveness as a way of being; we prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our hearts for peace. Repentance means willing to let our hearts be changed: our attitudes, our opinions, our need to be right all the time. That changes when we get serious about Christ’s ways above ours.
When we live in the light of grace, our daily decisions will change; We’ll prioritize our time differently; We’ll engage people around us in a new way; we’ll find ourselves talking less in favor of listening more; we’ll act from a heart of contemplation rather than reactionary rage; we’ll see the world as it could be, even when others cannot. That’s how John the Baptist led others to Christ. Preparing the way of the Lord with a vision of peace: "Every valley shall be filled- every mountain made low. Crooked things made straight, and rough ways made smooth.”
God is a God of second chances.
When I forget to love my neighbor as myself, because I'm overwhelmed with my own issues, Jesus offers me a chance at repentance, turning my heart back to God.
When we enact violence against people who don't look or sound like us, Jesus offers us a chance at repentance, turning our hearts back to God.
When you forget that you bear the image of God, Jesus invites you to the table and says, “beloved child, you are welcome back into my holy embrace. I am a God of second chances.
The work of the Kingdom begins within each of our hearts. It’s the only way to lasting peace, so may we find our hearts opened to the gift of repentance in our lives this Advent. When I'm tempted to act from a place of human insecurity or pain, it helps me to know that I have a role in preparing the way of the Lord...who I am and how I act is significant to God's coming kingdom. The same is true for all us who long for the day when all flesh might know the gift of peace from the Prince of Peace. Transformation from the inside out, until the whole world is aglow with repentance and grace.
[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.