Beware of the Church

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.”

5415274279_d581c23043_b

The story of the Widow’s gift of the two small copper coins is a favorite among pastors for their stewardship sermons. All of the perfect details are there to entice, and guilt, a congregation into giving more money as they follow the example of the widow. It does not matter how much you make, but what you do with what you make! Pastors will be clear about thanking the rich for making their offering, but they will emphasize how even the poor have money to give.

But the story is much more complicated than that.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. “Watch out for those scribes and priests. You know the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in the marketplaces? You know those ministers and preachers who love to get the seats of honor at banquets? They are the type of people who prey on the widows and for the sake of appearance will fill their prayers with big and long words. They are not praying out of faithfulness but out of expectation and perception. Watch out for them.”

Then he immediately gathered around the treasury and watched as people filed in line to drop off their donations. Many rich people lined up, proud of the donation they were about to make publicly, but then a poor widow came up and put in two small copper coins, coins that amounted to a penny. Jesus pulled the disciples close and said, “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: her whole life.”

Is the widow an example of profound faith? Of course she is. She embodies the call to witness to God’s faithfulness by returning her gifts to the Lord, recognizing that the Lord will truly provide. She sacrifices deeply and stands as a worthy saint to be modeled after.

But does Jesus point her out to the disciples because of her worthy example of sacrifice, or does he point her out as a tragic example of how religious institutions can fail the people they are supposed to protect?

St. Mary’s Cathedral is a beautiful church in San Francisco that stands as a beacon of beauty and power to the people of the local community. For years its steeple has cut across the horizon as a worthy witness to God’s power. It is the kind of church that is filled with wealthy and put together people who want to hear about God’s love and grace. The parking lot is filled with expensive cars Sunday after Sunday. And they rarely worry about the future of the church because they believe God has a plan for them.

The church is also known for its beautiful and gothic architecture. The alcoves have been carved with deliberate care and focus and you can’t help but marvel when you see the structure. However, the beautiful alcoves create a problem for the church because homeless men, women, and children like to sleep in them to stay out of the rain. For some time the church attempted to turn a blind eye to the homeless who would gather on the property every night, but it got to the point where the lingering smell was so strong on Sunday mornings that the leaders of the church were worried about losing some of their strongest financial givers.

The church decided to install a sprinkler system in the ceilings of the three major alcoves in order to deter the homeless population from staying in them. Every night, from the time the Sun goes down until the early morning, the sprinklers will turn on for 75 seconds every 30 minutes for the pure and simple purpose of removing the people from where they gather. This church, in a state suffering from a tremendous drought, believed that installing the sprinkler system was the right thing to do.

Is that church an example of faithfulness? Or is it a tragic example of how the church has failed the people its supposed to protect?

Can you imagine how strange it would be to hear about this story from the gospel of Mark on a Sunday when the preacher asks for you to give more? I wrestle with how difficult it is to encourage generosity, particularly from those who are already sacrificing so much to the church. To be perfectly frank, the poor and vulnerable are often the strongest givers to the church and if the church fails to be good stewards of their gift, then we are failing our purpose.

Throughout the bible, both the Old and New Testaments, most of God’s anger is kindled against people who preserve their own wealth and power at the expense of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. God commands the Israelites to not pick up the crops they drop in the fields so that the sojourner has something to eat. Just about every prophet addresses how the wealthy leaders neglected their responsibility to the poor and underprivileged. Even in the gospels, Jesus specifically references money and the care of it in regard to the last, least, and lost, more than almost any other ethical claim.

What we do with our money is incredibly important, particularly because we are supposed to use our blessings to bless others.

The church can only be a faithful place for the giving of gifts when we heed Jesus’ call to care for the outcast. If we were the kind of church that installed a sprinkler system to remove homeless people from sleeping under our bell tower, then we would have no right to ask for people to give generously because we would have failed to be the church.

RNitcfC

The church has little use for hypocrites; the world already has enough. For far too long we have missed the value of this story from scripture and have perpetuated a system whereby the pretentious and powerful show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate.

I know it sounds strange to hear someone, particularly a pastor who wears a long robe, talk about hypocrisy in the church, when I am standing in this high pulpit for everyone to see. I know that it sounds strange to hear a sermon entitled “Beware of the Church,” while you are sitting in a church. But if we aren’t willing to be generous for the sake of God and others (more than ourselves), then we have no business calling ourselves “the church” in the first place.

There was once another church in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. They gathered in one of the Sunday school rooms and bickered back and forth about who they could hit up for more money this year. They debated about how much money they would need to bring in in order to buy new brass flower holders next to the altar. They argued about whether the pastor should know who gave what and how much.

The meeting got to such a boiling point that they never came to any conclusions about what to do, and the argument spilled into the parking lot as they prepared to leave. However, sitting on the front steps of the church was a homeless man holding out a cup for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing in the parking lot.

After some time had passed he stood up from the steps, walked over to one of the older women, grabbed her by the hand, dumped the few dollars and spare change he had received and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

In the story from scripture, the widow’s gift is great because of her sacrifice. She is worthy of our attention and focus, but her sacrifice would not have been as much of a struggle if the wealthy and religious elite had done what they could to comfort the afflicted. The whole religious system had become perverted during the time of Jesus. It did not protect the widows, the poor, and the vulnerable. Instead, it lived off of them.

po9rbwd

Giving money and sacrificing to the church is a good and righteous thing to do, but only when the church uses the gifts as Jesus commands us. Feeding the hungry and providing clothing to the poor is an important thing to do, but we have to see that not as just a program or opportunity, but see it as the very life that flows from our worship.

This church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. But we strive for transparency in our finances and a commitment to serving those in need. We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. We believe that God can use us to change this community and the world.

Because the truth is, we can’t take our money with us to heaven. But we can use it here and now to make people feel a little bit of heaven on earth. Amen.

Advertisements

Devotional – Hebrews 7.23-24

 

Devotional:

Hebrews 7.23-24

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.
Weekly Devotional Image

Full disclosure: There is temptation in ministry. There is the temptation to believe that you are the only one with the ability to save others. There is the temptation of power to control every single little element in the life of the church. And there is the temptation of becoming more important than the Lord you serve.

It happens a lot.

After weeks of a particular strong sermon series, a pastor’s ego can swell from all the compliments she hears. During the reception following a wedding, a pastor’s pride can cast a huge shadow over the guests. The habits of worship can lead to a pastor pointing to himself far more than he points to the cross. Temptation affects pastors just as much as everyone else.

Yet, pastors/priests/ministers come and go. I can remember hearing a couple of the ushers from my home church arguing about a particular pastor’s sermon and their frustration with how much longer he would remain “in charge of the church.” For weeks they spent time during every worship service venting their frustrations and they began to compare him to all of the “better pastors from the past.” They would say things like “he used to do it this way,” and “he made me feel better when I left church,” and “he used to tell the best stories.” This went on and on until one of the ushers could no longer stand to hear all of this take place during church and said, “We’re not supposed to be here for the pastor; we’re supposed to be here for Jesus.”

9.6.IsJesusSeniorPastorOfChurch_464334126

The writer of Hebrews rightly shows the difference between priests and Jesus. Ministers/Priests/Pastors are many in number because we eventually come to the end of our time, but Jesus holds his priesthood permanently and continues forever. This one line from Hebrews is a sobering reminder for all who have been called to the ministry to remember that we are called to point to the Lord who reigns forever and ever. We can do a lot of wonderful and marvelous things for the churches we serve, but we are only as good as we are willing to remember the one from whom all blessings flow.

Similarly, this passage from Hebrews is a reminder to everyone in the church about who is really “in charge.” If we are serious about the commitments and covenants we have made as Christians we will remember that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We will listen to the words of our pastors but will always remember the distinction between their words and God’s Word. And we will remember that even minister are broken by the powers of temptation and are in need of God’s divine grace.

Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.

All-Saints-Day-candles

Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.

I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.

Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.

green-funerals-green-resting-place

No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.

For instance:

The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?

There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.

Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.

Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.

I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word. 

Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.

What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.

Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.

On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.

Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?

SinnerSaint-2

Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.

God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.

The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:

When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.

But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.

So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.

Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.

And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.

Amen.