"extravagant generosity"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
March 29, 2009
“Extravagant Generosity”
Psalm 51:1-12
Jeremiah 31:31-34

This past week I ran across a quote from Willa Cather, one of my favorite authors. Hear her wise, prophetic words: “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.” Where there is great love, there are always miracles. Let us pray…

Recall the story from 1 Kings 17, the widow from Zarepheth, her response to Elijah. Elijah rolls into town in the middle of a draught—a foreigner, unknown in this community. Hungry and thirsty, he calls out for water to an unnamed widow gathering sticks for a fire. As she is collecting the water, Elijah calls out again and asks for a morsel of bread. The widow responds, “As your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” In her need and desperation, she is gathering sticks for a final fire, planning to go home, prepare these scraps of oil, meal, and water for herself and her son, and die. This is not a rich woman. She knows nothing of stock options and 401k plans, either sky rocketing or tanking. But she knows scarcity. And the fear of “not enough.” And that nagging failure of not being able to provide for her family. And Elijah, this prophet of God, says to her, “Do not be afraid…The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail.” And trusting there will be enough, or perhaps even doubting this promise but still knowing what she needs to do, she shares what she has with Elijah. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. And somehow, the last drops of oil and final morsels of meal sustain her. And her son. And Elijah. And we are invited to glimpse God’s extravagant generosity. Where there is great love, there are always miracles.

It is not without fear and trembling that I preach about extravagant generosity today, now, in our current economic context. I do not want to ignore the real pain and fear and loss people are feeling. That sense of “not-enough” is pervasive—in news headlines and congressional speeches, in household budgets and company bottomlines. It is precisely into such times as these, however, that Elijah speaks. Do not be afraid. If you share what you have, your cup cannot not be emptied. If you keep on loving God and God’s people, the miraculous will be made real.

Our worship and scripture readings during the season of Lent have opened us to many stories and encounters of covenant—from Noah and the rainbow through Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants (including us) to Moses. In this week’s reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a covenant written not in rainbow or stone, not external to us, but one written deep inside, on our very hearts.

Jeremiah is speaking of God’s promise to a people still in captivity, still in exile, still steeped in loss and grief. The peoples’ hearts are broken. They have lost so much, they wonder if there is anything left to lose. Jerusalem has been destroyed, and their leaders have been taken by the Babylonians. The people are frantic, pushed to the point of hopelessness. Their homes are gone. Their sense of safety and security, cracked open. Perhaps our current economic crisis opens new ways for this story to interact with our own. Jobs, lost. Even more layoffs, warned around the corner. Salary decreases and benefit downgrades announced, sometimes even through the dehumanizing format of email. Foreclosure and for sale signs springing up. A long treasured downtown store, forced to close its doors. A senior center beloved for its community activities and delivered meals and hospitality, wondering how and if it can continue. Churches struggling to pay apportionments, and vital ministries and missions and programs forced to narrow their focus without apportionment support. Things are falling apart, fast, it seems.
By the 31st chapter in this book, Jeremiah is no longer scolding people for their sin, no longer belittling their lack of faith. Deeper despair will do little to improve the state of things. So, in his prophetic wisdom, Jeremiah brings the people a new message from God, good news, a word of comfort and hope. God is a God of compassion. God’s own heart is moved by the people’s suffering. God forgives them. And invites them to start again. Once again, God is promising to be in relationship with the people. I will be your God, and you will be my people. Even now. Especially now. Where there is great love, there are always miracles.

Hear these words I came across while preparing this week’s sermon: “Our system failed in fundamental ways. To address this will require comprehensive reform. Not modest repairs at the margin, but new rules of the game.” This is the message of the psalmist. The message of Jeremiah. The words, however, came from Timothy Geithner, our nation’s Treasurer Secretary. To make amends for our failings we new rules of the game. Like placing the poor at the center of economic policy. Like providing affordable, accessible healthcare and housing to all the citizens and sojourners in this, still the world’s wealthiest nation. Like caring for the least and the lost. Like changing our tax codes to help those who have the most help those who have the least. Like sharing your last bit of meal and oil when a stranger is hungry and in need. Like hearing and receiving the good news of an unbreakable covenant of everlasting love, written on each of our hearts. New rules of the game. Or, as Willa Cather continues: “The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

The psalmist cries out: Have mercy on us, O God! We long for joy! We long for gladness. Even our very bones, crushed, long to rejoice. Create in us clean hearts, O God. Put a new spirit within us, a spirit more in tune with yours. Don’t distance yourself from us, God, not now, not when we need you the most! Restore us. Not just until we feel semi-ok with our lives. Restore us to joy! You in your saving, amazing grace! Sustain in us a willing spirit, so we won’t turn away from this joy-filled life, so we won’t guard ourselves against grace!

And Jeremiah replies, speaking the good news of an extravagantly generous God: The time is almost here! A new covenant is coming! Prepare to be amazed! Already, it is being birthed among you. Remember the last covenant we made? I promised your ancestors that I would bring them out of slavery, out of bondage. I did my part, but the people broke our covenant. They enslaved others. As soon as they had something, they wanted more. They turned away from relationship. They chose the injustice of the world, when I called them to seek justice. They worried only about their own, when I commanded concern for the poor, the outsider, the outcast. They cheated others and hoarded what they had and were surprised to come up short, when I had promised to provide, if only they shared what they had. But enough. You know the pain all of this has caused. Let’s start again. This time, I will write my law of love of your hearts. No longer just in rainbow, or stone. I will be your God, and you will be my people. No longer will you have to look hard to find me. I have already found you. From the least to the greatest, from the last to the first. Your sins are forgiven, to be remembered no more. Did you hear me? I am your God. You are my people! Beloved. Forgiven. Restored. The covenant between us, born again!

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles.”

I believe you know something of this good news, don’t you? I see this community striving to respond to God’s extravagant generosity with our own. So, perhaps these few glimpses might help our eyes to see and ears to hear the extravagant generosity that is here, about us already:

Last September, you all were paying 44% of your apportioned giving. Steadily, now, you have increased your giving to 53%. For the past two months, this community has paid your apportionments in full! I lifted up this good news while in DC, and bishops and pastors and lay people from United Methodist churches around the world celebrated you, this community in Osage, Iowa, and this sign of vibrant, faithful, extravagant giving and living! Where there is great love, there are always miracles.

And, as you paid 100% of your apportionments, you raised over $400 for a new nursery, so that this faith community can better welcome and care for young parents, and the next generation of faithful and faith-filled leaders. Great love, being drawn out. Miracles emerging.

You have donated the first $100 for an elevator fund, identifying a vision and providing the first downpayment so that one day everyone can join us in worship, everyone can be welcomed into fellowship hall, everyone can share the bittersweet reminiscing at funeral lunches, everyone can share in nourishing their bodies and souls at Lenten Lunches, Roast Beef Dinners, or after church on Sunday. Great love will carry us on…

You, teaching Sunday School week after week—nurturing the faith of children in this community, welcoming them into God’s never ending love. Great love (and patience!) and the miracle of planting seeds of faith.

You, dedicating time and energy to tech work, even when work hours leave you sleep deprived and exhausted. You, cooking in quantities many of us can hardly fathom, and you, showing up, week after week, to serve coffee, share bars, wash dishes, peel potatoes.

You, asking person after person what is needed in the nursery, so you can make a donation. You, planting bulbs and seeds around the parsonage in the fall, and now calling my attention to the fresh green bulb buds, and the promise of spring. You, bringing me a bag full of organic apples and avocados, the very day I found myself longing for the year round organic farmers’ markets that fed my soul in San Francisco. You who deliver Share packages of food, and send cards and provide rides so people can gather and deliver meals for the Senior Center and change lightbulbs and make time for immigration prayer vigils and bring soul stirring concerts to the community and cook pancake dinners and…

Great love. Miracles. Extravagant generosity. Listening deep, through the chaos of economic crash, to the law of love written on our hearts.

The wisdom and promise and miracle of God’s covenant with us: Do not be afraid. Share what you have. Trust in God. Remember God’s promise: I will be your God, and you will be my people. The covenant is everlasting. God’s work of restoration is without end. God’s abundance, to be shared, extravagantly, with all. These days are surely coming, says the Holy One…Where there is great love, there are always miracles.

May it be so. Amen.

"intentional faith development"

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
March 15, 2009
Psalm 19
Exodus 20:1-17

Today, we’re going to try something new. I’m going to ask you to participate in this sermon. Get a little call and response going on. And nothing is more embarrassing than inviting people to participate, only to have them refuse. So, let us pray…

Who can name the four seasons…this isn’t a trick question…call it out, now…(winter, spring, summer, fall)
The four gospel accounts in our Christian New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)

Very good. The seven days of the week…(Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday)

The seven continents…(North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Europe)
Getting harder…

Ok. Let’s shift…let’s test the billions of dollars this nation pours into advertising and marketing each year…fill in the blank, at the end of the phrase…

Nike—Just _________________________________ (do it)
AT&T—Reach out and _________________________ (touch someone)
Twizzlers—Makes mouths __________________ (happy)
Burger King—Have it _________________________ (your way)
Hy-Vee—Where there’s a helpful smile ________________ (in every aisle)
Cambell’s soup is mm mmmmmmmmmm _____________ (good)
Lay’s potato chips—betchyou can’t ______________________ (eat just one)
Nobody doesn’t like ________________________________ (Sarah Lee)
M&Ms—Melts in your mouth, not _______________________ (in your hands)
Skittles—Taste ___________________________ (the rainbow)
Nobody better lay a finger on my _____________________ (Butterfinger)
With Allstate, you’re in ____________________ (good hands)

We carry a lot of knowledge with us. A great deal of information. It seems we could go on and on. Whether these bits of knowledge make us wise or not is a significant question. But. Thank you for participating with me.

Ok. Now. How can we do with the 10 commandments? We have the benefit of having just heard them read. Start calling ‘em out…Can you do it? …………………..

In preparing for this sermon, I asked around. I made some calls. I called people like you, people who call themselves Christians and regularly attend church. I talked to seminarians. Pastors. I called conservatives, and I called liberals. And over and over, they couldn’t name all 10 commandments. Some felt sure they could, if only they thought about it enough. Others admitted their embarrassment, and some, their dismay.

Bill McKibben, a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, cites a survey that reports that less than 40% of people in the US can name more than four of the Ten Commandments. It’s almost impossible to pay attention to faith in the public square without running into heated debate about the 10 commandments. There is no shortage of people wanting to post them. And no shortage of people wanting to make sure they aren’t posted. Put in classrooms. Copied in courtrooms. Hung in hallways. Published on stone monuments in parks. There is no shortage of places we could put the 10 commandments. And I’m not saying this is a bad idea. Or a good idea. But. There is no shortage of people calling for their posting, and no shortage of places we might post them. The only shortage, it seems, is people who actually know them. Or perhaps, also, people who follow them. Who live them. Who adhere to these commandments of our covenant relationship with God.

With so many slogans, so many pieces of information and bits of knowledge and perhaps even nuggets of wisdom slung our way, we need to know what wisdom roots us. We need to identify and develop, with intention, the sources of wisdom which speak to our faith. Prayer. Worship. Study. Gathering at table. Mission.

A recent poll showed that 76% of people living in the US identify themselves as Christian. Only 33%, however, say they manage to get to church regularly on Sunday. The number drops even lower still when asked if they participate in the faith life of the church outside of Sunday. In regular prayer, and in prayer vigils. In midweek services. In daily Lenten practice. In small groups, and study groups. In choir. In United Methodist Women, and United Methodist Men. In teaching Sunday School.

Now, if you’re feeling too guilty about not knowing all 10, know that even the Bible isn’t entirely clear on this list of commandments. The 10 commandments appear three times. In the 20th chapter of Exodus we read today. Again, in the 34th chapter of Exodus. And in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 5. And there’s a little variance among the three versions. And, if you’re feeling too guilty about your own sub-par attendance record, or the length of time lapsed since saying yes to teaching Sunday School, or serving as an usher or greeter, or guilty about your level of active participation in the life and vision of this community, remember that our Christian tradition is one of love, not law. And remember, our Wesleyan tradition is one of grace, not guilt.

But. God’s law is meant to be life giving. And guilt, sometimes, can be an indicator when we have gone astray. This is what the psalmist is getting at in Psalm 19: “The law of God is good, reviving the soul. The decrees of God are sure, making the simple, wise. The precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes. The awe of God is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of God are true and righteous. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the drippings from the honeycomb.” Meant to give life, not restrict life. Meant to revive souls, not weigh them down.

Knowing the 10 commandments, posting the 10 commandments, does not make us people of faith, disciples of Christ, covenant community with God. Having them memorized does not ensure revival of our souls, or rejoicing in our hearts, or enduring awe of God. It is, however, hard to live into the covenant if we don’t even know what it commands. Is is, however, hard to deepen and nurture our faith if we can hardly show up on Sunday.

Intentional Faith Development—purposeful learning in community, that helps the followers mature and deepen in faith.

So, here they are, again. The Ten Commandments. The first four intend to order our relationship with God—our covenant with our Creator. The final six intend to order our human interactions—our shared life together.

One. Have no other gods before God. Money will not make you all powerful. Social standing cannot sustain you. Investments, we should know by now, will not redeem us. Have no other gods before God. God, and God alone, is the Holy One.

Two. Do not make for yourself an idol. In the form of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Worship God, not cars. Not political leaders or pastors. Not brilliant marketing schemes or bulging budgets. Not even the Bible should be idolized, but rather its texts lifted up as living word. Idols will be broken. Tarnished. They’ll lose their power to captivate. Do not bow down and worship anything other than God. Not nation. Not government. Not even the church. Worship God, and bow down before God alone.

And, three, because of this, don’t make wrongful use of God’s name. Don’t attach it to things that aren’t of God. Be careful about how you call on this Higher Power.

Four. Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. For six days, you shall labor and work. This is good. God knows something about the goodness of work and creation. And sometimes, work keeps Sabbath from coming on Sunday. But on the seventh day, God needed to rest. And, if after making the heavens and the earth, God needed to rest for a day, how can we not see this need for ourselves? Do we really think ourselves so important, so much more able than God, as to not take a day to rest? This is not a suggestion. This is not laziness. This is a command. Because we need it. (And I need to be reminded of it as much as you.) You. Me. Your sons and daughters. Even the slaves, the livestock, and the alien residents in your towns, we find written in scripture. Rest. And if our society and economy is structured so that a day of rest is not possible, we must shift these structures of society. God has blessed the Sabbath, consecrated it, and commands it.

Five. Honor your father and mother. Scholars note the language used here indicates not just the people who birthed and raised you. Honor your ancestors. Those who came before. The generations who have raised you up. Those who have fought for your rights, who have offered their wisdom, who have nurtured our communities and families. They will not be perfect. They will fail. Fathers and mothers will not always be honorable. But. We must remember from whom we came. And honor the wisdom of the past, and of our formative mothers and fathers.

Six. Don’t kill. You shall not kill. Not, don’t kill unless you’re provoked. Not, don’t kill, unless the negotiations have failed. You shall not kill. Doing so destroys the covenant, and destroys community.

Seven. You shall not commit adultery. Remember, these commandments are about covenant. Don’t break the covenant. If we are unable to maintain our covenants with each other, we are unable to maintain our covenant with God. If we cannot trust each other, we cannot trust God.

Eight. You shall not steal. No shoplifting, no Ponzi schemes, no taking what isn’t yours.

Nine. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Don’t gossip. Most rumors aren’t true, anyway. But the impact lingers.

Ten. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. Or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Coveting keeps us from feeling satisfied. Coveting leads to stealing. To adultery, even to killing. To breaking the Sabbath, as we try to make more to buy that new truck. Or tv. Or piece of jewelry. Or fancier house. Or, or, or, or. You shall not covet. It diminishes life, and suffocates spirit.

That’s it. The base of this covenant. Bishop Schnase reminds—Jesus deliberately taught his disciples in community. We cannot learn grace, forgiveness, patience, kindness, gentleness, or joy, simply by reading about it in a book. Or through a memorable marketing campaign. Or even by going home and memorizing the 10 commandments. These are the central tenants of the community of God. And we can only learn them together. In relationship. In community. Spiritual formation, through intentional engagement—with each other, hearing the wisdom of our tradition, learning and sharing the teachings which ground our faith, hearing and telling and retelling the stories that root us—our covenant with God, our connection with each other, in the name and spirit of Jesus, our Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

"radical hospitality"

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

I want to share a snippet one of you e-mailed to me this past week. The following is a theological treatise, written by Danny Dutton. Danny is 8 years old. He wrote this for his third grade homework. The assignment, to ‘explain God.’

Hear the words of this budding theologian: Jesus is God’s child. Jesus used to do all the hard work, like walking on water and performing miracles and trying to teach the people who didn’t want to learn about God. They finally got tired of him preaching to them, and they crucified him. But he was good and kind, like his parent, and he told God that they didn’t know what they were doing and to forgive them, and God said, “OK.”

Let us pray…

Sometimes, it really is that simple. Jesus is God’s beloved. He did all the hard work. Traveling around, sharing a message of good news with people who really needed good news. The poor. The sick. The diseased. The outcast. The hemorrhaging woman. The bent over woman. The leper. The man with an unclean spirit. Trying to teach people who, as Danny puts it, didn’t want to learn about God. He disrupted things. And people resented him for it. People betrayed him. Even to the cross. But Jesus was good and kind, and even though he made people mad and even though Jesus himself got mad, he taught forgiveness. Reconciliation. And God said, “Ok.”

Sometimes, it really is that simple. Noah and his son had seen devastation. Witnessed it first hand. Their homes and communities and farms, destroyed. Northeast Iowa knows the havoc flooding can bring. And then God said, “We’re going to have a new covenant. It begins again, here. And it will last forever and ever. This covenant is with you, Noah, your son, all your descendants after you. And also, with every living creature…all the flesh, the scriptures proclaim…the birds, the animals, both pets and wild…everything that lives and breathes. No exception. This is the covenant. I will never again send a flood to destroy the earth. (Note, the covenant isn’t that all flooding will cease. But God will never again cause a flood. Will never again desire or bring destruction. Ever.) And so we both remember this covenant, God says, I’m creating this beautiful bow, a rainbow, we’ll call it. Colorful and magical. All the colors of the earth. All of earth’s beautiful variety. This rainbow, it will be a sign for all future generations. Whenever clouds gather, whenever the waters get a bit rough, whenever there is a storm, look for this rainbow.

God knew that both God and Noah needed a reminder of this covenant. After the first flood, the people needed reassurance. Needed to rebuild their homes and communities, and their trust in God. Knew that if God was going to be God, and they were going to worship God and order their lives around God and love God with all their hearts, they needed to know, for sure, that God would never again do anything to harm them. And God said, “Ok.”

Sometimes, it really is that simple. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. When he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descended like a dove. A voice called down. “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus’ ministry was hard. He preached justice and peace and inclusive love to a people bent set on injustice and division and drawing distinctions between Us and Them. He gained a rag tag group of disciples, who are generally more confused by his parables than they are enlightened. And as the controversy around him heated up, as things got messy, as the cross began to loom, as he was baptized by this strange prophet wandering the wilderness with camel’s hair for clothes, eating bugs and honey, he heard from the heavens, “You are mine. Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And Jesus knew this was Good News. The kind of good news that sinks down into your bones. The kind you need to hear over and over again, to really believe. The kind of news that once you believe it, everything is different, for evermore. Jesus knew this news needed to be shared with everyone else. All God’s children. And, because God had this covenant with all the earth, with all of Noah’s descendants, all the living, breathing, walking, creeping, crawling things, Jesus knew this good news extended to everyone. You are mine. Beloved. With you I am well pleased. And God said, “Ok.”

Forgiveness. A new, everlasting covenant, where God’s desire is always for good, and God’s effort, ever, to destroy, is laid to rest. Our baptismal promise. We are God’s. You are God’s. Beloved. Sometimes , it really is this simple.

Today begins our Lenten journey together. For those of you who were at the Ash Wednesday service, those who attended Lenten Lunch, those who were at yesterday’s Immigration Prayer Vigil, well, we have already had the opportunity to reflect on the Lenten journey together, to bless and strengthen each other on the journey. Lent is a time of wilderness wandering. As we journey the 40 days, plus Sundays, to Easter, we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Tempted, and tormented. In Lent we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter. We are called to confess what we need to confess in order to feel God’s forgiveness. We are called to let go of what we need to let go of, to receive new life abundant. We are called to stare long and hard at suffering when it’s easier to turn away—Jesus’ suffering. Our suffering. The suffering of our brothers and sisters. So that we might recognize Resurrection Power.

In Lent, it all gets pretty messy, pretty fast. Penitence. Suffering. Confessing. Wilderness wandering.

Today also begins a sermon and worship series on the 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations. This series will carry us through Lent, to Palm Sunday. Today we are centered by Radical Hospitality. The hospitality part should be self evident. Hardly a gospel chapter goes by where there isn’t some mention by or act of Jesus welcoming the stranger, showing hospitality. Feeding those who are hungry. Welcoming the foreigners, those who are lost. This is the basis of our salvation, how we entertain angels, without knowing it. But when you throw the word radical in there, well, it gets complex, right? But in case the word “radical” is a hang up for you, hear Bishop Schnase’s definition. “Radical means drastically different from the ordinary practice, outside the normal, so that it exceeds expectations.” Radical. Like God forgiving the people and powers that tortured and crucified God’s Son. Like a new covenant, formed out of devastation, that says Never Again. From now on, God will only work for good. Like the heavens parting, and God proclaiming, “You are mine. Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And then, God extending this promise to each and every one of us. Because, well, we need it. And God says, “Ok.”

Our journey continues. It gets messy. It gets complex. It ain’t always easy. But. In the midst and mess of it all, the covenant remains strong. The rainbow, our sign, even or especially when storm clouds gather. The baptismal promise covers us still. We belong to God. All of us. In this sanctuary, and outside of it. Beloved. With whom God is well pleased. Sometimes, it really is that simple. Thanks be to God. Amen.