Another worship piece

This summer, we had a special worship service outside. As part of that service, we read a beautiful children’s book called The Word Collector by Sonja Wimmer. It’s the story of a little girl who collects words. One day, she realizes that all the fun, beautiful words in the world have disappeared. So she packs up all the words that she has collected and heads out into the world. She encounters pain and conflict, mean words and ugly words and hard words. So The Word Collector starts scattering all the words she’s collected into the world again … and her words begins to change things. When she suddenly discovers that her words are all gone, at first, she is disappointed. Then she looks out into the world again and realizes that the people have started sharing her words and making up their own fun, beautiful words again. 

It’s truly a beautiful story. After we read it, we talked about all the places we find ugly words in the world and all the ways we can find to spread beautiful words instead. To help with this, we had a visual representation. I made a board covered in 3×5″ notecards. Each notecard had an ugly, divisive, hard word on it. 

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The words we used were:

  • Neglect
  • Distress
  • Distrust
  • Conflict
  • Blame
  • Fear
  • Hararss
  • Contention
  • Torture
  • Accuse
  • Agony
  • Rage
  • Saddness
  • Hurt
  • Fighting
  • Lie
  • Despair
  • Abuse
  • Fake
  • Worry
  • Destroy
  • Evil
  • Prejudice
  • Threat
  • Anxiety
  • Malice
  • Slavery
  • Ignore
  • Exclude
  • Assume
  • Hate
  • Racism
  • Grief
  • Attack
  • Suspicion
  • Scorn
  • Abandon
  • Trouble
  • Corrupt
  • Violence
  • Supremacy
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Pain
  • Isolation
  • Sin
  • Intimidation
  • Steal
  • War
  • Lonely
  • Bully
  • Disrespect
  • Argue
  • Riot
  • Suffering
  • Beating
  • Force
  • Divisive
  • Killing
  • Loss
  • Indifference
  • Estranged
  • Offensive

That’s a lot of ugly words. So during our prayer time, we used new notecards to write our own fun, beautiful words to cover up all the ugly words on the board. 

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Our fun, beautiful words were:

  • Happiness
  • Children
  • PB & J
  • Listen
  • Justice
  • Appreciate
  • Hug
  • Happy
  • Magnificent
  • Wait
  • Accept
  • Companionship
  • Soaring
  • Sweet
  • Celebrate
  • Joy
  • Truth
  • Confidence
  • Easter
  • Support
  • Mom’s Banana Bread
  • Babies
  • Chocolate
  • Fantastic
  • Strength
  • Grandchildren
  • Peace
  • Pleasing
  • Gracious
  • Tolerance
  • Respect
  • Accept
  • Croissant
  • Compassion
  • Hope
  • Love All
  • Family
  • Believe
  • Sweetness
  • Asparagus
  • Love
  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Gratitude
  • Faith
  • Spiffy
  • Puppies
  • Thank You
  • Creativity
  • Blessed
  • Goodness
  • Patience
  • Gracious
  • Christmas
  • Faith
  • Forgive
  • Thanks
  • Respect
  • Jiggy
  • Hope
  • Kindness
  • Hugs
  • Humility
  • Family
  • Day Brightener
  • Freedom
  • Appreciate
  • Favor
  • Prayer

Yes, I know some of those are repeats. But that’s okay. That makes it even more beautiful. Also, if you compared the lists, you’d notice that we ended up with more beautiful words than we did ugly words … which I also find beautiful. Our beautiful words were overflowing the board, covering all the ugly words and more. Hallelujah! Amen.

Sunday’s sermon: Fourth Enemy of Gratitude: Greed

greed

Texts used – Psalm 99; Matthew 22:15-22

  • 2nd to last week of our stewardship series – enemies/obstacles of gratitude
    • Talked about nostalgia and worry
    • Last week: talked about entitlement
    • This week is the obvious week. – talking about how greed gets in the way of both experiencing and expressing our gratitude → And I think in terms of illustrations for this obstacle, we find ourselves in the most appropriate of seasons.
      • Christmas decoration items hit stores on Nov. 1
        • Even earlier at Costco and Hobby Lobby
      • Mailboxes inundated with catalogues, sales fliers, coupons, etc.
      • Christmas commercials abound
      • All aimed at selling us more and more and more stuff
        • Stuff that we “need”
        • Stuff that we want
        • Stuff that we “deserve”
      • And it’s the Christmas commercials that have really been driving the point home for me lately.
        • IN PARTICULAR: 2 commercials for the same company (which I won’t name) → similar settings, similar storylines
          • Montage of families in pajamas opening gifts on Christmas morning
          • Gifts = big and small but all have obvious big impact on those opening the gifts
            • Wide eyes
            • Huge smiles
            • Obvious delight written all over their faces
          • 2 different songs playing the background of these commercials → not some sweet, tender Christmas music … nope!
            • 1st: 90’s classic “Whoomp There It Is” by Tag Team
            • 2nd: 80’s classic “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” by The Gap Band
        • Just the songs alone paired with these commercials sit a little funny with me. They seem to be especially illustrative of greed – of a season that often becomes driven by want want want want want.
    • Now, don’t get me wrong, I love finding “the perfect gift” for people I love, too. I love watching them open something that I know is going to make them happy – something they can use or enjoy or cherish. But as we consider gratitude today – how we experience it and how we express it, especially in terms of our stewardship – and how greed gets in the way of that gratitude, we’re going to come at it from a particular angle: where do those things for which we are grateful – our truest, most enduring and most precious blessings – actually come from?
  • Tackle this angle with the help of our NT reading this morning → This is another one of those Scripture readings I’ve never preached before because frankly, it’s another one of those readings that can make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like talking about money – especially in church! – but here’s Jesus … talking about money!
    • Reminder: throughout the gospels, Jesus actually talks about money more than anything else except of the Kingdom of God → And today’s Scripture reading is no different.
      • Context:
        • Part of Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the lead-up to Holy Week → comes on the heels of him driving the merchants and money changers out of the temple
        • Comes directly after Scripture we read last week: parable of the wedding party in which those who are invited spurn the invitation, so the king invites all the people on the edges of the city – the unwanted, unwelcomed, “uninvitables” – to his son’s wedding feast → parable about the openness and blessing of the kingdom of heaven
    • Today’s reading begins with the Pharisees conspiring → Now, leading up to this passage, Jesus has really turned the heat on the Pharisees – calling them out on their hypocrisy and putting them on the spot again and again. And so today, the Pharisees attempt to rhetorically strike back – text: Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”[1]
      • Let’s break this down a little bit. – 3 significant things to notice
        • 1: significance of “the supporters of Herod” = shows the desperation of the Pharisees
          • Scholar points out: The Herodians [are] Jews who have benefited rather nicely from the Roman occupation. As you might imagine, the Pharisees and the Herodians did not get along very well. The only platform they share is that Jesus needs to go.[2]  → The Pharisees despised the Herodians because they were basically sell-outs – Jews who did the bidding of the Roman occupiers and took payment for it – tax collectors, for example. But in the face of their desperation to see Jesus gone, the Pharisees have actually chosen to collude with this group they so despise.
        • 2: significance of what’s behind their words → It sounds like the Pharisees are being nice to Jesus, flattering even. “Teacher, we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think.” Sounds okay, right? No. Nope.
          • Pharisees are ingratiating
          • Pharisees are contemptuous
          • Pharisees are about as disingenuous as it gets
          • It’s important that we understand how truly insincere the Pharisees are being. Of course, they don’t actually believe any of what they’re saying. They’re just afraid that if they publicly proclaim what they really think of Jesus, the adoring crowd will turn on them … as they will on Jesus himself in just a few short days’ time.
        • 3: significance of their question – text: Tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? → This is most definitely a trick question.
          • Scholar explains: If Jesus says it’s unlawful to pay taxes (as the Pharisees think but are too afraid to teach publicly), then the Romans will snatch him up for being an instigator. If he says that it’s fine to pay taxes to the Romans, then the religious zealots in the crowd will stone him for going against God’s Word. It’s a no-win situation for Jesus.[3]
    • So we understand the situation that has been set up for Jesus in this passage. → circumstances make Jesus’ response all the more powerful
      • 1st Jesus flat out calls them out on their “evil motives” (as Scripture calls them) – text: “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?”[4]  → Jesus is only a few days away from his persecution and death, so at the point, he’s pulling no punches.
      • Next, Jesus throws their sarcasm and derision right back at them by asking them an obvious question: “Show me the coin used to pay the tax. Whose image is and inscription is this?”[5]  → This is really a “duh” question. If I asked any one of you to pull out a coin from your pocket, you could tell me who’s on it. Jesus is playing off the Pharisees’ tendency to ask circuitous questions and their self-aggrandized knowledge.
      • Then, Jesus gets to the punchline: Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.[6]  → This is really Jesus’ mic drop moment. “You think you’re going to set me up to fail, but I’m going to turn this right back on you.” Bam. Done.
        • Unpack this a little bit: Gr. “give” = “pay back” – “Pay back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and pay back to God what is God’s.”
          • Scholar: Jesus says, let Caesar have his little coins. But let the people of God decide today whom they serve. Let the followers of God decide today that what they have, what they are, what they do, what they think – it all belongs to the One who knew you before he knit you together in your mother’s womb.[7]
  • When we get so wrapped up in the getting and accumulating and maintaining of stuff stuff stuff, we forget two things.
    • 1: what our blessings truly are
    • 2: where those blessings come from – God
    • And when we forget, we render ourselves unable to either experience or express our gratitude.
      • Makes me think of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” – the live-action movie with Jim Carrey that came out in 2000[8]  → In this version, little Cindy Lou Who is “all discombobulated” because she sees all the people around her obsesses with giving and getting and Christmastime while she feels that something about Christmas – the togetherness, the blessedness, the gratitude – is missing.
      • Forgetting blessings certainly speaks to a lot of situations beyond holiday shopping
        • Current political climate
        • Current state of poverty/wealth disparity in the U.S. and around the world
        • Many of the places of conflict and oppression around the world
  • OT reading this morning is a reminder of the true source of all that for which we are grateful
    • Speaks of the power and majesty of God – text: The LORD rules— the nations shake! He sits enthroned on the winged heavenly creatures— the earth quakes! The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations.[9]
      • Speaks of some of the incredible blessings that God has bestowed in the past: Strong king who loves justice, you are the one who established what is fair. You worked justice and righteousness in Jacob. … Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel too among those who called on his name. They cried out to the LORD, and he himself answered them – he spoke to them from a pillar of cloud. They kept the laws and the rules God gave to them. LORD our God, you answered them. To them you were a God who forgives but also the one who avenged their wrong deeds.[10]
      • Speaks of giving our gratitude to God: Let them thank your great and awesome name. He is holy! … Magnify the LORD, our God! Bow low at his footstool! He is holy! … Magnify the LORD our God! Bow low at his holy mountain because the LORD our God is holy![11]
  • So as the holiday season rapidly approaches, friends, let us remember in the midst of all the buying and wrapping, the cooking and baking, the decorating and the caroling, the hosting and traveling, the giving and getting … in the midst of all of that, let us remember that our truest, most enduring, and most precious blessings come not from Target or Amazon or Toys R Us but from a God who loved us more than enoughmore than enough to become human for us, more than enough to live and work and play and love among us, more than enough to sacrifice God’s very own self on the cross for us, more than enough to extend us a grace that surpasses anything we could ever even imagine on our own. So how can we set aside our greed and express our gratitude for what we are doing here and now? Amen.

[1] Mt 22:15-17.

[2] Brian Erickson. “Fall Series 2: The Enemies of Gratitude – Proper 21: Nostalgia” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 70-71.

[3] Erickson, 71.

[4] Mt 22:18.

[5] Mt 22:19-20.

[6] Mt 22:21-22.

[7] Erickson, 71-72.

[8] How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Imagine Entertainment. Released Nov. 17, 2000.

[9] Ps 99:1-2.

[10] Ps 99:4, 6-8.

[11] Ps 99:3, 5, 9.