Today is an exciting day in the life of our congregation, as we give thanks to God for the life of Al Pheiffur (and his twin brother Elmer). Al has become what a friend of mine once told me that he aspired to become – a centenarian! Thinking about all that Al has lived through is a little overwhelming, and I imagine there are some parts that he may wish to forget just as there are many memories to cherish and hold dear.
One thing that Al can certainly teach us is that life is full of changing priorities. What matters to a boy of 10 is not the same as that of a man of 22. Likewise the things matter to a woman of 22 are not the same as a woman of 65. All of us, in turn, are motivated by different passions and priorities. Sometimes we have so many tugging at us that we may not even know what it is that matters most other than hitting the snooze alarm – one more time.
Certainly we all have goals and responsibilities – or at least obligations – that pull us out of bed in the morning. But have you stopped recently to consider what it is that truly motivates you? What is the fire in your bones that you need to let out lest it consume you?
I’ve heard it said that on the most basic level, we are motivated by either hope or fear. That’s not to say that we are always one or the other. But unless we take time to consider our motivations, and the things that trigger us into action, we can certainly end up with a pattern that is based in one or the other. It’s pretty clear that the current political climate and much of our media are the result of fears that have been cultivated and nursed over a long period of time.
I could point fingers like many others are doing, but I think that misses the point of the real motivating factor – powerlessness. So many of the expressions we see of bigotry and hatred (both real and assumed) are simply the result of people feeling powerless. No matter how many bombs we drop or drone strikes we make, our enemies seem to only be encouraged. Although employment rates have increased, quality of living has not caught up to where it left off before the recession in many parts of the country. And in our anxiety we look for someone to blame and for someone to fix this mess that we are in.
We look to our past and make heroes from former leaders whose very successes and failures are what put us where we are. We look to our future and ask, “Who will save us?” And in the mean time we hear reports about unabashed expressions of racism that we have not heard in at least a generation.
So, what hope can a day like today give us? What wisdom can we find in scripture? What motivation for living can we glean from this hour on this day? The most obvious answer is the perspective of time. Time together gives us experiences to hold onto and to set up as channel markers for those yet to come this way.
These shared memories are important. They inform our values and they help us set expectations. But one thing that time also teaches is that hope is not based in the past. Just as the Prophet Isaiah raises the specter of waves crashing on the chariots that chased the Israelites from Egypt, he says, “Fuget-about-it. Watch what comes next.”
Likewise, Paul tells us that righteousness has nothing to do with what we have done or thought or felt or believed. Righteousness is what happens when we – whether by chance or intent – get caught up in what God is doing. It is when we become involved in something beyond ourselves – something liberating and life giving like streams in the desert!
You may not realize it, but I see members of this congregation getting caught up in streams like these all the time. Sometimes I see it in simple conversations where you express care for one another. Sometimes it is in concrete actions like the youth packing pallets of food at FoodNet last month or counting our 525th pair of shoes for Soles4Souls. I’ve seen it in the conversations about Meals on Wheels and even in the care you’ve taken in the Spring clean up to make God’s property a place of hospitality and welcome.
And in the midst of our busy-ness, striving for the goal of dying and rising with Christ, we have this story about Mary using the ointment (that was purchased to bury her brother) on the feet of Jesus. This story seems as an interruption to us. There’s no clever segue. They were eating. Martha was serving the food. And Mary just steps in and wastes this perfectly good nard on his feet. Judas wants to know how this action took place without a vote and why wasn’t the money used for the poor (and we’re told that he’s really just mad because he’s a scoundrel and a thief). And Jesus comforts Mary by saying that she is in the right and the poor will always be there.
And herein lies the tension that shall ever be known as the conflict between padding the pews and serving the poor. According to John Calvin’s commentary on John, Jesus was not dismissing the poor. He was not saying, “Well poverty is just a part of life.” No, Jesus was instead noting that Mary’s choice to honor him was extraordinary because she was motivated by worshiping God.
Mary knew that for saving Lazerus’ life, Jesus’ life was in danger. She knew that Jesus had revealed the heart of God – having authority over life itself – and that he would reveal even more in the days ahead. And likewise when Jesus said, “the poor will always be with us.” he was making the way clear to worship God through acts of charity and concern.
And that, dear friends, is at the heart of the gospel for us today. Our motivation, our chief end, the fire in our bones, must be nothing less than the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ! And that hope is what calls us together, not just as a group of believers but as a people who invite others into the life giving work that God is doing through us!
In the words of Peter L. Steinke, a prolific writer on church systems, “The purpose of the local church is not primarily to be one's church home or extended family, though it can be at times. And it is not to survive by obtaining more people for its support base. Its purpose is to invite people to be part of the true mission of the church. Reception into the church is only a threshold to involvement in its mission. The task of the church is not to accumulate attendees. The church is a school for developing agents of the new creation from among those who are the beneficiaries of God's grace.”
You and I, beloved of God, are beneficiaries of God’s grace. There is no denying that! Let us continue to find hope and meaning and purpose in our expectation that just as God loves us, God loves them – and so must we. And in so doing, rivers will pour forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
You know, Isaiah said that even the wild animals and the jackals would honor God, but the people God set apart would praise God. May it be that we do more than honor God. May it be that we praise God in ways that are life giving and sustaining – in ways that offer hope and empower those who are truly oppressed – and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!