Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Little Way

Sheepscott Community Church September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8: 18-9: 1

Luke 16: 1-13

The Little Way

Jeremiah 31: 31-34: “The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah./ It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, even though I was a husband to them./ This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people./ No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.”

What a wonderful promise. A new covenant. And it’s for us, each one of us individually and for us as a church. Why would we want to be associated with a church, to work for a church, if God is not our God and we are not God’s people, and God’s law is not written on our hearts? When we do know that God is our God, that we are God’s people, and God’s law is written on our hearts, we are filled with joy and want to pour out our lives for God. That’s not just evangelical rhetoric; it’s a true thing. I think of this prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant as the gospel before this morning’s gospel, where Jesus shows us a new way to live out that new covenant, to realize that God among us.

The bridge between the two positions of the new covenant established––knowing God is our God, knowing we are God’s people, and knowing the law of God written on our hearts––the bridge between that position and the other position of Jesus showing us the way to live that new covenant––that bridge connecting the two is the living Spirit of God, a.k.a. the Holy Spirit. It is that One, who makes the work of living the new covenant a work of joy in the fulfillment, not a work done out of religious or social duty, guilt, or simply for humanitarian ends, all of which are valid reasons for the work, but none of which give the profound joy that can only come from doing the work of the new covenant for God’s sake. I dare say it is only the work motivated by the Spirit, and the church filled with people motivated by the Spirit that will last. By becoming nothing in surrender, we become everything in Christ, and there is joy, not simply fulfillment .of duty in the work.

When Jesus is kept at more than arm’s length by making him divinely inaccessible, life would seem to be easier because the demands on us are not so great. I mean, if Jesus is God after all, who can possibly think of being on a par with God, of doing what God does? But when the lineaments of the portrait of that One who has been called the Son of God become clear, and we see him as the Son of Man, and what he did with that humanity by surrendering it, we are challenged to look at and consider what we too might do with a surrendered humanity, particularly surrendering it in the manner that Jesus did. Thy will be done.

In fact it’s easier for us if we follow his lead. We join ourselves to him. We don’t have to break new ground. Keep setting our foot down in the track that he has made and eventually that will be our own track, divinely transformed by our choice to set our foot there and by the action of the Spirit of God who led the way in the person of Jesus. Think of St. Andrew’s Church here in Newcastle, or St. Patrick’s. But for Jesus, to whose star they attached their wagons, Andrew, brother of Peter and one of the original apostles, and Patrick, a missionary to the pagan peoples of what would later be called Ireland, but for Jesus, those men would most likely be unknown, except to their families and a few friends of their time. Their choice to associate themselves with Jesus has given them an unexpected celebrity, their names attached to places of worship. Again, they simply attached their wagons to Jesus’ star, led by the same Spirit which led Jesus into the desert, out into his public life, up the Mount of Transfiguration and then the Mount of Calvary, and finally to Easter.

Was it really the same Spirit? Yes, unequivocally, yes. And indeed it is the same Spirit that moved you to not roll over and go back to sleep this morning, but to come here and worship God in fellowship with other men and women yes for your own sake but more for the glory of God. To worship God for God’s sake.

Was that all in the gospel? I think so. At least it was for me. Let’s look a little more closely and see what else is there for all of us.

I would note that today’s story of the unjust steward is just that––a story, a parable. Jesus told parables, not allegories. In an allegory, the characters can be identified with a specific person or series of persons, characteristics or situations. In a parable, however, imperfect people, like the unjust steward of today’s gospel, are employed to teach us more about ourselves, if we have ears to hear.

First consider the word “steward.” The original meaning of the word was a ward of the sty, a keeper of pigs, indicating the simple order of life: man as God’s agent to govern earthly life. Mind you, we are stewards, not owners. This is God’s world and it has been given over into our charge as stewards. Our job is not the hoarding of wealth or fencing it in for our own pleasure, but the proper circulation of it in God’s sight. For us that can mean taking care of our own families and the larger human family by contributing when and where we can.

And that attitude relates to stewardship across the board. If we treat forests as our own, and not as responsible stewards of creation might, we would have erosion, dust storms, and in the extreme, new deserts. Likewise, as a person is a steward of the earth and his or her own wealth, that person is also a steward of his or her own gifts. Those gifts lay on the person a greater measure of responsibility for their use, for sharing them with the community. I know you have heard this from me countless times, but here it is again in this context. Why I bring it up again and again is because Jesus brings it up again and again. If you have a gift, use the gift for the common good. Share the gift: That is the common good.

Consider the word “commonwealth,” as in Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The commonwealth is the general good, the body politic or state viewed as a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest. It is our sharing of our gifts and of our wealth, even if that wealth amounts to a halfpenny, the copper coin of the woman Jesus singled out for her generosity because it was all she had to give. It’s all about attitude in the exercise of stewardship. That’s where the good or evil names itself and makes its home, how we think about things within ourselves, and then how we flesh .out thought in action.

The point I would like to focus on this morning is the importance of being faithful in small things, as it is in verse 10 of the gospel: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” This saying may in fact have been a proverb current in Jesus’ time. Even if it was, that does not necessarily eliminate it as a saying of Jesus because scripture shows that he would often employ the proverbially rich language of the people, but would give an edge or a twist to the proverb that deepened the meaning and brought it home. This particular saying is also characteristic of Jesus’ teaching, where he stressed the importance of apparently trivial things––the cup of cold water, the single talent, the need to become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of God.

It’s our human nature to think that bigger is better, that more is better. At our house we had what our kids called defensive eating as they were growing up. If there were a desirable morsel––fresh ear of corn, freshly baked oatmeal cookies, blueberry pancakes, a newly opened bag of potato chips, the understanding was to get as much as soon as possible to ensure that you got some at all. There was not one ascetic abstainer in our household. Anyway, we seem to think in terms of me and mine and now and big and more. This is antithetical to Jesus’ approach. As I just said, he stressed the importance of trivial things, the crucial nature of little things.

Our lives are made up of such little things––small steps, small gestures of the hand, single, small breaths. I expect at the end of life, many of us will be saying, Darn. I missed it. That’s what it was about––the little things. The word of kindness, the smile, the hand on the shoulder, the refusal of meanness until that refusal of meanness becomes a habit, eye contact with another when listening to them. These are the small things that make a life, that are really the giving of alms to the poor. Jesus is no doubt speaking literally of money, as he does in the last verses of today’s gospel, but I think the alms of generosity and kindness he would not dispute. And we are all in need of the giving and receiving of those alms.

And we all need to be broken down from the heights of self-importance to the depths of the Christ-life in each of us. That life is hidden from view but pulsing there as surely as our heart is beating in us and waiting, waiting, waiting for that moment of yes, that moment of surrender to the Christ, where we do indeed put our foot in his footprint and stretch the other into the next print and walk that llittle way, the way he shows us. What a challenge, what an invitation, what a joy when we accept that invitation

I’m going to bring all that language down to one earthly application this morning, and I confess to having had this in mind from the first. My focus has been on the importance of small things as the way to live the Christ-life. I want to talk about the small things in relation to this church. As a community, we need to grab hold and take part in this church, participate, if we are to last as an entity and not just disappear or operate on the margins. That’s not enough.

What do I mean? In the big issues department, in December Bill Robb will be finishing his most recent three-year stint as treasurer for the church. It’s a huge job, and his work on behalf of all of us has been––as with everything Bill does––of the highest standard, and any expression of thanks is dwarfed by the measure and caliber of his work, but it is what we have to offer, our thanks. Carroll has left and we are searching for another organist. Sue Hunt has agreed to give us a few months, and on behalf of the church, I express my gratitude for her willingness to be with us over the weeks of the search. We currently have enquiries out to two churches to assist us in the community supper we cook and serve once a month. Jan and Clara, who are chair and back-up chair of that effort, are wearing down at the edges and need some relief. The coffee and cookie fellowship Jon has been faithful to do since April has made a real difference in our sense of community. Although we celebrate the Lord’s Supper ritually once a month, I feel and think that we have communion every week through and in this fellowship when we take time to talk and listen, to share with one another.

There’s also the Sunday School. Chrissy and Cindy, who are the co-directors, both have sons who are freshmen in college this semester. Both sons are athletes, and in these athletic families, where the members of the family are the chief fans, the moms will be traveling this fall and need help with coverage at Sunday School.

We have lost two of our lectors, so if anyone would like to be added to the lector list, to proclaim the word of God on a regular basis, please let me know, and I will gladly add you to the list. Also, we have our annual meeting in January, and at that time we will elect Board members. If anyone is interested in helping to shape this church for the future, to ensure that we have a fiuture, let Cindy Leavitt know. Cindy is chair of the Board.

So, we need a treasurer, come January; an organist or other musician and choir director; help with putting on the community supper; someone to occasionally sign up for the coffee and cookie fellowship; help with Sunday School; lectors, and bean supper helpers; and Board members.

That’s quite a list, but it’s a list of small things––well some small things and some bigger things––that we can all help out with. Some will say they don’t have the time, but in fact, in our own lives we all have the same amount of time; it’s a question of how we use it. We can bring that before God for parsing in prayer. If you can see your way clear to help out, it would be a relief to those who have carried so much of the work of the church for years. And mine and the church’s thanks for all that you all you do, from Virginia Carol greeting all comers, to members of the Board, to the choir and Sunday School teachers, cooks for the community supper and so on.

This is our church. We all need to recognize that we are part of this commonwealth, where our riches, whether that means time, money, talents, or all three, depending on what we understand in our own hearts as we come before God in prayer about the matter, those riches can be shared for the benefit of all. We are already rich in the membership of our church, and I hope that the membership will become an increasingly active one.

God wants a new covenant with us and the bridge to making that happen, to connecting us with God’s mind in Jesus, is the Holy Spirit of God, who is the source of joy in the work of the new covenant, which can be the life of this church as we know it, on steroids, on holy steroids. It can happen. It needs to happen if we’re going to continue as a viable church, and I am not speaking lightly. Amen.

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