Preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA on Sunday, November 15, 2015
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (Mark 13: 1-8)
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
SERMON “Stay Awake”
My friend Shari, who is one of my best friends from high school, and a devout Muslim, quoted the Q’uran yesterday: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”
It is as if all of humanity was killed this weekend. 129 people died in six separate bombings and shootings all over the city of Paris France. It is the worst terrorist attack in Europe in 11 years. An Islamic militant group has taken responsibility. On Thursday, more than 40 people were killed in Beirut, Lebanon in a bombing. Dozens were killed at a wedding in Baghdad this week, as well, in a bombing. All acts of terror. The Islamic state has claimed responsibility. And Syria has produced the largest refugee crisis since World War II—the U.N has called it the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era. 140,000 Syrians, 7,000 of them children, have died in the Syrian war. The refugees are fleeing the terrorists in Syria that they are now accused of being in Europe.
It is as if the world is ending.
I don’t know any more what to say about Paris, Beirut, Syria than you do. And yet my job is to somehow help us to make sense of the senseless.
While this is an impossible task, there is no better reason for the church to exist. So for those of you who have joined us officially as members today, this is our reason for existence. Coming together to find hope in the face of terror and collective suffering. To find God somewhere in there.
And sometimes it’s hard to find God amidst so much destruction, which is why we need one another. Mostly our job is to wait, to watch, and pray. To stay awake. Our job is not to have the answers. No answers, just love.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
In this week’s lectionary text from Mark, Jesus sounds a lot like a character in a scene from “Apocalypse Now” instead of the Jesus who brings us comfort and peace. This Jesus we encounter today is warning us of the demise of the world. Don’t get so used to your perfectly placed temple stones, because they will be tossed down. The world is going to end, he says. Get ready. And perhaps this text is appropriate for today, given that it feels like the world is ending again.
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs, Jesus says.”
This text brings little comfort to me, truthfully. I wanted to avoid it this week because apocalypse Jesus isn’t my favorite, especially not now. This chapter is a rather uncomfortable reminder for some Christians that our Jesus was often telling everyone that the world was about to end. Much like other prophets of his day, and modern day proponents of the Rapture on the religious right, and climate scientists on the secular left, Jesus spent a lot of time warning people ominously of the world’s imminent demise.
Most mainline Protestants don’t know what to do with Jesus when he talks like this, never mind the entire Book of Revelation with its beasts and its marks of the devil. I think we find it a little bit embarrassing. Like, sometimes our scriptures sound like a horror movie you saw once, and Jesus sounds a little, well, irrational.
In order to understand our text from Mark, we need to understand apocalyptic literature, which has been prevalent throughout human history, from the writings of the ancient Greeks to the Left Behind series.
David Lose says that “in a nutshell, apocalyptic literature stems from a worldview that believes that everything happening on earth represents and correlates with a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. It therefore reads into earthly events cosmic significance and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil. Hence, it often tries to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework and in this way give comfort to people who are currently suffering or being oppressed.
Because of this dualism, and because apocalyptic literature tends to be highly symbolic, it’s ripe for reading all kinds of things into it – like predictions about the end of the world! But this chapter in Mark – and other passages, notably the book of Revelation – were not written so that we could ferret out signs of the end. Rather, they were written to offer comfort to first-century believers struggling to make sense of their world and lives. For this reason, it’s way more helpful to read this and similar passages in light of the challenges its original readers were facing, challenges that might be akin to some of our own.”
And those challenges included religious persecution and martyrdom for first century Christians; the people that Mark was addressing in this chapter from our scripture. The world certainly seemed like it was ending soon for them.
And those challenges feel akin to some of our own right now; or at least akin to the world’s.
The world seems like its ending for us, too, every day.
Our world seems like it’s ending when a loved one dies. When twin towers crash to the ground. When a car accident causes injuries so devastating we can never walk again. When a marriage ends. When a child dies, or a dream of a child dies. When a terminal diagnosis is given. When an idea of who God is dies inside you, or when an idea of what America is dies inside you, or when an idea that humanity is inherently good dies inside of you. When terrorists systematically kill 100s of people in the name of a distorted version of our God whom we know as Love and we no longer feel safe, or at peace. Wars and rumors of wars.
The world seems like its ending every day.
The poet Warsan Shire writes:
“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
So perhaps reading this apocalyptic text from Mark on a day like today is exactly the right thing for us to hear, I don’t know. As it did for first century Christians in the Markan community, at least it names what seems like a battle between good and evil in our own context--which is sometimes all that our scriptures can do. Name what’s true.
And remember, Jesus is always reminding us that after the end of the world is a new world waiting to be born—a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold, I make all things new!” he says in Revelation.
Later in the same chapter that we read this morning, in verses 32-37, Jesus tells us more about the day the world ends. He doesn’t tell us we can stop it from ending, but he does tell us to keep alert, keep watch and stay awake.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
And here’s what I think he means. Every time our world ends, we need to stay awake and look for glimpses of the new world amidst the rubble. We need to see where God comes suddenly. We need to look around for God everywhere we are—in the evening, or at midnight, at dawn. Don’t stay asleep to how God is going to redeem suffering, Jesus is saying. Look for glimpses of God amidst the destruction, how God is making things new. Pay attention, stay awake, stay alert, and you can see it.
So here is what I see.
In Paris on Friday night, in the wake of the terror and fear and not knowing what was next and whether their lives were in danger, people were opening their doors. Did you know that?
The Twitter hashtag porte ouerverte or “open door” started on social media yesterday for people in Paris who were looking for a place to be safe from the violence, when police were ordering everyone off the street, to take shelter immediately. Parisians posted on Twitter: “Do you need a place to take shelter? Are you afraid with no place to stay? I have a warm bed and some food. My door is open to you.”
Wasn’t that dangerous, all those people opening their doors, with terrorists still on the loose, not knowing where new attacks were planned? People asked.
The answer from those open door Parisians was “we will not be afraid.”
Stay awake. That’s a glimpse of God.
Parisians left the football game that was bombed where three people were killed, defiantly singing the French national anthem on their way out.
Stay awake. That’s a glimpse of God.
That’s a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth—people throwing open their doors, people singing--in the face of fear and refusing to cower in the face of terror.
So what do we do, knowing that the world is ending? Ann Lamott says: “after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. We do the next right thing. We buy or cook a bunch of food for the local homeless. We return phone calls, library books, smiles. We make eye contact with others, and we go to the market and flirt with old or scary unusual people who seem lonely. This is a blessed sacrament. Tom Weston taught me decades ago that in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacraments. We take the action and the insight will follow: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.”
We are powerless but not helpless. That is Jesus’ message to us. Let's live that together.
I want to close today with a
Blessing When the World is Ending by Jan Richardson
Look, the world
is always ending
the sun has come
it has gone
it has ended
with the gun
it has ended
with the slammed door
the shattered hope.
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone
the hospital room.
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
this blessing means
to be anything
It has not come
to cause despair.
It is simply here
because there is nothing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.
will not fix you
will not mend you
will not give you
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.
It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
READING FROM THE GOSPEL (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.”
Garrison Keillor once said that “Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” That kind of reminds me of Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel reading: “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.”
I think what Jesus is trying to say is: “Just because you sit in a garage, doesn’t make you a car.”
Just because someone gives away the money that he didn’t need anyway, doesn’t mean that he is any more faithful to God than anyone else in the room.
Like the poor widow, those who give all of what they have to God, even if it is two pennies and a tender heart, put far more into the treasury.
We are about to launch our new First Church website, OMG, I’m so excited, and our website developer made us an advertising video for our church that’s really quite beautiful. I posted it on First Church’s Facebook page. You should watch it if you haven’t already seen it.
When I posted it, I wrote, “There’s room for all of who you are here.” After about 24 hours of the video being up, a random person from the internet who lives in Alabama or someplace far from Sterling wrote, “yeah, there’s room for all of your money here.”
There is this pervasive myth because of the rise of televangelism and the megachurch, that churches in this country are get rich quick schemes rather than places to take your tender hearts and trust other human beings and God with them.
There is a myth out there that we are only interested in your money. And yeah, it costs money to keep us going, but we aren’t exactly rolling around on stacks of cash like Madonna in the Material Girl video. We pastors aren’t exactly getting rich and buying multiple Mercedes Benzes while the rest of the country starves.
There are far better get rich schemes out there in the world than the church.
The real story is that pastors and teachers are the two lowest paid masters degreed professionals in the United States. The average pastor salary in 2012 was $28,000 a year, with the smallest salary being $0. The Joel Osteens of the world—the megachurch pastors who make well into the six figures--are very few and far between. Our churches are closing their doors all over the country, rapidly, for lack of funding and lack of membership. Particularly Mainline Protestant churches like ours, those Christian churches that are more interested in the social gospel than the prosperity gospel. Particularly the United Church of Christ, the second most rapidly dying denomination in the country after the Presbyterian Church. Particularly in New England. There is absolutely no guarantee that the UCC will still be around in 20 years, and they won’t be if their membership decline keeps up the way it is. Which to me is a crying shame, since the UCC is one of the most life-saving, affirming, progressive voices in the Christian church.
If only we took our cue from the widow and gave all we had to churches like the ones the United Church of Christ supports—churches like ours that work tirelessly to feed the poor and love the stranger, and make the world a little bit more loving and just. Just imagine what the world would look like if the UCC were rich!
And yet we read passages from our text that feature Jesus commanding us to give it all to the church; to sell all that we possess and follow him, and I know we get itchy. We think, “see? All ‘they’ care about is money. Here comes a sermon asking us for more.”
But this story about the widow who gave it all is a story about what we get out of giving. The more we give to God, the more we get back.
Jesus’ message here about our widow is that we all have something to give—not just the richest among us, but all of us. Did you know that statistics show that the poorest in this country give away a higher percentage of their income than the richest? Jesus is reminding us of the truth: that we all have gifts to give.
Putting our time and our money and our heart into a God-kissed community that pledges to uphold our deepest held values is an investment worth making.
The Good News is that this investment pays back in love, and satisfaction, and a priceless feeling of well-being.
There is a treasury of gifts that come from our sacrificing our time, our money, our spirit, our love, to God.
On this Veterans Day weekend, we could all take our cues from our Veterans, who sacrificed, who gave it all—some even their lives--for the sake of country—for a principle larger than themselves. We could stand to take some cues from our military in the American church. Our world would be a better place if all people were a people of sacrifice to high principle, rather than a people of sacrifice to the marketplace.
I met with beloveds who are interested in our church and membership last week in our path to membership class, in preparation for our new member Sunday next week.
Let me tell you, this is an impressive group of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, from all different places on the theological spectrum, of all ages and stages of life. I love them so much. They are going to make us a better church, transformed in relationship to each of them. You are going to hear from one of them, Ann Taft, a little later about what led her to us. Her story will bless you the way it blessed me.
And this group, they asked the same question that I get asked every time I talk to people about membership, which is a really important one.
“What’s the difference between being a member and being just a person who worships here every week?”
A more direct way of asking this same question is: “What’s in it for me? What do I get out of this?”
Truthfully, I say, there’s not much of a pragmatic, discernible difference in things that you “get” with membership. We don’t believe in privileging some people over other people around here, because we don’t believe that’s what the spirit of Jesus looks like.
You are radically welcome here. All people are. You are welcome to come to every worship service and every event we have every week regardless of your “official” status. I will still be your pastor, because I am called to pastor to more than just the members of this church. We will still love and care for you as our “own.” I will do your weddings, I will baptize your babies, I will do your funerals, whether you have signed the book or not. We believe that every person deserves a blessing.
Your kids are welcome in Sunday School any time, whether you have signed the book or not. They can go rock climbing at the rock climbing gym with our youth group, they can sleep over at our lock ins, they can be confirmed, whether you have signed the book or not. You can make soup in our kitchen with the women’s fellowship, you can join us on a mission trip to La Romana, whether you have signed the book or not. You can take communion with us at our open table, you can ask us to pray for you, and we will pray for you with every bit of concentrated energy and heart as we have for our “official” members. Whether you’ve signed the book or not. We’ll even ask you to pledge your money to us whether you have signed the book or not, too, because someone has to keep the lights on and the staff paid, and the programs running, and if we are not all chipping in, it’s gonna fall all on the person sitting next to you, which isn’t fair. So you can be financially committed here without ever signing the book, as well.
Here’s what you do miss when you aren’t a member, according to our bylaws. When you’re not a member, you can’t vote, and you can’t serve on committees. But to be perfectly frank, that’s not usually why people are looking for a church anymore (if it ever was)—to be able to vote on this year’s budget or the color of the parsonage paint. These things are not always appealing to all faithful people, nor is the sometimes tedious, very detailed work of serving on a committee.
So, why. Why would someone want to become a member of a church like ours?
What you “get” with membership is really a chance to “give.” Like the widow who gave her all, your giving pays you back in something priceless.
It pays you back in commitment and investment. And investment in a community matters to our own spiritual health, and to the spiritual health of the other people here. And commitment means forming deep and lasting relationships and sticking with them, even when it gets hard. Because investment means giving our all to something, and that’s worth spending our life doing. Because commitment to something larger—a community focused on loving God and neighbor--pays us back in something more profound than we get anywhere else in our lives.
And no, membership isn’t necessary. But the commitment gives us the security of knowing that we belong to one another. Promising to walk with one another on a path of faith—giving our all to a community of imperfect people just like us, committing to doing the best that we can, forgiving one another when we screw up, and catching one another when we fall…that promise, that symbolic commitment, that investment makes a difference.
I liken it to living with someone before you get married. You can live with a significant other for years, and share finances, meals, and even children, and still cross a significant, meaningful, sacred threshold when you make promises to bind your life with theirs in a marriage ceremony. It feels different. And unlike marriage, you can leave our church and membership at any time and without filing divorce papers and paying lawyers. But committing to stay, even when the going gets tough, matters.
And showing up for one another matters. As members of this church, we are making the decision to give a part of ourselves away to the other people in this room, maybe even all of who we are. And so showing up—in body and in spirit-- matters.
What is the gift of giving our all to this church? We start to think in “us” terms rather than in “me” terms. We feel a profound sense of belonging. We become shareholders, rather than consumers. We promise together to raise each other’s children, to walk with each other through the hell of scary diagnoses and difficult conflict and death and new life, and we will watch together how God transforms mess into beauty. It’s really pretty amazing.
When we invest in a community, our investment gives back to us. When we give ourselves away, you and I are repaid more than we ever paid in.
We are doing what the widow in our story does, First Church in Sterling. We’re taking everything we have--our tired, tender and maybe terrified hearts and some small investment--and we are turning it over to a group of people and to God to tend to, to nurture, to hold for us. It’s brave, and its not for everyone, but its worth it.
And I’m going to tell you the truth: this church will disappoint you, because it is a human project, and human projects are bound to disappoint. I will disappoint you, since I’m also profoundly, deeply, human. I will let you down. And these people gathered here will, too. At new member gatherings, Nadia Bolz Weber warns her new people to her church of this inevitable disappointment, and then she says: “Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will still stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God's grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness. And it's too beautiful to miss. Don't miss it.”
All of you, my beloved: Give it your all, even though it will disappoint you. Don’t miss the way God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness because it’s too beautiful to miss. Whether you are a member or not, take a risk and deepen your relationship with this church, either by signing the membership book next week, joining a group or an event, or coming to social hour. Give your all to this flawed and fabulous human project, so that we might learn to love God by loving one another. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org