About this time in the semester, with four weeks to go, some of us might readily identify with the widow of Zarephath: more is expected than we can give or think we can give. There may even be some panic around the edges or at least a little worry that we do not have enough time or energy or zeal enough to write all the papers that must be written before December 15. Elijah does not ask the widow for much: a little water and just a bite to eat. But she had little left – just enough to make the last meal for herself and her son before they died. Now I grant you that a research paper for Michael Aune or a Steed Davidson Old Testament exam may be more than a morsel. But the challenge may feel like the widow’s dilemma: how to give everything we have before crumpling in a heap on December 16.
The gap between what we believe we have and what we have to do is often a matter of perception. When we are swamped or bone tired or sick of reading what we do not understand or when we feel like the ‘tank is empty’, whatever is asked of us is too much. We simply do not have enough left inside to do the work required. Call it a ‘shortfall in the soul.’ For the widow, the drought in the land meant there was not enough water to drink or grain to eat. For us, when we are afraid we do not have enough to do what we have to do, the drought is within. This ‘shortfall in the soul’ may be the result of a dry period without watering enough to sustain faith.
What is striking in the widow’s story is that Elijah does not condemn her despair --- or her worry. She simply can’t let fear stop her. What Elijah says to the widow might well be a mantra for the end of the term anxiety. DO NOT BE AFRAID. Trust that in the abundance of God there will be enough even when we have hardly anything left to work with or at least believe our theological pantry is empty. Don’t be afraid to what you must do.
The widow of Zarephath was obligated to respond first to Elijah’s request because of the custom of hospitality. It was not an option. Elijah was not abusive or unkind toward a poor widow in her affliction. She had to honor the request of a foreigner because social life and the common good of the time depended on providing hospitality to travelers in the time before McDonald’s and Ramada Inns. Before she and her son prepared to die, she had to feed a stranger. Getting papers done – whether we believe we have anything to say or not – is another kind of obligation – or custom if you will. Faculty are not abusive or unkind. We call these obligations academic requirements. And like the widow, it is what we must do – first. We are to honor our obligations. Those obligations will not be the same as showing hospitality to a stranger but they are likely to be as costly.
The widow Zarephath’s crisis and our end of term academic anxiety are challenging parables for a life of faith and for ministry. The miracle for the widow is that there was enough meal and oil until the rain’s come because of God’s abundance. This is not permanent entitlement or lifetime security for the widow and her son: it is provisional sustenance – that God sends. Like scarcity, abundance is in the eyes of the beholder. When you are poor or short of time and energy, a little more is a lot. Even if it is only provisional until the next rain. Preachers of a prosperity gospel have over-emphasized the promise of Jesus that we will have life abundant. The overriding theme of the biblical story is not the promise that we will be prosperous but rather that we live as faithfully as we can trusting God’s abundance – that there will be enough for the journey if or when – and maybe especially when – it does not seem so.
This is a sermon about two widows. The widow of Zarephath gave all she had and God provided for her until the rains came. In the Gospel story, Jesus observes a poor widow dropping her penny in the chest and praises her generosity. Jesus presumes she gave her last penny and contrasts her generosity with those who give out of their superfluity. Here is how a Dutch pastor – Nico ter Linden – puts it.
“This story is about more than mercy. In contrast to the aloof men against whom Jesus has just been issuing a warning, this woman bears witness to her complete surrender to God. It isn’t without significance that Mark has put this story at the end of his Gospel, just before he tells of Jesus suffering. ..It was this widow, with her self-suffering and trust in God, who now strengthened Jesus, too, to give his life.” 123
In contrast to the widow of Zarephath, the temple widow’s generosity is voluntary. We presume that she was under no obligation to give her two small copper coins. Jesus concludes that the widow’s two coins were more than all the contributions of the rich. The message for discipleship is clear. There is no room for stinginess. God’s love holds nothing back. We are to do likewise. We are to mimic the irrepressible generosity of God with our lives for the sake of the Gospel. And if we do, as Jesus begins to tell in the next chapter of Mark, there will be trouble for followers of God.
Some of you remember Joel Wudel. Until recently last spring, he was VP for Seminary Relations at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. In June, he married for the first time at age 56. After many false starts and avoidance techniques, he fell absolutely, head-over-heels in love with Kari Sansgaard, a pastor in Boise, Idaho. They were engaged in a matter of weeks. To be with her and to start their new life together, he left everything – including a job at PLTS he loved. At their wedding each guest received a champagne flute like this engraved with the words: Spill Yourself. It was Joel’s way of expressing the absolute trust, the boundless energy, the unreserved commitment that comes with falling deeply, truly in love – holding nothing back. So spill yourself.
Spilling yourself is not just a description of falling in love: it is about our life as followers of God. It is the way of the two widows in our lessons today. And we are all like widows in the world. Our situation is perilous and our resources few. Still we spill yourselves in study and love and work because what we do matters to God who has called us to this work.
We are also able to spill ourselves because you don’t do it alone. We don’t know if the temple widow heard the praise of Jesus. Maybe one of the scribes said something to her but I doubt it. It was her walking with God that prompted her generous gift in the beginning. The widow of Zarephath learned in a dramatic way that Elijah walked with her when her only son took sick and God answered the plea of Elijah to restore him to life. God’s abundance will override our scarcity and God’s generosity will sustain our frail, fragile souls when we falter from fatigue or fearfulness. Spilling ourselves is how God walks with us and how we walk with God.
William Vanstone, a British theologian, has describes God’s spilling in a book on the Risk of Love:
Love that gives gives ever more.
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
God loves like that – spilling out, holding back nothing, sparing nothing. We too spill ourselves out in love in the confidence that day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, the mercies of God will forever and forever attend us. Day by day, no matter what happens to us, God will hold us ever in God’s hand. Hymn 790. Would you remain seated as we sing the sermon hymn.
Hello everyone, some of you don’t know me yet and so to avoid the scenario where you wonder to one another who I am and why the heck I’m preaching for the whole sermon, I thought I should start by introducing myself.
My name is Amber, nowadays I hang out in the admissions office right over in Giesy, but merely seven to eleven years ago I was a student here and have since been serving a parish in two little villages in upstate New York. I spent a fantastic five years there and if you are ever offered a call there, I recommend you follow the spirit and go!
That said, I am happy to be here and happy to be back in California. This is a great time of year to have returned to. You see fun things here around the end of October and the beginning of November!
Just the other day, I looked out my front window and saw a schoolgirl, maybe twelve years old carrying what looked like a Mayan pyramid, made of shoes boxes, painted a sort of sand color (good for her, a Mayan pyramid might be the only type of diorama that makes sense made out of shoes boxes – it is already kind of stair-stepped, you know!) A+, kid! Anyway it had marigolds and tiny little skeletons and skulls all over it...and I stifled my first thought, which was that she needed some serious pastoral care....and was pleased instead to realize that her cultural study project at school this fall must have to do with the Día de los Muertos. The day of the dead!
You’ve seen, I bet, some references to this around the bay area or in other places. In California, Mexico and a few other places to the south, All Saints and All Souls days correspond with the day of the dead. A day when people traditionally decorate with skeletons and dance in funny ways, make special foods, all to poke fun at death. They laugh at death and dying. Which seems odd until you realize that they aren't the only ones. I'm not sure about anyone else but I noticed lots of pint-sized ghosts and ghouls around town last week. Many of our youngest and most innocent dressed in death's disguise, running around asking for something sweet... Halloween grows from a similar tradition and it might be a lot of people’s very favorite little festival.
I remember the best costume we ever had as kids growing up for Halloween. It would have been great for the Day of the Dead when they dress like skeletons and do the skeleton's dance. My mother, who is pretty crafty, took a pair of all black pajamas and traced bones onto them in white, ribs and shoulder sockets, femurs and fingers bones, spine and sternum, the whole thing! She put my brother in it and painted his face white with black around his eyes and nose. He was a skeleton and a good one!
Scary! And I loved it. Boy I couldn't wait to grow into that costume. But how morbid really, dressing a seven-year-old as a skeleton [wink at mother in the congregation] So much of Halloween and other similar celebrations around the world is morbid, but it is supposed to be, because it is related to the day we are commemorating today, All Saints, a day when the church talks about death and dying.
And we talk about it for good reasons. One, death is a reality that we can't get away from. People die, all people, period. Some people are afraid of that, some people welcome it, some people are indifferent to it but all do it. We all do it! So we talk about it because it is a fact of life, Christian life and otherwise. More importantly though, we talk about it because we have something to say about it. We have had something to say about it since the day we were baptized.
Being just out of the parish I thought I had some great stories to tell you about just what it is we have to say about it, and I do. I’ll tell you one story in a minute. But I had that thought long ago (on Friday afternoon when Dr. Aune asked if I would preach here this morning) and that was before yesterday. Actually before Sunday when my parents – yes, you’ve already heard about them once already today – but they’re on my mind because on Sunday they drove down from the very northern part of Idaho and are sitting Right there....
They drove down and told me about my grandmother, who was dying. And my mother was with her a few days ago, out in the hall of the care facility that she was in, when she heard my grandmother Dorothy yelling...her own name. Over and over: Dorothy...she would call. Then a minute later, Dorothy...mom and the nurses waited a few moments before they went in to finally ask just what she was doing.
Why are you calling your own name? She said, I’m calling up to heaven, to make sure that they know that I’m coming. To ask if they will let me in now.
I’m calling my name to heaven.
Now I didn’t catechize her, so don’t blame me if your theological mind immediately jumps to the flaw in that theology. Rather hear what I know from what she was doing that she needed to know that death wasn’t the one who was holding the power. She needed to know that someone else knew her name.
And now while I’ve diverged into confessions of the failures in orthodoxy of a parish pastor, let me tell you about Frank before we move on.
There was a time a couple years ago when I thought perhaps I should look into renting out an on-call room at the local hospital because at least then my toothbrush and phone charger could join me in my new residency there. It seemed parishioner after parishioner was parading through.
In the midst of that on one day in particular, I met a funny and heartwarming scene. A very old man, who had been just heartbroken since his wife had died a month before was finally about to go home to her. He was in some pain (that’s what he would say; it was excruciating is what the doctors told me) and he had his almost-as-aged sister beside him each and every day, his kids gathered too when they could. But on this day they were all there and he met me with a great big grin as I entered the room.
The grin was because two things had happened since I’d seen him last. The first was that I had agreed to baptize him. (This is the true confessions part.) He had been a Lutheran since marriage, attending church and communing every time it was offered as was directed by his strong wife Esther, but somehow it had slipped the knowledge of myself and several former pastors that he had never actually been baptized and neither had his siblings. And now he desperately wanted to be. So I came ready with water and candles, prepared to turn the hospital room into a baptismal chapel.
Now the other reason for the grin is more amusing and because I know he liked to laugh even up to the end, I think he’d like me telling you about it. Surely if we can pray with the saints we can laugh with them too!
You see he was in a condition and on some medications that made him very uncomfortable; everything that touched his skin was intensely irritating. The hospital gown with its rough fabric, ties, strings and snaps and tendency to bunch up under his fragile skin was especially offensive. The smooth hospital sheets were much more tolerable. So with a chuckle as I walked into the room and the sheets adjusted carefully, his son explained to me, as dad grinned along – I think a little pleased to make the pastor blush – that he had decided to leave the world just like he came into it,
Without a damned hospital gown on!
The result then of these two developments, and perhaps the reason for the grin was that then, after some giggling and fidgeting, re-arranging and improvising, I got the amazing, breathtaking honor of baptizing a man the age of my great grandfather clad in a toga made of hospital bed sheets, hand in hand with his nearly-just-as-aged sister with his adult children all around.
And in that clean white baptismal garment and in the waters of baptism it was clear to all of us that that saint had finally found relief for the deepest physical and spiritual discomfort of his life.
And we knew that we were on holy ground, there with doctors, nurses and alarms and bright lights all around us. Calling Frank, child of God, you have been sealed with the cross of Christ forever. He too needed, I think, for someone to know that his name was known.
It is good that we baptize babies as a sign that it is something a person can never do for themselves, that God does for them, that you aren’t the one who has to check with heaven to make sure you are known. But babies squirm and cry, babies are sometimes afraid of the water or the sound, or the scratchy white baptismal garment that we make them wear. And their parents are stressed about the party to come and the diaper on the kid and so on. So it is rare that we get so clear a picture as the one in that hospital room of the intense promise and peace, the very relief to our souls that comes with being completely claimed by God. So completely that we die with Christ and are raised again. And it feels good, it is good!
So we talk about death because it is a fact of life, but More importantly we talk about it because we have something to say about it.
Lazarus, a dear friend Jesus had been sick for a while and died and Jesus was not by his bedside. The sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus of their brother's illness but he had not made it in time to help or even to say goodbye. The scripture doesn't say why he didn't go when he first heard that, but it is clear that Jesus wasn't concerned about being there before Lazarus died, perhaps because he knew that death wouldn't have the last word, that death never has the last word.
In addition to that, however, the fact was that Jesus had been driven out of the town where Lazarus lived. The people of Judea had tried to kill Jesus and so he and his disciples were doing what they could to steer clear of the place. But when Lazarus died Jesus, heard the painful pleas of Mary and Martha, he heard the news of Lazarus and he went, against the urging of many, back into Judea where he was a wanted man.
It seems that Jesus went in large part to comfort those who were mourning or for comfort because he himself was mourning. When He shows up the mourners are angry, they cry, Lord if only you had been here, he wouldn't have died. And so He walks with them and talks with them. He accepts their anger and finally he even cries with them. And then, when he is overly distraught at the whole situation, he raises their brother from the dead. Proof that death really has no power.
And how did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? The same way we promise new life in baptism. By calling his name. Lazarus get up, come out.
All Saints Day in the lectionary shares texts with our funeral services. We use what pastors in parishes use from funerals on this unique day of the year where we remember the saints who have gone before.
And at the beginning of any funeral service we remember that we are all, including those who have died, baptized into Christ, which means that we die with Christ and then we are raised to new life in Christ. Lazarus was one of several people whom the Bible tells us Jesus raised from the dead. We don't know much about the others or even much about Lazarus, we don't know how long they stayed alive, we don't know how happy they were to be alive. We do know that they died eventually.
The point of their being raised, even the point of the resurrection of Jesus, was not to say in God you are impervious to all pain and death, illness and grief.
No, the point of Jesus death and resurrection is that even in the mystery of death, God is so closely tied to us that God can whisper “walk” and we will. He can call us forward even from the tomb and we will live again. In death and even more, in life, the Lord whispers “have peace” and we do, “be comforted” and we shall.
All Saints Day, the Day of the Dead, Halloween, they all exist because we have something to say about death.
As Christians we say death in all its forms, pain, sin, sickness, fear, destruction, evil, devastation, despair – you name the one on your mind – doesn't have the last word, ever.
The saints bless us, some of those who set the best example because they know the name of God and how to speak it in our ears.
But the saints are each blessed simply, we are all blest simply, because the Lord knows our names.
That last word it turns out, is the same as the first word we hear as we are baptized into Christ. Our name, called by God and the saints in glory.
This is good news, thanks be to God. Amen.
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; I Thess. 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
On the scale of issues that are really important in our lives as Christians together, I’m not sure liturgical colors are even in the top half. I’ve often thought arguing over shades of purple or blue is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but I still find myself drawn in because, in the end, I do care!
This past Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, I was not being a supply priest at a parish anywhere so I went to church with my family, to a local Roman Catholic parish. The Advent wreath was very creative, hanging horizontally from the ceiling in the middle of the space with tall poles attached to the corners of pews with the actual candles – in the same area as the wreath. But it was the colors that caught my attention – in the front of the church the banners and altar cloths included two shades of blue and pink and purple – clearly they had opted for “all of the above.” But wait, it gets better – the opening procession came to the middle of the nave and stopped for the blessing of the Advent wreath. All the families who had made Advent wreaths for home were asked to gather around and hold them up for a blessing too – and when the children (for the most part) held up their wreaths there were wreaths with blue and white, blue and purple, all pink, all purple, white and purple, white and blue, all white, and a number of them with all 4 colors available in the candle selection – all I could think of was “what have we created?”
The liturgy progressed, with the brand new parish priest, and with great integrity and clarity about the Advent focus of the first Sunday – not looking back to the first coming of Christ, but looking to the second coming of Christ – hard to avoid if one is hearing the readings that we hear again today: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…” But Advent is messy – at best multivalent, at worse downright confusing.
We’ve been hearing scripture about endings for weeks now – about heaven, hell, death, and judgment…next week we’ll make a shift to the proclamation about the coming of Christ by remembering the adult life and ministry of Jesus: “prepare the way of the Lord…all flesh shall see the salvation of God”; in the third week we ask with John the forerunner, “how shall we prepare the way of the Lord?” The answer was and is challenging, do justice – live for others not yourself. And then we arrive at the 4th week of Advent where we are invited to reflect on a model, live for others as if your salvation was dependent on it, as did Mary. And in the midst of these gospel guideposts, we move through the historical inheritance of a season that remembers almost simultaneously three comings of Christ: the incarnation, the first coming; the parousia, the second coming; and the daily coming of Christ, into our lives, into our world. The ancient Aramaic call, maran atha, can be manipulated in its two primary words, “Lord,” and “come” to mean the past and present comings of Jesus, along with an imperative which neatly covers the future coming also…so the complexity of what becomes the foci of Advent is not new-apparently we’ve been confused for centuries. In all this, we know what the history of purple in Advent is – the royal color of the King, who comes to judge, along with the rose pink of rejoicing – the break from the necessary preparations of penance and reconciliation. We know of the modern preference for blue, with its medieval whispers of Mary and the new identification with hope, and, while we’re at it, we should recall the Bavarian and Alpine preference for red and the Scandinavian and Slavic preference for white, and throw those into the mix.
Perhaps this unsettling abundance of colors, of focus, of message, of practice, is the perfect reminder that living sacramentally, living liturgically, is not neat – coming to Christ is not tidy, living in Christ is not simple, standing up to face our redemption is not easy. This is a messy business and Advent a perfect opportunity for the praxis of holding the complexities of salvation in tension. This may be the real danger in letting the experts get hold of Advent – their need to eliminate the messiness, the duplications, the contradictions and make it simple: it’s not about penance and sin, it’s about hope and joy; it’s about Christmas and babies, not death and judgment, it’s about decorating and family time, not wilderness and crazy prophets, it’s about now as the fullness of time, not some imaginary judgment and heaven to come. These are themes championed by a number of church leaders today – along with the desire to replace the somewhat disturbing images of November and early December’s scripture readings with something more palatable to today’s hearers.
This past Sunday’s readings must be at the top of the list of disturbing readings from this perspective, apocalyptic readings rooted in both ancient Judaism and Christianity. Apocalypse – to uncover, to reveal – but what revelation here and now? Certainly we hear the surety of God’s presence: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise…” The descriptions are different, the reception is different, but our readings very much swirl around what is to be fulfilled-the day of the Lord-and that anticipation and preparation is rooted in the righteousness of God that is our own righteousness. One strand of interpretation for the English word “righteous” is from the Latin through the Anglo-Saxon – to be just or righteous is to be upright. Our readings are woven about with this image of righteousness – “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…”, “may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God…”, “gracious and upright is the Lord…to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul”.
When I hear these readings I think of the frequent interpretation of the need for individuals to prepare, to anticipate in this Advent season for personal fulfillment and salvation. But Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, similar to a concern in the letter to the Colossians, is to “restore whatever is lacking in…faith” , or in Colossians 1:24, “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” In this strand the self-giving, the justice, the righteousness, is to strengthen the whole body, the communion of the body of Christ, to stand together before God with our similarities and our differences, our complexity and our messiness, our diversities of faith and commitment. Prepare the way of the Lord, for all people, because our redemption is drawing near. Is this not righteousness in God, in the body, because we, together, are made in the image of God, God, who is pure communion, gracious and upright. This, surely, is meet and right, a good and joyful thing, our duty and our joy, in all times and in all places – to meet our God today, together, and throughout this season.
A couple of years ago, our new stewardship chairperson agreed to lead a stewardship campaign, "as long as we don't talk about money." Interested in year-round giving of ourselves, he explained that he "wasn't a finance guy." "Well, at least it's a place to start," I thought to myself.
Over the course of a year of stewardship themes, Bible studies and temple talks, our leadership experienced epiphanies. Lynne Twist's book, The Soul of Money, was pivotal in moving us from a scarcity mentality about the resources God has given us to a sense of enough. Twist explains that openness is key, whether money flows or trickles at this point in our lives. There's no excuse to turn the tap off, cutting ourselves off from the flow of life.
While Twist was addressing money, we also struggle with a sense of scarcity about time. Running late, running out of it, running away to find it...always running. Plus, somehow it seems like those who are making good money pay for it in lost free time for Sabbath rest.
Personally and in my pastoral leadership, I found myself getting out from under a sense of suspicion about money. Instead of mistrusting people whose bottom line is to make money, I've landed on a sustained neutrality that money is just another resource for ministry.
Within that year of spiritual growth for us, we soon came to a point when the stewardship team was asking me to talk directly about money and to let the congregation know how much money my family donated. There was a secrecy around financial giving, yet my salary and benefits were voted on every year by the congregation. The lop-sided nature of information inadvertently fueled assumptions that I was wanting a generous salary (Synod guildelines), instead of generously supporting our ministry. Honing in on that sense of secrecy was the prelude to the epiphany: privacy had become an unhealthy secrecy, in general, around finances at church.
During the next year, as a sense of God's abundance continued to take root in our congregation, one of our stewardship team members revealed the next insight. During a temple talk, he asked the question: when does saving become hoarding?
To this moment, these are the questions I still discern, because we cross these lines inadvertently. When does financial privacy become an unhealthy secrecy, and when does saving become hoarding what God has given us to use?
These articles is from the December 2012 issue of Above The Fog, the PLTS monthly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe, and receive great articles and seminary news right in your inbox.