Thursday, December 7, 2017

What can we say November 11? 25th after Pentecost

   The reading from Ruth would require a retelling of the whole story – which is one of high drama, romance and wheeling and dealing. Naomi persuades Ruth to get dolled up and seek out her rich kinsman Boaz, and lie down with him in the dark – but not until he’s had a few drinks… The scheme works, they marry and conceive an ancestor of David. Naomi’s bitterness (“Call me Mara”) is turned to joy restored (Naomi meaning “pleasant”). The “point” of so many Bible stories is not “Go thou and do likewise,” but rather noting the pluck, and courage, the resourcefulness of people in our heritage – and ours is to say Wow, great story.

     Hebrews 9:24-28 continues what Hebrews has been reiterating. Christ the priest offers the sacrifice of himself once and for all. Two fresh twists (if you’re preaching the Epistle). Christ enters a sanctuary “not made with hands,” reminding us of Paul in 2 Cor. 5:1 – where the body, your “earthly tent,” has a destiny of becoming a “house” in the heavens. In Heb. 9, heaven is now the sanctuary not made with hands. The temple we know isn’t, as it turns out, the real sanctuary at all, but merely a “copy” of the true heavenly sanctuary. The preacher could explore this, or just name it: we are sitting in a room that is a replica, an imitation, a xerox if you will of heaven, where worship goes on now and will forever. This is a paradise on earth. So we treat the room, and those in the room with us, very differently, finding ourselves together in this copy of heaven.
     The Greek word translated “copy” is antitupa, which means literally to strike against something hard and thus form an image. I think of Karl Barth’s powerful thought (in his Epistle to the Romans) – that the activity of the Church’s relationship to the Gospel “is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself…” And then Oliver O’Donovan (in Desire of the Nations) suggested ways the society, while not converted, bears the crater marks of the Gospel’s being lived among Christians.

     What do we do together in this copy of heaven? We worship, yes – and we “eagerly wait for him” (v. 28). Are we living, surviving, clinging to life as we know it, anxious for the future, or even hopeful? Hebrews suggests a disposition of waiting – not to die, or for the next titillating experience, or for any thing, but for him, for the coming of Christ. Maybe before Advent arrives we might sing “I’m looking for the coming of Christ; I want to be with Jesus” (“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”).

     I’m preaching on Mark 12:38-44. I preached on this last go-round, pointing (obviously) to myself as one of the guys “in long robes” Jesus warned about. I get and like favored seating. And I worry about my prayers being showy. I worry so much that I’m an anxious pray-er in public, and usually try to get others to pray. Often, visiting in the hospital, when the time comes for our closing prayer, I’ll ask the patient to pray. No show with them; and they pray wonderful, simple, from the gut prayers.
     Once there was a boy, born with an acute case of cerebral palsy, who was treated terribly as a young child, and then went to another home where his mother noticed how he watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She believed Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. Some foundation worked it out for Mister Rogers to visit this boy, and when he did, Mister Rogers asked, “Would you pray for me?” The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for anything. He was the object of prayer, not the one to pray for anybody. But now he prays for Mister Rogers and he doesn’t want to die anymore. A journalist, Tom Junod, witnessed this and privately congratulated Mister Rogers for being so smart. But Mister Rogers didn’t know what he meant. He really wanted the boy’s prayers, saying, “I think that anyone who’s gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.”

     Of course, the focal point of the text, and the poignant preaching opportunity is this: “Jesus sat down where they made their offerings and watched.” Without being too manipulative, I will ask people to imagine Jesus watching us and our offerings – which isn’t a fantasy, as it turns out.
   The temple was outfitted with trumpet-shaped offering boxes so that when people “threw” in their coins, the clanging announced loudly the generosity of the giver. It’s hard not to think of Luther’s annoyance at Tetzel and the sale of indulgences: the indulgence hawkers toted around large brass chests and sang their ditty, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
     Jesus contrasts the poor widow who would satisfy the old saying that “God notices not how much but from how much.” Of course, in church we have anonymous giving. This worried Martin Luther King Sr. (“Mike”) when he began his ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931. He believed “anonymous giving” provided a grand excuse for what he called “anonymous non-giving.” So he opened up the registers, and listed what each person gave for all to see. Donations soared in just a week.

     What we see in Jesus’ story is the poor giving to support the poor. It’s a Christian obligation for all… incumbent upon even the poor. The preacher can find some story about the poor being in powerful ministry. Here’s one I’ll tell – excerpted from my book Struck From Behind: My Memories of God – about a woman I know in Lithuania.

     My daughter Grace and I discovered Regina Židoniené to be gregarious, hospitable but not fussy, more eager to talk about God than the weather. You and I might think of Regina as poor. Our small, cramped quarters did not feature running water – although it took us two days to realize the toilet didn’t actually flush.  Regina’s husband, who’d lost a leg due to inadequate healthcare years before, hobbled down to the creek while we slept to fill buckets with water to pour into the tank so we soft Americans wouldn’t feel inconvenienced.
     Regina was obviously a woman of immense faith. Like so many people in eastern Europe, she had grown up as an atheist. After she’d raised her children, she got to know the handful of women that were the heart of the fledgling Methodist congregation in Birzai, began to study the Bible, and then became a sledgehammer of belief and action. She had bragged to me about a little ministry she and the women ran: these women we’d rank as poor spent three days each week giving what little they had to the women they regarded as poor, those who lived in the “villages,” remote, outlying areas of extreme poverty. “Would you like to see our work?” she asked. It doesn’t take much for me to abandon manual labor, even if it is mission-related, so I said yes.
     We stopped by the grocery store, and I gleefully filled basket after basket with essentials, and paid for it all with somebody else’s money, plunking down the church credit card. I had no authorization or budget, so I made an on-the-spot, Robin Hood-like decision to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Then we drove out of the city.
     That’s correct: we drove. At first, Regina drove – like a banshee. She mashed the gas pedal as hard as she could, bounding over curbs and then skimming the edges of ditches, crushing bushes that frankly weren’t on the road, backed into a tree, jostling the food in the back out of the bags – as if she wanted to get to her destination right now, not in an hour; she pressed that ramshackle old rusty car to keep pace with her missionary zeal. After we got out and pushed the car out of some mud she’d driven into, she asked me in exasperation, “Will you drive?” Good Lord, yes I’ll drive.
     The first woman we visited lived in a tiny clapboard house – “house” being used loosely for this cold, breezy, varmint-infested awful excuse for shelter where she was raising her four children. As we approached, Regina told me she was gravely concerned about this woman’s romantic situation:  seems she had fallen in with a man Regina suspected of drinking, and being lazy. Regina banged her fist on what passed as a door, and we made our way in. The mom, I thought, would have been some sort of beauty where I lived, married to a doctor or lawyer and putting her kids in private school. But here she was poor, and embarrassingly so even by Lithuanian standards. She blushed, smiled and said Thank you (and jabbed her children with her elbows to remind them to say the same) as we placed what were thankfully non-perishables on a wobbly table as a few roaches scattered. 
     Then Regina got close to the woman, looming over her, wagging a finger in her face, and spoke sternly for quite a long time – a lecture about the ne’er-do-well boyfriend, no doubt. The woman cowered, but bore it as best she could. Rising to a crescendo of vehemence, Regina wound up her tirade, then paused, held out her arms to us and the children, and sweetly said, “Now let us pray.” And she prayed – at length, in Lithuanian, then in English, displaying a shimmering intimacy and strong urgency with God who most certainly hears such prayers. She thanked God for us, prayed about various health or learning challenges the children were facing, and then called down a curse on the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. That poor guy was in some trouble.
     In all my days, I have never seen such stellar mission work. Regina, with virtually no resources except the little bit she and her handicapped husband could muster (but also with her extraordinary determination), banded together with other women like her, and went out to their poor. They didn’t simply drop off the goods; they got involved in their lives. Fearlessly she castigated her poor friend about a relationship she knew would harm her; and she prayed, offering blunt pleas to God on her behalf. And then we went to more such homes, until the food ran out.
     Grace filmed an interview I conducted with Regina in which she spoke of coming to faith in Christ, her love for her little church, and her ministry in the villages. I asked her, “Why do you do this?” – and she frowned, puzzled I would ask such a silly thing. “This is just what Christians do, isn’t it?” When we left for the airport the next day, I simply asked her to pray for us, and I am sure she has, and does and will, and I take comfort in being prayed for by someone who knows how to do what I could never in a million years figure out how to do:  deliver food, a lecture, and a prayer.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

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