November 12, 2015

Rescuing Advent from Christmas

This is a tiny rant, or better, a non-urgent plea: Let's rescue Advent from Christmas. If you're thinking, "But Advent is the countdown to Christmas. It's how we get ready to celebrate Christ's birth. Blah blah blah." then you're the reason I'm writing this. OK, I doubt you actually thought, "Blah blah blah." That shouldn't be in quotes. But it is. This is a tiny rant, I can do that.

Here's my point: Advent is a time of its own in the seasons of the church year. It is an important focal point for spiritual formation and mature faith. It is a time to return our lives to hope, because God has acted in the past, and is active in the present, and will act in the future to bring peace, love, and a transformation of creation. It is a time to learn again that much of this life is about waiting, and the waiting can either be an awful drag filled with angst and confusion, or it can be filled with wonder, joy, mystery, and love. Not because Christmas day will come and make life bubbly for a day; rather, because God in Christ is our hope.

As it is now, most of Advent is observed as pre-Christmas warm-up time, and that's it. Advent workshops in churches often look like Santa's workshop. We see everything through the lens of the holiday that has come to crush all other holidays and seasons, and bear all the weight of our material and familial hopes and dreams, even if much of it is emtpy promises. And if all we get for our four weeks of Advent observance is time to shop and wrap presents that get used up and thrown away before all the Christmas candy is eaten, why bother?

The promise of the birth of Christ doesn't even come up in the Advent Sunday readings until the last week. The earlier weeks speak of the future reign of Christ when all will be made right, and how we can live in eager anticipation of that good news now. They tell us of the arrival of wild John the baptizer and initiator as a herald of repentance and preparation. They remind us that justice for the poor and oppressed and mercy for all us what we hope for, and if not, we need to break our hopes and form new ones. They promise that God will act to bring the reign of peace even when we have lost the capacity to believe it.

In our worshiping community, we are again observing an extended Advent, beginning three weeks prior to the first week of traditional Advent. This is rooted in earlier traditions of the season, when Advent was 6 to 7 weeks long in some places. It fits well with the readings already assigned for these Sundays, which image for us the unimaginable future reign of Christ.

This extended Advent has been one way to rescue Advent from Christmas. It lets us get into the blue hopeful mood of Advent before the flurry of holiday craziness sets in. It gives us more time than a short four weeks, one of which is lost to Thanksgiving holiday travel for many, others of which we can expect to see folks maybe once or twice because of that soul-crushing, unAdvent thing we live in December called "busyness."

So yes, a tiny rant, a non-urgent plea (non-urgent because if it were urgent and created stress and more anxiety it wouldn't really help speak to the Advent hope now would it?): Let's rescue Advent from our out-of-control Christmas frenzy. Let's make more of Advent than we have in the past. Let's slow down, set aside time and space to pause and find our hope again. God knows we need it.

November 9, 2015

Radical, Defiant Generosity (Sermon for Proper 27 B)

1 Kings 17:8-16

8The word of the Lord came to [Elijah,] saying, 9“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For 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.” 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. 

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44

38As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then 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. 44For 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.”

This might be a tall order for a sermon,
            but I hope to convince you of something radical.
Well, I think most of Scripture
            and most of what Jesus says and does and means is radical.
But I’m going to focus on one thing,
            and here is where it starts:
Being generous is an essential part of the joy of being human.
            Think about that for a second.
            What does it mean for you to be generous?
            When have you been able to give of yourself
                        and experience the deep, spiritual joy in it?
            Was it supporting your favorite charity?
            Parenting or grand-parenting and all that costs you?
            Giving to your church to ensure that many others
                        will know the love of God in Christ Jesus?
            Buying a hungry stranger a cheeseburger?
            Doing something from your work life pro bono?
            Maybe it was just being the loving person you are
                        without the usual limitations we place on expressing it.
But I’m guessing you know what I mean
            when I say being generous is an essential part
                        of the joy of being human.

Now think of a time
            when you needed or wanted to be generous
and you were unable to be.
Maybe when money was tight in a down time.
Maybe when someone else’s need was greater
            than your capacity to meet it.
Maybe when you were in a fearful place in life
            and it felt too risky to offer something of yourself
            because it might be judged or inadequate.
Think of what it feels like
            when you have nothing left to give,
            and what that does to your own humanity.

There are two widows in our biblical texts
            that have nothing left to give.
One is the widow that Elijah encounters.
            She lived during the reign of King Ahab.
            Ahab led Israel away from faithfulness to Lord God
                        to worshiping false gods,
                        gods who said you should live for yourself only,
                        gods who said we must plunder other nations
                                    to get what they’ve got
                        so they spent vast sums of money on military power,
                                    sums often taken from poor widows.
            Ahab was confronted by Elijah,
                        who said he must change his ways.
            And since he didn’t,
                        Elijah said there would be a drought, and there was.
                        Because of the lack of rain,
                                    there was a lack of food.
            And because there was a lack of food,
                        there was a hungry widow who had only enough food left
                                    for one meal for herself and her son.

That’s when Elijah appeared.
            Elijah said: Make me something to eat.
            Well, on a normal day, in good times,
                        this woman would have been glad to share some bread.
                        She would have enjoyed showing hospitality.
                        She would have loved the chance to be generous.
            But, between the terrible reign of Ahab
                        and the terrible drought God sent in response to Ahab
                        she had lost that one essential ingredient for being human:
                                    her capacity to give,
                                    her joy of generosity.
I’m convinced that Elijah comes to her
            not only to feed himself,
            and not only to promise her that she will have enough food
                        for herself and her son.
I’m convinced Elijah comes to her
            to restore her capacity for generosity,
                        because without it, her humanity has been diminished.
In what might otherwise seem like
            an act of selfishness and cruelty on his part,
            Elijah forces her to trust what he says,
                        feed him first, risk being generous when it is really hard,
                        and discover that God is restoring her joy,
                                    by providing more than she needs just for her family,
                                    but enough to be able to share with others.
Ahab and God’s judgment on Ahab in the drought
            had taken away her ability to be generous.
God in Elijah restored it.

Consider the widow at the temple with Jesus.
            Jesus said that the Scribes,
                        who loved to show off their wealth and their religiosity,
                        who loved to be treated as if they were most important,
                                    also love to steal houses from widows,
                                    which meant they abused the laws and their own power
                                    to take advantage of them and rob them.
Not only had they forced many vulnerable women and children
                        into lives of poverty and dependence,
                        they had robbed them of their capacity to be generous,
                        they had stolen their joy of giving,
                        they had diminished their humanity.
And then Jesus noticed,
            and made sure his students noticed,
            what this one widow who had been robbed
                        did in the temple:
                        She was generous.
                        She was exceedingly generous.
                        She gave what little she had, all of it.
            Jesus notices her for two reasons:
                        In giving her whole life,
                                    she reflects everything he had been teaching his students
                                    about what his life meant,
and what their lives meant in following him:
                                                self-giving love is what it is all about.
                        But the second reason he notices her is this:
                                    Her act of giving in the temple,
                                    the very temple that had robbed her
                                                and diminished her,
                                                is a defiant act of generosity.
                        It’s as if she is saying:
                                    No matter what you do to me,
                                    you can’t take away my humanity,
                                    you can’t take away my capacity to be generous,
                                                because I still have myself to give.
            Jesus loves this woman,
                        admires her action,
                        sees this is a teaching moment for us all:
                                    Generosity is often the most radical,
                                                defiant, bold thing we can do
                                                in a society that tries to take away our ability to give.

This is my tall order in this sermon
            during this time of year when we focus on stewardship:
                        I’d like to convince you that stewardship,
                                    organizing our lives in such a way
                                    that we can be generous with our resources and our lives,
                                    is a radical and defiant way of living
                                                in our society of greed and consumption.
I’m supposed to tell you
            that stewardship is about tithing,
            and supporting the church,
            and doing your part, and all that.
It is all of those things,
            but it is first something much deeper:
                        It is the refusal to let our world of grabbing all you can for yourself
                                    diminish our humanity by taking away our capacity to give.
We might be like the widows in the stories,
            where we have ended up with little in life.
There might be a bank that took our house.
            There might be an investment that fell apart
                        after corporate greed and maleficence ruined it.
We might be working long, hard hours
            for pay that doesn’t even cover the bills.
Or, we might have plenty
            but we can’t escape the constant barrage
                        of messages that convince us that the joy of living
                                    is found in buying, consuming, having.
We might have believed the false Gospel
            that luxury is better than love.
We all have experienced how our capacity to give of ourselves
            has been diminished,
                        either through lack of having, or lack of faith.
And the result is the same:
            Our joy of being human is diminished,
                        our ability to live the life God intended is robbed,
                        our participation in God’s kingdom is dulled.

So here we are again.
            We gathered in the name and presence and life of Jesus.
            He is the one who enacted the full joy of being human
                        by making his whole life an act of generosity.
            He is the one who gives of himself with such love
                        so that we can give of ourselves from the same storehouse of love.
            He is our Elijah:
                        meeting not only our need for bread,
                        but filling us with such faith
                                    that we always have something left to give.
            He is our good news because of how he embodied God’s love
                        by giving it to those in need,
                                    the hungry, the sick, the rejected, the failed,
                                    and us, who need to be generous to be human.

This is my tall order for the day:
            To have us see that living by the good news of Jesus
                        in whom we have love like the widow’s jar of oil,
                                    love that never runs out…
                                    to see that our lives of giving,
                                    our stewardship of all we have
                                                is a radical, defiant, joyful,
                                                loving, divine way of being human,
                                                like Jesus himself was divine and human.
                        Jesus feeds us with himself,
                                    so that we never run out of having something to give,
                                    we never lose the joy of generosity,
                                    the joy of human life itself.