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Monday, November 9, 2009

Faith, Not Fear

Consecration Sunday: November 8, 2009
Preacher: Mr. Richard Felton

Proper 27: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

It’s an honor to be back at St. Mark’s. Much has happened since I last preached here and even more since two of our children, Jason and Shilo attended the school. This place is a testimony to awesome generosity—new buildings, stronger educational programs, enhanced and expanded ministries.

Something else is new and energizing---what is it? Let me think, oh, yes, you have a new rector, Carri Patterson Grindon.

I knew Carri when she was practically still a teenager. She had more energy than ten people as she helped lead youth programs at All Saints, Pasadena. There was always a twinkle in her eyes and a smile in her voice. And even though she is much, much older now, that hasn’t changed. Thanks be to God!

Being here this morning, just a mile from where I grew up, blocks from where my wife Judy, and I raised our family, and blocks away from where I had my first job, it’s hard not to spend the time reminiscing. But that would be unfair to you and awfully boring.

Somewhat like the time I took a client for a tour of Altadena. With our son, Jason, in the car, I drove the man around pointing out the highlights of this beautiful town--where I grew up, where I went to school, where I hiked to Henniger Flats. When I finished, Jason asked, with a sarcastic air in his voice, “These are the highlights, Dad?”

But on this Consecration Sunday, you deserve more. And the readings today, demand more. They are difficult and challenging.

Over seventy years ago, the following words lifted a nation at a time when hopelessness and fear threatened the very existence of our society.

“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is---fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…”

Those words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address were spoken at the deepest part of the great depression—at a time when 10% unemployment would have seemed like heaven on earth—when a Dow Jones stock figure close to $10,000 would have been utter fantasy.

Today, those words have been replaced by a sense that the only thing we have is—fear itself. No matter what our circumstance, we are bombarded with warnings of gloom and doom. Oh, the nation had a brief shining moment of hope a year ago, but now the media is back to stories of missed opportunities, bank failures, terrorist attacks and extreme rhetoric from all sides.

In my work in stewardship and fund raising, I meet with donors who are seriously fearful about the future. They leave their penthouse apartments on Nob Hill in San Francisco to come to tell me they just aren’t sure of their financial resources so they will have to reduce their giving. Their clothes, cars, and penthouses are all better than anything I’ve ever owned—and their financial portfolios are embarrassingly stronger than mine, yet they have to cut back on their donations.

Judy and I have a friend who is constantly worried about the future. Even though she and her husband have a successful business, live in a beautiful home, and dine in with upscale take out food four nights out of seven, she is sure that they will not have enough to live on when they finally retire.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Ruth’s mother-in-law was like that woman. Naomi was sure they would not be ok as they grew older. She has some reason. She had lost her husband and both of her sons. So some of her fear was justified, as it is with our friend, but Naomi had a plan to make sure that Ruth, and just coincidentally, I’m sure, Naomi would be well cared for in the future. She instructs Ruth to go be with this wealthy man, Boaz. We don’t have to get too much into the details to understand that Naomi was suggesting that Ruth do more than speak nicely to him. And Ruth does what she is told to do and everything turns out ok for both of them. Their future is secure.

Naomi and Ruth’s story is extreme. Most of us wouldn’t suggest who our children should marry in order to secure our futures. And certainly in Judy’s and my case, our children wouldn’t pay attention to us if we did.

Many of us, however, are willing to move from places we love or give up meaningful careers in the false belief that our futures will be secure. Or we hold onto our money tightly in the hopes that it will provide us with happy ever after endings rather than living life generously and abundantly.

Now contrast that with the widow in Mark’s gospel. She has virtually nothing. Yet she boldly gives all the money she has to the temple. Her entire wealth is worth about $1.50 and she gives it away with dignity.

What is Jesus trying to tell us when he points out the difference between the widow and the temple elders? Maybe, instead of fear, he’s telling us that the only thing we have; truly have is—generosity. Humble, life changing generosity.

Let’s dig into this story of the widow—and the temple elders a little more. It’s somewhat risky to do so—especially as Episcopalians. We rather like our church finery, our robes and other vestments. And we love processing with banners, candles and crosses.

Compared to many in our country and most around the world, we live in overwhelming, often unbelievable abundance.

So, as much as we’d like to be held up by Jesus like the widow, we are, sadly, more likely to be cast with the temple elders; vain and proud; caring more about our possessions than the poor. We hold fast to the belief that our finery will please those around us as well as the One who created us.

But here is this woman. Once again, Jesus points to a woman as a window into the divine. Once again, a woman giving everything to God’s purpose.

What is it about this woman who has so little that makes her willing to give it all? How can she hold on to possessions so lightly? I think it can be found in the nuance of Jesus’ words, “but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Maybe Jesus is telling us that this woman gave generously because she didn’t see herself as poor. Maybe she, through faith, was able to step out of her condition to support God’s work. The woman’s complete faith, complete trust in God allowed her to give what she had.

Contrast that with the temple elders whose faith rested more in possessions and appearances than with God. “For all of them contributed out of their abundance…” They had stepped out of their abundance and believed they could not give generously because they needed to hold on tightly to what they had.

When asked once, how much is enough, David Rockefeller said, “Just a little bit more.” The temple elders believed the same way. Each one probably looked at the others wondering if they had nicer robes or homes or more abundant food. Not recognizing or appreciating all they had, they had moved away from their abundance and wanted just a little bit more.

While technologies have advanced over the two millennia since the time of Jesus, the human condition hasn’t changed much. Instead of comparing ourselves to each other at church, we can see how many nicer things we must have while we watch television or look on the internet. The messages scream at us that all we need is a fancier car, a faster internet connection, more channels on TV, or a multitude of medical treatments or devices that will make us look younger, have whiter teeth or be sexier.

We truly have stepped out of our abundance. But today, on this Consecration Sunday, we can reclaim all that we have been given. We can recognize that all that we have is a gift from God. Like the widow, we can reclaim our faith by trusting in God’s generosity and by giving generously ourselves. We don’t have to give everything we have to live on back to God. We can start by giving a portion of what God has given to us back to support God’s work in the world through St. Mark’s.

We can bring our standard of giving into line with our standard of living by giving proportionally—maybe even stretching to tithe by giving 10%.

Jesus lifts up the widow because she is living divinely. She has conquered fear. She is moving out of her circumstances to hear God’s call.

May we move away of our fears so that we can hear God’s call. And may the commitments we bless today be a blessing to our lives, our families, St. Mark’s and the community.


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