Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An Invocation: You Are With Us

You are with us.

You are with us
in the night times
as we sleep
in comfort
in love
as we lie awake
in sorrow
in fear.

Whether or not the night is kind
You are with us.

You are with us
in the morning times
as we clear crusted eyes
stretch and yawn
shower and clothe
the house silent
or full of youthful chatter
and music.

As surely as the sun rises
You are with us.

Grant us a sense of this
in the words
in the music
and in the fellowship
of this time
So that we can know you
and sing to you
in Spirit and in truth
with joy.

Through Christ our Lord.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Stewardship Sermon

“Unnecessary Giving”
Mark 12:38-13:2
Isaiah 58:1-12
Rev. Jason Alspaugh
First Baptist Church
Dayton, Ohio
November 8, 2009

No one really wants to be like this poor widow. And yet, to my surprise, more often than not, she is lifted up as a model of giving. Despite her circumstances she continues to give to the Temple treasury. When the DOW is down, when she loses her job, when she is homeless and hungry and has but two cents to her name, she remains faithful and reliable. And she doesn’t give 10% but 100%! She gives, even though it hurts. We should be just like her! … Seriously, if I ever preach that kind of message about her, you can send me packing. As one pastor has said, “I could put a gold star on her pledge card and parade her as one to emulate in front of my congregation…But I can’t…To use the widow in this way is to abuse her again.”[1]

If we want to hear the good news of this gospel text, we must first be honest and acknowledge that something is wrong here! Withhold any thoughts of admiration for what she is doing. Do not love her yet. But imagine hearing the sounds of coins being dropped into the treasury; and notice the contrast between the sounds created by the “many rich people” and the widow, as they give their separate offerings. The sound her coins make is almost no sound at all. Those two coins are almost as silent and invisible as she is. Why is she even in line?!

To answer that question we need to hear Jesus’ words about her, first, as lament; not praise.[2] It is sad commentary when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” The reason for her plight and his sadness? These scribes. Andre Resner paraphrases the situation: It is as if “[Jesus] is saying, ‘Beware of the scribes…they devour widows’ houses, and look: there goes another one right there!”[3]

It may seem like common decency—that we’re not supposed to take from the poor—but it’s so commonplace that I don’t know that the disciples (that we) see the problem without Jesus pointing it out. She is just one of many. Today, I could throw out dozens of numbers and statistics ad nauseam to tell you something you probably already know, that the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening and hunger and homelessness are on the rise—locally, nationally, and globally.[4] And yet I don’t know that we see the problem and muster the compassion to face it without the divine compassion that Jesus exhibits. She is just one of many, but Jesus sees her!

In the Bible, widows are often mentioned along with orphans, and even strangers/resident aliens. These two or three together represent society’s most vulnerable people—those who are weak and have no resources or security. The Greek word for “widow” can simply mean the “one without.” So whenever you hear about a “widow” especially alongside “orphans and resident aliens” understand that it’s like saying the same thing three times for emphasis. Bold, underline, and highlight them and understand that they represent every person who is “without.” So this poor widow is also every woman, child, and man who has ever been taken advantage of, deprived of equal rights, harassed, beaten, killed, and told they were anything less than children of God.

So now love her. Love this poor widow because she was there when it was unnecessary—she came and gave when she shouldn’t have—and strangely it saves us. All at once she displayed her devotion to God and exposed the problem. If we truly hear the sadness and lament in Jesus’ words about her, we will not seek to emulate her, but free her (and those like her), because this should not be. Not only should this widow not be there, but these scribes should know better. They should know better than anyone the commandments of God:

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deut. 24:17-18)

“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year…, giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the LORD your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments.’” (Deut. 26: 12-13)

Yet these scribes do transgress and forget. They pervert justice! Resner adds that “The religious and political leaders’ charge was to protect, defend, and support the widow and orphan, not rob them blind. Apparently the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had failed to relate to the law’s dictates that widows were not only not required to give to the temple at all, but, in fact, they were to be sustained by the tithing of others.”[5]

What does this mean for our giving? If you are here today or any other day and barely have two cents to rub together, you will not be expected to give. But those among us who have the means, should give in order to support and protect those who (for one reason or another) cannot support and protect themselves.

We should not give for the sake of self-preservation. Our sermons, worship, music, and building are to be but a means of grace, whereby we may experience the love and presence of God and usher in the kingdom of God. These are the means, not the ends. These scribes were caught up with walking around in long robes, commanding respect in the marketplaces, taking the best seats in synagogues and parties, and saying long prayers for show. These scribes transgressed and forgot the first commandment, which is not love of self, but love of God. And if you miss the first commandment, you miss them all.

Just a few verses back:

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (Mk. 12:28-34)

We should settle for nothing less than the kingdom of God. Which is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. So let us give and spend our tithe on loving this poor widow and those like her. If we can love them, seeking the kingdom of God, it will be as Isaiah said:

The LORD will guide [us] continually,
and satisfy [our] needs in parched places,
and make [our] bones strong;
and [we] shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
[Our] ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
[we] shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
[we] shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.” (Is. 58:11-12).

Love her. Love them. But do not love these things – these sermons, this worship, this music, this building – too much. (It is all very beautiful, but do not love it too much.) Again, they are but a means of grace, and ultimately they are temporary. Let us not get caught up with the privileges of our religious institution, like these scribes, and forget our responsibilities. The consequences are too great:

“As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what larger stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk 13:1b-2).

Not one stone on a stone… Not one.


[1] Andre Resner, Jr., “Reading the Text for Economic Justice” The Living Pulpit, April-June (2003), 6.
[2] For a more detailed explanation of this see: Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982): 256-65.
[3] Resner, 7.
[4] For some actual numbers and statistics check out the following websites:
[5] Resner, 7.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Abuse of the Church

I wrote the following poem a short time ago when I reflected on the relationship between individual members of the Body of Christ (i.e., the Church) who had been or continue to be ostracized and abused by other members who claim to represent the Church as a whole. For anyone who has witnessed spousal abuse (physical, verbal, etc.), as I did growing up, this poem may paint a vivid image of abuses we'd rather forget; for that I empathize and apologize. Undoubtedly, those experiences inform the writing of this poem.

The title--"The Abuse of the Church"--came later, but its ambiguity has helped me to reflect more deeply on this relationship, which at times seems dysfunctional to continue. That is, I initially gave it this title, thinking of the Church's abuse of other people, but then later considered that if the object of abuse was a member of the Church, someone inseparable from the Body of Christ, then the title not only spoke of the Church's role as culprit, but as victim. What appears to be abuse of "others" actually turns out to be self-abuse. And that is the great tragedy.

The Abuse of the Church

You hit me again
for the last time
I can't stand
with you anymore
I had hoped
the last time
was the last time
But again you hit me
I tried to convince myself
with the memories of photographs
and past acts of love
that the storm of you would pass
But again you hit me
I am bruised
where bruises do not reach
where moth and rust do not corrupt
you hated when you should have loved
spoke when you should have listened
choked when you should have hugged
I hope now
that God will grant our divorce
even as I contemplate
how I might still stay
daring you
to hit me again
until we are tired
and agree
that we'll all understand it better
in the sweet by and by

Monday, October 5, 2009

Words of Welcome

Words of welcome I composed for Sunday, August 30, 2009 at First Baptist Church of Dayton:

Slow down! Listen. It will do us no good to hurry here. Here, the first is last and the last is first. Here, the greatest must become like the least of these. Here, there is neither male nor female, rich or poor, black or white, young or old, straight or gay; for we are all one in Christ Jesus. All our striving to be the fastest, the first, the greatest, or the strongest will only distract us from the voice of the One who calls us and draws us near. So settle down. Center down. And be here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Flower Salesman

My Lord,
you are that man
who stands
on the off-ramp,
selling flowers
in the rain.
(Where do you get them?)
Like a child
I pray
to be rich
to buy all your flowers,
to get you
out of the rain,
off the off-ramp.

But then what?

Then let my fantasy
become fidelity
and a promise
to weather storms
with you,
my friend.
You are that man
who stands
on the off-ramp,
selling flowers
in the rain.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"Two men went up to the temple to pray..."

This was a reflection I wrote earlier this year based on Luke 18:9-14 that I thought was worth sharing...

I visited a church in Key West, Florida one Sunday morning not long ago. It was the kind of church that practiced high liturgical drama, complete with incents, bells, robes, kneelers, and large traveling crosses. And we did everything according to plan, kneeling, praying, singing, listening and giving, as directed. There’s a danger to all of this, however. Although I believe it is good and right to worship together every Sunday and do such things, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are better than those who do not. The danger of this thinking is that we can begin to believe, however subtly, that we do not need God as much as those people do.

During a lengthy, straying sermon listing orthodox beliefs, the rector made a passing reference to “the whores of Duvall Street.” I was shocked, and wondered if anyone else had a problem with the phrase. Duvall Street is the busiest business district in all of Key West, and there may be people and businesses that have un-Godly, un-Christian practices that border, if not cross over into, whoredom. But this church on Duvall Street (and every church) is certainly called to do more than just state the obvious, and exalt itself above its neighbors, lest the gospel remain hidden. Genuine piety demands that we humble ourselves before God and love our neighbors, who are in need of God’s mercy as much as we are. This Lent, as we reflect on all that Christ did and does, may our piety draw us closer to God and our neighbors, and not farther away.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

To Be Continued...

“In the beginning…” John 1:1

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week…” John 20:19

The resurrection changed our view of creation. It was no longer a past event. In light of Jesus’ resurrection, the early church fathers affirmed that the first day of the week—Sunday—was also the eighth day. In Christ we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, the opening words of the Book of Genesis are repeated and echoed throughout eternity: “In the beginning…” “In the beginning…” Just when the disciples feared the worst, that the story, the good news of Jesus Christ had come to a tragic end, it starts anew. At the end of every episode in this Christian life appear the words:

To Be Continued…