Archive for November, 2006

“Smoke and Mirrors”

November 14, 2006

A Sermon by Richard Clewell
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
12 November 2006
TEXT: Mark 12: 38-44

A friend of mine made the observation that the glamour and glitz of our media age often make it hard to figure out what is genuine or real. Everything comes wrapped in spin to make it sell. In our present culture we have become so accustomed to and enamored with the unreality of TV, movies, and advertising that such facades and phoniness have carried over into business, politics, and religion. Our election process has become largely determined by personality, polls, PACS, and patronage rather than by the best qualified and committed to responsibility and accountability to the electorate. The gift of service has been sacrificed to a self-serving attitude of “What’s in it for me?” Even the church, called to be God’s servant people, often gets caught up in status, power, and appearances that produce a self-serving counterfeit of faith practice which fools no one except ourselves.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon – it’s a human characteristic in all ages. We have a clear propensity to take for ourselves much more readily than we give of ourselves to God and especially to others. This deceitful desire to play God and to have control, power and authority has continued to tear apart human relationships, communities, and nations. It is what makes the way of divine grace, forgiveness, and love continually crucial in the renewal of life and relationships as demonstrated in Jesus Christ’s way of life, sacrificial death, and renewal to life and hope through resurrection.
In our Gospel text this morning, Jesus is teaching and also observing in the Temple in Jerusalem. (Read Mark 12: 38-44) The contrast demonstrated in this passage is the difference between pretense, image, “smoke and mirrors” if you will, and an uncomplicated genuine life of faith.
I must admit to you that I had some very uncomfortable moments in preparing this sermon because the application is just as potent in our day. I stand before you as a present-day parallel of the “teacher of the Law” – in my flowing robe describing a status, with a doctoral degree, standing high in this pulpit – all trappings that say nothing about my intentions and faith actions. How easy it can be to deceive oneself and misuse or abuse a divine calling. For this very reason I will try to be fair to the scribes as they really are not any different than you or me.
In this particular sequence Jesus has finished a discussion with one of the scribes about the first and second commandments. The first is: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (v.29-31) The scribe agrees that these behaviors are much more important than the whole ritual system through which these values of forgiveness and relationship were represented.
Jesus continues in another discourse about the Messiah, the hope of Israel, (v.35-37) with his disciples and followers. They are all common people, not sophisticated in terms of education or theology. They like him because he talks “straight” to them from observable everyday life. In this instance, he gives his followers a warning about religious appearance and contrasting faith process. He describes how our own needs of self-image and esteem can get in the way of our faith perspective. Using some scribes as examples, he focuses on outward appearances of importance and piety, yet in their role as the Jerusalem Housing Authority increasing their wealth and importance, taking advantage of solitary widow’s hospitality and legacies under the guise of charity. They receive the greater condemnation because they use the name of God to mask what they are doing.
William Sloane Coffin described this well when he wrote, “I think disguise is the essence of evil. Doing an evil thing doesn’t make a person evil. But calling the evil good, believing the disguise – that’s when real trouble begins. And if the disguise is the essence of evil, there is surely no better disguise than the cloak of religious piety. Never do people do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
The issue raised here for both clergy and everyone as members of the community of faith and the priesthood of believers is crucial in our life together.. Jesus warns us to be careful about our desire for prominence and control, of seeing our leadership role or ministry as a right rather than as an opportunity to serve God and neighbor.
The story is told of a monk, a very holy man, who was sent to take up office as an abbot in a monastery. He looked so humble a person that when he arrived, he was sent to work in the kitchen as a scullion, because no one recognized him. Without a word of protest and with no attempt to take his position, he went and washed dishes and did the most menial tasks. It was only when the bishop arrived some time later that the mistake was discovered and the humble monk took up his true position.
Jesus also advises against the use of religious connection for self-gain or self-advancement. Theologian William Barclay puts it simply: “Christ’s words stand as a warning to all who are in the church for what they can get out of it and not for what they can put into it.”
In stark contrast, Jesus shares his observation of what uncomplicated genuine faith is. He sits and watches as people place their voluntary offerings in the receptacles where monetary offerings are deposited for the daily sacrifices and the operating expenses of the Temple. Many well-to-do people put in large sums, some with great flourish.. In the midst of all these offerings, he spots a poor widow putting in two small copper coins called leptons – “thin ones” – the smallest of all coins. He calls his disciples over and highlights for them the differences in the way people respond to divine love.
You will notice, first of all, that there is no denunciation of gifts that come out of surplus or abundance. Maybe some gave to impress others around them, but certainly not all. We too give for many different reasons: out of a degree of gratitude, or to recognize God as the most important factor in our lives, or to get a tax write-off because we would rather give it to the work of the church than to the IRS, or perhaps for all these reasons.
But Jesus highlights this poor widow’s offering as an example of giving her all in response to her God. It was more important than eating because it was her daily food ration to survive. In the way of God’s kingdom, it is the world’s mightiest financial transaction, where genuine giving based on love is measured in relation to what is left, not on the amount. Her love for her God has lifted her offering from the routine to the sacrificial. You know she could have rationalized and justified withholding these small coins. She could have said to herself:
• “What difference could a penny make? It’s so small, it will not count.”
• “Let those give who can afford it – I really haven’t got a penny to spare.”
• “No one will notice whether I drop anything in or not.”
• “Those rabbis never pay any attention to me, and I don’t care for things that are happening in the Temple.”
We all know these and other responses. Jesus’ recognition of her gift destroys any such excuses. In effect, what he affirms is to God no gift of love is too small to count, nor can any life be excused from the grace and responsibility of sharing. Truly “man looks upon the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.” Her gift reflects the sacrificial love that Christ would soon demonstrate in giving his life that she and his followers, and you and I, might have new life based on his redeeming and transforming love.
This text so often is used as a call for faithful stewardship and that is certainly one dimension. But this passage means so much more. It speaks to the Christian follower’s entire life of faith. This widow’s connection with God’s love was through her worship in the Temple, the teaching and ministries which impacted her faith, and the relationships she had established which gave life meaning. She well may have experienced disappointment in the way different rabbis conducted worship or cared for the temple congregation. Perhaps she perceived hypocrisy in their words not matching their actions. She could have stopped going to worship because the leadership was far from perfect. Yet, it’s in the congregation that she is connected with God and she chooses to follow the divine way which makes her life fuller and richer despite her poverty. She demonstrates “Loving the Lord her God with all her heart, her soul, her mind, and strength” and “to love her neighbor as she loved herself.” She had no need to judge the scribes or the others who gave their offerings. She knew God’s forgiveness and transforming hope. God’s faithfulness was all she needed.
Would that we could have the same growing faith in response to God’s faithfulness to us. Surely, if God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive one another; if God loves us, how can we not love one another despite our differences and failures as the sinners we are; if God has reconciled us in Christ, how can we not be reconciled with one another; if God has given sacrificially to us, how can we not give of ourselves to others?
In the recent incident where five Amish school girls were killed in Pennsylvania, people were amazed by the forgiveness expressed by the Amish community toward the deranged killer and his family – they attended his funeral as well as their own children’s. They set up a fund to support that man’s family. In an open letter to the Amish community, Marie Roberts, the widow of Charles Roberts, states, “Your love for our family has helped provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” The Amish community is not perfect by any means but they practice forgiveness. I would say this to any gathered here including myself, Has someone been cruel to you? Has someone hurt you deeply? Maybe you think there’s no way you could ever forgive that person. On your own strength you probably can’t. But you can ask Christ to give you his forgiveness. You can ask for his help. Let the power of his forgiveness flow through you. Let his gracious spirit be your spirit. That’s how our faith works. We recognize our need for forgiveness, we accept God’s gracious gift of forgiveness, and then we pass it on. We pass the forgiveness to others.
The widow in this account needed no pretense no “smoke and mirrors” to impress others. She was simply transparent and her faith in God sustained her and made her rich in spirit as she worshipped in the Temple congregation. The Scripture’s praise of life together under the word is “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for sisters and brothers to dwell together in unity.” We dwell together through Christ who alone is our unity. Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another. May God make this a reality in each of our lives in this community of faith called Fairmount.

The Rev. Richard Clewell, D.Min., Pastor


See How He Loved Them

November 11, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Commemoration of the Faithful Departed
November 5, 2006
Text: John 11:32-44

My father died in the Fall. The first time I told that to my son he thought his grandfather had tripped on a shoe lace or lost his balance on a ladder. No, I gently said, he had a heart attack in November. I remember the trees were nearly bare, the clouds flat gray; rain beat against the window pane of the hospital waiting room like desperate tears. My siblings and I flew in from many points, to join our mother in the two week vigil from “incident” to death. You never knew my father. I can tell you he was noble and petty and goofy and wise; slightly bawdy and given to exaggeration. He had an annoying habit of trying to prove a point by saying “I knew this guy who…” He called me “Weegie” in front of my friends. He loved baseball and Lincoln and my mother and God. I sometimes hear his voice in a turn of phrase when I preach; I sometimes feel his blistering disapproval when I say or write or do something with which I know he would disagree.

Grief is at once universal and particular. The reality of death connects us to all humanity. Yet it can never be entirely collapsed into a generalization: this one death affects me as that one death affects you, in specific ways based on our unique relationship. I miss my father, just as I know that every person here is missing some beloved one who has died.

Our morning text begins with the loss of death. Jesus has been called to the bedside of his gravely-ill friend, Lazarus, whose sisters Mary and Martha are also among Jesus’ friends. By the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died and been buried. Friends have gathered to pay their respects, and the household is in deep mourning. Listen for God’s word to you in the reading from the gospel according to John, in the eleventh chapter at the 32nd verse [p. 105, chapel/pew Bible].
[ John 11:32-44]
During my unforgettable visit to Ethiopia with Dan and Jane Reynolds, we visited in the home of a pastor whose wife had recently died. The Reynolds explained that it is the custom for the whole neighborhood to come and sit with the family members for several days. We arrived and the living room was already packed with relatives and friends, but even so we were warmly welcomed and seats were found for us. Food and drink were offered, quiet conversation was held, and a prayer was spoken, but most of the time the room was still, as members of the community simply sat, silently supporting the grieving with their presence.

Grief is a process that is ignored at our emotional and psychological peril. The rituals we practice around death—visitation, funeral or memorial service followed by a reception—even the time-honored tradition of taking a meal to the bereaved family—are meant to acknowledge the loss that is real, and to assist in the grieving process. Experts in this area warn not to short-circuit grief by trying to hold it in, or too quickly returning to “normal” life. Take time, they say, to feel: the sorrow and sense of loss particular to this person’s death.

How gracious it is then, that we have an example of this in Jesus! The One who came to bring life to the world did not blink back his tears at the grave of his friend. Jesus wept, for his friend who had died, for his friends who remained, for his own loss. He was “deeply moved”—and his weeping prompted others to recognize the love he had for Lazarus. In our own times of grief, draw spiritual strength from faith in a God who weeps with us. This God is not invulnerable to the limitations of mortality and does not abandon us in them. This is a God whose own heart breaks at the death of any of God’s beloved children, whose divine impulse is to comfort, to extend grace, to hold us closely in our sorrow. The God we worship is not a deity remote and high, secure in heaven’s glory, but One who comes to us in that glorious, imperfect mixture of dust and light that is humanity.

Viewed one way, this story is troubling to contemplate when grief is fresh, because it ends so miraculously, as the dead man walks out of the grave at Jesus’ command. We can’t help echoing Mary’s and Martha’s reproach, “Why didn’t you heal my brother/father/child?” And yet, I don’t think Lazarus’ dramatic resuscitation is the main point. After all, he would die again, sooner or later. The gospel writer has another purpose in telling this story, which is to say that the power of resurrection is exercised not through perfect, invulnerable strength, but in tears, in our very humanity, when words fails, when the illusion of our self-sufficiency falls away. The life that Jesus came to give doesn’t deny the death that is our certain destiny; it overcomes its finality.

…Which is why the central symbol of Christian faith is a cross. We confess a crucified God, One who did not flinch from embracing the full measure of humanity, including death. But that is not the end of it. Death does not get the last word. Jesus came that we might have life. True life: the part that involves our beating heart and intaken breath that comes to an end, and the part that involves our soul unendingly alive with God. The cross is empty: as if to look death straight in the eye until death looks away, its fearsome power broken once and for all.

I was struck last Sunday as we baptized two babies, how very similar the blessings we extend to these little ones at the beginning of their lives are to the ones extended at the end of life. We give thanks and praise. We pray that they will know that they belong to God. And we promise as a church to nurture faith that will withstand the fiercest storm, the darkest night, the deepest loss. From life’s edge to life’s edge, from this world into the next, we are anchored by the eternal love of God known in Jesus Christ.

So we are able to release our loved ones into other arms, to let them go in the knowledge that they are held, as are we all, closely and forever by their Creator and Savior. Today we remember with gratitude these precious lives, and so many others we have loved. We may weep, even as Jesus wept at the grave of his friend. But let us also take comfort and courage in the promise of God:
See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new. . . .I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. [Revelation 21:3,4] Amen.

Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor