No Leftovers

a sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27B/Lectionary 32]

1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44

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One thing I realized not too long ago was how much I love leftovers. I used to hate eating leftovers as a kid. When my parents decided it would be leftovers night I was always upset. I thought I deserved fresh food every night. I didn’t want to revisit chilled food, popped in the microwave oven, unevenly warmed up. I especially didn’t like leftover nights when it was leftovers of something I hated the first time. That was the worst!

But now, as a grown-up, leftovers are the best! There’s something challenging and satisfying about rummaging through the refrigerator and scraping together enough partial dishes to make a whole meal. Just this week for lunch I scrounged around and brought to church about a half a cup of lentil soup, some noodles and beef tip sauce—but there were only two pieces of beef in it—and the rest of some homemade guacamole. The guac was already turning brown on the edges, but I just mixed it in with the green. It was one of the most satisfying lunches I’d ever eaten. It feels so good to use it all up.

We have some good friends who are like extreme leftover eaters. We go on vacation with them every year and on the last day they’re always getting us to eat everything we’ve cooked and prepared through the week and shoved to the back of the fridge— They eat things way past the expiration date, which leftovers really don’t have, so you have to kind of guess. We kind of look at them in awe (and a bit of fear) as they make a sandwich with lunchmeat nine days old.

Leftovers for us and for our friends is something fun and enjoyable, but for a lot of people, it’s a way of life. There are people not only making one meal last for a whole week, but many people in many parts of the world are using food from other peoples’ meals and pantries and making that last throughout the week. They look at food from not the perspective of what do I have to eat but what do I get to eat.

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The Widow at Zarephath (Bernardo Strozzi, 1630s)

Like this widow in Zaraphath, for example. She’s an extreme leftover eater. It is a time of famine across the whole eastern Mediterranean, and she has nothing but this one jar of meal and one jug of oil. It’s enough for her to make some bread and then wait for death. And God sends Elijah there to eat leftovers. God could have sent the prophet Elijah to anyone of Elijah’s own people for protection and sustenance, but instead God sends him to this foreign widow. She does exactly what Elijah tells her to do even though it means she has to make a cake for him first. She shares what little she has, and it somehow becomes enough for all of them.

Have you ever noticed how almost all the heroes in the Bible are the most vulnerable people? Don’t go looking in Scripture for superheroes to look up to. You’ll find widows and foreigners and poor people are the typical role models. This is especially noticeable with Jesus. A day or two, perhaps, after he and his disciples enter the big, bustling and wealthy city of Jerusalem, he points out a widow giving two small coins as an example of faith, as if she is who someone should model their life on. She is probably an extreme leftover eater too.

The scene is captivating: he and his followers are standing there watching scenes that they, being basically bumpkins from small town Galilee, probably have never seen. Dozens of scribes are possibly walking by, going in and out of the temple in long, flowing robes practically designed to catch everyone’s attention. Scribes were religious leaders who held a lot of power in Jesus’ society. Long flowing robes, long prayers, prominent seats in worship—wait, they sound a lot like a group of people I know!

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As Jesus and the disciples continue people watching, they see different people making their contributions to the Temple treasury. The system the Temple had set up for receiving offerings was very public. The collection containers were designed to make noise when coins were placed in them, and so it was easy to watch and hear how much people were giving. Jesus calls the disciples after this one woman walks by just so he can contrast her with the others who are giving much larger sums of money.

On one level, Jesus might be calling into question a corrupted system of the Temple religion that might be taking advantage of poor people. If it’s true that scribes would often devour widows’ estates, and that widows had almost no property rights in the ancient world, then here is a woman who is contributing to the same system that is perhaps oppressing her.

Regardless of what is going on here, Jesus is clearly pointing her out as something to behold, something honorable. She would have probably passed by unnoticed in the hustle and bustle if he hadn’t called their attention to her. Now, with no money left to her name, she might stop by the food bank before going home to eat someone else’s leftovers.

Yet in both stories we read this morning, it is not really frugality that is lifted up as the virtue, the ability to survive on so little. It is, rather, these individuals’ generosity. And in each case we do not come to see these women as examples of pity and charity, which is what society would normally teach us to see in them, but rather as people who save the day. They are the agents of grace. Just as the Zarephath widow teaches Elijah to trust God’s providence, the widow at the Temple shows the disciples how to “put in everything you have.”

To put in everything you have. Jesus wants us to see that’s what the life of trusting God means, and it really doesn’t mainly have to do with money or food. It has to do with one’s whole life, seeing it as a treasure, seeing that it has value, seeing it as a gift, especially once it is placed in the service of God.

To put in everything you have. Normally, eating leftovers, I’m thinking about taking out and saving and consuming everything I have. That attitude is probably not just how I look at my fridge, but at my entire life. How can I make the most of what I’ve got? How can I make this all benefit me and my objectives? What a contrast to the attitude of those we honor today who’ve served in our nations armed forces, many of whom have literally put in everything they’ve had to serve others through our armed forces!

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American soldiers in World War I

I’m inspired by the true story of one young single woman years ago who lived in a town in central Pennsylvania. Like the widow at the Temple, this woman was extremely devoted to the Lutheran congregation where she was a member. She was constantly thinking about how to put in everything she had in service to Christ. She was a Sunday School teacher, she helped at Vacation Bible School, she helped lead the youth group, she volunteered at just about everything the congregation was doing. She felt it still wasn’t enough. She had more to give. So one day she went to her pastor and said, “What else can I do?” It was the mid-1950s and the Korean War had just ended. The pastor, almost at a loss as to what to say to her, handed her a list of the congregation’s servicemen and said, “Write notes of thanks to these guys.”

So she did. She got to working on that list, reminding them of their congregation’s thankfulness for what they were doing, giving them encouragement. One of them she wrote a note to ended up writing her back. They had never met before, and she didn’t even know his name at first, but it stuck out to her. He was stationed in Okinawa, across the globe. When he came home, they ended up getting together just to say “Hi.” This past March Dale and Donna Raubenstine (who attend our first service) celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Putting in everything we have. We never know how much we really have until our whole life is in service to the Lord. We never know what amazing discoveries are wrapped up in faith and in following Jesus until we come to understand the waters of baptism are still drenching us, still dripping down on everything we are and everything we’ve got.

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copper coins from the time of Jesus

Putting in everything we have. We never know the richness of our lives until we start to give ourselves away. You have your own stories of looking at your life’s leftovers and seeing ways to hand them over in service and generosity, off hearing the call of Jesus not so much telling you what you have to do, but what you get to do.

For, as you might have guessed, it is not only to a widow that Jesus is pointing that day by the Temple, but to himself. The true superhero of grace finds his role model. The widow puts in everything she has, right there, out in the open, and so soon will he. He will put in everything he has on the cross because he treasures us. He will be the offering, and none will be held back. He loves us—both the scribe in us and the poor, both the taker and giver, the faker and the true-life-liver. Jesus loves us and he hands over all that he is so that his Father may continue to use us in his kingdom work.

And like Elijah and the widow who served him, we find that it somehow lasts. His love lasts and lasts and lasts, never gives out.

I realized not too long ago that there are really no such thing as leftovers. Just plenty. One loaf. One cup. You and me, claimed for him, and put all in to his body, given to the world.

Mo-o-o-re than enough to go around.

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Thanks be to God!

 

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Valley of Sorrows

a sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year B]

Revelation 21:1-6a and John 11:32-44

All Saints Sunday, to me, is like a little re-run of Easter. The browns and grays and oranges of late fall may be all around us, but the church is dressed in Easter white. We sing Alleluia over and over, and we’re rejoicing that Jesus, our Savior, is risen! He has fought the battle against death for us and in him we are promised life. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, and “See,” says the one seated on the throne in John’s vision in Revelation, “I am making all things new!”

And yet we are still sad. Even today. Even on this mini-Easter we find ourselves blotting at tears with our shirtsleeves and Kleenex, we glimpse the names on the back of the bulletin, and we are sad.

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Martin Luther, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, talks about this life as a “valley of sorrows” and I remember when I was younger not knowing what to make of that. I suppose I was the victim of a happy childhood, unaware of the great griefs around me, but as I grow I’m coming to understand them more. Living in a valley of sorrows means that weeping is a part of the human experience for now, as much as we dislike to do it. It means there is, as Isaiah describes it, a “shroud cast over all the peoples,” that there is a lot of brokenness in the world that manages to creep its way into our own hearts and bring us sorrow.

It means, for example, I found myself shedding tears with someone in the columbarium just this week, as I heard them reflect on the beauty of a marriage cut short by death. It means I listened in a hospital room where a voice I normally associate with laughter broke as it told of growing frustration with the healing process. The valley of sorrows means our hearts ache as we learn more details from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, like the simple but moving funeral held Monday for the two special needs Rosenthal brothers who were integral members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and had lived their whole lives as a blessing to that congregation.

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On Twitter last month Sandi Villareal, the web editor of Sojourner’s Magazine tweeted, “What line of a hymn makes you tear up every time you sing it?” Dozens and dozens tweeted their responses, and while it was beautiful to have the vanity and gossip of social media broken up a bit with a long thread of hymn verses, many of which I recognized, it was also revealing to see how many people will admit they often can’t finish certain hymns without crying. Young Phillip thought hymns were hard to sing because they could be boring. This Phillip finds some hymns hard to sing because of this lump in his throat. Hymns feature one of the great tensions of faith—we know and trust God makes all things new in Christ, the Lamb on the throne, but sometimes the tears of grief are hard to stop.

I remember distinctly one funeral I officiated in my early days in Pittsburgh. The middle-aged adult son of the deceased woman came up to me there in the cemetery once we had concluded the committal service, and he was clearly fighting back tears with all he had. “I know I’m supposed to be happy today,” he said, “my pastor told me this is the day of my mom’s victory, that she is now in Jesus’ arms, but I am still feeling sad. What is wrong with me.  Do I not believe?” It was like he needed an OK from me to weep, but I stood there most likely unhelpful, unable myself to articulate the mix of emotions we humans often undergo.

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Mary and Martha speak for us. They are us. They come running up to their dear friend Jesus knowing that he makes all things new, knowing his presence is something special, and yet still disappointed and overcome with sadness because their brother Lazarus has died. Their hope is mixed with frustration and regret and we know we have been there, too.

And look at what Jesus encounters as he arrives at the tomb—it’s that valley again! People are crying everywhere, all around him. They’re probably doing what people now call the “ugly cry”—that uncontrollable visible contorting of the face that you’re unable to hide. It used to be more OK to do that sort of thing in public.

What’s most fascinating is how Jesus responds to all of this. In so many Scriptures, the vision of God’s eternal kingdom involves no tears. Isaiah mentions it. So does John in Revelation this morning. When God finally has God’s way and everything is put right, one of the ways we’ll know we’ve arrived there is that there is no more crying. All the tears are wiped away, all the reasons ever to weep a thing of the past.

And yet, we don’t get a Savior who comes wiping away Mary’s and Martha’s tears. When God’s Word finally becomes flesh and dwells among us, he comes weeping himself. At least three different times we are told about Jesus’ emotional turmoil as he approaches Lazarus’ tomb. And as Jesus, dabbing at his shirt sleeve, face grimacing with the ugly cry, nears the entrance to the cave where they’ve laid the dead man, the crowd whispers, “Look at how much he loved him!”

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(James Tissot)

This is how much he loves us. Jesus descends into this valley where people mail pipe bombs and cancer is diagnosed, where wars and substance abuse take the lives of people in their prime, where humans visit all kinds of pain on each other. This is how much he loves us! He descends into this valley and feels first-hand, for all its beauty and splendor, how strange and uncomfortable it can often be.

There’s a prayer that we say once the family has all gathered at the graveside for a committal. It is an ancient prayer, but one strikes at the core of what we believe and understand as people of the cross. It begins, “Almighty God, by the death and burial of Jesus, your anointed, you have destroyed death and sanctified the graves of all your saints.” That is, through his crucifixion, Jesus has claimed and made holy all who have died. By weeping, by arriving in Bethany amid all the weeping people, Jesus also makes holy all our tears. All our ugly cries? He’s OK with them, too. We could say he makes them beautiful. We have a God who is honest with our pain, who ventures into each dark corner of this valley, and our sorrows is not a sign of faith’s absence at all. They are a sign that we’re human. They are a sign that we are beloved creatures fashioned in the image of a complex, loving God.

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“The Raising of Lazarus” (Giotto)

For several years now, certain theologians and teachers of the faith have been listening to the faith of people in our churches, especially the faith of young people, and they have been concerned that this is not the God of our worship and message. What these experts and scholars are saying is that it appears we in the church are more likely to conceive of a god who is more or less distant, who exists mainly at the edges of our life, who stands there, wanting us to do better and treat each other nicely, who just wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. They’ve paid special attention to how church youth describe their faith and this is what we, the adults, have somehow taught them: that god is concerned about our morals, but in the end god functions as little more than a divine therapist, a being we consult when we’re down or in trouble. By contrast, the belief that God is transcendent—that is, can enter our lives and change things and actually cause new life to occur—makes too many of us uncomfortable. It often can make me uncomfortable to talk about that God.

And yet that’s the Jesus that shows up at Lazarus’ tomb that day. That’s the Jesus who cries alongside Mary and Martha, who sees the tumult of emotions they feel and then makes those emotions holy, and who eventually looks into the dark and commands Lazarus to come forth out of the dead. That’s the Jesus who prays to his Father  that they will see what he is able to do—transcending their weeping—in order that they may believe. That’s the Jesus who goes to the cross, so that all may understand the glory of God is not just in being nice to one another, holding hands and singing harmonies, but in being merciful even when it’s hard. That is the Jesus we trust is here today, who doesn’t just show up to wipe the tears from our eyes and tell us just to be happy but who hears us and then weeps alongside of us.

A group of us this summer went to a showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the film about the life Mr. Fred Rogers. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and although he didn’t explicitly mentioned God very often on his T.V. show, he was expert at weaving the message of this emotional, bold Jesus into his themes. There is one scene in that film that features an episode where Daniel Tiger, a simple puppet that often served as Mr. Roger’s true identity, sings a song about not being happy, of not feeling like he is enough. When it’s Mr. Roger’s turn to respond to his sad friend, he reminds him in a beautiful melody that Daniel Tiger is enough, that he is worthwhile and cherished and has many gifts to share.

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But that’s not how the scene ends, with Mr. Rogers just wiping the proverbial tears away and Daniel Tiger being cheered up immediately. The scene continues with one more verse  that weaves the two lines together, and we’re left with two songs intertwining—the sad song offered by Daniel Tiger, echoing up from the valley of sorrows, and Mr. Roger’s song of courage and hope.

As one of the men who joined us that evening pointed out over ice cream afterwards, that scene illustrates the life of the Christian perfectly, that we had just watch Fred Rogers present to the viewer one of Martin Luther’s best descriptions of the gospel. For now, we are in the same song both Daniel Tiger and Mr. Rogers. Luther called it “simultaneously saint and sinner”…people who weep, and who at the same time have joy. We dwell in a valley of sorrows, but assured of a loving God who comes to dwell in it too. Sinful, we are a cause of God’s weeping. And yet we are still made new.

And one day we are promised the sad tune we sing will finally run out of words, either because we die or because the King arrives. And on that day all that will be left is the King’s glorious song. The one seated on the throne who is making all things new will once and for all keep all things new—all of us—and this valley will be overcome by his love and the promise made in our baptisms will be complete.

We will rise, reborn and truly happy for one never-ending rerun of Easter.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.