For my friends at Harrisonburg First Church of the Brethren… the sermon we missed twice in a row.

Since I missed preaching this sermon twice in a row, I thought I would share a few important excerpts with you. It is my prayer that God will somehow use these thoughts on paper to prepare us for our spiritual journey during Lent. Blessings, Pastor Beth

easy access

Today’s story is about John the Baptist whois also preparing the way for the new thing that God wants to do through his Son Jesus Christ. Even though we typically look at this passage during Advent, I think it is fitting that we prepare for our Lenten journey by looking at this text in Mark. It is interesting that the gospel of Mark begins here and skips over all of the traditional birth stories by “cutting to the chase” with John the Baptist. If we look more closely at this text, we can get some clues on how we can ready ourselves for the new things that God desires to do through Jesus Christ in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

The story opens in Mark chapter 1 with this crazy guy john crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It is important to remember that Israel had been waiting for the arrival of the promised Messiah for well over 500 years. In fact, those 500 years are known as the time of silence. It was a time when people weren’t hearing anything from God through the prophets. Nothing seemed to be happening at all. I am pretty sure that most people had become disinterested, disenchanted and even skeptical about the Messiah’s coming. But now, imagine with me. 500 years later this guy appears all dressed up in some really strange clothes and eating even more strange food. His message? Take heart! The time has finally come! This promised Messiah is about to break into our world and accomplish all of the things we have been waiting for.

I find a real affinity with this story because that is what I sense is going on here at our Church. I believe that the Spirit of God is saying the same thing to us: Take heart! You have been waiting for so long and now I am going to break in and do something among you greater than anything you can think or imagine!

Have you ever wondered why John was in the wilderness to proclaim such an important message? Why not in the temple, or in the town square or at the very least, the top of a mountain? Instead, Jon leads them into the wilderness: a place of solitude, a place where no one would really be able to hear. And yet the scripture tells us that the people came out in droves, multitudes, to hear the message.

John prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by leading the Israelites into a place where they were familiar with the way God speaks and where God had made himself known in the past. They stayed there until Jesus appeared on the scene. The Israelites recognized the wilderness was a historic place where God met them, spoke to them, and revealed himself to them just as he did in the Exodus. It was also a spiritual place where they were open to guidance from God. By leading them away from the chaos and confusion of the city, John brought them into the place where they were truly receptive to God’s activity; a place where they could listen.

Many of us have special places in our lives where we know that God can get through to us as well as unique ways in which God speaks to us. Perhaps we have dreams, hear his voice, read scripture or journal. Maybe we find God in nature, riding a bike or on a long commute to work. Maybe we find God through worship or through the times of listening in prayer. These are all similar to the wilderness for the Israelites.

During Lent, Christians have a tradition or spiritual practice of giving something up. In a way, that’s like making space for God. So if you are thinking about giving something up for Lent, I want to challenge you to give up something that makes a space for you to meet God. Maybe it is skipping a meal or coffee so that you can listen to God. Maybe it is skipping your favorite TV show so that you can read your Bible. Be creative, but make space. Prepare the way for him. Frequent that place often. Give God the space to speak and move in your life.

Another interesting way we can prepare the way that we see from John the Baptist are these really strange clothes he is wearing and the bugs that he seems to be eating. Don’t worry; I am not encouraging you to eat bugs! And by the way, these are not carob pods or fruit from a special tree. These were actual bugs, or locusts, that were ritually clean for poor persons who could not afford to buy the more expensive meats that were acceptable for the Jewish diet. By eating the same food and dressing in this way, John is actively aligning himself with barrenness of his time. He identified the place of the deepest spiritual and physical need… the very place where Jesus will come and bless and heal. His clothing and diet are a symbol of his rejection of the religious and socially elite and an embracing of the spiritually and physically impoverished.

We can also prepare the way of the Lord, not by eating bugs, but by opening our eyes to the barren places of our times; to the homeless, the spiritually impoverished, the troubled teen whose life can only be redeemed by the shedding of innocent blood in a shopping mall, the latch- key kids in our own community, even some of our friends and family. Jesus’s ministry was characterized by eating and drinking with sinners and ministering to the poor. Of all the places Christ could have chosen to live, of all the people he could have eaten with and fellowshipped with, he was always with the down and out, the outcast, the poor in Spirit and the sinner. If you were living in the time of Jesus, that was where you could find him.

I believe that is still true today. If we want to see where God is active and moving, if we want to be in the place and setting that Jesus may very well show up, we need to find the place of the greatest spiritual and physical need and linger there.

One thing that blesses me so much about our church is that we have a lot of that going on!! We feed people at the Salvation Army meals every Tuesday night, we open our doors to the community every Wednesday evening, children and youth are coming to our church and not only hearing about Jesus but some of them are having the only hot cooked meal they will have that week. If you haven’t experienced the ministry that is going on here at this church on a Wednesday night, let me tell you that Jesus is present! Just walk into the Jr. High youth meeting and talk with some of the wonderful youth that Abe is hauling over in his car each week. Or poke your head into one of Heidi’s class room and see all of the children. Let me tell you, you will find Jesus working there!

Sharon Helbert was visiting with me in my office this week and shared with me how each year, rather than giving something up for Lent, she actually adds a spiritual practice for Lent. So here’s my challenge to you this Lenten season. Do you want to prepare the way for what God has for us at First Church? Do you want to meet Jesus? Try adding the spiritual practice of serving on a Wednesday Night! Casey made an announcement last Sunday in church that Heidi needs more volunteers. Why not make that your spiritual practice for Lent? Or maybe the fellowship committee needs help with food prep, clean up or service. Why not talk to Julie Kramer about serving as your Lenten practice?

Friends, that is preparing the way for Jesus to show up in your life! And as we look together at the book of Mark and what it means to follow Jesus and be his disciples, we will see the places he invites them and us to come and see, and experience the kingdom of God.

We all know that living together as the body of Christ is important, but if we are so inwardly focused that we miss the barren places where God desires to dwell, we may miss the appearance of Jesus because according to the Gospel of Mark, that is where Jesus showed up… in the desert place… in the barren place… in the place of need. We need to take heart, align ourselves with the need around us, and join God in the new life that he desires to bring. How will we align our resources and vision with the needs of our community and world? Do you still have your puzzle piece from several weeks ago? Maybe that’s the piece of the puzzle that we’re missing and need here at First Church.

Finally, we need to begin this journey by examining our own barrenness. John calls the people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of their consecration to God and their belief in the Messiah’s coming. Jesus came into this world first and foremost to save us from our own selves, the spiritual bondage that keeps us and the rest of the world from being all that God intended us to be. It is difficult to dare to look into the deepest, darkest parts of our own souls.

Have you ever noticed when we have had a good snow or ice storm, where the last places to melt are? (You should have had plenty of opportunities to do that this week) They are always in the shade. Hard ice always forms in the dark places and they are the last places where the warmth of the sun can penetrate. So it is with our souls. It is not until we bring our sins into the light of the son, that we experience the melting of our hardness and the washing away of the things that bind us.

Where are the places in our own lives that need the breath of God blown into them? What are the dark areas where God desires to shine the healing light of his presence? Are we allowing God to see those places? Are we allowing ourselves to acknowledge those places? Do we really believe that God can turn those barren places into something fruitful? That is the true beginning of our spiritual journey this Lenten season; Opening those places to God’s coming. In doing so, we are opening ourselves to the power of Jesus.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Philippians 2: what I shared at Annual conference 2014

Picture2Greetings as Dan Ulrich said, I am Beth Jarrett and I am currently serving as the Pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Harrisonburg Virginia. Dan said I had 5 minutes to share my faith background and my perspective on this passage so I think the most efficient thing to say is that I am a southern Presbaptiscopalmennothren. Let’s just say I have a very broad faith experience but I found my spiritual home in the Anabaptist tradition as a young adult.

When I pondered this letter to the church in Philippi, it immediately touched my church planting/missionary heart. Having served as a church planter in Sicily for 10 years, I am keenly aware of some of the anxiety that Paul is grappling with.

I remember what it is like to have invested years into building a small community of believers only to come back from our furlough to find them divided, angry and the center of the town’s gossip vine. And Paul wasn’t even on a furlough!

Believe me, when two Sicilian women fight it involves everyone! It can divide a church right down the middle. Each woman aligning their entire household against another… and believe me that’s a BIG household. If they see each other walking down the street, they will literally change their path to avoid having to see one another.

Paul is speaking to a very similar issue in this letter as two strong women, Euodeia and Syntyche are fighting and causing a division in the little church that is struggling to survive without adequate leadership, in the midst of cultural and ethnic diversity, persecution, and surrounding pagan traditions.

If we are honest with each other, we face similar struggles in our churches today as some of us experience great diversity in our theological perspectives and worship styles while at the same time we see decreased attendance, lower giving, and I am sure you can name a few others. And yet we are still faced with the challenge to shine like stars as we extend the good news of the Gospel in the midst of massive technological, social and economic change.

Paul desperately wants the church to understand that how we work out our salvation together matters.

I recently had the benefit of hearing Juana Bordas a vibrant Latino leader and author of salsa soul and leadership share how she successfully transitioned the Girls Scouts of America from a dying all white organization to a vibrant flourishing multi-cultural and ethnically diverse organization. She believes that the viability of the church and church related agencies over the next 50 years depends on how well we do the work of becoming culturally and ethnically diverse without damaging one another or the church’s witness. If ever there was a time to accept Paul’s challenge to do everything without complaining and arguing… this is the time. We need all of our creative energy focused on this business of working out our salvation in our own generation.

How do we do that in practice? According to Philippians 2: 13, we must trust that God’s Spirit is at work in each of us to will and to act according to his good purpose. We need to take seriously what it means for us both individually and corporately to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It is a call to courageous discipleship. We must figure out what it means to live out the deep claims of the Gospel in our lives with an attitude of humility and respect while at the same time navigating through an age of technological, environmental, and social change.

But with such diversity among us, how do we do that? Paul encourages us earlier in chapter 2, to let our experience of Christ’s mercy, love and compassion be the glue that holds us together. Not our like theologies, not our correct Biblical interpretation, not even our worship styles and practices. Instead, it should be our encounter with Jesus and all of the grace we have experienced in that encounter that holds us together and invites others to join us.

sacrifices and offerings and tithes…oh my!

widows-miteWhen  our church began a sermon series a few Sundays ago, I shared about the significant correlation between a church’s spiritual health and the health of a church’s giving by using the example of giving as a spiritual thermometer. Our giving says something about our faith and our relationship with God. The story of the widow’s mite is about just that. In it, we are able to observe several types of giving: offerings, sacrifices and the more elusive tithe that is not mentioned directly but implied in the context. All three are different ways of giving and have different meanings and purposes in the life of the church.

We find Jesus in Luke chapter 21 teaching in the temple where we have this small but significant scene play out. Before the story begins, he is addressing hypocrisy among the teachers of the law. He accuses them of taking advantage of the widows’ finances while at the same time praying lengthy prayers that were designed to impress people who were desperately seeking God.  He is teaching the disciples in the temple courts where all of this is playing out. In fact, there is a collection box within earshot of where they are gathered. As each person drops their offering into the box, the amount is likely announced out loud and recorded in the temple books.

As this happens, a widow, one of the ones who had been taken advantage of by the corrupt teachers of the law, walks up and drops her two coins into the box and they hear the announcement: 2 mites. That would be the smallest amount possible. It would be as if we put all of our offerings up on the projection screen for everyone to see and by our name would be 2 pennies while everyone else was giving an impressive amount. In some ways, it was demeaning for this widow as her offering was less impressive than that of the rich teachers of the law. But Jesus looks deep into her heart and recognizes that it was a sacrifice. She had given everything she had.

In the story, persons were lined up giving their offerings publicly. It is likely that the offerings were going to the poor. Though we don’t know their hearts, it seems that Jesus thought that the teachers of the law and pharisees might have been giving for show given the context and Jesus’ response to it.  It is important to note that An offering is different from a tithe in that it is given over and above the tithe. That is why we use the word offering. There are many reasons to give offerings in the Old Testament but sometimes it is given just because. Not out of obedience, not out of a sense of call, but usually out of thanksgiving or abundance. It is what we call, free will.

Now you would think that Jesus would have been thrilled. Right? But he is not. There is an underlying issue that has plagued the children of God since their formation in Exodus. They have neglected to give their tithe and have lived off the obedience of the poor who were faithful in tithing. You might remember that they were sent into exile and punished. Well, this is one of the reasons; equal to idolatry. You can see that very clearly in the book of Jeremiah.

The most famous text we have about tithing is found in Malachi 3:

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me.

 Tithing was a part of the law that had been established since the formation of Israel. It was required of them to give a tenth part. That is where the word tithe comes from. It was a tenth of everything they had. And that was to be the first tenth not what was left over. God blessed them with everything they had, money, shelter, land, gifts and talents etc.  God has given us everything in the earth and asked us to be stewards of that gift. The one thing God asks in return is that we give the first tenth back to him. And that wasn’t just money. It was everything, land, produce, lambs, cows, time, children etc.

Leviticus 27:30-33 says this:

“‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. No one may pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If anyone does make a substitution, both the animal and its substitute become holy and cannot be redeemed.’”

 Now the tithe was used mainly for three purposes: temple upkeep, supporting the Levites who were the priestly line that ran the temple, and feeding the poor who were among them.

Over time, the wealthy persons, teachers of the law and Pharisees began to withhold the tithe and pretend as if they were giving the whole thing. That just seems kind of silly doesn’t it? As if we can hide from God? But then again, we have been hiding from God since the beginning of time. That’s why God says in Malachi that they were robbing him. They were not giving back to God what belonged to God.

One thing I think we misunderstand about the tithe is that God intended tithing to be an instrument of grace and trust in our lives. Not a penalty or interest we have to repay. It was part of the covenant God made with his children to love and provide for them.

In his article that appeared in Leadership Journal, John Ortberg says this about tithing:

Tithing is a vehicle of Grace

Tithing is God’s way of creating generous people

Tithing points to our faith that everything comes from God

Tithing is like training wheels- meant to give you a good start but not intended for the tour de france.

Tithing is not the last word in generosity – it’s the first word.

For these reasons God says in Malachi chapter 3:10

“Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

 In other words, God wants us to trust him; trust that he is able to provide us with what we need for each day. Tithing is a matter of trust, faith and obedience

Getting back to the parable, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak to this problem of neglecting the tithe by honoring the two coins of the widow. You see, the public offering given by the rich for show was actually an abomination to God because they were robbing God of his tithe and dropping money into this collection so they appeared to be in good standing with God in public.

The widow, by contrast gave over and above the tithe, and above an offering, she gave a sacrifice; everything she had.

A sacrifice is something very different. It is a response to a call God is placing in our lives to give sacrificially to a cause for the kingdom. Again, it’s not just money. It can be our time, talents, homes, gifts, and any thing else you can think of. It is called a sacrifice because it costs us something.

You may recall the radical giving in the 2 chapter of Acts when the people were selling their land and giving everything they had. This was a sacrifice… not a tithe and not an offering. They were doing this because the Holy Spirit was leading them to sacrifice everything they had to get the resurrection message of Jesus Christ out. They assumed he was coming back soon, but it would take many, many years. Their sacrifices are why we are here today. They were called to a great task of sharing the good news in a radical way and God blessed them and us because of it.

The widow was moved by the spirit to give everything she had. This is the highest from of giving because it demonstrates obedience, faith, trust, and a profound love for God. It is not something that happens everyday, but it should happen at some point in our lives.

Jesus wants to teach his disciples that this kind of giving is not about the amount, but about the heart. Little did they know that Jesus would soon show them what true sacrifice looked like: he would give his life for the salvation of all humankind: out of obedience, faith, trust and a profound love for the Father.

As followers of Christ, we are called to give in all of these ways: tithes, offerings, and sacrifices because at the heart of our faith is the greatest gift of all.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

May we be moved by the spirit of such a generous God.

Ways to practice:

1. Pick one of these scriptures and read it at the beginning and ending of each day. In what ways do the words challenge you to live differently?

Luke 6:38 – “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

 

 

2. Take a brief survey of your life… notice the times you have given in these 3 ways: tithes, offerings, sacrifices. How was your life impacted or enriched? Share your story with someone else as a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

 

3. Prayerfully ask God to show you if he is calling you to step out in faith in one of these areas of giving? Try responding to what the Holy Spirit shows you. Keep a journal of what happens when you give. Keep it for years to come so that you can return to it for encouragement.