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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Are You Prepared?

When did it hit you on Thursday? Was it before dessert, or after? You know what I'm talking about -- that moment when you absolutely cannot stuff another morsel of anything in your mouth -- when you wonder why in the world you ate that much, and now you're just miserable. Or was it, as threatened to be the case in our kitchen, when everyone has arrived and there's no room on the counter tops for more food and there are too many people in the kitchen and everything is ready at the same time except that you forgot to mash to potatoes and there's no place to do it? Maybe it was later -- at some point during the third consecutive blow-out football game when Uncle Bob is passed out on the couch, snoring -- and you're wondering why you didn't take a walk around the block instead of watching three games you care nothing about. Or maybe it was Friday when you went to the Mall to see how good the specials were, and you were lost in a sea of humanity pushing and shoving each other in the true Spirit of Christmas.

During Holy Week in Jerusalem, Jesus reacts to people marveling at the beauty of the Temple. "The time is coming," Jesus tells them, "when there won't be one Temple stone still standing on another. It's all going to be destroyed." "When?" they ask. Then Jesus tells them what's coming -- wars and insurrections, earthquakes, persecution, signs in the stars and the oceans, and the coming of a messianic figure in the clouds. Pay attention, Jesus says, because it's all coming soon.

Pay attention. Be Prepared, Boy and Girl Scouts would say. Then, in verse 34, Jesus gets specific about how to be prepared: Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. I know what drunkenness is -- I did go to UVa. I know too well what the worries of this life are. What, I wondered, is dissipation? The Greek word here is kripale. This is the only place in the Bible it appears. It's a word that is usually used in Greek medical texts of the ancient world, and means the nausea that follows drunkenness. Jesus says, don't let your hearts be hung over.

What a great text for the Sunday after Thanksgiving and Black Friday. You don't have to have consumed any alcohol to answer the question how many of us the last four days experienced having our hearts weighed down with nausea following excessive consumption? Indeed, how better to describe the whole season between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day as the nausea that follows overindulgence?

Isn't that also what we've been experiencing in our economy the last year -- nausea following overindulgence? Tom Brokaw has a series on TV following Rt. 50 across the country, from Ocean City to Sacramento. This week he profiled a couple and their son, who live in Nevada and are struggling to make ends meet. When times were good, they bought a four-bedroom house, new cars, and maxed out their credit cards. The husband lost his job, and now they're in big trouble. They're experiencing kripale. The environment -- the sky, the soil, the waters -- is experiencing kripale. We live in a kripalic culture, that runs on excessive consumption and even feeds on the attendant nausea. Hung over? No problem. That's what Alka-Seltzer, or credit counseling, or liposuction are all about.

There's an Eastern Shore expression for having eaten too much: I've run aground. It means that your boat is stuck in water that's too shallow, and you can't move. Running aground is dangerous, because if the wind begins to blow, the waves will beat a grounded boat to pieces. When our hearts and lives are weighed down by excess and worry, Jesus says, then we are in danger of destruction. We can't escape.

How do we avoid kripale? It's a no-brainer: don't eat, drink, spend, fret, do, and worry so much. Let me invite you to Advent: Winter Lent. The tactic of the world is to get us to overindulge and over spend and overdo for the next month. The result, year after year after year, is kripale. We collapse at the end under a mountain of fat and bills and junk, and then wonder where the manger was. Look at today's gospel: we can't respond to God's nimble, surprising, and subtle movements in the world if we're groaning in dissipation. Because we're so numbed by this season, we can't notice anything unless it hits us like a two by four. Like any addict, we require larger and larger stimuli to notice anything. But that's not how God works, and it's not how love works. The Messiah comes to a barn in an obscure village, and the only people who notice are shepherds out on a hill and foreign astrologers looking for signs.

I know you're not going to do this, but I'm going to preach it anyhow. Spend the next four weeks making room, not accumulating and buying. Use the bulletin insert with your family or just yourself to spend time in silence, reading scripture, and praying. Instead of buying junk for people you love, give them memories. Spend time with people. Give the gift of yourself instead of something made in China and bought in a store. Go see the Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter. Make a special food together. Go see the Nutcracker, or a Christmas concert. Help the homeless here Christmas week. Visit someone you haven't seen in a long time, and take them something special, or invite them to your house or to a concert. Wait until Christmas week to decorate your house. Eat less, not more. Buy less, not more. Take the clothes you don't wear and the toys you don't play with to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Read a book together as a family. Make some room in your life.

We live in a kripalic culture and have just entered the most kripalic season of the year. Last week I told you that Jesus' kingdom is not from this world, and to stop living like we're from here. Unless we painfully and deliberately do otherwise, we're going to run aground on the dissipation and drunkenness of this culture and this world. We don't have to live that way. We don't have to be numb. We really can pay attention, but only if we support each other in the effort, and take very deliberate steps to live and act otherwise. I invite you to Advent: a time to slow down, clear out, and make room for God to be born in the mangers of your hearts. But I absolutely guarantee that if you buy, literally, into the excess of this season, there will be no room in the inn.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

Christmas and Other Lost Causes

I live in Richmond, Virginia -- the Capital of the Confederacy. You can't travel far without reminders of the Lost Cause, which appear primarily on the rear windows and tailgates of pickup trucks. "Forget, Hell," "Heritage, Not Hate," and other stickers and paintings featuring the Confederate battle flag are easily found. One of the more astonishing artistic representations recently staring me in the face was a tailgate with a United States flag on the left blending into a Confederate flag on the right (merely ironic positioning?) overlaid with the words "One Nation Under God." Evidently the artist and/or owner didn't learn in 8th grade U.S. History that the whole point of the Confederacy was
not to have "One Nation Under God."
Shortly after my middle child, Drew, moved into his first-year dorm room at the University of Virginia, his roommate's girlfriend, a devoted acolyte of the Lost Cause, engaged him in an argument about some aspect of southern culture or history. "Well," she drawled, "ah can tell you're not from the South." "Honeychile," Drew responded in his most theatrical drawl, "ah was born right heah in lil' ol' Charlottesville, and the South still lost the war."
I'm a child of the sixties, so I know about Lost Causes. I also know about them because I've been a United Methodist clergyman for thirty-five years. That combination -- the sixties and the clergy -- is lethal. There were oh so many things about the church, the nation, the world, and the cosmos that my peers and I were going to fix thirty-five years ago. Peace would come. The environment would be saved. Poverty would end. Racism would be erased. Economic injustice would disappear. The bondage of the Christian Church to the culture would evaporate. All this would happen when we explained in our sermons to our congregations the way things were really supposed to be. Parishioners would slap themselves in the head and exclaim, "Why, of course! Why didn't anyone explain this to us before? What must we do to be saved?" And then, in weekly reenactments of the Day of Pentecost, each of us would baptize three thousand converts who would devote themselves to our preaching and teaching, the breaking of bread and prayers, and live in shared economic community.
Call me jaded. Call me honest, but I don't think it's going to happen. And, in some places, I think it might be well for the Church to just surrender and go home. We've lost the war, and it's absurd for us to keep fighting what is clearly a Lost Cause: Christmas.
If you get clergy to talk honestly -- no mean feat -- many, perhaps most of us, will tell you that we hate Christmas. There's the annual gymnastic of trying to find something new to say about the baby. There's the annual tug of war with musicians and congregation about how soon in Advent we start singing Christmas carols, and with Altar Guilds about when to decorate, and when to de-decorate. There's the preparation for three, four, five or more worship services on Christmas Eve. There's the septennial question when Christmas Day falls on Sunday: "Are we going to have Church? (my favorite answer: "Heavens, we wouldn't want religion to interfere with Christmas!")"
Then there are the historical problems with Christmas: that Jesus was probably born in the spring, which is when shepherds would have been abiding in their fields; that December 25 is almost surely the baptism of a pagan winter solstice celebration; not to mention historical/critical/theological issues with virgin births and Eastern astrologers and Bethlehem and who knows what else. For the record, I don't have problems with the birth narratives: any God who can create a Universe, whether in six billion years or six seconds, can author a miraculous conception or birth. On the other hand, were a DNA analysis of blood traces from a piece of the True Cross to reveal Joseph's DNA, or if archaeologists found Jesus' birth certificate listing Nazareth as "Place of Birth," Jesus would still be my Messiah because of the Resurrection. St. Paul and I agree on that one.
No, Christmas is a Lost Cause because the baby is not "The Reason for the Season," as so many Christians want to remind us. The baby is the excuse. Let's tell it like it is: Christmas in this culture is about an orgy of spending and consuming. It's about greed. We tell ourselves that we're giving each other gifts as an re-enactment of the gifts of the Magi, but that's nonsense. If it's Jesus' birthday, why do we give gifts to each other? If it's Jesus' birthday, how can we answer the question "What do you want for Christmas?" with anything other than "Peace on earth, good will to all?"
I used to believe that by providing alternatives, I could bend Christians away from the orgy and towards something simpler, gentler, quieter, and more faithful. I tried, for years and years and years. This year something in me snapped. Or maybe it died. I think it was when I read a facebook post from a young mother looking for good used toys for her children so they could have a good Christmas. She wasn't thinking about what she and her family could make together, or do together. She wasn't asking about the memories they could create. She wanted to know where to find used toys, because, after all, that IS what it's all about.
About ten years ago a terrific ice storm hit Virginia on Christmas Eve. We cancelled church, the power lines went down, and families huddled together in front of fireplaces. One of my parishioners told me that he and his family all gathered under a quilt by the fire, told each other stories, and sang carols. "It was the most wonderful Christmas we've ever had," he said. And the next year he loaded down his car with junk from WalMart for his family to open on Christmas Day.
I am Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. I surrender. We've lost the war. Christmas is not a Christian holiday. It's Super Bowl Sunday, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. There's a proof-text for us to use for the day, but it's only an excuse. Oh, I'll preach this Sunday, and every Sunday in Advent, about how this is a penitential season when we need to clear out our hearts and lives and homes to make room for Something New to be born in us. But I know it's not going to happen. I am Isaiah, preaching to people who will not hear. I am Jeremiah, prophesying to people whose hearts and debts have grown fat. But I know that we have lost the Christmas War. WalMart and Toys R Us and Kay Jewelers and their kith have won. I'll preach on Christmas Eve about the miracle of incarnation, knowing that the crowds in the pews don't believe for a minute that the gift in the manger is all the gift they need.
Yes, our church will be feeding and housing the homeless Christmas Week. Yes, we will have filled dozens of shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child so when we open our presents we won't feel quite so bad about poor children elsewhere. Yes, we will have sent gifts to families of the incarcerated, and paid utility and food bills for the needy in our community. We do lots of good things, and God smiles. But we've lost the Christmas War. It's not our holiday any more, if it ever was.
So, somewhere the week after the orgy, I'm going to go outside in the middle of the cold December night. The Christmas texts, as Wendell Berry says about the whole Bible, are hypaethral: meant to be read under the open sky. I will read the story again by firelight, artificial or natural, and try to feel what it was like on a hillside pasture. I will breathe deep the modern aromas of the little tool shed in my yard -- the best manger I have to offer. I will look up into the night sky at the Pleiades, and imagine an army of angels exploding from them. And, if I am really, really blessed, the baby will be all the Christmas I ever want.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

We're Not From Here

Have you ever been in a situation where you looked around and said something like What in the world am I doing here? These people are from another planet! If you are the parent of a teenager, you know what I'm talking about. If you're a teenager, listening to your parents, you know what I'm talking about. Vicki and I felt that way on a daily basis when we lived in Georgia. Perhaps you felt that way visiting a worship service in another denomination or another religion. You may feel that way on Thursday when you gather with some of your family -- you know which ones I'm talking about. Perhaps you felt that way when you went off to college, or the military, or started a new job. Or perhaps you've actually been to another country and experienced a radically different culture.

Summer a year ago Vicki and I spent three days in New York City. It was a wonderful trip -- far less scary than we had imagined. Three times during those three days strangers turned to me and asked me for directions. Amazingly, I knew just enough -- or thought I knew enough -- to point them in the right direction. The truth may be that those poor people are still wandering around New York because I told them the wrong way to go. But I wanted to say, We're not from here.

On the last day of his life, Jesus is asked for directions by Pilate, the Roman Governor of Jerusalem. Are you the king that the religious leaders say you claim to be? Are you actually guilty of treason? What have you done to raise such hatred? What's going on with you?

Jesus answers, My kingdom is not from this world. If I were king of an earthly kingdom, my followers would be fighting to defend me. But my kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. In essence, when Pilate asks for directions, Jesus tells him, I'm not from here.

There is a real sense in which we Christians are, if not from another planet, at least from another reality. I have come to love the 1997 movie Men In Black more and more over the years, because of its satire on the world as we know it. There is a whole other reality going on all around us, the movie proclaims, and most of us have absolutely no clue. That's also the message of almost every horror film: we are surrounded by maniacs and demons and monsters, and we're just not paying attention. My theory is that the prevalence of films about the paranormal is inversely proportional to the secularization of the culture: the less spiritual the culture is, the more the supernatural emerges as a theme in art. Human beings are made for mystery, and if we don't get it in the right ways, we'll invent it in all the wrong ways.

The most popular movie this week is 2012, yet another end of the world film. By the way, have you been following the commentary about the political correctness of the film? Among the icons shown destroyed in the film are the Vatican and the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro, but Roland Emmerich, the filmmaker, was afraid if he showed the destruction of Mecca he'd be the object of Muslim revenge. Why so many end of the world films? Because, I suspect, there's a deep feeling among many of us that the world we've known and found relatively comforting for most of our lives is ending: American world dominance is ending. White male majority power is ending. Cultural support for nominal Christianity -- not, mind you, deeply disciplined Christianity, but nominal, culturally conditioned Christianity -- is ending. Cheap energy is ending. Life in scorn of environmental consequences is ending. The fantasy that we're all going to get better and better and richer and richer is ending. The good life on the cheap is ending.

Today is the Festival of Christ the King: the Last Sunday of the Christian Year. This is the New Year's Eve of Christianity: next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, is New Year's Day for us. So, all week long, party, drink champagne, play Auld Lang Syne, and kiss each other at midnight. And this gospel lesson reminds us that Christ is King: not in the way that the world understands kingship, but in a whole different reality. And it reminds us that all life as the world understands it ends.

After Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to witness to the truth, Pilate cynically asks, What is truth? Jesus doesn't answer him, so philosophers and theologians have been trying to do Jesus' job for the last two thousand years. In our day, there are three great competing answers to the question What is truth? We don't have time this morning to unpack these three worldviews well, but let me try just for a minute to describe them. The classical worldview, which reigned from before Jesus to the sixteenth century, said there is one Truth with a capital T, and even though we can't understand it perfectly in this life, it surely exists. Philosophical, theological, political, and cultural conservatives tend to have a classical worldview: this is Truth. Take it or leave it.

The modern worldview, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, says, yes, there is Truth with a capital T, but you and I see different sides of it from the different places we stand. My view can be just as valid as yours, so we work together to define Truth. This is the liberal philosophical tradition that founded this country and founded Protestantism: our understanding of truth is just as valid as that of kings and Popes.

Our children, however, swim in post-modernism, which says that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me. There is no capital T truth. Words only mean what we say they mean. All you and I can really talk about is the difference between your truth and my truth, but neither of us is more right than the other. Now, all of us over thirty who are shaking our heads in disgust, how many of you have ever said to your children, because I said so!? How many of you have more than one TV in your house? How many have multiple cell phone accounts in your home? How many have bought music and video players with headphones for yourself or others so you wouldn't have to listen to someone else's music? Congratulations: you're a post-modernist!

So, when people with classical worldviews switch from Fox News to MSNBC, or modernists switch vice versa, they feel like they've changed planets. Both liberal and conservative parents listen to their children talk with complete moral relativity about the things going on among their friends, and the parents go nuts. And the post-modern kids can't figure out what their parents' problem is: after all, there's no law to lay down.

And so we battle out our truths with every-hardening lines: conservatives become fundamentalists, liberals insist there can be no diversity from diversity, and post-moderns absolutely insist there are no absolutes.

So, which of these is the Christian worldview? Classicists insist it must be theirs, modernists know there are more than one, and post-moderns know there's no such thing. And, in the midst of all our arrogance stands Jesus, who says My kingdom is not from this world. The conservatives, the liberals, and the post-moderns are all right, and they're all wrong. This world and all its worldviews are temporary. Anyone who misses that misses everything. My great teacher Julian Hartt used to tell us: Don't worry. Nobody gets out of this world alive. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday puts it more graphically: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Dust. Earth. Soil. We come from the earth, and we return to it. That's the root of the word humility: humus. The detritus of the world, decomposed into fertile soil. I am coming to believe that the fundamental Christian virtue is not love: it is humility. Love without the humility that serves the welfare of the other above oneself is can only be eros, never agape. The sin in the garden of Eden is the unwillingness to be a humble creature, and the desire to be something bigger than we are. Anyone who wants to follow me must take up his cross -- he who loses his life for my sake will find it, said Jesus. It's not about us. Keep your feet on the ground. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit -- the earth.

In a world of competing worldviews, in a world climbing to get ahead, in a world where kingdoms are built by power and manipulation and greed and lust, Jesus says My kingdom is not from this world. It's all temporary, brothers and sisters. It's all going to pass away, just like this Christian year is going to pass away.

That ought to make us humble, and help us remember that when we follow Jesus, like him, we're not from here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Promises to Keep

Hannah was a faithful wife. She was faithful to her God, and she was faithful to her husband, the priest Elkanah. Elkanah had two wives -- Peninnah was his other wife, by whom he had many children. Hannah and Elkanah loved each other very much, and they tried to have children, but had no success. This was a great sorrow to Hannah. She wanted to be a mother. She wanted to have children with her husband. And she wanted Peninnah to leave her alone. Peninnah was constantly taunting Hannah because of her barrenness. God must not love Hannah, and maybe Elkanah did not love Hannah, for her to not have any children. Hannah went to the shrine at Shiloh to pray. This was before the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem, and there were a number of hilltop shrines for prayer and sacrifice throughout Israel. Crying out to God, Hannah promises that if God gives her a son, she will raise him as a Nazirite -- he would not drink alcohol, not cut his hair or shave, or touch a dead body. These monastic practices would give the Nazirite great spiritual power. Samson is the most famous Nazirite in the Bible -- he loses his strength not because his hair gave him strength, but because of his Nazirite vow was broken. Eli, the priest at Shiloh, sees Hannah praying silently -- her lips are moving, she is clearly distressed -- and assumes she is a mumbling drunk. Eli calls Hannah out, but Hannah responds that she's not drunk, she's praying that God will give her children. Eli blesses her, and tells her God will answer her prayer. God does -- Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel, whom she raises as a Nazirite. When Samuel is weaned, she takes him to the shrine and surrenders him to Eli, to be raised as a priest. Samuel becomes the last great judge of Israel, and is the prophet/priest who anoints Israel's first King, Saul.
Look at the sequence: Hannah cries out to God and makes God a promise. God answers Hannah's cry and makes it possible for her to keep her promise. Hannah, finally, keeps the promise that God has made possible to fulfill. Keeping promises begets keeping promises; faithfulness engenders faithfulness. You and I are here because people kept their promises. Veteran's Day this week celebrates people who kept their promises to defend us, so we could keep our promises to live out the promise of this nation. Our parents promised to feed us, clothe us, love us, teach us, care for us. Many of us were baptized as children: our parents promised to raise us in the faith. Some of you are living on Social Security or Pensions; Medicare or health insurance plans. I'm paying for your Social Security and Medicare; we're all paying for the health insurance for our retired preachers; many of us have benefited far more from our medical insurance plans that we ever paid into them; we keep our promises to them, and hope in a few years people will keep some promises to us. We worship in this beautiful building because for a hundred and fifty years people kept their promised to build and maintain the property, to teach and care for each other, to share the gospel of Jesus with us. More than that, United Methodists all across Virginia and all across the country kept their promises to plant and maintain colleges and seminaries, write Sunday School materials and Bible Studies, train clergy and lay leadership, offer retreats and conferences and seminars. In a million ways, you and I are here today because people kept their promises. And when people keep their promises, miracles happen everywhere. I continue to marvel at those of you who have kept your marriage vows for forty, fifty, sixty, or more years. In the thirty-sixth year of our marriage, Vicki and I know that the more practice you have keeping your promises, the easier it becomes. Faithfulness begets faithfulness: children of long marriages are more likely to have long marriages themselves; children of parents who live healthy lifestyles are more likely to have healthy lifestyles themselves; children of parents who are life-long learners are more likely to be intellectually curious all their lives; children of parents who have been faithful to their church commitments are more likely to be practicing believers themselves. Keeping promises begets keeping promises; faithfulness engenders faithfulness. It is so with God, the Bible declares. Hannah makes a promise -- God is faithful to her -- Hannah responds by keeping her promise. God promises Abraham and Sarah a son -- Abraham and Sarah trust God's promise, even when it appears that God is going to kill their child -- God keeps his promise. Jesus promises to obey God's will, not his own, and God keeps his promise of resurrection. And Peter and Paul and the martyrs and fathers and mothers and saints of the church promise to love and serve God, and God keeps promises to them. You and I are the fruit of the faithfulness of God and of the saints.
All of you who are married -- hold up your wedding rings. Why do you wear them? They are "outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace," reminding us of the promises we make. Every time we touch water, we are called to remember our baptisms -- of the vows that we made, or were made for us, to love and serve God. The reason we say grace before we eat is not to make the food holy: Jesus said whenever you eat bread and drink the cup, remember me. Every doughnut in the gym is a reminder that God is keeping promises to love us, feed us, and be in us. Every single one of us is here because at some point or another, we made a promise to God. The reason we're still here is because, in one way or another -- maybe not exactly the way we expected or thought -- but in one way or another, God answered our prayers. God got us through. God didn't give us what we wanted -- God gave us what we needed. God blessed us with family and friends and health and grace and love and mercy. God kept his promises. Now -- are we going to keep ours? Are we going to keep the promises we made to God? Are we going to keep the promises we made to each other? Test me, Malachi 3:10 says. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down an overflowing blessing. The question isn't whether God will answer our prayers: the question is whether we're going to keep our promises.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Everything She Had

I've been thinking a lot about Veteran's Day this weekend -- the actual holiday is this coming Wednesday, commemorating the armistice that ended the First World War. A few years ago I read through my old American Heritage History of World War One. Of all the stupid wars fought in the history of the world, and there are plenty, the First World War was one of the stupidest. Its causes were stupid, its leaders were criminally stupid, and its tactics were stupid. The war quickly bogged down into trenches hundreds of miles long across France and Belgium, where soldiers died of disease, poison gas, and artillery bombardments. The tedium of life in trenches was broken now and then by utterly futile infantry charges across mined fields of barbed wire into the face of machine guns. But on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armies stopped shooting. Then at Versailles the leaders of the world negotiated a peace treaty as criminally stupid as the war had been, with the result that twenty-one years later the same countries went back to an even bigger and bloodier war over exactly the same territory.

I've been thinking about Veterans Day because both my father and my maternal grandfather were in World War One -- my father as a fourteen year old torpedoman third class on a Navy Destroyer in the North Atlantic, and my grandfather as an ambulance driver in France. I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of the bad news every day from Afghanistan. I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of the horrific shootings at Fort Hood this week. And I've been thinking about Veterans Day because of this story in Mark 12 about Jesus watching people make their financial offerings in the Temple.

One of the regular pilgrimages of my childhood was to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We Virginians have our sacred Civil War ground -- we meet today on such -- but Gettysburg is something special. Do students today have to memorize, as I had to in sixth grade, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address? All able-minded United States citizens should have to memorize those two hundred and fifty-six words in ten sentences -- fewer than the lyrics of many popular songs. Lincoln was asked to dedicate the cemetery. Instead, Lincoln insisted that the ground at Gettysburg had already been consecrated by the soldiers who fought there. It's not the land that needed to be dedicated or consecrated, Lincoln said -- it's us:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There is something utterly compelling, Lincoln was saying, when people give the last full measure of devotion. We honor military veterans on November 11 because they offered their lives as the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honor those killed in military service on Memorial Day because they not only offered, but they gave their lives as the last full measure of devotion.

What is it that so draws us to that image -- of the last full measure of devotion? I want to suggest there is something deep within our souls that is attracted to self-giving as a moth is drawn to a flame. This afternoon we will sit down and watch men run into each other at high speed. Most of those will be on football fields, some of them will be at the Texas Motor Speedway. Others of us will watch men and women hit a little white ball hundreds of yards through the air. We just finished this week watching the Powers of Evil triumph in Yankee Stadium. Some members of our congregation are training for marathons and triathalons. Some are studying for exams, some are practicing their music, some are drawing and painting and teaching, all honing their craft to perfection. Something in us is compelled by the notion of giving ourselves away.

Jesus is sitting in the Temple, watching people come in and deposit money in the offering plates. Rich people come in and make a great show of depositing noisy bags of coins, impressing others with their gifts. Other people come in and give more or less, according to their abilities and moods. Then, apparently, a widow makes her offering. How did Jesus know she was a widow? Did he know her personally? Was there a particular way she was dressed? We don't know. But let's make the wild assumption that Jesus was right.

Widows in the ancient world were pushed to the margins of society. If they had no children, and no other local family, they could be in dire straits. We know from the discussion of care for widows in New Testament letters and other first-century literature that many widows were extremely poor. Clearly, this widow is also poor -- she places in the offering box two of the smallest coins in existence -- two copper coins worth a half-penny each.

Remember the scene last year on Britain's Got Talent when the frumpy Susan Boyle walked on stage and announced that she was going to sing? It was the widow's mite all over again: people laughed, Simon Cowell smirked and condescended, and then the dowdy Scots woman opened her mouth and began to sing. It's the same story, except that when the widow put her two half-pennies in the box, nobody stood up to marvel and to cheer. Jesus called the disciples to him -- probably because they were laughing. And then Jesus said to them that this poor woman had given more than everyone else combined. She had given the last full measure of devotion.

There's a gospel parallel to this story: it's the story of two men who go to the Temple to pray. The first brags to God about how good he is, all the good he's done, and thanks God for not making him like other men, especially the poor tax collector begging for mercy over in the corner. But it was the tax collector who went home lined up with God, Jesus said, because he gave God everything he had -- his pride, his dignity, and his sorrow.

A year ago Warren Buffet, the richest man in America, announced that he was giving the largest charitable gift in the history of America to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was going to give away 85% of his net worth. That has been calculated at 37 billion dollars. That's amazing, and wonderful. It leaves Buffet a paltry $ 6 billion to get by on.

Maybe what Jesus is trying to tell us is that the measure of our lives isn't how much we give: it's how much we keep. Veterans Day, as Lincoln said, is consecrated by people who kept nothing for themselves. The widow in the temple gave immeasurably more than everyone else combined because she gave the last full measure of devotion. Jesus is Lord because he emptied himself.

The question isn't how much of your life, or your money, or your time, or your love, you're going to give. The real question is: how much are you going to keep?