Revealing the Layers of Living Generously

Layers of Living GenerouslyA sermon preached for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 12:38-44 on November 11, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

In the first Shrek movie, there’s a scene where Shrek and donkey are on their journey to rescue the princess and Shrek tries to convince the donkey that there’s more to ogres than just being mean and nasty. Shrek says, “There’s a lot more to ogres than people think--ogres are like onions--they have layers!”

Our Gospel reading, often called the “Widow’s Mite,” is a story with several layers. Today, I’m going to try something different and describe the layers of meaning and see where it leads us. I invite you to listen for what connects with you in each layer as we consider this “mite” of an offering the widow brings, which means a very tiny amount.
The first layer is, the widow is a model of generosity. She doesn’t have much, but that doesn’t stop her from giving what she has. The widow gives not out of her abundance, but out of her necessities—she’s not offering God her leftovers, but she offers what we call “sacrificial giving.” Even though it’s only a penny, she will notice it and miss it because it’s all she has. It’s not an accident we read this text in Stewardship season when we are preparing next year’s budget and being encouraged to support it; the widow and her tiny offering gives us a model for what it looks like to “Live Generously,” our stewardship theme for this year.

When we peel back that layer of meaning we notice the contrast Jesus draws between the powerful and the poor—between the appearance of righteousness and the reality of righteousness. The religious leaders, in this case, the scribes, like accolades and public recognition; by contrast, the widow just comes forward, unnoticed by anyone except Jesus to make her offering of one penny. This is a dangerous text for me since I am the only one in the room wearing a robe and saying long prayers! Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss the application to my own life, I had an experience recently that this text describes. I attended the prayer vigil at Shearith Israel Synagogue after the anti-Semitic shootings in Pittsburgh. It was standing room only with people standing along the wall and in doorways. I stood near front side door on the far side where there were fewer people. A gentleman who noticed my clergy collar got up and gave me his seat—I just received one of the best seats in a synagogue!

Jesus points out the contrast between the religious elite who get their sense of identity and satisfaction from outside themselves in others’ opinions, whereas the widow worships privately and quietly, getting her sense of identity and satisfaction from her inward relationship with God.
The religious professionals are supposed to be righteous, but it’s the widow who actually is righteous. She doesn’t need or expect anyone to notice her and no one does.

Here we notice another layer. In the third layer, we hear Jesus’s critique move from the personal level to the institutional level as he condemns the religious establishment. Jesus’ words are not a judgement of this slice of Jewish history alone, but of the affluent elite and their institutions in any time or culture who accumulate wealth while people in their community go hungry. In addition to being a religious institution, the Temple was also a business that made money from the purchase of animal sacrifices in order to run the institution and provide livelihood for the priests. Often those fees made it difficult for the poor to atone for their sins, not unlike the Indulgences from Martin Luther’s day. Earlier in Mark, Jesus cleansed the Temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers for this very reason. Jesus criticizes this practice of any religion that seeks to accumulate wealth for itself, “devouring widows’ houses,” rather than ensuring justice for its people.
A “just” religion would return the widow’s offering and then add to it to ensure that she, and other vulnerable people had enough to eat.

This brings us to the fourth layer: Jesus looks for and lifts up faithfulness at the bottom. Everyone else is looking at the big sums of money wealthier people are putting in the treasury. That’s what’s impressive to our untrained eyes. We want to see good and therefore God in the big, the flashy, and the dramatic. I drove by Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano for the first time yesterday and I was astounded at how enormous it is. I’m not saying they’re not doing great work, I’m sure they are; I’m admitting that it really caught my attention, and I kept looking at it from every angle as I drove. The big and dramatic captured my attention.
Groom, Texas outside of Amarillo is home to a 190-story cross with life-sized stations of the cross all around it, captivating our attention. There are enormous and gorgeous cathedrals all over the world; the Vatican has about $50 million in gold and precious metals.

We want to experience God in the big and the beautiful—on mountaintops, and in rainbows that span the whole sky. It’s not that God isn’t in all of these places, but that’s not where Jesus looks for a “God-sighting.” Jesus sees God where we never think to look—at the bottom, not the top. Jesus finds faithfulness in the offering of a penny, in a lost sheep, in a mustard seed, in a grateful leper who was healed, in salt and light and leaven, in a criminal beside him on a cross. Jesus has a bias for the bottom—he looks for God in the small and insignificant. To see the righteous and the faithful, Jesus looks down, not up.

The fifth layer brings us back to the one who offered that penny from the bottom—the widow who gives not just her resources, but she gives her whole being to God. Jesus says that the widow, “out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” She gave her God her all, her whole self—not just her copper coins, but she gave her whole life, entrusting it to God.

As we recognize our veterans today, we see that this is the kind of trust our veterans and those serving in the armed forces today give to God—you can’t enlist in the military, and not put your whole life and being in God’s hands. That’s what the widow did—maybe she would live another day, maybe she wouldn’t—but she left that up to God.

When we pull back a final layer, we find we’re back to Jesus. The widow’s offering of her whole self—her whole being—is a foreshadowing of Jesus himself. In her, we see a glimpse of Jesus’ own offering on the cross for us, where he gave all that he had—his very life, body and spirit—entrusting himself to God and surrendering his life for our sake.

The widow lives where Jesus lives—in the heart of God—entrusting everything to him—and that’s where generosity flows, that’s where the peace that passes all understanding comes. Living in the heart of God as the source of our being and identity means we can entrust God with our whole life—our needs, our livelihood, our body and spirit—and that’s when generosity flows, that’s when we Live Generously, no matter how much we have to give.

As we peel back the layers of the story, we join the widow and Jesus living in the heart of God. With them, we trust that God’s might covers our mite as we offer our whole being to God.


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Beyond "If"

Beyond IfA sermon preached for All Saints Day on John 11:32-44 on November 4, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

One of the harshest words when we’re struggling with grief and the death of someone we love is, if. “If’s” can haunt us in the throes of grief: "If he had tried a different medicine...If I had one more chance to talk with her…If I would have done what I said I was going to do before he died…If we would have found out about the tumor sooner…" If, if, if.

My husband, Dan’s sister, Cynthia died of a congenital heart defect at age thirty-five. Last week we marked the 25th anniversary of her death. Today, doctors would have fixed the hole in heart in utero, but Cynthia didn’t have heart surgery until the age of 7, and her system was compromised. It turns out she lived to the exact life expectancy of someone with her condition. Even so, my mother-in-law, Joan was so troubled by “if’s” after Cynthia died. “If only I helped her more with the directions she got from her different doctors. If only I had gone to all her appointments with her. If only I had been with her that day.” And there were so many times we heard her lament, “If only I had thought of diuretics to take the pressure off her heart. Why didn’t I think of diuretics?”

No one expected Dan’s mom to have come up with the right medical answer for Cynthia, even if there was one. But that’s the irrationality of grief. We bargain, negotiate and imagine different outcomes if—if only we could go back and change the past. If only we were omniscient and omnipresent, we would have seen what was coming and made a different choice before our loved one died. We grieve the physical loss of the person, and then we lament our powerlessness to prevent death. If there is one area of life where we must confront our own powerlessness, it is in the face of death. Imagining “if’s” and ways we could have prevented death is like standing on the beach and shouting at the ocean to stop the waves.

At the death of her brother Lazarus, Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, lamenting his absence and her powerlessness in the face of death. “If” is the second word out of her mouth, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha said exactly the same thing earlier, “If you had come right away, Jesus; if you had made a different choice—things could have turned out differently.”

When Jesus learns that Lazarus is ill, he waits two more days before coming to Bethany. Mary and Martha had good reason to be mad. Jesus could have come sooner. He could have prevented Lazarus’s death. But instead of coming early for a miracle of healing, Jesus comes later, explaining that it is to show God’s glory. Jesus repeats this to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

We might jump to the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection as the real sign of God’s glory that Jesus has in mind, but I think God’s glory begins a little earlier with Jesus’s emotional reaction. He is greatly disturbed and moved and begins to weep, to weep for his now dead friend. And so, the beginning of God’s glory is in God’s identification with, and participation in our suffering and grief. What does it mean for you that Jesus weeps with you in your grief, is moved deeply in your sadness, and joins with your family and community in your lament? Is this not the very reason the God of the universe pressed down into human DNA—into finiteness and limitation—so that we might know that God knows what it is to weep, to rage against death, and to be caught in the swirling “if’s” of what might have been? Isn’t Jesus’ expression of emotional pain a sign of the immediacy and intimacy of God’s glory, as are a stable and a bed of hay, the rough hands of a carpenter washing his friends’ feet, the simplicity of bread and wine and blessing?

From this stance of solidarity with human sadness and powerlessness in the face of death, Jesus moves toward the tomb, and more than any other miracle story, Jesus asks for help. Jesus asks for the participation of the community. First, he asks for someone to “take away the stone”—a foreshadowing of his own resurrection (well this whole story is a foreshadowing of Jesus resurrection!).

After offering a prayer of thanksgiving, Jesus then calls Lazarus forth by name, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man walks out. In this moment we see that in Jesus, we have life with God now and later—we have life with God on this side of the grave, and we have life with God beyond the grave—God’s glory is seen on both sides of the death. Jesus stands with us, weeps with us, and strengthens us in this life—and Jesus prepares a place for us in heaven through his power over death.

But the miracle doesn’t end there. Lazarus is bound with the grave cloths of death, wrapped around his hands and feet and head. Jesus asks for help from the community once again, “unbind him and let him go!” Lazarus’s resurrected life does not begin until the community unwraps him and releases him. Why does Jesus wait two days until after Lazarus has died? Maybe, just maybe, Jesus wanted to focus Mary and Martha’s attention, and ours, not on scrambling to prevent a death over which we have no control, not on swirling in regret, and not agonizing over “what if’s,” but instead, on participating in life, aiding in resurrection, and helping with the miracles God is working in the midst of life’s grief. And there’s the fullness of God’s glory—in the community who joins Jesus in completing the miracle of new life by unbinding another.

Grief is real and expressing its emotions is essential, but that’s not where God calls us to remain. Jesus calls to participate in life, even in the midst of our sadness. This is what eventually happened with my mother-in-law, Joan. She never got over the sadness of Cynthia’s death, of course. But she let go of the “if’s” because God called her and Dan’s Dad, a Presbyterian minister, to new ministries, even in retirement. Through this bigger heart of compassion created by her grief, Joan helped unbind others whose hearts were broken. God called her to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping the miracle of healing for others, and thereby revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.

How do we help unbind those caught in the stench of death, “what if’s?” and the “if only’s?”

For our Jewish neighbors in the aftermath of the anti-semitic murders in Pittsburgh, we can bring the gift of our own sadness and worship with them, stand with them, praying with and for them. In so doing, we can help unbind them from the grave cloths in which hatred has tried to wrap them. Jesus calls us to keep participating in life, aiding in resurrection, helping with miracle of healing for others, so that God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through.

Two weeks ago, St. Luke’s hosted a training for Building an Inclusive Church that is fully and unconditionally welcoming of our LGBTQIA+ sisters and brothers. For generations, so many have lived and continue to live in fear of rejection by family, judgement by the church, being fired from their job, denied medical care, or worse, being victims of hate crimes. To make an explicit, public welcome and to hold fast to this banner on the altar that All Are Welcome, no exceptions, is to begin unbinding those grave cloths, and affirming that like Lazarus, there is life and community when you come out. Jesus calls us to help him unbind them from fear and rejection by affirming they are loved by God and welcomed by us, revealing God’s glory and Jesus’ presence.

Today we remember the saints who have gone before us. As we give thanks for the witness of their lives and hold fast to the promise of their resurrection with Christ, we remember that Jesus is life for us here and now, and in the life to come. We cannot stave off death, and we cannot change the past. But we can trust that Jesus weeps with us, and then calls us from larger hearts of compassion, to participate with him in bringing life, aiding resurrection, and helping the miracle of healing as we unbind others. There are “no if’s, ands, or buts about it,” God’s glory and Jesus’ presence shine through us as we help others unwrap life anew.

Image: Unbinding of Lazarus by Anthea Craigmyle (1933-2016)


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Thank you for your Good Behavior: Doing What’s Ours; Letting Go of What Isn’t

Thank you for your Good Behavior Doing Whats Mine Letting Go of What IsntI truly hoped I would graduate from regular oncology check-ups when I moved to Texas. Gratefully, I’d passed the ten-year mark since completing my breast cancer treatment, and I believed I was finally beyond the time frame within which I was most at risk for a recurrence. I knew I wouldn’t be in the five-year class, since I’d had two kinds of cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. But ten years? I thought I was done!

But that’s not what my oncologist in St. Louis said. Instead, I learned about some new risks I had not quite heard before (maybe denial protects us from hearing more than we can handle all at once). Now I know that one reason for me to continue with regular oncology check-ups is that there have been recurrences beyond ten years with my kind of cancer. In addition, one of the chemo drugs I took can cause cardiomyopathy, and as an oncologist, she listened to my heart and other symptoms differently from a regular internist.
This sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I thought I had already dealt with my fear of death, the uncertainty of cancer returning, the dread of treatment, the waiting after tests, and pondering the unknown; instead, I discovered that such fears can resurface even after ten years. As I went through a whole new battery of tests (a full blood panel, an echo-cardiogram, and a PET scan) with my new oncologist in Frisco, I started obsessing about toxic ingredients in personal care and make-up products, constantly trying new ones that were organic and free of anything not approved by the Environmental Working Group. I splurged on a 10-stage water filter when Dan was out of town. I couldn’t control whether I got cancer again, but I could control my environment and what products I used as much as possible.

The fear driving my new obsessions was hard to explain, to name, and to face, partly because they were unexpected after ten years. Dan was mad at me for spending money unnecessarily and I was mad at him for not trying to understand how terrified and alone I felt. But we got there. It took some painful conversation, but I was finally honest about what was churning inside, and he was able to embrace me in it. I have stopped making irrational purchases while burying my feelings; he fills the water filter at night so we have filtered water ready for coffee in the morning.

I went to my new oncologist to get the results of this whole battery of tests, providing my new baseline for health. He is a soft-spoken, balding man with a gentle spirit and a slight Spanish accent who looked at me with a sweet smile and said, “thank you for your good behavior.” All my tests were negative and all my numbers from my white blood cell count to my cholesterol looked great. Such relief!

But the whole experience reminded me not to be lulled into a false sense of control. I am so glad that regular exercise and a careful diet show up in my test results; however, this experience taught me once again that I need to let go of the illusion of control over cancer or anything else that might happen. I can do what is mine to do regarding reasonable and responsible self-care and let go of the future and the “what-ifs,” giving them back to God. In every arena of life, this is the challenge of living a daily life of faith: doing what’s mine and letting go of what isn’t.

PS Please do your monthly self-exams and know your body! I was saved by self-exam because my tumor was in the 10% that did not show up on a mammogram. Remember that men can get breast cancer as well!


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Truth, Pain, Freedom, and A Lifetime Relationship with the Jesus

Truth Pain and Freedom A Lifelong Relationship with JesusA sermon preached for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday on John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28, and Jeremiah 31:31-34 on October 28, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas (I adapted a sermon from Reformation Sunday last year, so this may sound familiar in places!)

We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” In fact, if you google this phrase, you can find hundreds of posters about it on Pinterest.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jesus doesn’t mention that the truth hurts—he seems to skip the part about the pain involved in between knowing the truth and being free.

One of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many situations, is that we are unwilling to feel the pain of facing the truth. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements or doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in the world.

Psychologists write entire books about our defense mechanisms—all the ways we avoid the pain in the truth of who we are: we repress what disturbs us; we project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and hate them; we rationalize our errors, we regress into childhood behaviors and thought-patterns – we can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches when the whole family gets together, and we feel like we’re eight years old again!

And of course, denial, when we simply deny the reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with it. I just wrote about a recent realization of my own denial in the November newsletter (which I will post this week). When I or someone I love seems to be stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them with a smile and say, “you know ‘denial’ is not just a river Egypt!”

When I was in seminary I dated a fellow student—I’ll call him Chuck. We looked like a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I was going to make this relationship work. Chuck’s a great guy and he’s a wonderful pastor, but the truth was that our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves were not that compatible.

But I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone, or the pain of admitting that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a way to really be myself in this relationship. The truth hurts, so I repressed, denied and rationalized my way into trying harder for almost two years.

When I was learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I will never forget the speaker that day who talked about Step 1, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.” He said the problem is that we think we can kick addiction or end a painful situation by just trying harder. But no matter how hard we try, we still fail, and then we repeat the cycle over and over again. Talk about pain.

“The truth is,” he said, “Step 1 happens not by trying harder, but when we admit that we cannot do it at all!” That’s a painful truth—we are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess—and that’s the moment when we become ready to receive help from God. That’s when the feeling of freedom comes over us! Freedom comes when we “let go, and let God.”

That’s what happened in my relationship with Chuck. When I admitted I couldn’t fix or change this relationship by trying harder, or by being someone I’m not, and that I needed God’s help, I was ready to face the truth—that truth came with the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, and the pain of my own limitations.

It was the end of December and bitterly cold in Chicago. Chuck and I talked and cried late into the night because the truth hurts. This was before cell phones, so it would have been unwise for him to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we traded off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn for the air mattress.

We didn’t know that the air mattress had a hole in it, so as I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold, hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, but it was the best night of sleep I’d had in months—because the truth had set me free. I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I finally trusted him with my whole life, even if I graduated from seminary and remained alone (which was my biggest fear). The pain that I couldn’t make my life work at all, was momentary, but the relationship with Jesus lasts for a lifetime.

We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints who seek to be faithful to the truth of who they are, and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, he had to deal with the pain of who he was—having persecuted and killed the early Christians—he endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ, made him free from that pain, and from his former life as a Pharisee.

The pain was momentary, but Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime. Paul experienced that he was justified by grace as a gift, and we are still hearing about his freedom today, two millennia later in our passage from Romans.

Five Hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with pain of his own sin, and the truth that he could not—no matter how hard he tried—not by his own work or merit—make himself right before God.

Would the Reformation have happened if Luther repressed, denied, rationalized, and projected the pain of his sin on someone else, instead of experiencing it, and discovering in the process, forgiveness without price, and grace without merit?

The pain of his sin was momentary, but Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime—even during excommunication from the church and a threat on his life.

Ashlee, Virginia and Rachel, today you are Confirmed as adult members of the Christian faith through this congregation. Even though you are young, we can tell from the Bible verses you chose for today that you are already grappling with the painful truths of human life alongside the hope of our faith.

Ashlee, your passage from Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that “for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven—a time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh.” Virginia, your passage from 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells the painful truth that there will be temptations and testing, but that God is faithful and will give us what we need to endure and come through stronger. Rachel, your passage from Philippians 4 is a beautiful proclamation that when we finally accept that we can’t do life on our own, we can ask God for whatever we need, and that with the freedom of grace, we receive the peace that passes all understanding.

Amazingly, you three young women already know that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t give us an escape valve from the hardships or pain of this life, but rather, that our faith strengthens us through them, giving us a freedom and peace we cannot create or grasp on our own.

So I encourage you not to be afraid of the truth—the truth of who you are, the truth of how God made you, the truth of what you find to be life-giving and soul-nourishing, the truth of what you need to continue to grow into a whole and holy person who is so precious in God’s sight, and so loved by Jesus (and by me, and your family!), and so embraced by this congregation.

No matter what your future holds, your truth and freedom and peace will always be in the same place—in your abiding relationship with Jesus. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, for he is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the truth of God’s love made real, and his word is written on your heart. He dwells in you, and is always with you, no matter what!

With our Confirmands, God invites all of us to trust in the truth of who we are in our relationship with Jesus Christ—that we are freed from our own sin and limitations and enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with our whole heart. So wherever you are trying harder, wherever you are resisting the pain of change, wherever you are repressing feelings, or projecting negativity—that’s the very place Jesus calls you to greater freedom. It’s time to let go of trying harder! Tell God you can’t do it on your own and put your trust in Jesus.

The truth may hurt, but it doesn’t last because the freedom of God’s grace always catches us. Jesus sets us free for a relationship with him that lasts not only for a lifetime, but for eternity! And that’s freedom, indeed!

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.