In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
As we draw near the end of the church year, our lectionary brings things to a close by having us look at the Gospel of Mark’s use of what are known as “apocalyptic” images. Now we all know from the use of the term in modern culture, that apocalypse refers to the “end of the world.” It seems that we go through cycles where we spend a good deal of time waiting, wondering and worrying about the end of time.
Believe it or not, the first book in the Left Behind series was published twenty years ago, in 1995. For a few years there, it seemed that everyone was talking about “The Rapture,” the “tribulation,” and what life would be like as the world prepared for the return of Jesus. Then we took a break for a few years. A few years ago, there was much written, and even a movie that purported to show us what it would be like on December 21, 2012, when an unknown planet would crash into the earth – ostensibly as predicted by the Mayan calendar, which was created on Aug 11, 3114 BC. We are all here today, safe and sound. So clearly there was no apocalypse as some had predicted. But that didn’t stop the hype about it for a while.
It seems that every once in a while, people get frightened by the present and have to try to see the future, in order to hopefully prepare for some unseen disaster that is headed our way; so that we can be some of the “elect,” the chosen, who are spared as all others die horribly (or least suffer a lot).
Much of what people “know” on the subject of the apocalypse, or the Second Coming of Christ, is taken from the Book of Revelation – “revelation” being the actual definition of “apocalypse.” But there are other apocalyptic writings in Scripture. The Books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel, Zachariah and Daniel in the Old Testament; Mark 13, and 2 Thessalonians 2 in the New Testament; as well as several passages in the Apocrypha are all written in apocalyptic style. And it is crucial for us to understand apocalyptic literature in order to understand what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel.
When things get bad; when things seem hopeless; when it seems that the present situation is beyond redemption; apocalyptic literature shows us that hope still exists. No matter what happens in life, there is always hope. That’s what apocalyptic writings are all about.
Jesus tells the disciples that the Temple will be destroyed. The Temple in Jerusalem took over 40 years to build. It stood over fifteen modern stories tall and the perimeter was 1,420 yards. It was built to last forever, out of stones, some of which weighed in excess of 100 tons each. And Jesus said it would be destroyed. Not only that, but the Temple was God’s home. In Jewish theology, it was the place where God actually lived. And Jesus said it would be destroyed. But look at what He said next. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” In other words, out of absolute desolation and destruction; out of the most irredeemable of circumstances comes new birth – renewal – new life. That’s hope!
One of the mistakes we make as modern Christians, is to read apocalyptic literature as being word-for-word, literally accurate. That is what the Left Behind series – all 16 volumes of it – sought to do in the beginning. But then as time went on and there was more money to be made from scaring people, the authors embellished more and more until finally they had gone beyond simply misreading Scripture and were selling nothing more than science fiction with bad theology attached to it.
You see, the dualism that is set up by modern apocalyptic writers is not true at all. Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHay (and all the others of their ilk) would have you believe that the world is split in two. One part is ruled by Satan and the other part is ruled by God. And the two are locked in a mighty cosmic struggle. In point of fact though, Satan is not God’s opposite. Satan is the opposite of Michael the Archangel. They were both, at one time, angels in the service of God who is the master of both of them. And God does not need to have Jesus return bodily to earth in order to redeem the world. Jesus accomplished that on the cross. As one writer puts it, “All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God reigns. Purposeful Evil is a creature, a parasite, a lamprey (eel) that lives off life, not the author of life itself.”
If we are to take all of Scripture seriously – not just a misreading of the Book of Revelation – we must note that God made a covenant with Noah after the flood. In that covenant, God promised never again to destroy the world in order to start over. But again, as the Episcopal writer, King Oehmig puts it,
On the other hand, Scripture does maintain that history as we know it will end. There will come a day, the Lord’s Day, when the architecture of this present age will be supplanted by the rule of God. Nothing in this dimension is permanent.
We are meant to have hope in the sovereignty of God. That’s why we should consider the end of time. Not so that we will be frozen by fear. Not so that we will cease to care about what is happening in the world around us. But so that we can know that the postscript that might be written on the end of the Book of Revelation could be, “the world and all that is in it belongs to the God of creation and love!”
When we look around today we see trouble. It is the way things are. Trouble appears, no matter how much we would like for it not to. Bad things happen. People treat other people horribly because of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. Sick and poor people get ignored by those with the means to help them. For reasons that may never be fully known, someone guns down a group of strangers. Bad people act in the world, and in our lives. Sometimes it seems that no matter which direction we look, someone is after us. It is at these times that the hope of God in Christ is so important.
In his collection of sermons entitled, Strength to Love, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
Our capacity to deal creatively with shattered dreams is ultimately determined by our faith in God. Genuine faith imbues us with the conviction that beyond time is a divine Spirit and beyond life is Life. However dismal and catastrophic may be the present circumstances, we know we are not alone, for God dwells with us in life's most confining and oppressive cells.
And even if we die there without having received the earthly promise, he shall lead us down that mysterious road called death and at last to that indescribable city he has prepared for us....
The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrow with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning our sense of hope....
Dr. King understood what it was that Jesus – and all apocalyptic writers – are really trying to tell us through the scary images of the end of it all. God is with us. And once we have fully experienced that reality and embraced the love of God in Christ as an actual thing, as a tangible thing, rather than something we read in the Bible and hear about on Sundays, there is no longer any need to be ruled by fear of the future. Whatever comes, no matter how frightening, we will handle it – with God’s help.
I’ll leave you this morning with something written by a pastor who was facing his own death in a very real and immediate way. Here is how he expressed the hope that we find in the loving God who gave His only Son to redeem us and whose very real Spirit dwells with us in this moment.
So here I stand, looking at the ground, smelling the faint fragrance of God. Never once did it occur to me that when I found God's trail again, it would ruin my life forever for once you feel the breath of God on your skin, you can never turn back, you can never settle for what was, you can only move on recklessly, with abandon, your heart filled with fear, your ears ringing with the constant whisper, “Fear not.”
 H. King Oehmig, Synthesis, Proper 20, November 15, 2009
 Yaconelli, Mike, The Door (March-April 1998).
At the climax of the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero has made it to the mountain fortress that he believes holds the chalice that Jesus used at the Last Supper — the Holy Grail. But in order to get to the cave where he hopes the Grail is located, Indiana has to pass through a series of tests. One of which, as it turned out, was to literally step out in faith.
In the scene, the viewers see Indy standing in a tunnel opening in the side of the mountain, when the camera pans out, we see that there is a chasm that is probably 30 or 40 feet across. And when we look down, we see a black abyss between Indy and the cave containing the Grail. His deciphered instructions tell him to leap across the chasm. When the meaning dawns on him, he says, “A leap of faith,” and then, with his heart beating out of his chest and his breathing difficult, he takes a giant step out into nothingness … and his foot lands solidly on a bridge that is so perfectly camouflaged as to appear invisible. Indiana’s step out in faith lands him squarely where he needs to be.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this concept perfectly. He once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” I think that that is a very vivid way of describing what we mean when we say that someone should “step out” in faith, or “take a leap,” of faith. The two women about whom we read in today’s Old Testament and Gospel accounts certainly lived those adages.
In the reading from 1st Kings, we get one of my favorite passages, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. We don’t know the name of the widow, but we do know a couple of important things about her. First, she was not one of the children of Israel. She lived in what is modern-day Lebanon, a Gentile land. She referred to God as Elijah’s God, thereby identifying herself apart from the God of Israel. Second, we know that she was a widow – Bible coded language for a completely destitute woman. She had no husband and no way to make a living. On top of that, there was a drought and nothing in the area was growing, so she couldn’t even collect the gleanings from the fields to live on. She was flat broke; nothing coming in and no way to get more. Just when things couldn’t get any worse for her, they did. Along came Elijah, whom she had never seen nor heard of, and he asked her to give him some of her precious water. And not just water, but he also wanted her to bake bread for him with the very last of her meal and oil.
The widow was much more polite to Elijah than most of us would have been. She gently told him that there was not even enough for her and her son to eat; that she intended to bake the last of her supply and then she and her son were going to go off and die of starvation because everything was gone. Elijah told her to step out in faith. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. If you do what I ask, “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She took the leap of faith and did as she was asked. And miraculously the promise was fulfilled.
Then we have the story of the widow’s mite from Mark’s Gospel. The author of this Gospel tells us even less about the widow in the story than did the author of 1st Kings, when telling the widow of Zarephath story. All we know in this case is — again — she is a widow, and she gives everything that she has to support the Temple. In this case, Jesus holds her up as a shining example because she engaged in risky giving — that giving that is done generously and faithfully, without worry. In other words, the widow stepped out in faith and gave generously, without counting the cost to herself.
Stepping out in faith is always a scary proposition. Whether you are Indiana Jones walking off a cliff, literally taking a step without seeing the staircase, or you are a widow who gives away all that she has in faith that God will provide; all are examples of ignoring natural worries and following God’s call fearlessly.
As a congregation, St. Barnabas knows about stepping out in faith and ignoring the worries in order to accomplish God’s greater purpose. When things get tough this congregation always rallies around each other and the staff and works together to work on God’s mission. This congregation has survived hurricanes, most recently Katrina, Rita and Ike. And through all of the worry and uncertainty surrounding those disasters, you have stepped out in faith to bring help and support to people in need.
Now here we are in the midst of yet another downturn in the oil business — which as everyone in Lafayette knows, is the lifeblood of this town. And yet, in the middle of all of that uncertainty and worry, you continue to rally together to carry on the work. This week we have tallied the pledges that we received through last Sunday. And thus far, over 70 of you have let us know your plan for pledging. We now have pledges that cover about 1/2 of our annual budget. The stewardship committee and I thank all of you who have pledged so far. For those who have not, there is still time! And if you do it today, you can avoid a call from the stewardship committee this week. Pledging to the Church is definitely one of the times of stepping out in faith.
Today at 10:30 we are baptizing Townes and Charlie Shuffler. Although they are not quite old enough to really fathom what they are doing, these wonderful boys — through their Godparents — are taking a huge step in faith by saying “yes” to an invitation from our Lord, Jesus Christ, to go down into the waters of baptism and to come up on the other side, reborn and renewed. As Hadley Fuller, who was baptized last week, can attest; when you step out into the unknown of life as a baptized Christian, you are stepping out into the love, support and care of this Christian family; which makes the other step into faith (the one involving being vulnerable to God) much less scary.
And while I’m talking about stepping out in faith, we now have a new Head of our denomination. The Most Rev. Michael Curry is now the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church. And if there is anyone in the Church who will repeatedly call you to step out in faith, it is Bishop Curry. His favorite term is “The Jesus Movement.” He says that Jesus did not come to found a Church, he came to start a movement. Bishop Curry’s message is simple: while our institutions are necessary and important to us, it is the movement — the following of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, out into the world that is ultimately the most important thing.
What Bishop Curry calls us to do is the same thing that all clergy and laity who believe in the Social Justice Gospel believe in. Jesus called us to: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, heal the sick, visit the shut-in, and welcome strangers. All of those things can be scary and worry-inducing. We can be very uncomfortable when we take our faith out into the world and begin to exercise our spiritual muscles. But that is exactly what we are supposed to do.
This congregation, more than most, knows and understands the call of the Jesus Movement. We do wonderful outreach and welcome ministry here. But we must never be satisfied with what we have done or are currently doing. We must always be moving forward — literally and figuratively stepping out in faith — to go deeper and farther into the community to find those in need and to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to them through alleviating their suffering and trying to make their lives better.
Follow the example of today’s widows who stepped out in faith. Whether it is in making a pledge to the church, supporting our newly baptized in their lives in Christ, or giving of ourselves in outreach and welcoming. Step out in faith. Be an active part of the work of St. Barnabas. Be part of the Jesus Movement.
In the name of the God of abundance, Amen.
Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” … Then Jesus said to (Bartimaeus), “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
There are myriad healings in Mark’s Gospel. From the man with the withered hand to the boy with the unclean spirits; from the woman with hemorrhages to a host of lepers, Jesus healed them all. But we never know the name of anyone Jesus healed in this Gospel – except for Bartimaeus. The difference in story between Blind Bartimaeus and all of the other people Jesus healed is simply that last line. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Mark doesn’t mean that the man walked down the road a few steps behind Jesus. In this Gospel, the term, “the way,” has a specific meaning. By the use of that term, we are to understand that after Bartimaeus got his sight back, he immediately followed Jesus as a disciple. “The Way,” to Mark meant Jesus’ journey to the cross. When Bartimaeus asked Jesus for his sight, he had no idea what he asked for. When Jesus opened his eyes, Bartimaeus saw a new world – the world that disciples are meant to help Jesus perfect. But more importantly … Bartimaeus saw The Way of the Cross that was coming, and agreed to follow Jesus anyway.
What would we see if Jesus was to open our eyes today? We can all see the world around us – to a greater or lesser extent – with or without glasses, contacts or Lasik. But what would Jesus show us if our eyes were spiritually opened?
Over the last few weeks you’ve heard several stories about Generous Saints. These are people who gave of themselves generously, graciously and willingly – exactly as Jesus gave of Himself during His earthly ministry, and the same way that the God of all creation has always given to God’s children. In order to be a truly Generous Saint, one must have the ability to see the world as Jesus saw it, filled with unmet needs and ready for a gracious God to work through God’s people to bring about healing and wholeness. Today’s Generous Saint is someone who definitely saw the world as Jesus sees it.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels the General Theological Seminary student who took a leave of absence from school to become a part of the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s, was a man who saw oppressed people in need and gave up his position in life to help them. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on all college students and particularly all seminary students to come to the South to help register African Americans to vote. Jon Daniels answered that call and travelled from New York City to Alabama. He lived with a family
If Jesus were to come to you today and give you sight, what would you see? Would you see the abundance of God’s creation? Or would you see the scarcity of our creation? Alexis de Tocquesville came to America to study our new republic over 200 years ago. I love this quote from his work, Democracy in America.
‘I have seen the freest and best educated of men in circumstances the happiest to be found in the world. Yet it seemed to me that a cloud habitually hung on their brow and they seemed serious and almost sad in their pleasures. They never stop thinking of the good things they have not got. They clutch everything and hold nothing fast.’
Modern Christian author Douglas Lawson commented on what de Tocquesville said, this way,
‘We have grown more knowledgeable and secure over the last two hundred years, but... The forces that hammer at us have turned us into a nation of seekers. Part of our search has been prompted by a sense that much of our lives is empty, confusing, monotonous, unrewarding. We search for meaning and inspiration, for a workable formula that can lead us to a joyful, contented, satisfying existence.”
But somehow, satisfaction and contentment seem so elusive.
God gave humankind a garden with everything needed for an abundant life. Generations later, God gave the children of Israel water in the desert, manna when they had no food and a promised land filled of milk and honey. But all of that was seen through the eyes of skepticism and scarcity by people. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve looked with desire at the only fruit God did not give them. When the children of Israel had all of their needs taken care of by God, all they could see through the eyes of resentment and scarcity was the fact that their wants were not provided for as well.
What would you see if you were given sight by Jesus today, abundance or scarcity?
I think that if Jesus opened my eyes today, I would look out across this room and see a group of people who care very deeply about their church. I think that I would see people who are brand new to this congregation alongside people who have grown up, or grown old in this household of God. If Jesus gave me sight, I believe that I would see a group of people who has survived the many vicissitudes of an economy dependent upon oil for its lifeblood; people who have continued to give for the support of this church and the Kingdom of God in good times and in hard times.
If I could see the way Jesus sees, I believe that I would see a world that is changing at an alarming speed. I would see people who live in a world that is no longer what they grew up with – and I would see the fear that that grips some of those people. I would see people who have great respect and love for tradition; people who prize the ways of their forefathers. And I believe that I would see some people who worry about what the changing of the world means within this community of faith.
If Jesus gave me His sight, I think that I might see people who want to be generous with their time, their talent and their treasure; but who worry because of what has happened in the world around them – both economically and socially. I believe that I would see people who know in their hearts that the author of 1 Timothy was correct when he said that faithful Christians are: “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Next Sunday we will celebrate the conclusion of the every Sunday part of our annual pledge campaign. In our celebration, we can have the sight Jesus gives the faithful. Next Sunday we will celebrate abundance – because we will see abundance. We will take some time to fill out pledge cards (unless you have already done so) and to exercise the spiritual worship of disciplined, generous, cheerful, planned giving of our treasure. Then we will bring all of those pledge sheets forward, along with the gifts of bread and wine, and we will place them on the altar to be blessed. And after that we will celebrate the abundance of God’s love for us in the Holy Eucharist – our remembrance of the single greatest act of giving in history.
What would you see if Jesus granted you sight? He has. Look around. There is abundance here. All we have to do is see it and want to be a part of it.
Saint Brigid of Ireland may be one of the greatest examples of today’s gospel reading. Brigid was a woman born in the fifth century; which was a huge mark against her. She was also born to a slave, strike two. Brigid drawn to prayer from a very early age had three strikes against her. Her love of God kept her from every marrying, and in the fifth century that was almost unheard of for any woman, but most especially a woman said to be beautiful, intelligent, and poor. She grew up with great compassion for the poor, especially women, and children, perhaps because she herself was poor and female.
Brigid, although poor, never let poverty keep her from learning or striving to help others, nor did she allow poverty to intimidate her or keep her for speaking up on behalf of the marginalized in her day. She gave her entire life to serve them as if she were serving Christ himself. That is why I think Brigid really is a great example of today’s gospel! Because as Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be servant of all.” And Brigid was just that servant of all.
Brigid rose to sainthood, not because of any great building campaign or theological prowess that revolutionized Christendom; she rose to sainthood because she stayed the course of caring for the poor and marginalized and teaching them all she knew about the love of God in Christ. She saw to it their needs were met, and was willing to do without so that others could have the necessities of life.
Brigid was a rarity to be sure. The counter side to Brigid’s story can be seen when we look to the disciples in today’s Gospel. We quickly see the reality of human ambition and selfish pride. James and John are prime examples of how easy it is to misunderstand the directives of Jesus’ mission and teaching. James and John are two of the closest members of Jesus’ inner circle. They are two of the first called and two of the three that are always with Jesus even when the others are missing from the scene. They comprise the inner circle of confidence, as we might call it today, and yet they do not even realize what they have been called to do or what Jesus is trying to teach them.
James and John think Jesus is going to overthrow the Roman Empire and kick the Roman’s out of Judea; once and for all! How absurd! How truly absurd; Jesus and a couple of handfuls of men could not over throw the Roman’s if he had wanted to. But, Jesus is not interested in overthrowing the government. Jesus’ mission is wholly different, pun intended. Jesus’ mission is to change the hearts and minds of individual people. Jesus’ mission is to bring about a new understanding of life, a renewed life in which all live together in peace by caring for one another as each has need despite creed, color, nationality, or religion. That is what Jesus modeled, in every encounter the disciples shared with him and yet somehow they still don’t grasp the point.
You see the author of Mark’s gospel gives us a real glimpse into the heart of the human psyche. He reveals in James and John what many would want, “if I do this for you, will you in turn reward me for my effort?” In fact, James and John were certain Jesus was going to grant their request. They certainly did not expect the others to find out, and when the others did find out they were just mad that the two had the audacity to ask. They were not grasping the whole Jesus thing either. They were all hoping that when Jesus rose to power, he would take care of them and reward them with favors.
I think that is true for many even today. I think somehow, there are those who think they deserve to be rewarded for whatever it is they do for the Church, at their job, for their friends, you name it. There always seems to be an expectation of reward.
I think it is safe to say that many or us, even most of us don’t mind doing a good deed or the right thing, even giving up a little to do it, but we like James and John want to get back something on our investment whether it’s a new position or a raise. We want to be rewarded, we want to be recognized for what we do.
Jesus seems to be saying, a servant doesn’t get recognition, a servant doesn’t get a gold star or a trophy for showing up, they certainly don’t get to sit on the right or left hand of the king, which is what James and John were asking.
But what does any of this have to do with those of us sitting here today? How does this affect our relationship with Christ or our spirituality right now?
I am certain that when you and I learn to serve in the true sense of service without expectation of any return that our relationship with Christ will be transformed, our thinking toward others will be transformed, and the way we choose to live will be transformed. I am certain that this particular teaching from Jesus is one of the most important aspects, a key to the entire message of Jesus Christ.
That is why I believe it is so important for our youth to practice servant leadership roles. I don’t believe you can get closer to God than to serve the marginalized. Mother Theresa use to say “If you want to see the face of God, look into the faces of the poor.
We here at St. Barnabas are quickly coming to an end of our pledge campaign. And undoubtedly each of us will make decisions on what we are willing to give to the Church in the coming calendar year. What I want you to remember when you make this decision is this: to meet the needs of the marginalized requires money, it also requires people willing to be involved, it takes time and all of those things are included in your stewardship. This Church does a great job of offering help to many good and noble causes in this community and in the world; but we could do more if we had more. We have a good outreach budget, but wouldn’t it be great if that budget could grow? We do great work with our youth on mission trips, but wouldn’t it be great to see that program grow and for this Church to be enabled to send out teams of adults and youth to various parts of the state, country, and world to meet the needs of those who need us to be with them in Christ's mission?
When you consider your stewardship, remember St. Brigid was a poor woman, but she managed to find the resources to open not one but several monasteries where everyone was welcome and all were encouraged to assist even the poorest among them through service. We could do great things if we each shared a common vision of ministry and we each gave generously.
This is the third week of our sermon series on All Saints, Living Generously, our 2016 stewardship pledge drive. Laurent has just spoken about Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is today, and he has told us how Francis’ example affects him.
Young Francis was born to a wealthy cloth merchant in the city of Assisi in central Italy, in the late 1100s. Francis grew up enjoying his father’s money; hosting large and long-lasting parties, dressing well and generally living “the good life.” When he was about 20 years old - around the year 1200, Francis was fighting on behalf of his city, in a minor skirmish with a neighboring city, when he was captured and held prisoner for over a year. During that time he became ill with a fever (which would recur throughout his life), and he began to examine his life up to that point. In those times of self-reflection, he came to realize that he was squandering his life — living an empty shell of a life instead of accomplishing anything.
When Francis got back to Assisi, he went to a small, ramshackle church and began to pray. Then he heard God telling him to repair God’s house. Francis took the words literally, and needing money, he stole a bale of silk from his father and sold it, to get money for the repairs. His father was not amused and publicly disinherited and disowned his son. In response, Francis gathered his possessions, took off all of his clothes, and laid them at his father’s feet. He then walked out of town naked, and began his vow of complete and total poverty.
St. Francis was a great steward, not because he gave up everything that he had in order to follow God. That is an incredibly admirable thing to do, but it is not something that is possible for everyone. No, what made Francis a Generous Saint was his complete and total understanding that what he had, was given to him by God and therefore should be shared in the same way God shared with him. Francis spent the remainder of his years caring for the poor, the sick and those whom society had shunned. He got food by scavenging in the trash or working day labor in exchange for food for himself and those for whom he cared.
Francis’ story runs parallel in many ways to that of Job, whose story we began to hear in today’s Old Testament reading. In Job, God is in heaven, looking down at creation with some satisfaction; particularly when God sees Job who is the most faithful man ever. Job constantly thinks about what God wants him to do, and even offers extra sacrifices, just in case his children accidentally curse God in their hearts. Along comes the tempter (which is one translation of the term “Satan”), and he tells God that Job is only faithful because God has blessed him with good health, riches and a wonderful family. Satan says, “Take all of that from him and he’ll curse you, just like all the rest of them do.” So God says, “OK, take it all away, just don’t kill him.” Then a huge wind blows away everything he owns, and kills his family. But Job doesn’t curse God. Then he is covered with sores from head to toe. He still doesn’t curse God, but finally asks, “why me?” provoking a response from God that is one of the great pieces of poetry in the Bible. Both Job and Francis had much, then had little, and throughout it all, never worried or doubted the power and the love of the God who provides everything.
What in the world does that have to do with stewardship? Simply this. Job is the prototype of the ultimate steward. He was a very wealthy man. In a portion that we didn’t read today, it says that he had “seven sons and three daughters. (And) seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.” And yet, not once in the Book of Job, do we hear Job talk about how he earned all of that wealth on his own, nor that he was worried when it was gone.
Stewards are the ones who recognize somewhere deep in their hearts, that all that they have is pure gift from God. Once we recognize, as Job did, that it all comes from God as grace-filled gift, then we allow ourselves to worry less about the future (whether it’s good or bad). In particular it allows us to worry less about what happens to all that we have “earned.” At the end of the Job story, we learn that God blesses him again and he has even more wealth and a new family to whom he is devoted. But that is not what Job really gained. And here is where Job and Francis share a story. After all that Job lost (and Francis gave away), the big gift was that they gained a new and deeper relationship with God. The worldly blessings that followed were nothing in comparison with that greatest of blessings. We gain the “peace that passes understanding” the day that we discover that God is God and we are not – that all of creation belongs to God, and that we have been blessed to be made stewards, or managers of what God has given us to take of.
Job gave thanks to God both before and after his horrible string of tragedies. There is no doubt that his story crossed St. Paul’s mind as he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, in which he said, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Because God gives to us so abundantly – whether in concrete terms, or simply through the granting of our lives – it seems fitting that we give back in the same way, with grace and abundance – and with joy filled hearts.
St. Francis’ story — and Job’s story — have much to say to us about our relationship to money (or our “stuff”) and about our relationship to God. Generous Saints understand God’s world. They understand that if we will seek to follow the example of our Lord, Jesus Christ in everything we do, then we will understand and act on our need to both give back to God and work to help those who need it.
Just as Job and Francis were both faced with times of incredible shortage, we too have those times. At least sometimes, most of us can look at our personal finances and say, “How can I fit a pledge to the church in this budget?” The answer is, if you worry about it and try to make it happen, it never will. If, however, you make an honest pledge in faith, and give to God the best you have — the first fruits off the top — then all things will work out. The wonderful old hymn puts it well: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness. And all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu, alleluia.” In other words, give back to God, gratefully, joyfully, and faithfully; and constantly try to follow the way of Jesus; and in the end, everything will work out. Understanding that truth is the “peace that passes all understanding,” something shared by all Generous Saints.
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Good morning, today is a special day in the Church year. Does anyone know what day it is? It’s the commemoration of St. Vincent de Paul. Vincent was born a peasant in France. Ordained to the priesthood at age twenty, he had great aspirations to climb the clergy latter. His early goal was to make enough money so he could retire early and comfortably. He aspired to be head of one of the great cathedrals in France, but God had other plans for Vincent.
Vincent eventually found himself working on the Gondi estate in Picardy, France. The Gondi’s, a very powerful, aristocratic family in France, possessed a lot of land and wealth. But while working on the estate, Vincent began to notice the peasants working and struggling around him. He began to make a point to visit with them. Eventually teaching them about confession, repentance, and the love of God and ministering to them with such compassion that people from all over started seeking his services. So many people sought him out for confession that he had to send for more priests just to provide the sacraments to the masses that were gathering.
Vincent’s message was simple. It was the message of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and the unconditional love of God. That message is what drew thousands of people to seek God. Vincent eventually found himself in Paris where he was drawn to work among those imprisoned in the Gallows.
In 1625 he established the Congregation of the Mission (now known as the Lazarists), a community of priests who undertook to renounce all ecclesiastical advancement and devote themselves to work in the small towns and villages of France.
Wealthy men came to him, expressing a wish to amend their lives, and he organized them into the Brotherhood of Charity, and set them to work caring for the poor and sick in hospitals and in home visits. In 1633 the Archbishop or Paris gave him the Priory of St Lazare as a headquarters.
St. Lazare was formerly used as a retreat for lepers, but not one of them was ever cured. Vincent used the retreat as a place of reform and renewal. He once said concerning St. Lazare, “Now it is used to receive sinners, who are sick men covered with spiritual leprosy, but they are cured by the grace of God. They are dead men brought back to life. What a joy it is to think that the house of St Lazare is a house of resurrection!”
Out of his Brotherhood of Charity there arose an order of nuns called the Sisters of Charity, devoted to nursing those who were sick and poor. He said of them, "Their convent is the sick-room, their chapel the parish church, their cloister the streets of the city."
I share this with you today because I believe the life and work of St. Vincent de Paul exemplifies both the Gospel and the Epistle for today. More importantly Vincent de Paul is a prime example of putting our own goals into perspective with God’s will in order to produce results beyond our ability to imagine.
Had Vincent de Paul continued on that narrow path of climbing the proverbial clergy latter, he may very well have become the priest of a large cathedral, but one you and I would never know about unless we attended that cathedral. Think about all the priests, deacons, or Bishops we have known; sometimes we congregations hang their pictures on the wall, but will any of them be remembered five hundred years from now, and will they be remembered for doing something meaningful for humanity or the world or will they only be remembered because their picture hangs on a wall?
About three hundred years prior to Vincent’s birth there was a young Hungarian princess by the name of Elizabeth. Elizabeth at the age of fourteen married Ludwig IV of Germany. Widowed by the age of twenty, and left with three children, she spent the rest of her life in service to the poor and the sick. Prior to her husband’s death she built a hospital at the foot of her own palace so she could personally attend to the sick. After Ludwig’s death Elizabeth gave her entire dowry and settling in a small two room house she continued to care for the needs of others until her death.
Most of us would never have heard of Elizabeth had it not been for her works of selfless giving and her devotion to works of Christian charity. She wasn’t a great ruler, she didn’t conquer anyone, she didn’t even aspire to greatness. It was her humbleness that caused her to reach out to those less fortunate and then her experience with them that compelled her to give up all she had to remain among them.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Vincent de Paul of France were living examples of what it means to truly live out our call to Christian discipleship. Elizabeth and Vincent were salt.
We are all called to be salt. We are called to make a difference in the world. We are each called to have an impact just as salt has an impact. Think about all the ways salt is used. Think about how easy it is to use too much or too little salt in your cooking. You can ruin a whole meal by using too much or too little, but the right amount makes the whole flavor come together. We are the salt in this big pot of stew we call life. We are the salt needed to make the whole stew palatable.
How do we do that? We do that by praying for others. We salt the world every time we pray for another person. We salt the world ever time we offer food or clothing to someone who doesn’t have what we have. We salt the world every time we visit someone who is sick or shut-in. We salt the world by offering forgiveness to others. We salt the world by giving to the Church in order for the Gospel to be shared with those who have not heard the Good News. We salt the world when we give selflessly for the works of Christian charity. We salt the world by daring to reach out to those who are lepers in our world and offer them kindness and acceptance. We are salt when we devote all that we have and all that we are to Christ’s mission in the world.
When you and I give of our abundance like Elizabeth did, when we share the Good News of repentance and forgiveness like Vincent de Paul, when we give to the Church so others will know and learn about Christ we are salt, we make a difference, we give honor and praise to Christ who is alive and working in our lives and through our lives, thanks be to God, we are salt! When we allow God’s will to direct our path and direct our lives we must be salt.
In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The author of the Letter of James said,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.
The Letter of James was written sometime between the years 70 and 100. And the person who authored this letter would have written it not long after the death of one of the notable Apostles of Jesus Christ; someone this author may well have been thinking about when he wrote about how to live a Christian life.
The man I’m talking about was born on the island of Cypress, in the Mediterranean Sea. He was a Jew who travelled quite a bit. We don’t know a great deal about his early life, but some believe that he was educated by the great Rabbi, Gamaliel. Over time he made his way to Judea and became a land owner. When Jesus began to preach and teach and heal in the area, scholars believe that Joseph was one of His followers. In fact, some have said that Joseph was one of the original 70 Disciples whom Jesus commissioned to go out in pairs to preach, teach and heal in His name.
After Jesus’ death, Resurrection and Ascension, Joseph was a part of the fledgling church that was being formed in Jesus’ name, by His Apostles. One day, Joseph showed up in this new community of believers and handed the Apostles the entire proceeds from the sale of his land. He gave all of his cash so that the work of this new “church” could continue. There is no indication that he did this out of obligation, nor is there reason to believe that he did it to raise his own profile. Instead, scholars believe that he gave all of his money out of generosity and in gratitude for all that God had given him.
As I’ve indicated, Joseph was well known to the Apostles. They had seen his kindness, generosity and wisdom before. And so, after he had given so freely of himself and what he had, they gave him a new name — Barnabas — which means, “son of encouragement.” Barnabas went on to be instrumental in starting churches in the Gentile world, along with the man we know as St. Paul, who might never have become a part of the Christian Church without Barnabas’ interceding on his behalf with the Apostles.
You see, our patron saint, this Barnabas, was the epitome of a “Generous Saint,” someone who gave of himself freely, generously, and graciously. Barnabas understood the message of Jesus Christ on a deep level. He understood that all that we have and all that we are comes from God, so there is nothing more wonderful than returning to God from what he had been given.
This is the first Sunday of our annual stewardship campaign. This year’s campaign will focus on living generously, as do the generous saints whose stories you will hear. Barnabas is a perfect saint with whom to kick off this program; not just because he is our patron, but also because he is such a wonderful example for us.
You see, Barnabas understood well a lesson that we could all learn from. That is that stewardship is not just about a once a year campaign to raise money for the budget of the church. It certainly has that as one component. But that is not all that is contained in the term. Stewardship is a way of life. It is about how we see ourselves and how we see God. It is about understanding the relationship between us and God. And it is about living in a way that reflects that understanding.
Generous Saints … or good stewards … are the people who give back to God from what they have — their time, their abilities and their money — without feeling like they have to do it. They are the ones who give generously precisely because they want to do it, and as an act of worship, an act of thanksgiving.
This parish has some very generous saints in it. We have people who freely and generously give back from what God has given them, in very effective and tangible ways. In fact, a fairly small group of people does the lion’s share of supporting this parish. I know that many people will say, “That’s fine for them, but I work hard for my money and I use it where I need and want to.” Believe me when I tell you that I understand the sentiment of working hard for one’s money. But we have to understand what we mean when we say that all that we have and all that we are comes from God. The generous saints certainly understand it.
We may all work exceptionally hard for the money we make. After all, that is the American way. It is what most of us have been taught to do from early on in our careers. But we must also understand that we would not have the jobs we have — indeed, we would not have the skills and abilities to get those jobs — were it not for the gifts that God has given us at birth. In fact, we would not be able to do any of those jobs to make that money, if God did not graciously give us our next breath to carry on this life. But there is something else in there as well.
I am sure that many of you have had the same experience that I have had. At some point in your work life, you were faced with a decision that would dramatically impact your career. And somehow you just “knew” through a very deep feeling you had, which decision you should make. That “knowing,” or that “deep feeling,” is often the power of the Holy Spirit at work in your life. And if you faithfully follow that feeling, you find out that you have been blessed in some new way. That is how God gives us what we otherwise recognize as that which we have earned.
The generous saints know all of this. They have experienced it and have recognized God’s hand in their lives. So in return, they want to give back to God in a way that will be tangible and beneficial to God’s work in the world — which we most often recognize in the form of the Church.
Barnabas was someone who worked in “the Church” most of his adult life. But he started giving back to God well before he was made a missionary. We are not all called to be “church professionals,” but like Barnabas, we have all been blessed by God and have a need to give back.
Our ingathering Sunday for this stewardship campaign will be All Saints Sunday (November 1st). Between now and then, I ask you to consider the stories of all of the generous saints, and consider God’s generosity to you. If you are, and have been a person who regularly pledges to the Church, that is wonderful. Please prayerfully consider what your pledge will be for the coming year. If however you have never made a pledge to the Church, make this the year. Talk about what stewardship means with your family and friends. Consider the stories of those who have gone before you, and their generosity. And step out in faith to give back to God some portion of what God has so graciously and generously given to you.
To paraphrase St. James: Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness and generosity, as good stewards of God’s gracious gifts.
In the name of one God, Father, Son, And Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the new Sunday morning Bible study that started last week, I told all of the people in the room that Mark’s Gospel has a great deal of urgency to it. Everything in Mark is immediate. And because of this sense of urgency, there is also no fluff in Mark. If the author puts a detail into the telling of a story, it is because he thought it was important. So with that as background, why would Mark put two such different stories as those we heard today, back-to-back? Beyond the fact that they occurred close to each other in time, there must be something important there.
Let’s go back to the beginning of chapter 7, where we read last week. In that section, Jesus had been performing healings and had fed the 5,000. And the Pharisees – the ultimate keepers of what was right and holy – came from Jerusalem to pick a fight with him. But since they had neither the guts nor the ammunition to take Him on about the good works He was doing, they challenged Him on the fact that His Disciples did not ritually wash their hands. That was the ultimate lesson in “majoring in minors.” So it is no wonder that at the beginning of today’s reading, we hear that Jesus left the Jewish land of Galilee and travelled to the Gentile regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis.
I believe that the absolute humanity of Jesus is just as important as His absolute divinity. Because of that, I have no trouble imagining Him walking the roads toward Tyre, shaking His head and mumbling about the Pharisees. He and the Disciples had been incredibly busy and the only way that they could get away – from both the crowds of Jews who needed healing and feeding, and the Pharisees, who never listened to Him, except to try to trap Him – was to go to a place where Gentiles greatly outnumbered Jews. But when they arrived, it was not the vacation get away that the Disciples were perhaps expecting.
The first thing we heard today was that Jesus was trying to hide out in a home, but it did not work. A woman whose daughter was possessed, “immediately,” heard about Him and came to beg for His help. And then, for those of us who prefer our Jesus meek and mild, we get this very disconcerting back and forth with the woman. She begs Him to help her daughter and Jesus calls her a dog – declining to give His gift of healing to one who is not a child of Israel.
There is a great scene at the end of the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original, with Gene Wilder, not that horrible Johnny Depp thing), where Charlie and his grandpa have finished the day’s bizarre tour of the chocolate factory, and they are waiting to hear about Charlie getting the lifetime supply of chocolate that he won in the contest. Willy Wonka dismisses them and sends them home, but they follow him into his office and ask about the prize. That is when this loveable, eccentric character – who, throughout the movie, has been kind and caring to children, even when they horribly misbehave – this affable man suddenly turns on them and screams that they have broken the rules, and he yells at Grandpa Joe, “so you get nothing! You lose! Good Day, sir!”
That is the mental image I get when I think about this conversation between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. She asks Him to give her a prize – rid her innocent daughter of demons – and Jesus tells her that, because she is not Jewish she has broken the rules. Therefore, she gets nothing! She loses! Good day, ma’am! But that is where the comparison starts to fall apart.
When Wonka told Charlie that he had nothing for him, Grandpa Joe called the candy maker names and started to storm out in a cloud of threats. But Charlie, whose heart was pure, went back in and proved himself worthy, whereupon Wonka took him in and gave him the whole factory. But the Syrophoenician woman simply turned Jesus’ argument and traditions around on Him in a powerful enough way that He relented and gave her what she desired, performing the miracle long distance. His word was enough to accomplish the healing.
With or without the Willy Wonka allusion, this story is troubling for those of us who think that Jesus never got angry and never changed His godly mind. Both of those things are contained in the story. Let that one hang there for a minute and let us look at the second story for today.
Some unknown group of people brought a deaf man who could not speak, to Jesus and begged for His help. Jesus did not question them about their worthiness. But He also did not perform this healing by simply saying that it was done. Instead, we get this strange scene in which Jesus puts His fingers in the man’s ears, spits and touches his tongue. Now in English, that last part is a little unclear, but Greek scholars have said that what Mark wanted us to know was that Jesus spit on the man’s tongue. Gross, huh? Parenthetically, I read something recently from a priest who was talking about this passage and he said, “Actually Jesus spitting on the man’s tongue is no grosser than some of the things the doctors did to me when they were treating my cancer.” So perspective is important. But why this huge contrast between the two stories that are back-to-back in Mark?
It all has to do with who was involved and what message could come out of the situation. Jesus had just come from spending a lot of time with the Pharisees of Israel, who saw and heard what He did for the people, and yet would not hear the message that He brought. Then He went to someone who did not even worship the same God as the Jews did. And He ultimately showed her God’s grace, in order to teach His Disciples that, no matter how much they might argue against it, the Good News of Jesus Christ was available to everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews. And finally, Jesus used the sort of tricks and incantations (thus the reason for the dramatic, Ephaphtha at the end) to point out to the Gentiles who witnessed the event that God’s power was greater than that of their local gods, as He taught His Disciples yet again, that there was nothing that God could not do and no one God could not reach.
Pharisees who refused to see; the completely uninitiated, who came to Him in very different ways; and those who would not hear – those were just some of the obstacles that stood in the way of Jesus getting out His message of Good News. But the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit ultimately prevailed – and continue to do so today.