Honest Regret

Date Given: 7/28/19

Psalm 51:1-17

It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. I want to start by sharing the story of a photo to illustrate this profoundly important point.

First, a very close up crop of the photo below – looks like a potted plant. Some small pink flowers, plenty of green behind so probably not taken in the dead of winter. Not much else all that worth saying about it unless maybe you’re a botanist and could name a species and maybe then guess a location.

first crop photo for regret sermon

 

We zoom out. Below you can see the potted plant on the far right hand side, it hasn’t changed at all. Now we see a group of 5 people who look like they’re probably friends. They’re sitting in front of a body of water – so maybe it’s a park. Based on the clothes, my suspicion is right that it’s at least not a cold winter day. Overall it seems like a pleasant and enjoyable setting for a chat with friends.

second crop photo for regret sermon

 

We zoom out one more time. I have to imagine the smoke in the background, rising from the New York skyline is a fairly unforgettable image for many of us. The photo was taken on September 11th, 2001. This photo appeared in publications shortly after that day and sparked national outrage. “How could a group of people so casually sit and relax when one of the worst terrorist attacks in history was going on in the background?”

 

third and full photo for regret sermonWhat can’t be captured in the photo itself is what was actually in the minds and hearts of the group pictured. If we could zoom out to that level, we’d see what they shared in interviews after the event. They said they couldn’t believe their eyes either. They said they were in a moment of shock and panic. They weren’t relaxed or enjoying themselves at all. They were trying to process a tragedy that would have profound implications for their lives and ours.

It’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. So many times in life, it happens like it does with the story this photo tells…the different ways of describing what is happening aren’t exactly right or wrong per se. They simply do the best they can with the information available. The more we zoom out, the more we know. The more we know, the more we have a full picture of what happened. But the great challenge in life is that people always disagree about what pieces of information actually count and whose voices are worth hearing. And even if we agreed on what we’re seeing, we could never be sure that we have a full enough picture to really understand what’s happening.

This may seem like a very theoretical exercise, but it is an essential part of understanding our world right now. I’d argue most of our inability to talk to people across our various, present divides comes from our choices about who to listen to and what to accept as true. The details we’re willing to include in the stories we tell, dramatically shape how we live and relate to one another. The vast, vast majority of our actions and decisions aren’t good or evil per se. Most of what we say and do involves a million tiny, often unconscious choices about whose voices are centered… about whose experiences are taken into account… about what our goal is in telling those stories. Where and when we are raised, the communities with which we identify, our life experiences, and so many more factors lead us to radically different conclusions about whose voice is heard and what to do with the stories we hear.

Those choices we make based on the stories we tell are almost never exactly good or evil, never exactly right or wrong choices. But it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. Almost everything you learn and everything you try to do in response can change. Psalm 51 provides a perfect example of how this process changes what an honest prayer of confession is and what it teaches us. We’ll view this story at four different levels.

On a very straightforward reading, we find a powerful offering of prayer from a remorseful heart. Psalm 51 begins – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” This is the confessional prayer at the heart of a Christian life. Every time we gather we are invited to admit our mistakes knowing that God mends our broken hearts and makes all things new.

The psalm goes on, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” The movement from confession to hope, from admission of guilt to restoration of joy – this might just be the single most consistent cycle in the life of God’s people. Psalm 51 provides beautiful imagery to capture the heart of this very movement. This is, plain and simple, a powerful and honest prayer of regret.

We zoom out. There are subheadings you have probably noticed if you’ve ever opened a Bible. Below are the subheadings in the version I typically use for study. You’ll notice there are three lines before verse 1 begins. The first is psalm 51, simply giving the number of the psalm.

Psalm screenshot for regret sermon

The second says “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon.” The third says, “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” You may or may not know that none of those three lines would have been found in the very earliest manuscripts of the Bible. Original manuscripts were written in Hebrew and didn’t even bother to include spaces between words. The numbering system of chapters and verses was added much later. The second line, “Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon” was added when my particular Bible translation was created, probably in the late 1980s. You may find a similar line in your own translation or you may find something totally different or nothing at all in its place. It’s simply a topic marker to help name what various paragraphs and stories are about.

The third line is most interesting for our purpose today. “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This heading is far more ancient, going back at least 2000 years or more. These headings are found in early Bible manuscripts but were not assigned numbers when chapter and verse numbers were added much later. Why that is the case could take weeks to explore. For today the important takeaway is to realize how this heading helps us see the larger picture. Psalm 51 is not meant as a generic prayer of confession; it is meant to show us the heart of David, this man after God’s own heart, just after he was confronted about his most shameful act.

David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and she had become pregnant. Then, rather than owning his mistake, David attempted a cover up. And when that failed, he had Bathsheba’s husband, named Uriah, killed. Nathan confronted David about his shameful conduct and exposed the errors and/or crimes David had committed. This is the context of the heartfelt prayer of confession that we read in Psalm 51. It’s about like zooming out from the potted plant to the level of people in the park. What we find doesn’t fundamentally change, but there is a whole new level of clarity offered about just how bad the sins were… and about just how deep and powerful the love of God can go to heal our deepest wounds. This powerful prayer is seen to be a profound act of humility by one of the most powerful of God’s servants.

We zoom out again. One of the difficult things to recognize when we read scripture is how deeply shaped the stories are by culture and authority. The stories we read are told by the people with some level of power and influence. The stories usually center the experiences and voices of the few most powerful or influential people involved. That claim isn’t a knock on scripture, it’s just an important truth to embrace if we want to understand the world of the Bible. A lot begins to change if we’re willing to hear the same stories through the eyes of the secondary characters.

Very little detail is offered about the beginnings of Bathsheba’s story. She is simply seen by David, taken to the king’s house, and only speaks her first words through a messenger when she discovers later that she is pregnant. There’s nothing in the story to imply that adultery is actually the right word. David, as king, has complete authority over her life. The prophets had warned God’s people that this would be the case when they begged God to have a king. The prophets said, “when you’re a king, you can do anything you want. Grab the women you want, send the sons off to war.” But God’s people still begged for a king. And the warning of the prophets came true.

Only one of the participants here had any desire or say in what happened. To hear the prayer of Psalm 51 in light of the power dynamics at play is to hear a very different kind of prayer. I’m honestly not sure what we’re supposed to do with a line like, “Against you alone oh Lord, have I sinned.” I don’t know what to do with it but it sure sounds different in this light. If the only voice we’re willing to hear is the one powerful enough to have his words written down, then we miss an incredibly significant piece of the story. We are clearly still looking at the same picture, it is still a humble prayer of confession from a powerful man; but everything changes when we imagine David’s prayer through Bathsheba’s eyes.

We zoom out one last time. We started with the heartfelt prayer of an unknown person. We saw that it is David’s prayer that we are invited to imagine. We were challenged to imagine that same story through Bathsheba’s eyes. But now we have to step back farther; far enough to see that the effects of David’s actions echo much farther out.

In many ways, Nathan confronting David is a watershed moment in the history of God’s people. There are twists and turns and ups and downs all over the place before and after David. But up until David did what he did, the general trend was in favor of God’s people taking control of the promised land and becoming who they were supposed to be. After David did what he did there is a downhill slide toward defeat. God told David the sword will not depart from you…and it didn’t; all the way up until God’s people were defeated, removed from power, and exiled from the land.

David’s actions set in motion a cascade of events that would dramatically alter the lives of his entire nation for generations. But the effect on one specific individual might just be more heartbreaking to me than all the rest. By the time Nathan confronted David, Bathsheba had conceived and given birth to a child with David. Nathan told David, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” That tiny, innocent baby died just 7 days later.

There are plenty of thorny theological questions raised by this moment. Did God take the child as punishment? What would it say about God if so? Is it better to say God merely let it happen? I don’t have time to adequately address all the follow up questions that are certainly worth asking, but I’ll just say this. Everything I know and have been taught about God tells me that God absolutely does not take away our loved ones or punish us with grief as a response to things we do. The idea that God does so is a way that we try to make sense out of a sometimes senseless world. God’s desire is for us to find hope and healing, never to punish us or cause us pain.

But here’s what I also know to be the case; our actions have consequences far beyond those we might intend. And coming to grips with those consequences can be one of the most complicated, challenging things we do in life. When I look into the eyes of our precious little 9 month old Hutch, I cannot bear the weight of imagining that anything I do will cause him lasting harm. Yet I also know every parent makes plenty of mistakes in their own special way all the time. Believing that we are responsible for the harm of our loved ones can easily lead us into a spiral of shame. It is far easier to simply deny their pain than to accept that something we did could in any way be related.

Our willingness to believe the difficult truth is proportional to how much we can stomach. In other words, when someone’s pain is too much to fix, we’d rather ignore their voice than grapple with a wound that can’t be easily healed. We’d rather tell a different story than face the possibility we did anything wrong. And it’s amazing how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include. But brokenness is never healed simply because we deny that part of the story exists. Silencing the voice of pain is about the surest way to cause long term damage.

No matter who intends what or what the actual causation may be, it is vital that we do not close our eyes to the suffering of others. Racism, sexism, classism, and all the other isms of the world are the same kind of complicated, deep seated, daunting problems on a societal level. Some would rather pretend like the problems are fixed; others cannot help but name their pain.

Refusing to look beyond our side of the story, refusing to hear the voices of the powerless, refusing to accept that we are yet sinners in more ways than we know … to do so is to hide from the grace of God. To do so is to seek control rather than forgiveness. It is to do exactly the opposite of what Christ did upon the cross.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. Jesus did not come to tell us that things really aren’t that bad. When people lashed out at God and blamed God for everything, God’s ultimate response was not to shout down our misunderstanding, misrepresenting, mistaken words and actions. In the cross of Christ, God instead humbled himself to our level. God said very clearly, “There is no where you could go that I have not already gone. There is no shame you could feel that I have not already felt. There is no brokenness you could cause that I have not already healed. I feel what you feel and my reckless love is strong enough to overcome it all.”

The vast majority of the decisions we make and the ways that we hurt each other do not mean that one side is good and the other side is evil. Far more often than not, especially in a partisan and divided time like ours, each of us are choosing to value different voices and different parts of the story. These are not exactly good and evil decisions but they dramatically change the way we feel about the people involved and what ought to be done in response. In our quest to heal the wounds of our world, we could all stand to remember how much you can change a story just by deciding which details to include.

An honest prayer to God invites us to never run from the things we have done or left undone; it requires that we listen even to the voices that make us question our own self perception; it deeply challenges us not to pretend to be better than we are; it forces us to trust in the one who leaves the 99 just to find us.

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise.” In other words, we are invited to embrace our imperfections, to admit the harm we cause, to listen to the stories of others, and to trust that God’s love goes deeper. To trust that even though we fall short in ways we don’t intend and maybe don’t even know, God’s reckless love is still for us.

Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us.

We are loved no matter what. Therefore we can bring all that we have and all that we are, we can bring our whole story, even the parts we’d rather hide from the world or deny altogether; we can bring it all to the foot of the cross, knowing that God will wash us whiter than snow; and God will make us new.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Law is like parenting

In the midst of our broken and divided moment in the life of the UMC, one of the talking points that so often frustrates me is the implication that how we are supposed to live never changes. While I believe that we have been and always will be called to embody the love of God, I cannot help but think that living out that love ought to look different in different seasons of life and at different moments in time. The question should not be “do we do the exact same thing always?” but “do we seek to embody the exact same kind of love for our time and place?” 

To assume it is a given that we should do the exact same thing is as absurd as assuming there is exactly one right way to parent for your child’s entire lifetime. Tucking your kid in at night and saying I love you at the end of every goodbye might both be vital ways of conveying love to your child. But one only makes sense for a season of life and the importance of the other endures. 

We should always be striving to ask what the shape of God’s love looks like here and now rather than assuming that the specific practices that constitute a faithful life will never change. That we only ever seem confident about what counts as sin rather than what embodies love is a reminder of where our true brokenness resides.

People, not choices

“How does one make in the moment ethical decisions?” is the only question popular ethics ever seems to explore. It may be argued that intent or consequence or some other factor is most important for the ethical calculus of the decision, but in the center of the exercise is always a decision that must be made. The unspoken assumption within the question is that there is an agent who is capable of making a decision regardless of the context and narrative in which that person operates. But, the narrative of the agent’s life is the only context in which an agent can have agency. 

The context that creates the agent is thereby the necessary and sufficient  arena in which ethics is able to meaningfully determine or describe right from wrong. Changing the context changes the agent, which changes the calculus surrounding any decision. The more important question is something like, “what kind of people should be created such that the moment of decision is no longer a meaningful point at which to make an argument about what ought to be done and how then do we create the world that creates that kind of person?”

The greatest shortcoming of popular ethical debates is the notion that there can be a distinct moment or act of decision that can be analyzed in any meaningful way. All behavior makes sense in context and it is the context that must be challenged and changed if we are to create ethical people.

A Prayer

A Prayer by Kings Kaleidoscope is perhaps the most perfect musical encapsulation of the gospel message for our day and time.

In content, the song both lyrically and musically moves from a place of fear and doubt to the assurance of God’s response. God’s response does not reinforce the logic of the beginning questions and instead offers a new foundation of faith. God is not primarily worried about personal action and accountability, but instead goes to incredible lengths to say #metoo as the means by which God makes all things new.

In effect, the song is a critique of the way that evangelicalism tends to focus on a list of dos and don’ts rather than on the goodness of God. The lead singer wrote the lyrics as an authentic expression of the anxiety that his evangelical faith fostered inside of him. That anxiety is powerfully captured and then beautifully challenged over the course of the song. Jesus’s lyrical response is a rejection of the very works focused theology in which the singer was raised.

In response, the song was received by the Christian music world about as warmly as Jesus was received by the religious leaders of his day. Rather than receive any attention for the beauty and depth of the music and message, the only thing most folks cared about was that the song twice includes a single cuss word in the midst of a desperate prayer to God. The band was kicked off of tour stops and radically rejected for merely having recorded a song that includes a cuss word. As so often happens in churches, we look for the easiest identifiable thing to call sin and absolutely reject anything that seems to cross that line. We thereby only have time for superficial talk of symptomatic problems and never get to the point of addressing actual brokenness. In our haste to define sin, we rarely pause long enough to explore the freedom and power of the life that really is life.

In reality, the honesty and vulnerability of the lyrics represent one of the most authentically Christian prayers that can be prayed. At the heart of the gospel is the vulnerability of our God. If we are to love as God taught us to love, we are required to bear all that we have and all that we are to God, from the most pristine and righteous thoughts to the most raw and heartfelt pleas. To muzzle the cry of our hearts is to put up a wall of arrogance that hides behind feigned self sufficiency; it is to reject the point and purpose of the cross.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Nameless. Witness. Generosity.

Date Given: 6/16/19

Luke 21:1-4

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Two small copper coins. Two small copper coins were all the widow had to give. Two small copper coins would have been quite the remarkable contrast to the beauty, the opulence, the gifts adorning the temple behind her. Two small copper coins. This is not the donation you need to kickstart a capital campaign. This is not the kind of gift that is going to fund ministry for years to come. This is not a donation that the money counters would even notice when they went to collect at the end of the day. And yet Jesus says this nameless widow gave more than all the others.

In this brief encounter outside the temple, we are met by a nameless woman in scripture, who offers a profound witness about the difference God makes in our lives. This nameless woman deeply challenges our most common sense understanding of generosity. I’ll admit, as a pastor and in the middle of a capital campaign, there is certainly a part of me that is a little uncomfortable with her witness. Jesus says, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them.” Two copper coins is worth more than all the gifts of the rich people.

I’ll admit there’s a part of me that thinks, “sure it’s nice, but you can’t keep the lights on if a couple of coins is all you receive.” And there’s a part of me that thinks Jesus clearly never had to worry about making payroll work out on a low giving week. I would imagine that there is a part of each of us that cannot help but associate a much higher dollar amount with “real” generosity. Especially in a nation built on capitalist assumptions and the creation of a kind of wealth that has never before existed in human history; especially here and now it’s only human to nod along with Jesus, while secretly hoping for a few extra zeroes to be tacked on when anyone is generous with us.

Two copper coins. That’s all this nameless woman had to give. And Jesus says she gave more than all the rest. “all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” I don’t know the exact exchange rate for the coins she put in, but it wasn’t much. Lepton is the greek word used for such a coin. A lepton is worth about 1/128th of a denarius. A denarius is worth a day’s wage. So a lepton was worth about 6 minutes of a day’s work. Not nothing, but not much. A lepton is the smallest and least valuable coin she could have given.

To understand why this nameless woman’s generosity is so significant is going to take more than our best common sense approach to money or accounting or exchange rates. Something much deeper is happening in Luke’s gospel. Something much more challenging and hopeful and significant is being shown in the witness of this nameless woman. Through the lens of Jesus, we can’t help but see that generosity is about something much more than just money or things. Generosity is a means of creating community. Generosity is a way to embody the self giving love of our God.

To see this, we start with something generosity is not. Generosity is not giving away the overabundance of stuff that you no longer need and might never have needed in the first place. Don’t hear me wrong, every time Sallie and I move we give away piles and piles of stuff. I’d venture to guess that a majority of us probably couldn’t say the last time we saw, much less used, about half the random junk in our houses. Cleaning out what you don’t need and donating it to a place that will put it to good use is a great thing. It’s just not generosity.

Doing something you need to do that just so happens to help someone else and make you feel better in the process is a win-win all around. But to rise to the level of generosity requires some sense of personal sacrifice, some level of acting for the sake of someone else even when that practice doesn’t benefit you more than the person helped. The rich donors at the temple were the ones who made a show of their giving – no doubt giving huge sums for the sake of recognition or the notoriety that would come. Generosity means putting others’ needs above our wants, not just giving once we have too much.

Next, we find the most straightforward part of this nameless woman’s witness. That part of her witness might simply be called the value of proportional giving. As a church, we’ve talked about and will continue to speak from time to time about proportional giving. Most commonly we talk about proportional giving in terms of a tithe. Tithing is an idea that goes back at least to the very beginning of the biblical story. Tithing to God is found already in Genesis, the very first book of the bible. Tithing means giving to God 10% of what we have been given.

Tithing shows up at various points all throughout scripture and has been an expectation or at least a goal for church members in pretty much all times and locations since the church started. I know how uneasy it can be to talk about money. Especially at times in life when it’s hard to keep up with bills and loan payments and then something breaks that costs $1000 you don’t have… especially in those moments any talk about tithing can feel harsh or judgmental. But part of the freedom and hope within proportional giving is that this is a community gift, not a personal requirement.

We are blessed to lean on one another in community with the expectation that we will all struggle from time to time. And we know that by choice, circumstance, luck, politics, and a thousand other factors outside our control, money isn’t equally distributed; we are only ever asked to give a portion of what we have received. The goal of a community tithing is much less about achieving the exact percentage point and more about trusting what is possible when we all play the role we can.

At the end of the day, we can’t get around talking about proportional financial giving. The Gospel of Luke talks more about money and wealth than prayer, the kingdom of God, or any other spiritual topic you might expect to find. Especially for Luke, our practical choices to support the community of Christ is an absolutely essential part of our witness. Financial support for this community is an essential part of continuing to do the work to which we have been called. There is no more simple, concrete way to show what we value than to see how we spend our money as individuals and as a church.

Here at Cypress UMC, we don’t lay down some sort of punitive requirements that you have to follow or else. If you’re a guest, we hope you see the value in what we’re trying to accomplish and will find some way to support what God is doing here. Our expectation of our members is that you will at least give some percentage of what you have been given, even if that starts out very small. Our hope is that you feel the call to tithe or work towards it. If everyone increased giving by just 1%, it wouldn’t radically change an individual’s lifestyle, but it would radically change what we’re able to do together. Proportional giving is a vital part of Christian community.

Within this reality is a more subtle but equally important lesson. Jesus said, “this woman has put in more than all of them.” Out of her poverty, she has given a gift that is more than all the rich people had to give. Jesus’ point is not just about percentage of income; more than that, we are better when the gifts of all God’s children are brought to light; even those we’re tempted to ignore or devalue.

How often in our quest to be generous do we stop to question our assumptions about what happens when we give? The vast majority of the time, at least for me, my default mindset in ministry is that I who have, am going to give something generous to you, who is in need. On some level, that dynamic is going to be a temptation in every attempt to be generous. We filled this entire room with toys and bikes and an incredible array of presents to give away at Christmas time. In just over a week, we’ll open the doors of our church to be overrun by 750 VBS kids coming to be blessed by an amazing and free week of singing and crafts and games and lessons. This afternoon, we’re sending an amazing group of highschoolers and adults to UM Army where they will put their skills to the test painting, building ramps, and doing anything else they can to serve the people of Liberty.

Each of these acts of generosity is a beautiful and powerful thing. But how often do we pause long enough to remember that all of God’s children are blessed with gifts worth sharing? How often do we find ways to bring to light the gifts of those we think we’re serving? How often could we recognize that the gifts they have to offer might just be more valuable than anything we could give away? Even asking the question is hard. At best, it usually leads to a sentimental notion that we have been blessed by that act of giving. So rarely do we truly recognize that two copper coins could actually be more valuable than anything we could offer.

This reality is most easily seen in the life of Jesus. On this side of the resurrection, after two thousand years of church history and theology writing and all sorts of other influences, we know that what Jesus did was the most significant gift that he could have offered. Jesus gave his life to give new life to each of us. But in that day and time, in that moment when he was doing the one thing that would change everything, in that moment even his closest followers failed to see the value in what was happening.

The disciples, like all God’s people at the time, wanted a new king. They wanted someone to rise up with military might. They wanted someone to rule over Rome. They assumed the way things had always been was the way they would always be and they simply wanted to have more money and power than all the rest. What Jesus did by going to the cross must have felt an awful lot like throwing two copper coins in the offering plate. And yet, Jesus gave a gift that no one knew they needed, and in so doing changed everything.

How often do we overlook the beauty of the gifts we have been offered, just because they don’t look like what we already think we want? In the witness of this nameless woman, we see that we are better together when the gifts of all God’s children are seen and valued; even the gifts we didn’t know we needed.

A final piece of this nameless woman’s witness is worth drawing out. It is something that is presumed within all that I’ve said thus far, but is worth making explicit. If we have nothing, then we have nothing to give. That much should be obvious, but it’s worth sitting with for a moment because it can be so easy to hear Jesus’ words and miss half the point. Jesus says that the woman, “out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” We can hear those words and assume that the real goal should always be to give 110% – to give until it hurts and then keep going. We might see that Jesus gave his very life for us and assume that the point is to make the same sacrifice in any way that we can.

The problem is that Godly generosity is about relationship, not money or things or acts of service. Giving generously is not an end in it’s own right – generosity is only a means to creating the community that God desires for us to know. If we all give until it hurts and then double down to give even more, we’ll eventually just resent one another for failing to carry enough of the weight. Relationship is only born when we experience the mutual growth and trust; when we see generosity that tears down walls and makes us all stronger.

Hurting people hurt people. Healthy people help people. Jesus gave all that he had and all that he was, but he did so out of the abundance of a love that knows no bounds and never ends. He did so to bind all our hearts together in that very love that created life itself. If we don’t care for ourselves, if we don’t come back to the source of life and love, if we just keep giving and giving and giving without any attention to ourselves, then we will burn out, run out, and otherwise have nothing left to give.

Godly generosity is not giving away stuff we didn’t need or want anyway; it involves at least putting others’ needs over our wants. Godly generosity doesn’t rely on dollar figures or magnificent gifts; it relies on giving an amount proportional to what we have been given first. Godly generosity doesn’t simply mean giving what we already think we want; it means bringing the gifts of all God’s children to light. And Godly generosity doesn’t leave us empty; it invites us to come back to the well of love and grace to be renewed time and time again.

It’s only fitting that we explore this profound witness of generosity on Father’s day. Parenting well is one of a handful of endeavors in life that requires a special understanding of generosity. Parenting presents the call to learn how to give generously – to give not for the sake of power and not out of resentment; but to give for the sake of your child. Sometimes that involves giving out of abundance and at times it means giving out of poverty. Even the very best among us, can only do the best we can with what we have been given.

But we gather to worship each week and we build our lives upon the cross of Christ because the source of life itself already gave all. He gave a generous gift we didn’t even know we needed and brought new life for us all. We come to the source of our strength knowing that no matter how far we fall short, no matter how many times we have been let down; here we are met by the one whose generosity knows no limits. Here we find the source and hope for a community in which all our faults and failures are embraced, transformed, and made new.

One nameless woman gave two copper coins. And in so doing, she reminds us of the generosity that God makes possible. The love that binds our hearts together is stronger than death itself. That love is at the heart of a generous life.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Nameless. Witness. Courage.

Date Given: 6/23/19

Job 2:9-10

Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

When I arrived at FUMC Texas City, I was a wide eyed young pastor, as ready as I could be to take on my first senior pastor job, with no idea what that actually meant. I was met there by some of the most kind and faithful people I’ve ever known. I want to share just one of their stories with you today. Her name was Audrey. Audrey was in her late eighties when we arrived, but she was still full of life and joy and humor. Audrey came to most of the weekday bible studies we did and was always willing to help in whatever ways she still physically could.

Maybe most of all, I enjoyed that she always called me the vicar. Vicar is what you call the parish priests in the Church of England. Audrey was a war bride. She would tell the story of how she met her husband when he was stationed in England. They fell in love and got married. They feared for her safety there, but his time in country wasn’t over yet. So Audrey loaded onto a ship alone that was headed for America. On their way out into the Atlantic, all the passengers were forced to wear their life vests and hunker down inside. They would come to find out much later that their ship had been chased by a German Uboat for miles.

Thankfully, they made it safely across the Atlantic to New York, where Audrey changed boats to one headed for Galveston Texas. In Galveston, Audrey met her new in laws for the first time ever. They took her in and cared for her like their daughter until Audrey’s husband made it back from the war. Audrey’s husband passed away well before I arrived in Texas City, but she stayed put until shortly after her 90th birthday party. After that point, she moved to an assisted living facility to be closer to one of her children. About 2 years later, she returned to Texas City for good to be buried next to her husband.

When she finally made the decision to move from Texas City after decades of living in the exact same home, it was incredibly difficult to watch her go. We went by her house one day just before she moved so that we could check on how she was doing and how the packing was going. We sat and reminisced over a variety of things and heard a lot about her new place. The most exciting thing for her, or at least for her daughter, was that Audrey’s new place would finally have a dishwasher; after living into her 90s without one. I happened to see this little plaque on the dresser in the room where we were talking – it says “there’s no man like my father… except my grandfather.” It felt pretty accurate as a gift for a future child, so she offered it to me.

I tell the story of Audrey because her story perfectly illustrates the single most difficult thing I experience in being a pastor. Having known Audrey is one of the great treasures of my life in ministry. And having said goodbye to her is one of my deep wounds that will stick with me forever.

I’m finding more and more as I grow into this career that the one and only thing that truly matters is the relationships that are built along the way. Preaching, bible studies, travel, meetings, reading, bar b ques, singing, outreach and on and on and on – all of it is just a means to the only end that matters; just a means toward building relationships, with God and one another; with you here in this room and with our neighbors near and far.

And yet……I cannot help but know that there will come a time when the very best relationships we have built, will be the source of my greatest pain; whether that be because one of us moves, someone dies, or something else radically changes; and change will come. It is no small thing to open your heart enough for it to be broken. It is no small thing to know the outcome going in, and choose to love anyway.

In the book of Job, we encounter a nameless woman who gives witness to this very kind of love. Job is a somewhat strange and unique book of the Bible. Job is a man who is righteous in every way. He had a good life with a wife and kids and property and animals and wealth and everything a man could want. Satan bets God that Job is only so faithful because of his good fortune and God takes the bet. God allows Satan to take away all that Job holds dear, even his own health. It is in the process of losing everything that we encounter the very brief appearance of Job’s wife.

A couple of quick comments are probably worth making before we move forward. Satan is the Hebrew word for adversary. When Job was written, satan was by no means meant to represent the pure manifestation of evil who runs around with a red pitch fork. Most of our images of Satan or the devil or evil come from much later traditions, many of them after the Bible was completed. For today, don’t worry too much about exactly what to do with the idea of God and Satan hanging out and making bets; just try to accept this as the set up to put the storyline in motion.

The second note is that there are lots of questions raised by the storyline itself. Why would God allow this to happen to Job? Can God be fully good if this is what God chose to let happen? Answers will be hinted at as we explore the witness of Job’s wife, but these are largely questions the book itself doesn’t care to resolve. Like so many other places in scripture, the book of Job asks and answers the questions it wants and ignores most of ours. For today, I simply ask again that we accept the story as it comes to us and explore what we learn in through this strange and unique story.

We come back to Job’s wife. Over the course of 42 long and winding chapters, mostly consisting of speeches offered by Job, his friends, and God; Job’s wife is given only 11 words to say. She is then rebuked by Job and the story moves on. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet she has a profound witness to offer if we are willing to look just a little closer.

Job’s wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips. There’s an easy and all too common way to read what is happening here. It goes something like this – Job, the sinless example of all that is good and holy in life is forced to overcome the temptation of his own wife telling him to curse God. She is fickle and he is steadfast. She is a failure and he is the righteous person we should aspire to become.

That reading is no doubt so common because it simply takes for granted that what the text says is how the world does and should work. Without stopping and sitting with this moment, there’s no way we would expect to find anything more than a fickle wife and a steadfast Job. She tells him to curse God. Job says no and we’re even told that he did not sin with his lips. Case closed. Except there are two related problems with accepting that the situation is just that simple.

The first is that the point of the gospel message is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ. This point is made over the course of the book as Job’s friends try to tell him what he must have done wrong to deserve punishment. For every explanation they offer, Job says no, I did not sin. I did nothing wrong. And no where is Job corrected for his idea that he has not sinned. As we are told from the very beginning, Job is a completely righteous man.

Instead of finding a sin Job committed, God finally comes to Job in a whirlwind and simply says “who are you to question me.” I made the oceans, I set the boundary of the land, I put time in motion, I made everything. How dare you question who I am? In the cross of Christ, God shows us the fullness of who God is. God is not the guy who keeps a tally of sin vs good deeds to be sure that the good we do outweighs the bad. Instead, God is the one who gave His very life to show us what love is. And in so doing, God overcame all brokenness and fear and separation and any of the ways we might fall into sin.

Job was great at not sinning, that much we see in his response to his wife. But the point of the gospel is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ.

Which brings us to the second problem with a simple reading of Job’s wife. A simple reading ignores the entire context in which she uttered her 11 words. Job’s wife had just suffered through almost all of the very same tragedies that fell on Job. They lost their land, their livestock, and their house. The lives of each and every one of their children were lost. As far as we know, she kept her physical health through the whole ordeal, but she had to watch her husband lose even that.

In her day and age, the only thing keeping her out of abject poverty was the fact that Job was still alive. Women could not own property. A woman starting out late in life husbandless and childless, without land or home or livestock; would have had no hope in her world. At best, she might have been able to beg for food or rely on the help of strangers. But without Job, there would be no guarantee of survival, much less any of the comforts or luxuries that she had known up to that point in life.

It was in this context, at the moment when she and Job had lost everything they held dear in life, after watching her husband lose even his physical health until suffering was the only thing he knew in life – that was the moment when she uttered those troubling words – “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” We have no way to know the full motivation or tone of voice she used. These 11 words are the only thing we have to even know that she existed, much less to understand who she was. We can’t know exactly what was on her heart, but I know that it would have been incredibly hard for her to love Job enough to let him go; to love him enough to see his suffering finally end in a way that would only multiply her own.

But that kind of love is the love at the heart of the gospel. Christ came into our world to love us beyond measure. He did so not by showing us how not to sin. Jesus showed us how to love by opening his heart to us enough for it to be broken. At the climax of his time on earth, he was forsaken by those he came to save. And the new life we have in him is born in the vulnerability of that very act of love. I don’t know exactly what Job’s wife was thinking and feeling, but her willingness to face life without Job sounds a lot more like the love of Jesus than anything Job did.

Far from simply being a fickle failure, Job’s wife represents the danger and challenge of loving another person with your whole heart. Can you love someone enough to let them go? Are you willing to love someone even though you know they won’t be around forever? These are the questions Sallie and I have to face every time I get moved to a new church. Every time we say yes, we are so blessed and so heartbroken at the same time. But most of the greatest blessings in life are simply not possible without taking the risk to open your heart enough for it to be broken.

We have a good friend whose story comes to mind every time I start to reflect on this hard life lesson from Job’s wife. There were, of course, no bets made between God and satan in her story, but she had to face a moment just as difficult as the one in which we encounter Job’s wife. Her husband went to the ER a few months ago with shortness of breath. He was quickly diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and the doctors went to work to fix the problems. For a few days things seemed to get better, until suddenly they became much worse.

Soon, her husband was forced to be on an ECMO machine, which basically means that he was put in a coma so that this machine could take the place of his heart and lungs. The machine was supposed to give his heart and lungs a break so that they could heal, but his condition wasn’t improving. He was transferred to another hospital where our friend received some of the worst news of her life. At some point after being put on the machine and before arriving at the new hospital, her husband had both a stroke and a brain bleed. The doctors did what they could to stabilize his condition and figure out treatment options.

Then came the meeting that changed everything. The doctors told our friend that the stroke had likely decimated the communication center of his brain. The right side of his body would likely be paralyzed. The best case scenario they could offer, if he survived a few necessary surgeries to remove the machines, is that he would be in assisted living for the rest of his life with memories intact, but no way to communicate, feed himself, breathe without assistance, or take care of himself at all. I’ll never forget the conversation we had with our friend as she had to make decisions that no one ever wants to consider.

Perhaps the hardest question the doctors asked – would she like to place a Do Not Resuscitate order in place. There were a variety of potentially fatal conditions that might develop in the process of removing the machines. Did she want them to do everything in their power to keep his body alive, even if the best recovery she was told to hope for was that he’d never be able to communicate or live at home again? Or if the worst started to happen, was she willing to let him go? She went from planning for the birth of their second child to a husband with shortness of breath to the most unthinkable question she could ever be asked in almost no time at all.

Sallie and I had several conversations trying to wrestle with how we could possibly answer the same question if we ever wound up in the same situation. What would love even look like in that moment? Does love fight for life to continue no matter what? Would it be loving for me to keep her around even if she could never walk or talk again…. Or would that just be my selfish desire at work? Would it make me a horrible person to be ok with her passing on so her pain would end and my life would be less complicated?

There are no simple or easy answers when faced with questions no one should have to answer. But there is a chance in every relationship worth having that we might one day have to give an answer. There is no way to experience real love without opening our hearts to the possibility of being broken. Very few of us will ever have to make the incredibly difficult decisions that our friend has had to make. But we each decide every day if we are willing to let each other in enough to risk the possibility of loss.

One nameless woman in scripture had the courage to open her heart to the possibility of losing absolutely everything that mattered in her life. And in so doing, she offers us an incredible witness to the courageous kind of love that Christ has shown for us all. Courage isn’t pretending like we can fix all the problems and face every challenge and get out of life alive. Courage is embracing our imperfections and knowing the difficulties ahead and choosing to love each other all the more.

When we talk about building bridges into our community as a church, we’re talking about having the courage to open our collective heart enough to be broken… enough to truly let our neighbors in. We are standing here today because of the incredible men and women who loved God and each other enough over the last 60 years to make this church what it is today. And we have the opportunity this week to put that love into practice, building a bridge for the next generation.     

I want to challenge each and every one of you to open your heart to at least one child this coming week. Over 700 kids will descend upon the church for vacation bible school and we have the opportunity to love with the love of Christ. It is entirely possible that many of the kids will come for a week and we may never see them again. But we are still called to open our hearts in the way that Jesus Christ opened his heart for each and every one of us. We are called to love with abandon. Be courageous enough to love with the love of Christ. It is that kind of love that changes everything.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.