Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Call to Serve: The Church at Home - Love

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “Why do the legal experts say that the Christ is David’s son? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said, The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right side until I turn your enemies into your footstool.’ David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ so how can he be David’s son?” The large crowd listened to him with delight.

As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.” --Mark 14:28-44 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and from the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

What a week! I don’t know about you, but I’m already getting tired of this new normal. Tired of sitting at my computer screen. Tired of not being able to meet someone in person for coffee. But, thank God, for social media. Because it lets me know I’m not alone. And it makes me laugh.  Here's something fun I saw posted on Twitter.

I think all of this change made me a little grouchy. If you’ve seen my Facebook feed over the past couple of days, you probably already noticed that. It kind of started on Wednesday at pantry.

Now, we have been working on trying to figure out how we do food pantry in a way that is safe. For our volunteers. And for our pantry members, especially for those who are vulnerable. So, we were able to set up this rather elaborate system last weekend. And, honestly, this week, it worked pretty good. We were able to get last minute information out to a pretty large group of people. And, inevitably, that information was shared even outside our typical pantry circles. 

On Tuesday afternoon, after our first day, I returned voice mails, while Susan worked to re-stock and set up for Wednesday. One of them was from someone outside our usual pantry circle. She lived in Prospect. Now, you and I know that Prospect, like this area, is fairly affluent. Yet you and I also know that those who are poor are often very hidden in our communities. She was calling because she had heard about us and wanted to know if she could get food for herself and her husband. I signed her up for the next day. 

Along with all of the other changes we’ve made, We have a new system of welcome. Because Susan is so warm and friendly and because her graciousness is so contagious (in a good way!), on pantry day her job is to greet everyone who comes into our parking lot. And, then, to keep everything in motion so that we don’t get behind. I do check-in. Making sure the person is in our database, making sure they wash their hands (Yes, this is a new pantry requirement!), and explaining to them how our pantry operates. So, that next day - on Wednesday - we both met that lovely woman I had talked to the afternoon before. 

Soon after we got her registered and her hands washed, she then moved into our shopping area with a helper. Susan came up to me and mentioned quietly that, as she greeted this woman, she had engaged her in conversation. And found out that her son was a pretty “big deal” at a very large church here in Louisville. A pretty “big deal.” It was this woman’s son who had referred her to our pantry. 

That next morning, after a restless and short night of sleep, I got up and did the reasonable thing - I got on Facebook. (I’ve been working really hard to stay off Facebook. But it’s hard now, because it’s one place to find connection.) So, I got on Facebook. Shared this story (without any names) and I began to rant. 

Now I’m not naming names, but you see the problem here? This lovely woman’s son - a “big deal” in a big local church - couldn’t even take his mother grocery shopping, instead referring her to a food pantry.

So, do you see why I was a little grouchy? I was really bothered by this. In fact, I was angered by it. So much so that I tossed and turned all night long, thinking about it. And, of course, I had already been reading this text for a couple days. In particular, the part in verse 38. “Watch out for the legal experts - the religious leaders,” Jesus tells the disciples. “They like to walk around in long robes. They wanted to be greeted with honor in the markets. They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”  

And, I know. I should give her son the benefit of the doubt. There’s that 8th commandment, right? Perhaps, I don’t know the entire story. Perhaps, I’m jumping to very wrong conclusions. Perhaps, I’m just overreacting. I mean, most people are good people, aren’t they? Most people wouldn’t do this, would they?

And, then, I got a private message from a nurse I used to work with in Texas, who’s now a nurse practitioner. He shared a story with me of an acquaintance of his. Who posted picture after picture on Facebook of his son getting into and driving his new Maserati. Which my friend’s acquaintance had just bought for him. So, what’s a Maserati cost these days? Seventy grand? Maybe more. And yet this same acquaintance had the nerve to share a GoFundMe page on Facebook put up by his aunt, who was trying to raise $2,500. “I couldn’t believe the gall of this dude. Just give her the money and shut up,” my friend wrote. 

Is this who we have become?

I have to wonder. When I look at the empty grocery store shelves. The lines of people waiting outside the grocery store or Costco to get in and buy up everything. When I hear stories from our own pantry members who can’t find baby formula for their children. And the only stuff that’s left on the shelf are the containers of formula that cost $40/each, and there’s no way these families could afford that. Especially, not in the times we are in right now. 

Is this who we have become? 

Like the community leaders of Jesus’ day, who parade around, spouting their religion, expecting to be greeted with honor and offended if they aren’t? Cheating widows out of their homes? In the NRSV, it reads that “they devour widows’ houses.” 

Is this who we have become?

This is not who God wants us to be. 

Throughout all of the Hebrew and Christian scripture, God makes it clear that what is important is a commandment in two parts: Love God. And love neighbor. There are a lot of other little rules and regulations. Just like we have our little rules and regulations, often unspoken, in our faith and in our church. But the one commandment - the one, two-part commandment that is at the heart of everything that God teaches us, that is more important than all ritual and sacrifice, more important even than our worship, is that we love God and do justice for our neighbor. And not just the neighbor we know, but, particularly, the neighbor we don’t know. 

If we miss this big picture, we miss everything.

And, then we come to the story of the widow’s offering. When I first read this at the beginning of the week, I laughed. Because the idea of a stewardship sermon at this time, when everything seems to be crashing down around us, was a little much for me to even wrap my head around. But, as I studied this story, I found out that there’s a long line of thought around it - that this story isn’t really about Jesus lifting up this woman as a stewardship example. 

If you look closely at the story, nowhere does he really commend her for her offering. It’s more just like an observation: that she, more than the others, has simply put in the greatest percentage of her wealth, minimal as it may be.  And this line of theological thought suggests that this is really a condemnation by Jesus of a system, of a community that would allow this woman - that would expect this woman - to even have to give an offering, given her poverty. That the failure is on the part of the whole community because they have allowed these deep divisions of wealth to even exist.

Wow. That’s convicting, isn’t it?

But, let me tell you another story from this week. On Thursday, one of our faithful volunteers offered to take my place at check-in so I could get a little work done. You know, don’t you, when I’m in the sacristy changing in or out my alb, or when I’m in the office at church, I hear a lot of stuff. (Just sayin’!)

The office door sits right next to the table where we offer produce to our pantry folks. As I worked there on Thursday morning, over and over I heard pantry members as they were offered produce, turn much of it away with these words, “Why don’t you give it to someone who really needs it?” This, my friends, is the example of who we are to be. Lovers of God. And lovers of neighbor, of stranger, of those who are vulnerable. It’s why, for instance, we self-isolate. Not, if we are healthy, to protect ourselves. But, to protect those who aren’t.

Last week, I mentioned a conversation with a member in which we wondered if what was happening in our world wasn’t part of some big cosmic change. 

When I witness what I’ve witnessed this past week, all I can think is “I hope so.” Now I know that this may be a very frightening thought. That everything we know could change. Yet, we know that God will preserve and protect us. Because, simply put, God has promised to do this. And God is faithful.

So, yes, I do hope that the God, who loves us, who wants us to understand that we are connected with one other and with all creation, and the God who has promised to turn things upside down so that the widows of this world will eventually be on equal footing with the powerful - I do hope that we are in the midst of a huge cosmic change. And, mostly, I hope and pray that God is right there in the middle of it, bringing justice that rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

May it be so, God. May it be so. Amen.

Preached March 22, 2020, online, for the community of Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Lent 4
Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-13, Psalm 89:1-4, Mark 12:28-44.

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