"CONGRUENCE" Isaiah 12:1 - 6; Mark 12: 38 - 44

A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Texts: Isaiah 12:1-6; Mark 12:38-44

“CONGRUENCE”

            Some of you know the name, Eugene Peterson. Peterson was, for 29 years, the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Bel Air, MD. He gave his life to preaching, teaching, and pastoring ordinary people through the ups and downs of life.

            Eugene Peterson also wrote 35 books – so many inspiring ones about faith and life, and faithfulness in life. He devoted his life to the Biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek – and, across the years, translated the entire Bible into the everyday language of conversation, marketplace, and playground. If you do not know Eugene Peterson’s The Message, you should. It gives fresh insight and inspiration to Bible study and Bible reading.

            Eugene Peterson died last month. His funeral was last Saturday at a Presbyterian Church in Montana – a life well lived as God’s servant!

            Sometime near the beginning of his ministry – leading a new church development, Peterson said he never wavered in his theological convictions. He knew that he belonged to God. But, he said, he had “to get a church up and running.” So he was ready to use any means possible – “appeal to people’s consumer instincts, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals through catchy slogans, create publicity to provide ego enhancement.” Peterson was ready to use any means to get his church up and running.

But then . . .  Peterson went with his wife to hear a lecture by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician and author who gave great energy to the pastoral counseling movement. Tournier, a doctor, in midlife, shifted his medical practice from examining rooms and surgeries to his living room! He left a medical practice that was focused entirely on the body, and embraced a healing vocation that dealt with the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.

            Driving home from the lecture by Dr. Paul Tournier, his wife said, “wasn’t that translator great?” Peterson said, “what translator?” She said, “are you kidding? He was lecturing in French, and you don’t know 20 words of French. Of course there was a translator.” And then he remembered – “yes” – the slight woman standing to the side. She was so modest and unassuming that Peterson forgot she was there.

            But then he said this about Tournier, the doctor, and the speaker. Peterson had this clear and inspiring sense that what Tournier was saying, and who he was, were completely CONGRUENT. Just as the translator was “assimilated” into the lecturer - her words carrying the meaning and spirit of his French words - Tournier’s words were AT ONE WITH HIS LIFE – CONGRUENT – not just what he knew and what he had done, but who he was. (See Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Preface)

            Peterson says this was the day that gave shape to the way he wanted to live his life, . . . and frame his ministry. He wanted his theological beliefs to be CONGRUENT with the way he did ministry. He wanted everything he said and did, to be consistent with who he was.

If there is a single word that identifies the faithful life, the godly life, the life devoted to Jesus, to the way of discipleship, Peterson says, it is CONGRUENCE. CONGRUENCE between ends and means, CONGRUENCE between what we do and what we say and who we are.

            We may often recognize CONGRUENCE in modest settings. Think about a child unselfconsciously at play. . . . . Think about a conversation where the exchange of words becomes a kind of ballet, revealing truth, and beauty.  . . . Think about a meal with friends with a palpable sense of affection and celebration, a mingling of senses and spirits that make it close to a Eucharistic setting.  (see Peterson, Christian Century, 11/29/2003 “Transparent Lives.” )

            Then, think about a life of CONGRUENCE – a deep sense of being loved by God such that we can sincerely love God, self, and others – CONGRUENCE. Think about a sincere trust in God’s presence, promises, and abiding care, that we can spread God’s care and compassion to others – CONGRUENCE.  Life held by God and a life of humble, loving service for God in all things – CONGRUENCE.

CONGRUENCE does not come about quickly or with ease. This ONLY comes about with deliberate devotion, and patience and attention. This is NOT something you can claim or purchase or consume; CONGRUENCE comes through God’s care and grace, through commitment, through practice and failure, through Scripture and prayer, through life in worship and community, through “a long obedience in the same direction,” (another Peterson phrase).  

            With CONGRUENCE as a worthy goal, we turn to our Scripture for today: Mark 12:38f. And, in memory of a gifted servant, I am reading from Peterson’s, The Message:

38-40 He (Jesus) continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

41-44 Sitting across from the offering box, he was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Do you notice the incongruence . . . and the CONGRUENCE in the people in this passage?

            Jesus warns his listeners: beware of pretentious religious leaders. In the original Greek, there is no such thing as a comma. So the Greek says, “beware of the scribes who walk around in long robes.”

Does Jesus mean beware of the religious leaders, all of them? OR, does Jesus mean beware of the ones who wear long robes? Peterson makes the choice: “Watch out for the religion scholars.” They walk around in long robes and preen with radiancy, enjoying public flattery, even exploiting the weak and helpless, sitting at the head of the table.

Jesus is making a strong point about incongruence! Faithful religious leaders (and I am taking careful note) should not be about preening, exploiting the poor, basking in prominence. “The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they will pay for it at the end.”

            And then, more incongruence! The crowd at the temple: “Many of the rich were making large contributions.”

            Just as the religion scholars disguise their unrighteousness with long robes, long prayers, and preening and basking, the rich disguise their selfishness with supposed acts of generosity.

Jesus wants to nurture within us – religious leaders and wealthy people (we are all so wealthy!) – CONGRUENCE. What the people in this passage are doing and saying – religious scholars basking in prominence, and rich feigning generosity – are out of line with who they are called to be. Incongruence. Yet God knows what is going on.

            Then, the poor widow comes up and puts them all to shame.  The others gave what they will never miss. The poor widow gave extravagantly – “she gave her all.” Or as the Greek says, “she gave her whole life.” Jesus points out, that even though the religion scholars may have long robes and receive flattery, and even though the rich may have large sums to offer, the poor widow outshines them all because she gives “her whole life.”

            CONGRUENCE – her whole life.

            God keeps calling us, encouraging us, to live lives of CONGRUENCE – where what we say, and what we do, and who we are – our whole life – is offered, lived before God. CONGRUENCE is seeking to trust in God’s love so much that we can indeed love God, love self, and love others with our whole life. CONGRUENCE is knowing God’s promises all over us, and then living with courage, generosity, trust, and compassion always – like the poor widow.

The Christian life is about tending to the lifelong practice of CONGRUENCE. What we do, what we say, who we are – all are bound up in trusting God more and more, and serving God more and more so that there is a wholeness about us. We are NOT one thing in public – like the religion scholars with long robes, and then we exploit the weak and helpless. We are NOT like the rich, acting generous, when really we are just disguising our selfishness. This is what we keep working on – CONGRUENCE.

I think God appreciates our prayers, and God is grateful for our gifts, and Jesus keeps challenging us to love God and love self and neighbor. BUT what God really wants from our lives is CONGRUENCE – when what we say and what we do and who we are all line up together and our WHOLE LIFE is lived trusting God and serving God like the widow in the story.

Listen to this quote, which sounds like the poor widow: “Blessed are those who have realized their own utter helplessness, and who have put their whole trust in God. If people have realized their own utter helplessness, and have put their whole trust in God, there will enter into their lives two things.  . . . .They will become completely detached from material things, for they will know that things do not have the power to bring happiness or security; and they will become completely attached to God, for they will know that God alone can bring them help, hope, and strength. Those (who are blessed) are those who have realized that things mean nothing, and that God means everything.” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, from Daily Dig)  

CONGRUENCE.

Or as Winston Churchill put it: “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”

That is certainly the distinction between the religious leaders, the rich, and the poor widow of the story.  

The woman in our story gives her whole life – CONGRUENCE.

I assume that you are something like me. You find yourself pulled in two different directions, or you find yourself haunted by two different versions of your life, or at least what could be your life. One story that competes for our loyalty is the money story as it is told and lived out in our modern culture. This is the story of self-sufficiency and hard work and competence and merit and trying to stay safe and happy on our own terms. The sign of this story is MORE – more goods, more influence, more alcohol, more stock options, more power, more clothes in the closet, more fun trips somewhere, more capital gains – whatever. And this is a tale that insists that no matter how much one gathers, how much more we attain, it is NOT YET ENOUGH for happiness and safety. Challenges and illness come our way. Gun violence remains pervasive in our culture and fires burn and storms can wreck our lives. Our children, our parents bring such heartache and concern. But we assume MORE will make us happier and secure.

We all know about the power of this story, the attractiveness of this story, and we are almost inherently drawn into it by our culture and our times.

But we also know about another story and we want to take it seriously too – a different account of our lives. We may even be haunted by this other story, drawn into it; and on a good day, we may actually find some success at living into this other story, this other version of reality. This is the story of the gospel. It is the story of God’s boundless love for us and God’s call to live a different way. It is the story of God’s generosity that we see in the beauty and mystery of creation, that we see in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the story that we have seen lived out in other people – people who lived life trusting God, serving God. It is the story of faith and life that we have even experienced and lived some in intimate and concrete moments in our lives. (see W. Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope, p. 7-8)

Jesus keeps calling us to this other story. Through parables and images, through teachings and urgings, through Christian community, and church ministry, Jesus wants us to live into this other story – and it looks like CONGRUENCE. CONGRUENCE - by God’s grace, is an ongoing and deep trust in God, and a daily devotion to generous, faithful diligence to loving God and loving others in the world.

May this be – more and more – our story. CONGRUENCE. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, O God; help our unbelief. We seek to follow Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on November 11, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.

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