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Guest Post: a sermon by Rev. Dr. Brad Gabriel (part of a Lenten Series entitled: The Lonesome Road) Text: John 12:20-33
Adaptive cruise control is a new car technology. According to Numlock News, the technology uses radar to determine the distance between the car and the vehicle ahead of it and manage cruise control actively with that information. This makes cruise control more dynamic. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety carried out a study of the technology. The Institute loaned cars with the technology to 40 Boston-area drivers. The results show that adaptive cruise control made speeding much easier. Monitors in the cars showed that drivers were 24 percent more likely to speed when using adaptive cruise control than when they were not.
Going on cruise might not be 100% beneficial, then. This is true for our spiritual journey as well for commutes to work, vacation driving, and road trips to the grandparents. This Lent for our spiritual journey we are walking that Lonesome road with Jesus. In today’s lesson, something expected, but still new, comes up.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Ok, good. Thank you. I do, too. We still are dealing with lingering pandemic, continued civil strife, and potential religious divide, so, yes, I wish to see Jesus. I wish to see Jesus in good news as well. I want to see him celebrate with us as more vaccines are more widely distributed, as vaccinated parents and vaccinated children get to hug one another, and other signs of renewed life are reported.
I wish to see Jesus in the face of bad news. It only takes one news report about the looming humanitarian crisis on the Southern border, or some white guy with a gun committing a heinous crime to send us all reeling. What are we doing? Why? How do we do something else? I wish to see Jesus in our current context. On this Lonesome road, I wish to see Jesus.
Traveling this Lonesome road with Jesus has made clear once again, that regardless of how I may feel or what I may think about anyone else’s behavior, my errors are many, my sins grievous, and my vision more than a little hazy. Yes, I wish to see Jesus. Seeing Jesus will make sure that I stay on the road. Seeing Jesus helps me avoid getting too close to the guardrails, because even that is too close to losing my way entirely. I wish to avoid falling into the error of going on spiritual cruise control. I know the temptations. This is not my first season of Lent. Or second, or fiftieth.
I wish to see Jesus because I want to remember that the discipline of this season allows me to remember the central parts of our faith. From what I read and hear and see, I do not think that I’m the only person these days who is tempted to slip into a comfortable and culturally approved spirituality that looks a whole lot less like Christianity and a whole lot more like what one observer called a “new belief system [that] is a blend of self-optimization, therapy, right wing Q-anon conspiracy theories, economic thoughts, wellness, astrology, left-wing political orthodoxy, and Dolly Parton.” So, hearing these Greeks come and tell Philip “We wish to see Jesus,” and reading about what comes after, serve as course corrections.
The setting of today’s Gospel matters as much as the Greeks’ request. I am certainly not the first person to notice this. Earlier in this chapter, we read that some of the authorities have decided to kill Jesus. The reason is because he raised Lazarus from the dead. I might have thought that raising a good person from an untimely death would cause general happiness. Apparently, the fears of those leaders were that such miracles might lead to yet another pre-doomed popular uprising against Rome. The last doomed revolt was only about 30 years prior. The pain, the destruction, the deaths, of that time are still too fresh. The miracle of defeating death was one problem for those who choose a comfortable if slightly oppressive stability over fidelity to the will of God.
Another problem that we will read about next week, was what happened when Jesus and his followers came to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. His entrance had all the trappings of a nationalist uprising. That was sure to anger the Roman occupiers. Messianic, nationalistic, religiously excessive, and, the authorities tell one another, the whole world is going after Jesus.
One commentator remarked that these events smacked of foreshadowing to him. Do you remember learning about foreshadowing as a literary device? When do our teachers talk to us about that? Eight grade? Ninth? Both of our sons talked a lot about foreshadowing when they learned about it. We would watch a TV program and they say, “Oh, look, that’s foreshadowing. Let’s see how it works in the story.”
My favorite example is the scene in the first Jurassic Park film when the T-Rex is chasing people who are in a car. You see the monster’s face in the side view mirror of the car. What is printed on the bottom of the mirror? “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
Foreshadowing. A hint of what’s to come. The whole world is going after Jesus. A fulfillment of what we read last week. John 3:16, “for God so loved the world…” Now the world appears to be going after Jesus. Those asking for the introduction didn’t have to be Greeks. Any ethnicity would do, I suppose. Italians. Celts. Iberians. Egyptians. Tennesseans. These Greeks, though, these outsiders, these foreigners, these others, these who are “not our type of people,” come up. They say to the Disciple with the Greek sounding name, (which is, also a foreshadow of coming events) “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The whole world is going after him.
The appearance of these Greeks in turn, foreshadow Jesus’ sacrifice for the whole world. Their appearance foreshadows the church’s mission to include all people. “For God so loved the world….”
Philip and Andrew two Greek named disciples bring the request to Jesus and he says in response, not, “Let’s sign them up.” Instead, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Those of us on this side of the cross know that he is talking about his own death. At the very least, his death. Of course, as has been noted on stage and screen and classroom, he didn’t have to go through with it.
He could take it all back. “Excuse me?” he might say. “Is that what you heard me say about the Temple hierarchy? About Rome? About people who are always looking for someone to feel superior to? My bad. Sorry. Tell you what, how about I toddle on off back to Nazareth. Join the family business and we just file this all away as a misunderstanding? One day, we’ll look back at this and laugh. Right?”
He could have. He won’t. He didn’t. Jesus understands his life is the seed that will bring the harvest of God’s love, reconciling all things to God’s own Self, as the apostle writes in Colossians 1:20 “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” At the risk of sounding too flexible, this is a universal love. Jesus knows that when he dies to all the external trappings of power and prestige and popularity, he knows that when he speaks the truth in love, and when he lives the truth in love, and when he loves, in truth, the whole world and all its people, he knows that the outcome is inevitable. He knows the outcome. It’s on that hill. Just outside the city gates.
He also knows that staying on that lonesome road, being lifted up, being cast down and entombed, all of that, will bring the harvest of love that is the only way to re-shape this world, beginning with your life, with my life. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” “The whole world is going after him.” “For God so loved the world.” All of it and all of us.
How do we grasp that? We keep Jesus in our sight. We can’t afford to go on cruise control. We will see Jesus in the scriptures, in the sacraments, and in the means of grace. The question for Lent on this lonesome road is, will people see Jesus in us?
Did you see the television series called “The Queen’s Gambit?” A colleague called it to my attention. (Careful, here, there are spoilers ahead.) Fictional, it is the story, set at the height of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, of an orphan girl who discovers that she is a chess prodigy. Beth Harmon, the name of the woman in the show, rises in the world of chess. She falls in her private life, alcohol and drug abuse, isolation, and anger that reflect the abuse and betrayal that she experienced as a child and younger woman.
At one point in the show Beth is going to play the world champion for the title of Grand Master. She is rescued by an old friend who comes to help, to sacrifice for Beth, to support, and most important to tell her the plain and simple truth in loving and unvarnished terms. Beth learns that she can never become great in isolation. People whom she had cut off return and support and provide advice and direction. Beth wins the chess match, defeats the Russian and is cheered by the entire world it seems.
Beth is escorted by a state department official to be received and praised by the President of the United States. She is dressed ambiguously, in a long white coat, wearing a white beret style hat with a pom-pom on top she looks like the White Queen, possibly the most powerful piece of a standard chess set. Or is she a pawn ready to sacrifice herself for the good of the other? Beth leaves the State Department car. She walks away from power and prestige and popularity and does for an old man sitting alone at a table with a chess board on it that which no one had done for her until almost too late. She invites him in, “Let play.”
We are to invite in the whole world. As they are. Jesus will work on them just as he does. We must participate in this life and the next. We must make sure that all of our remaining sins are on the table. That means the areas of work Jesus has in my life includes my racism or sexism or classism or homophobia or chauvinism or greed or arrogance or desire for power or prestige or even popularity. Those areas have to be removed so they do not get in the way of showing Jesus to the world in all that we say and all that we do in all of our relationships, all the days of our life. Certainly, you will continue to show Jesus to the world in the service that you give aiding the hungry and thirsty, and naked and homeless and sick and in prison, those to whom Jesus points us.
We must keep Jesus in our sight. The one who is lifted up. The one who falls to the ground. The who is the seed of God’s all redeeming love. The one who teaches us how to love and who makes your love for others and for yourself possible. The one who witnesses and blesses your sacrifice that lets the kingdom expand a bit more today. The one who already understands that your sacrifice is never a way to earn what Jesus already gives freely. Jesus accepts your sacrifice as the “Thank you” to him that it is.
I can’t do this on my own. No matter how modern and fancy my cruise control might be. While I may be wrong, I suspect that none of you can do it on your own either. Stay aware. Stay engaged. Stay on the road. Keep Jesus in your sight. Continue with your joyful sacrifice of time and resources and money and prayer. Continue imitating the Jesus you love as you become his hands in the life you live with others.
Does your productivity ever get hampered by your desire to find the best possible solution? As you seek the easiest or fastest route to your goal, you may find yourself stopped entirely. Sometimes you may even do this on purpose, to keep from having to make a decision. Yes, it’s true. We self-sabotage!
However, there’s a work-around. Maybe you’ve heard of the term, “heuristic.” Heuristics are rules that allow a solution to be found more quickly. With a heuristic, a resolution can be found even when the entire path isn’t clear from the onset.
For example, if there were no roads, but you lived in New York and wanted to make your way to California, a heuristic might be:
Walk west as far as you can.
Walk around any obstacle, if possible.
If faced with a mountain range, walk toward the space between 2 small peaks.
Repeat until reaching California.
Does this heuristic give you the most efficient solution?
No; however, it will get you where you want to go, and you won’t waste a lot of time trying to make up your mind.
Try these behavioral heuristics to increase your productivity:
Choose the right time. Nearly everyone has times of the day when they are most effective and times when they tend to drag. It’s smart to schedule the most critical tasks for your most effective time of the day. (I’m at my most efficient in the morning, so I plan difficult tasks that require a lot of concentration for these time slots. When do you work best?)
Toss it. If a task doesn’t really need to be done, just get rid of it altogether. (I do this with email a lot! But of course never when it’s from any of you!!!)
Get the bad stuff out of the way. Do the unpleasant items quickly and as early in the day as possible. (My grandmother taught me at an early age to do the most unpleasant things FIRST so I don’t expend energy dreading them! So I got those dinner dishes done right after dinner!)
Set a goal each day (or night). In the morning, decide what you want to accomplish that day. This can be even more effective when planned the night before. Once you have a sense of direction, you can spend all your time getting things done! (Bonus tip: Try using the 1-3-5 Rule for prioritization! Google it!)
Eliminate all communication. While you’re working, turn off the phone / cell phone, and don’t check your email. Hang a sign that says, “Do not disturb,” if necessary. You don’t have to do this for all your tasks, but at least do it during the more difficult items. (If necessary, move to a different location so you don’t see notifications on your computer.)
Batch similar tasks together. Do all your emailing at one time. Make all your phone calls at another. Open your snail mail during a set block of time. You’ll waste less time by doing your work in this fashion.
Set a timer. Even if a task might take hours, starting will seem easier if you simply give yourself 30 minutes to get as much done as you can. A time limit seems to help many people concentrate and work better, too.
Set targets. For example, if you have a particular task to do, tell yourself that you’re not getting up for any reason until you’re finished with it. Regardless of what happens, refuse to stop until you hit your target.
Use the Pareto Principle. This principle states that 20% of the actions you could take will provide you with 80% of the benefits. So focus on the tasks that will accomplish the most. Unfortunately, these are frequently the tasks that are not enjoyable. You might be surprised how little you really have to do if you focus on the critical 20%.
Delegate some of your work. Is there anyone else who can help you? The people around you are resources. When appropriate, use their time and talents wisely to get things done more quickly.
Set a deadline. Having a specific endpoint will really help to focus your time and energy. If a task doesn’t feel necessary, chances are that it won’t get done. Be as specific as possible!
Increase your speed. It sounds silly, but this can really help. Try doing everything a little faster. Walk faster, talk faster, type faster, and read faster. (You can go back and edit if needed, but just pump it out!)
Implement these heuristics into your life and work and you’ll find yourself getting more done in less time.
The ultimate secret is to stay on task and not waste any time.
A CcNet Coach responds to Tony Morgan’s article: “7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus.”
By Rev. Dr. Teresa Angle-Young
We recently posted a blog from pastor Tony Morgan on The Unstuck Church Podcast titled, “7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus.” 
I’d like to break down the major points of the podcast and offer my own thoughts. I hope it helps you as you think about what your church may need to focus on coming out of the pandemic.
What is the problem we are trying to solve?
“instead of worrying about when our churches are going to reopen, begin to think today about what are the changes we need to make in order to change to the new reality we’re experiencing as churches.” (Tony Morgan)
We are never going back to “normal.” Let me just say that again friends…what we used to think of as “normal church” is gone forever. I’m not saying we won’t return to Sunday morning worship, in-person small groups, youth mission trips, and potlucks, but I believe we have seen a fundamental shift in how we “do” church that is simply now part of the new normal and will forever be. Please do not trap your thinking into the “once things go back to normal” mode. Let it go. We aren’t going back. Maintaining this mindset will hold you, and your ministry, back.
How important are our buildings moving forward?
“digital is with us, is going to be with us beyond this crisis. And then secondly, we need to, as churches, be looking at our digital strategy beyond just streaming the Sunday morning services” (TM)
I coach a large number of clergy, but I also have a large number of corporate clients. I can tell you that most of them are no longer thinking as much about “when we can return to the office” as they are thinking, “how to continue to facilitate our employees and team members for the long haul in a virtual space.” Many of them are even selling their big corporate offices. They are enjoying not only a huge savings in bricks and mortar costs, but they have seen their talent pool open up to a global space. What if we, as leaders in the church, took a similar approach? Can you imagine the possibilities?
Do we have the right staff configuration, and do we have the right people in those positions?
“we’re also going to probably need to think about our structure and staffing around this new strategy for us to be able to have the impact we need to be having moving forward.” (TM)
I’ve had many clergy asking questions such as, “If we can’t have a choir should we be paying a choir director a full-time salary?” “Our youth leader is a great person, but struggles to facilitate the group in a virtual setting. Should we re-think that position and re-think what qualifications we need?” Staffing issues are hard, and fraught with emotion. No one wants to fire the longtime staff member (often also a church member…but that’s a different problem for another time) and risk backlash and hurt feelings. But at what point is our care for and obligation to the overall good of the church the top priority? Leaders, lay and clergy, often must make difficult decisions because of the potential impact on the health of the congregation.
What is the endgame?
A move from “from teaching to equipping.” (TM)
“more about tools and resources. And then also, obviously, connecting people relationally so that there’s a coach, a mentor, or in church world we call it a disciple maker, that they’re engaging with in order to take these next steps.” (TM)
What are we really trying to do here? I have always said that worship – preaching, music, prayer – should facilitate an encounter with the living Christ. For me, and based on my many conversations with many of you, the endgame is to create disciples of Christ and deepen existing congregants relationships with God. Worship is not, in and of itself, the endgame of church. Making disciples is the end game. So how do we offer resources and tools to teach, equip, challenge, and lead others to Christ? If we keep focusing on “getting back to regular worship” we have missed the myriad of opportunities to witness to a much wider audience the power of God. Jesus did a small portion of his ministry in the synagogue. Most of his ministry was in the world – on the street, in homes, at parties, during travel. What tools do we need, and what tools can we offer others, to do ministry the way Jesus did?
How do we facilitate connections and community?
“how do we connect people to other people so that they can continue to take their next steps toward Christ?” (TM)
I recently became part of a virtual private group that focuses on friendship, prayer, and spiritual growth, and I can tell you that I feel very connected to every person in the group. 25 of them. Only one was a friend before the group started. Some of them are in other countries, so I may never meet them in person. But I know and see their animal companions, their homes, what they like to eat, and I hear their struggles, their joys, and their fears. We are connected. So, how do we create that sense of connection in a virtual space? How do we create community when some of the members of that community may be home-bound, or traveling, or live 2000 miles away?
Where is the real mission field?
“pay more attention to the mission field for where God has placed our church.” (TM)
Local vs global. Love the person in front of you. That’s what Jesus did. In a world where we can no longer send people off to far away places to do ministry, can we get back to loving and serving the person that God has put before us? Can we serve our neighborhoods? Can we see the needs, physical, spiritual, emotional, and financial, in the people beside us at the grocery, or at the gas station, or living next door to us? Yes, we are called to make disciples of all people, but we can start with the ones we can see from our front window.
What does it mean, in this new world, to be good stewards of our resources?
“I think that’s going to create more opportunities for us to be generous and partner with local agencies and other churches even to address the spiritual, physical and mental health needs in our communities.” (TM)
I believe that forming partnerships with local agencies and organizations, and other local congregations (whether they are part of your denomination or not), will be critical moving forward. It takes a village, truly. We can do so much more when we work together. And every time we band together with others outside of our local congregation, we bear witness to the love of God and the love of our church.
What is really important?
“We need to get more focus. We need to get more simple. In fact, what we’ve seen at The Unstuck Group in the past is complexity is actually one of the more obvious signs the church has begun to experience decline on the church lifecycle.” (TM)
Rather than planning to bring back every ministry we’ve “missed” during the pandemic, I’m encouraging the clergy I coach to think about what needs to be pruned. This is a good time to really ascertain the effectiveness of every single ministry in your church. Just because you’ve always done it doesn’t mean you should keep doing it. Ruthlessly prioritize. In the face of limited resources, money and volunteers, rather than putting a few drops in a lot of buckets, consider picking a few buckets and really filling them.
What metric should we be counting?
“we need to think about, more intentionally, the language that we’re using in our services. Are you welcoming first time guests? Are you making it easy and obvious about the first steps you want those guests to be taking? You need to have a strategy for new people that are showing up, even on our online services. And you need to make it easy for people to connect with your churches and then take their next steps toward Christ.” (TM).
Think about engagement, not attendance or views! You may have 1000 people “viewing” your online worship, but how many of them comment, or reach out, or re-post? Engagement means actual interaction. And when others join, how do you make them feel welcomed and part of the service? If you are sending out a Zoom link, you are limiting who can come. Are you circling the wagons, or expanding the circle? Do you use insider language? A new viewer has no idea who “Miss Betty” is so if you indicate “Miss Betty” has the info on the upcoming small group study, you just lost engagement.
Are we coming out of the wilderness?
“whether we want to admit it or not, in the future we’re probably going to have more people visiting our church online than we will in our church buildings. And that’s why I think it’s really critical that we not just think of what we’re doing online right now as a temporary solution until we can get back to normal church, we need to really be paying attention to what we’re doing in this moment because this is a picture of what church is going to look like going forward. And so if you’re thinking, we can just get by now and then go back to normal. There’s not going to be go back to normal anymore. It’s like wanting to go back to Egypt. We’re not going to be able to go back there. There was a promise land ahead of us, and we’re getting a picture of what that promise land looks like. And we really need to take this moment to lean in and figure out, not just what our strategy looks like during the coronavirus, but what does our strategy as a church need to look like for the future, for the new future that we’re experiencing as a church, as we try to reach people for Jesus.” (TM)
By J. Thomas Laney, Associate Director, Turner Center for Church Leadership, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, TN
Guiding the life of a church in the midst of a pandemic has proven to be an unprecedented challenge for pastors over the past year. Congregations have had to make rapid adjustments to the way they worship, study and work together. In making those changes, they have discovered their leaders and members frequently have very different ideas of what should be done. The most effective pastors are those who have been able to model good leadership skills in working through conflict. The way these effective leaders have guided their churches is a timely reminder of how to lead well in all kinds of conflicted circumstances.
They know they must manage themselves first. Good leaders understand that anxiety is contagious and that they need to make sure they do not add their personal anxiety and stress to the necessary conversations. Edwin Friedman coined the term “non-anxious presence” to describe how leaders should engage difficult work,[i] but that term is often misinterpreted to mean that the leader should have no anxious feelings. The truth is no one can help feeling anxious in challenging circumstances, but all good leaders know how to contain their personal anxious energies in order to help the community focus on the task before them.
They know they cannot solve big problems alone. They understand the need for a group of wise, thoughtful leaders to help think through the issues from a variety of perspectives. In the pandemic, every pastor who has effectively guided the decision making process about closing, re-opening or modifying practices first established a team of good advisors to make the necessary decisions. A healthy team has a balance of viewpoints and mature leaders who know how to focus on what is good for the whole church, not just their particular preferences and needs.
They know their task as the leader is to guide the process of making the decisions rather than the outcome. Even whenleaders have strong feelings about what they want personally, they know they have to let the group explore the full range of issues and perspectives on the matter they are dealing with. Good leaders refrain from making ultimatums or pressuring others to agree with them. They let the group do its work.
They know that the work of group discernment involves exploring the shared pool of meaning. This term, from the book Crucial Conversations,[ii] is a helpful metaphor that refers to all of the relevant information that the group members have regarding the topic under consideration. Exploring this shared pool fully requires the leader ensure that the conversation is safe enough for each participant to share openly. When a group has fully explored the shared pool of meaning it is much more likely to make the best decision possible.
They are skilled at redirecting comments from “yes…but” statements to “yes…and” statements. Frequent use of the conjunction “but” implies an “either/or” mindset. When we reply “yes, but…” to something someone else has said we are effectively asserting that our idea/opinion should replace what the other person has said. When we switch to “yes…and” expressions, we make it more likely that a group will keep adding new information to its pool of meaning and therefore more easily embrace the complexities of the issues before it. A group that does this work is more likely to make a well-informed decision rather than fall prey to simplistic interpretations and emotional pressures
They utilize tools such as a “risk analysis matrix”[iii] that helps the group frame a variety of potential outcomes along a grid from acceptable to unacceptable risk on one axis and likelihood or unlikelihood of scenario on the other axis. When possible scenarios are plotted on this grid, it helps group members compare both the likelihood of the scenario happening and the degree of acceptability of the risk involved.
They are clear about their own personal boundaries without imposing them on others. I have spoken with several pastors whose churches have wrestled with the decision of when to start meeting in person again. They faced considerable pressure to resume in person worship and sensed that a majority of the leaders they were talking with wanted to do so. At the same time, these pastors had close family members with compromised health situations and they were not comfortable gathering in large groups. As the leadership body explored the issue, the pastor made it clear that s/he would not participate in person due to the health risks for their loved one, but at the same time made it clear that s/he would do everything possible (short of leading the service) to support and help the people planning the worship service.
Working through difficult matters in a community is never an easy task. It is especially challenging when the context for the issue is highly charged emotionally and politically. Pastors have the unenviable responsibility of helping the community reach a faithful and well-thought out decision. With prayer, emotinal intelligence and support, a pastor can guide the community in such a way that it emerges from the challenge stronger and more focused on its mission. This is what it means to lead in the midst of a conflicted situation.
[i] See Generation to Generation (Friedman, 1985) and other works related to Bowen Family Systems Theory in church life.
[ii] Crucial Conversations (2012) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
(“Writing A Better Story” is a sermon on Stewardship by Rick Kirchoff, based based on Mark 14:3-9. Perhaps, this message may help you as your develop your stewardship sermons.)
Jesus knew that storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to put ideas into the world. A well told tale can touch us at the deep places of the soul, give life to a difficult concept, and it can even challenge us to write a better story with our lives.
Jesus says as much about the story of woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party. Listen to this paraphrase of the 9th verse of 14th chapter of Mark. Jesus says to the woman: “Nobody will forget what you’ve done. When they remember me, they’ll tell your story and remember your act of extravagant love.”
The stories of three women shape this message and invite us to write a better story with our lives.
We meet the 1st woman at a party at the home of Simon. It’s a dinner party & in style of meals in that day, the guests were all reclining around a low table. Caught up in the conversation & the joy of the occasion, no one seemed to notice as an unnamed woman slips into the room. Deep emotion is etched on her face. In her trembling hands she cradles an alabaster jar. She rushed over to Jesus, breaks open bottle, and pours all its contents onto the head of Jesus. As liquid runs down his face and body, the aroma of expensive perfume fills the air.
Some folks were shocked and said, “What a waste!” Others agreed, “Yeah, think of how many poor people could’ve been helped.”
But Jesus responds: “You’ll always have a chance to offer kindness to the poor. This woman has done a beautiful thing for me. And whenever people remember me, they will remember her extravagant love!”
There’s a marvelous line from a T.S. Eliot poem. He wrote about those who “measure out life in (small) coffee spoons.” In other words, they live lives that are cautious, calculated and carefully controlled.
But not this woman!
There’s nothing about her devotion that’s small, calculating or cautious. No one would ever accuse her of measuring out life or love or generosity in tiny portions! Her love is lavish; her devotion is extreme; her gift is extravagant.
Let me ask: in world where so many measure out life in tiny portions, what kind of story are we telling with our lives, our giving, our devotion?
Honestly, when I ask that of myself, and a part of me wants to argue: “Come on! We’re deep into a pandemic, with no end in sight. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Things are tough! There’s so much uncertainty! Isn’t this a time to be cautious; conserve what you have; take care of number one. There’s something to be said for playing it safe!”
Immediately, I think of the story of a woman we meet in I Kings 17.
Again, we don’t know her name. All we know is that she lives in the little Gentile town of Zarephath, and she’s facing a desperate future.
She’s a widow, without a job and without money. All she has is a little boy, who depends on her for survival. To top it off, there’s been a terrible drought. In her cupboard, she has only enough flour and oil to make a tiny loaf of bread for herself and her beloved son. After that, short of a miracle, they’ll starve. And in that harsh world, miracles were few and far between.
When we meet her, she’s out gathering sticks to make a fire to prepare a last meal for herself and her child.
As story goes, a stranger calls out to her. It’s Elijah, the great prophet of Israel who’d courageously challenged King Ahab and Baal prophets over their idolatry. His challenge was successful, but this didn’t go over well with King Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel want him dead. But Elijah escaped. He’s been hiding out, living in the wilderness by a brook. But with the drought, the brook dried up. If he stays there, he’ll die. If he goes back into Israel and Ahab gets hold of him, he’ll be tortured and murdered.
God says to him, “Elijah, go to Zarephath. There’s a widow who will take care of you.”
So, Elijah goes to village and sees this widow gathering sticks. He calls out to her and asks,“Would you bring me a little water to drink?” And as she was going, Elijah adds, “And would you please bring me a piece of bread?”
She knows nothing of Elijah. To her, he’s a nobody, a stranger & Jewish foreigner to boot. Elijah knows nothing of the woman’s story and her desperate plight.
But then he hears her story, and Elijah probably thinks, “Lord, surely this isn’t the woman you told me about! She’s more desperate than I am!”
Still Elijah says to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home; do as you’ve said. Make a small cake of bread for me from what you have, and bring it to me. Then, go back, and make some for yourself and for your son. For the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up your oil not run dry…until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’”
Now, put yourself in this widow’s place. She and her little son are about to starve. She’s arranging, what she knows, their last meal. And this foreigner — a stranger who worships differently — calls to her, saying, “My God will take care of us all.”
What is she to do? Whose bread is she supposed to fix first? Will she prepare bread for this foreigner, Elijah! Or for her beloved son and herself? Remember, she has only enough flour & oil for one tiny loaf of bread.
At home, she pours out her last bit of flour, mixes in the oil, kneads it into a cake, bakes it. And then, in an act of defiant hospitality, generosity and trust, she takes it to Elijah.
And now, she has nothing.
She goes back home, probably thinking, “Oh, my god, what have I done?”
But she also remembers God’s promise to Elijah about the flour jar, and so she looks into it. And there, out of nowhere…just enough flour…and just enough oil. Not mountains of flour, not bushels, but just enough for day.
And the next day, it happens again…and the next day, and the day after that. Just enough for their daily bread. There was food enough every day for her, her son and for Elijah. Scripture tells us that the jar of flour was not used up, and the jug of oil did not run dry.
I imagine that until the day she died, she treasured that flour jar, remembering the time when she was living from one day to the next, just trusting God – trusting God for her daily bread and living in defiant generosity.
I don’t know if it’s true for you, but in hard times, it is so tempting for me just to live cautiously, measuring out our life & love & generosity & service in calculated, careful, tiny portions!
But church of Jesus is to be a place where an extravagant spirit pervades everything we do. Jesus didn’t come to start a mild movement of mild people who do mild things in mild ways. He came to build a community of folks who aren’t afraid to be excessive in their service, generous in their giving, and lavish in their love.
What kind of story are you telling with your life?
Is it time to write a better story?
I’ve told you about 2 women…now a third.
She was born in 1908, conceived when her mother was raped on a wooded path in rural Mississippi. She was raised by her grandmother and aunt, who cleaned houses, cooked, and took in the dirty laundry of others to make their living.
As a child, she would come home from elementary school, do studies, and then iron clothes.
The three women relied completely on each other, but when the aunt returned from a hospitalization unable to walk, this 6th grade girl dropped out of school to care for aunt, and take up her work as a wash woman.
Six days a week, she scrubbed laundry by hand on a rubboard. She tried an automatic washer and dryer in the 1960s, but found that “the washing machine didn’t rinse well enough, and dryer turned the whites yellow.” After years of boiling clothes and then doing four fresh-water rinses, that wasn’t good enough to meet her high standards. So, she went back to her scrub board and 100 feet of open-air clothesline.
Asked to describe her typical day, she answered: “I would go outside and start a fire under my wash pot. Then I’d soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, rinse ’em, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I‘d start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00 at night.”
This was her life for nearly 75 years…earning nickels, dimes, quarters and dollars. She lived simply. She saved regularly. She never owned a car; she walked everywhere she went, pushing a shopping cart nearly a mile to get groceries. Never missed Sunday service at her church. She only took one trip out of MS during her lifetime, to Niagara Falls and Chicago, and she couldn’t wait to get back home.
She retired in 1995 at age of 86. During that time, living simply, she saved dimes, quarters and dollars. And when she retired, this washwoman, Osceola McCarty had managed to save total of $280,000.
Amazing thing: Osceola McCarty decided to give most of that money away. Setting aside just enough to live on, she donated $150,000…to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for needy students seeking the education she never had. When others heard her amazing story, they wanted to join in her story, and 100’s made donations that multiplied her original endowment. Today the McCarty fund totals nearly $700,000. It’s expected to reach a million dollars soon.
Osceola once said, “My only regret is that I couldn’t give more.”
There are stories that put powerful ideas into the world. Osceola’s is one of those. But so is that of the woman with the perfume, and the widow of Zarephath.
They invite us to write a better story with our lives, our service and our giving.
If you take away nothing else from these three narratives, I hope you remember this: The Christian life is not some mildmovement of mild people who do mild things in mild ways. It is a movement of those who, in name of Jesus, aren’t afraid to be extravagant in their giving and lavish in their love.
What kind of story are you telling with your life?
A few days ago, one of our CcNet Facebook friends sent us a message. She wrote:
“I am writing this out of curiosity, and hope I don’t come across too controversial. I ‘liked’ your Facebook page a while back because of a friend who was sharing your posts. I enjoy the majority of your posts, but my question is, what is your heart and motive behind the Covid-19 death toll posts? I believe the virus is real, but…the virus posts, for me at least, do the opposite of the first part of your 3-part mission. ‘To Challenge, Equip and Inspire.’ I am not trying to start an argument. I just would like to hear the heart behind the posts. Thank you for your time! Your Facebook Friend, Janet.” (We have changed the name to protect her anonymity.)
What follows is based on our response. We thought you might find it informative.
Janet, thanks for asking! And thank you for referencing our mission statement. Several things come to mind with those 3 words: CHALLENGE, EQUIP AND INSPIRE.
1st, to CHALLENGE. As of this writing, the COVID-19 death toll in the USA is nearing 204,000 (Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center). Let that sink in! 204,000 persons have breathed their last and lost their lives to this disease. Worldwide deaths from this virus are approaching one million.
These are not just statistics. Each one was someone’s beloved child, sibling, parent, grandparent or friend. The dead include children, teenagers, doctors, nurses, emergency personnel, teachers, athletes and, of course, many frail elderly and those whose health was already compromised. Each one a person of sacred worth! Each one has a name and a story. Their lives were cut short by this deadly disease. We never want to forget that.
In a time when COVID numbers are politicized and even debated, we must not forget that this disease is real and deadly.
We share the numbers because we are not willing to let ourselves be numbed to the immensity of the number of the deaths. We want to join with those that knew and loved them, from faith communities across this nation and across the world, in a time of mourning, a time of lament. We mourn for these individuals and for their loved ones. And our hearts are broken by the scale of grief and loss that has disproportionately harmed people of color, the elderly and medically vulnerable.
So, Janet, the CHALLENGE is to remember that the pandemic is real, that it is deadly, and we have lost and continue to lose so many precious souls to this disease.
2nd, to EQUIP. It is easy to grow weary with the social distancing protocols. And over time, we all can all grow careless! Sharing the death numbers is meant to help us remember the importance of continuing the hard work of staying vigilant and helping stop the spread. Social distancing protocols work! Wearing a mask matters! They matter because your life is precious, and the lives of others are as well. It’s about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
That’s the EQUIP part of why we post the numbers. And , by the way, we continually offer posts that are specifically chosen to help individuals make wise choices and to equip congregational leaders to exercise safe actions whenever people gather.
3rd, to INSPIRE. It may seem a stretch to you to think that seeing a death count can “inspire,” but we/I see something of inspiration in our choice to post these numbers.
Janet, I am a 75-year-old retired clergyman. The numbers remind me of my vulnerability and mortality, our shared mortality. When I see the growing numbers and realize how quickly I, or somone I know and love, could be in that number, I am reminded to never take any day for granted. If seeing these numbers can inspire us to live more deeply and fully, realizing that we are all at risk, then the death numbers “inspire.”
Janet, I hope these quick thoughts are helpful.
I know that death toll numbers can be depressing and even off-putting, but we’ve decided it is worth the risk. So, several times each week, we will keep you updated on the numbers. And when you see them, I hope you will think of “the challenge, the equipping and the inspiration.“
How do you ask for money at a time like this when people are losing income, fighting illness, and the economy is the worst since the Great Depression? And yet, the church needs money (among other things) to do ministry?
In my coaching with one Episcopal community in the Indianapolis area, we worked hard to pivot from a standard stewardship plan to something appropriate for this unusual time. We gave deep consideration and prayer to be sensitive to the turmoil and deep grief the pandemic has caused in the lives of the congregation. How do you celebrate in the midst of illness, death, job loss, and a collective depression?
We leaned heavily on the Pauline scriptures and the reminder that for a Christian, there is joy and contentment in all things. Then we landed on our theme: Hallelujah, Anyway: Unexpected Times, Unexpected Faith
In this time of pandemic, facing the unexpected and the uncertain, we rejoice in Christ anyway. The inspiration came from Anne Lamott’s book, Hallelujah, Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, a book that will be distributed to the congregation and around which small group studies will be formed. These groups will be both virtual and in person with social distancing protocols in place (outside, in driveways and cul-de-sacs), and each unit, be it family, couple, or single, will be asked to bring their own snacks and chairs and stay 10 ft. apart.
We hope this spurs your imagination about what you might do in your own stewardship season. The Rev. Dr. Gray Lesesne, missioner at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, and his leadership team has graciously granted permission for us to post the entire plan. May it bless you.
2021 Good Samaritan Episcopal Church Stewardship Plan
Summary: Even with all of the challenges 2020 has posed to us and to our world, the people of Good Sam’s remain strong and resilient. In spite of many obstacles and detours, many surprises and distractions, we are embracing a position of gratitude, which is at the core of our faith, with “Hallelujah, Anyway” as our theme and song.
Invite sign-ups for Driveway Groups,
order books and Stewardship Kits materials
October 3: 20 Good Samaritans (including kids) to record “Gratitude moments” on videos to use throughout the stewardship season, using one of these prompts: I say Hallelujah, Anyway to 2020 because…My/Our commitment to Good Sam’s in 2021 is in celebration of…We are grateful for…
These video prompts go live the week of October 12.
Gray preaches sermon series for four weeks: Hallelujah, Anyhow: Faith, Even When It Doesn’t Make Sense
Four Driveway Study Groups read and discuss Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah, Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy
Week of October 19: work on advanced commitments from Bishop’s Committee, lead givers
Week of October 26: Stewardship Kits arrive on people’s doorsteps, including: 2021 personalized Commitment to Giving card, Good Sam’s branded face masks & hand sanitizer, Coloring pages for families with children/markers, Gratitude journals (from Dollar Tree), 5 blank cards with stamped envelopes – ask people to send notes of gratitude and/or encouragement to people that could use a good word in this trying time
Sunday, November 1: All Saints Sunday/Festival of Gratitude
If in person: we follow Consecration Sunday model and have people bring forward gifts to altar
If virtual: we invite people to do a “drive-by” Parade of Gratitude where they drop off pledge cards and receive a blessing/surprise (dessert for later) AND have an option for e-giving
November 2-22: Followups
November 2: Initial follow up letter from the stewardship team
November 9: Phone message from a member of the leadership team
November 16: Post card reminder and check-in
November 22: Final letter of gratitude, always with the reminder that if their circumstances have changed, the church is ready to offer support
With so much at stake and so many competing opinions, knowing when to reopen your church is a daunting decision. Many judicatories are providing guidance, some are mandating conditions, but many of you are awash in a sea of indecision and conflicting information.
Striking a balance between safety and fostering community in worship is critical during this COVID 19 pandemic. As a responsible leader, we are charged with working with our staff and lay leadership to develop a reopening plan that is strategic, thoughtful, and keeps safety paramount.
One helpful resource is this interactive map found at www.globalepidemics.org. It offers churches and leaders color-coded, county-specific COVID-19 risk levels based on data analyzed by the Harvard Global Health Institute. You can simply click on “Explore Now” then choose your location by state.
Once you have chosen your state, simply hover over your county to see a detailed update on COVID-19 cases including death rates. Here is an example of how one church is using this data to determine their reopening plan.www.kennesawumc.org/reopening. They used the 4 risk levels to develop a specific protocol for each phase of reopening, offering clearly communicated plans for each phase. This plan resides on the church’s website and has been widely communicated through social media channels, email, and other channels. Communication of any reopening plan is a significant key to success.
Using data, as well as input from church members and leadership, is an effective way to determine risk, compliance probabilities, and make the best possible decision about when and how to resume in-person worship.