Tuesday, November 11, 2014

SERMON: "Too Insignificant For God to Use?"

"Too Insignificant For God to Use?"
Matthew 25:14-30

(This is the first sermon I shared at Maple Grove UMC after being appointed the lead pastor there. I decided not to change much of the opening because I thought it might strike some chords with other churches and clergy who have had or will have the experience.)
“It’s good to be with you!”  I’ve been waiting to say that to you for several weeks now.  Actually, I’ve been preparing myself to say it to you.  I cannot tell you how many times these last few weeks persons have asked me, “Are you excited about your new appointment?”  Or, said something to me like, “I’ll bet you’re excited about your move and going back to Columbus.”

I have to admit to you that excitement wasn’t the most dominant feeling I experienced these past few weeks. I was too busy finishing too many things – there were too many people grieving all around me for me to be excited about leaving them – and there was my own grief about leaving.  As a result I usually responded to persons who tried to have a conversation with me about my feelings with words like: “I’m sure I’ll be excited once I get to Maple Grove but I can’t think about there right now.  There’s just too much to do here and too much pain around saying good-bye to a people, a church and a community, that I’ve loved and ministered to and with for almost 17 years between my two times in town.”  And usually the person who had started the conversation would knowingly nod their head as they turned and walked away.

I know it’s been the same for many of you here this morning these past few weeks. To say you’ve been excited about Dorothy’s and my coming while at the same time being in pain about having to say goodbye to Joel and Emily has had to have been as difficult as what we’ve gone through. Looking forward to the coming of those who are to replace ones you love has not been your primary focus and that’s as it should have been.

And so, here we are this morning – two grieving families, thrown together to minister to one another and with one another – grieving, and yet with a growing sense of excitement and optimism about our future together.

And so, I say to you again, “It’s good to be with you!”  I am excited about being one of your pastors and about all the excitement many of you have already shared with me about who you already are as a community of faith and who you hope and believe you will become.

One further word I need to share with you before I reflect with you on today’s Gospel is a word of thanks. The rest of your staff and many of the rest of you have gone out of your way to help Dorothy and me feel welcome.  The parsonage is in great shape and the meals have been simply wonderful!  You are truly a hospitable church and we are glad to be with you.

Let us pray.
Now, mid-year moves are always a bit more difficult than the ones that take place in June and July.  And late fall moves have to be the most difficult of all.   And do you know why that is?  Well, it has to do with why June and July moves themselves happen when they do.  You see, June and July moves allow pastors and people time to get acquainted, to become somewhat comfortable with one another before the fall stewardship campaign and the pastor has to talk about money matters.

Do you know how relieved I was to find out that last Sunday, the Sunday before my first Sunday, was the last Sunday of the stewardship campaign?  Do you know how grateful I was that Laurie (Clark) had to deal with it? The thought that crossed my mind when I read the news in the Maple Grove newsletter was, “Whew! Great, I don’t have to go in there my first Sunday and talk about money!”

Well, imagine my reaction when I first read the lectionary Gospel reading for this morning:  “You have got to be kidding!  What are they going to think of me if I talk about this one on my first Sunday?”   And I almost gave in to the temptation to scrap the lectionary and choose one of my favorite portions of scripture so that I could resurrect an old sermon that perhaps had been well received in the past.

But as I continued to struggle with the text and pray about what God would have me share with you the text just sort of came alive and I began to see it in a different light.  As a result some central things I believe about the Christian journey of faith – some things I want you to know about what I believe about God and us were revealed.

The experience affirmed for me again, like it has so many times in my ministry, the value of using the lectionary as a guide for the development of our weekly time together.  Here’s the way I like to explain my commitment to utilizing the lectionary.  Years ago a group of church leaders from many Christian denominations got together and talked about how helpful they thought it would be if despite our differences of styles of worship and theological emphasis we all would read the same passages of scripture each week and if we read from various parts of the Bible so that we all became more knowledgeable about the different parts of the Bible.

As a result these church leaders and others down through the years developed a three-year cycle of scripture readings with selections from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the letters and from one of the Gospels.  I use the lectionary because I believe it keeps me honest as a preacher and it disciplines me both as a preacher and as a Christian - it makes me deal with passages I might otherwise avoid like the one suggested for today.

Now, you’ll find that I like to talk about the positive characteristics of God – things like the fact that God loves everyone of us unconditionally, like a good parent does – things like God is a gracious God, slow to anger, ever reaching out to us – things like God forgives and is merciful.  I will tend to downplay, ignore, perhaps even avoid images of the legalistic, judgmental, harsh, vengeful God sometimes portrayed in the scriptures.  That’s why a superficial reading of today’s parable would create in me the temptation to look somewhere else for the morning message.  A quick read of today’s Gospel leaves one feeling that Jesus is suggesting to those listening to him that God is like a harsh, greedy, impatient, compassionless master – that God is someone we should live in fear of and someone who expects a lot from us.

But, a closer look at the parable I believe reveals something more positive about God.  And that is, that it doesn’t matter what our abilities are - whether they are great or limited – God still gives us, entrusts us with, valuable things and God expects us to put what we’ve been entrusted with to the best possible use we can.

William Willimon, one-time chaplain at Duke University and a retired Bishop in the UMC, put it this way in one of his sermons: “If nothing were at stake, the master would not be upset.  But, something great is at stake.  For reasons not made known in the parable, it is clear that the master relies upon the slave and that even his single talent is crucial to the master’s estate.  This is like the Kingdom of God, Jesus says.  To each, something is given, whether small or great.  But each is trusted and each is needed.” (1)

Friends, we are all gifted by God.  All that we are and all that we have God has given us to use for the furthering of God’s kingdom – for the nurturing of God’s people and the care of God’s universe.  Who we are and what we have is God’s gift to us.  How we use what God has provided us is our gift to God.

Now, let me offer a little mini-sermon within the sermon.  It’s a freebie – there won’t be a second offering taken for it.  Suppose the five-talent slave and the one-talent slave were switched in the parable.  I mean, suppose the slave who was entrusted with five talents was the one who dug the hole and hid his master’s money and the slave who was entrusted with the one talent went and traded with it and made an additional talent.  Would that have changed the master’s reaction?  I don’t think so.  I think the master still would have been mad at the slave who did nothing with what he had given him and happy with the slave who used their gift or gifts to make more for him.  In fact, my sense is the master might have even been a little hotter if it had been the slave he’d entrusted with more because he believed that slave had more ability to get something done with the gifts he gave him.

The point is friends that we are all gifted by God and God wants us to make the most of the gifts that have been given us no matter how insignificant we believe those gifts to be.  There is no gift – no amount of money, no skill, no talent, no hobby, no amount of time that God cannot use.  None of us is too insignificant to be used by God.

There’s a story about a man who belonged to a church in the Boston area who once thought to himself: “There’s no way I can speak in public.  And a lot of the Christian acts of service others seem comfortable doing, I’m uncomfortable doing.   But, I like to cook and I’m really comfortable talking with a small group of people and I think I’m pretty empathetic toward those who feel lonely.  I wonder how I could put those realities about myself to work for God.” (2)  And he looked around and he prayed about it and he decided to invite the young men attending a nearby college who were away from home to join him for dinner.  And so each night he sat two extra places at his table and invited two of the students to join him.

Several years later news of his death got back to a couple of the young men who had become his friends at those nightly meals.  Since the funeral was to be in a town some distance away, they decided to rent a bus and invite others who had benefited from the hospitality of the man.

Over 150 persons responded to the invitation to go and honor the man who had influenced many of their decisions to become Christians while they sat around his dinner table.

The ability to cook – the ability to emphasize with those who are lonely – a comfortableness with sharing with others in a small group - too insignificant to be used by God?  Not hardly.

Several years ago I went with twelve lay people and members of the Lima Trinity staff to visit a United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama – Frazer Memorial.  It changed my ministry and the ministry of Trinity.  Frazer had become well-known for their effectiveness in emphasizing that every member is a minister.  One of the things that created in me the interest in going was a little book written by the Lead Pastor, Ed Mathison, about their story.  In this little book are stories about some of the people who got turned on to this idea that they were a minister.  I suppose my favorite story is one about a woman who lived 50 miles away from the church whose primary contact with the church was the weekly worship service on TV.  You see, she was a shut-in and unable to get to church.  Well, despite her inability to attend she wanted to do something to help and to express her appreciation and excitement about the ministries of the church. She said that the only gift she could think of to use from 50 miles away in a bed was letter writing.  She wrote the church and asked for permission to write a letter to every new member who joined the church to encourage them to become involved in some specific ministry.

That’s not the end of her story though.  While she thought her ministry was insignificant, it had an enormous effect on each of the new members. Many of them stated that it was the letter from her that motivated them to seek out their own ministry.  One of them volunteered to write letters to shut-ins and the hospitalized because she knew she was just too shy and would just be too uncomfortable to get involved in a lot of the possible ministries.

Letter writing – too insignificant for God to use?  Nope.

One of my best friends in ministry was Deb Campbell.  She passed away a few years ago after a heroic fight with cancer.  Before her death, Deb was the conference staff person who provided leadership to the Servant Leadership ministries of our conference – she lived, she modeled Servant Leadership.  One of the stories she often told was about a small rural church in our conference whose minister helped people get started on this journey of serving with the gifts God provides by simply asking them when they joined the church what they enjoyed doing and then said to them, “Well, take a look around and begin to dream about ways you can use that through the church.”

The lay pastor of our church used that approach a couple of years ago after a new member said, “Oh, I can’t do anything.  I don’t have any skills the church can use.”  When Jean asked her what she really liked to do, Bev started talking about how much she enjoyed working on her yard, planting flowers and shrubs.  Frankly, there wasn’t much happening on the outside of the Trinity building at the time.  Landscaping had obviously been neglected, unlike here I’ve noticed.  But, you should see the place now.  And over 20 persons have volunteered each of the last three years to add their enjoyment of caring for flowers and plants to hers.

Planting flowers?  Watering flowers?  Weeding flower beds?  Too insignificant for God to use?  I don’t think so.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God has work to do in this world and God has placed within us, entrusted with us, the gifts to get the work done.  I would challenge each of us to ask ourselves if there are gifts God has given us that God wants to use, needs to use, that are unavailable because we’ve buried them somewhere because of a fear that we will fail or that they are too insignificant for God to use.

We are truly Christ’s hands and God needs us to be the ministers we’ve agreed to be once we’ve said yes to being followers of Jesus Christ.  None of us is insignificant – nor are our gifts, our skills, our talents or our material resources.
1.  William Willimon,  Pulpit Resource (November, 2002), p. 30.

(Within a few months a group of lay members and staff of Maple Grove embarked on the same trip to Frazier and now utilize the same structure for ministry.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

SERMON: "Are We Ready?"

Are We Ready?
Matthew 25:1-13

Everyone's familiar with David Letterman’s Top Ten lists. He shared a list one night of the top ten things you should say if you are caught sleeping at your desk.  I’m only going to share a few of them. # 10 was: “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”  Excuse # 8 was: “Whew!  Guess I left the top off the White-Out.  You probably got here just in time!”  Excuse # 4 was: “Darn!  Why did you interrupt me?  I had almost figured out a solution to our biggest problem.”  The # 1 best thing to say if you get caught napping at your desk was: “. . . in the name of Jesus, Amen.”

The late humorist and author Lewis Grizzard was in the hospital preparing to have open-heart surgery the next morning.  His minister stopped to see him.  Grizzard confessed to his minister that he had not exactly been a paragon of virtue and asked if there were still time to repent.

The minister looked at his watch and replied, “Yes, but I’d hurry if I were you.” (1)

The passage of scripture I'm considering in this sermon blog concerns how we should approach the end, the second coming of Christ.  The point is not the knowledge of when but the wisdom of being in a state of readiness.

Before I get into the details of the story, let me note here in the beginning that the kind of waiting we are to do is not a kind of pausing of our lives – a being frozen in time like when we play the childhood game of “statues.”  Rather, it’s a waiting by living a certain kind of life. (2)

Once again Jesus used the well-known image of a wedding to illustrate his point.  Now, there are a few things we need to know about first-century Palestinian weddings in order to really grasp the message Jesus wanted to impart.

Basically, it all started with the betrothal.  During this stage the marriage contract was negotiated and signed by the parents of the bride and groom.  Now, while there are some similarities between a betrothal and our engagement period, believe me when I say that a betrothal was a whole lot more involved.  For one thing, it was much more legally binding.  The only way to end it was the legal action of divorce.

Then, came the formal religious ceremony – held in the bride’s home, sometimes even a year later.

Finally, the feast - the banquet - the reception - was held.  Now, according to some bible scholars, this happened at the groom’s house, usually at night, and it lasted about seven days.  The bride and groom didn’t go on a honeymoon.  They stayed in their new home and all the community came and greeted them and offered them their congratulations.  They were treated like a prince and princess during that week.  You see, it wasn’t only the banquet the bridesmaids missed out on, it was that whole week of festivities.

But, it’s when all this took place that we need to note.  Again, according to some bible scholars, it could happen right after the religious ceremony or it could happen weeks later.  It happened whenever the groom decided things were ready and he wanted it to.  The uncertainty of when it was going to happen was part of the excitement.  Part of the fun was also the trying on the part of the groom to catch some of the bridal party – the bridesmaids, the attendants - sleeping – not ready. (Why was that considered fun? I have no idea! It makes about as much sense as some of the things wedding parties and family and friends do today in an attempt to embarrass or make things difficult for a bride and groom on their honeymoon. The clothes in Dorothy's overnight suitcase were tied in knots and rice littered the motel floor as a result of her opening it the first time!)

Once the groom arrived where the bride was they would begin to walk down the street to their reception with the bridesmaids lighting the way with the light in their lamps.  It was considered a major faux pax for them not to be by the side of the road with their lamps lit ready to welcome the couple. (3)

Apparently when the 10 bridesmaids reached the place where they were to welcome the groom, they settled down for the wait, became drowsy, and fell asleep.  When a voice proclaimed that the groom was approaching, five (referred to as “foolish”) of them discovered that they were low on oil and had to run off to buy some.  By the time the groom’s group, including the 5 “wise” bridesmaids, got to the place of the wedding reception, the foolish ones found themselves locked out.  Their shout of “Lord, Lord, open the door” was answered with words that send a chill down my spine every time I hear or read them, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

This is another one of those parables that causes me to cringe.  Some of the things in it make me uncomfortable.  I tend to like the parables Jesus told that reveal God as this gracious, arms wide-open, always inviting, loving king.  I like the stories that call me to task for excluding others, that challenge my image of who’s going to be included.  You know the ones I’m talking about: like the prodigal son story, where the wild and crazy and selfish child runs away with his inheritance and blows it all only to return to his party-throwing dad – like the vineyard scene one where all the hired help get the same pay even though they worked different lengths of time – like the parables that tell us about God’s grace and the wonderful kingdom God has prepared for even those we don’t think deserve it.  I like the parables that provide comfort and hope for all of us.

But this one: with 5 bridesmaids refusing to help their sisters who are short on oil – with its tightly shut door keeping some from enjoying the party – with its seeming lack of grace – its seeming lack of sympathy symbolized by the bridegroom’s words to the oil-deficient bridesmaids – what do we make of this one?  How do we deal with this one with all else we believe to be important and to be true about a gracious God and an inclusive kingdom?

Again, we need to remember that a parable has only one purpose – one central idea or teaching that it is trying to convey.  Everything else in the parable is an attempt to illuminate that one point.  The primary purpose Jesus told this parable for was to contrast the result of being ready and not being ready – it was and is to challenge believers to be prepared despite the lack of knowledge about when Christ is going to come again.

So, when we read about the five “wise” bridesmaids refusing to supply some of their extra oil to the five “foolish” bridesmaids we need to ask “why?” in light of this central purpose of the parable.  We know why according to the real life situation: the wedding party could not continue on their way if they had no lit lamps.  The wedding would be ruined.  It was the responsibility of the bridesmaids to provide light.  They dared not risk sharing their oil with the irresponsible ones or they would have failed to fulfill the role they were asked to.

The lack of charity is not to be paid attention to.  The intent of it is not to contradict everything else we have been taught about the appropriateness of helping persons in need.  This is not a parable about caring for one another.  It’s a parable about the importance of being ready.  Thus the point of the bridesmaids’ response, interpreted in light of this central purpose, is to reveal that when it comes to the journey of faith, there are simply some things we can’t do for one another – some things we can’t receive from one another – some things we have to develop, come to, decide, accept, on our own.

We cannot live off of the faith of another: we can encourage – we can draw strength from – we can learn from – but, in the final analysis, our faith has to be our own.  We are responsible for our own obedience.  It simply is not possible to be ready for Christ’s return – eternal life – because of a spouse’s or a parent’s or a brother’s or a sister’s faith.  There has to come a time in every one of our lives when we make our own affirmation of faith – we decide for ourselves to follow Christ – when we no longer believe or live it out because someone else is living it out.  There comes a day in our lives when we do good because it’s our response in faith – when we act based on our own beliefs about being a follower of Jesus Christ’s – when we practice spiritual disciplines because we want to strengthen our relationship with God and not because others have told us we ought to.

The oil in our lives is not something we get so much of and then we store it away and only wait – ignoring that which produced the oil in our lives in the first place.  We store up oil in our lives so we can use it while we are waiting.  It’s an ongoing process.  We obtain it – we find it – we get turned on to its presence in our lives when we make a part of our lives some of the spiritual disciplines.  Sharing and living by faith – praying for others – reading and studying the scriptures – obeying the teachings of Christ – ministering to and with God’s people are all spiritual disciplines which help keep us full with the oil that symbolizes our being ready.  Just as the bridesmaids’ duty in the Palestinian wedding was to be ready to begin the procession upon the arrival of the groom, so the duty of the Christian is to live one’s entire life prepared to give an accounting to Christ at any moment.  It is both the doing and the being – the receiving and the giving – the growing and the sowing – the loving and the serving - that marks our readiness.

And so, the question we ask ourselves and our churches is: “Are we ready?”  Are we using the opportunities and the resources God provides us to ready ourselves?  Are we making the most out of that which God has given us or are we wasting our time trying to figure out when it’s all going to come down?

Parables about Christ’s return are not intended to produce in us fear about what’s going to happen when Christ returns.  The purpose of the parables about Christ’s return are to instruct us about how we are to go about living our lives until his return.  It’s about being ready – about being prepared – about actively waiting.

1.  Rev. Johnny Dean, “The Scariest Sound in the World,” www.sermons.com.
2.  Emphasis, “On High Alert,” November/December, 2005, p. 12.
3.  Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 170-171.

Friday, October 31, 2014

SERMON: "Children of God"

Children of God
I John 3:1-7

One of my favorite true stories of preacher and writer Fred Craddock happened when he and his wife were at a restaurant in Tennessee.  It was a holiday and an old man started a conversation with them about what they were doing to enjoy their holiday.  At one point in the conversation, the old man asked Craddock what he did for a living.  Craddock thought his answer would finally cause the man to leave them alone – “I’m a preacher.”

To Craddock’s dismay, the man grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table where he and his wife were sitting and started in: “A preacher, eh?  Well, that’s great.  Let me tell you a story about a preacher.”  As the man continued to talk Craddock’s mood changed from one of being annoyed to one of being humbled.

The guy told Fred and his wife that he was a bastard – not in the figurative sense, but in the literal sense.  He was born without knowing who his father was.  He was illegitimate according to the way the people in his small town in the early part of the twentieth century referred to him.  It was a source of great shame to him growing up in that community.

The old man explained that he never went to church growing up.  Until this one Sunday when he decided to hear this new pastor preach.  He said he thought he was very good and so he went back again and again.  In fact he started going just about every week, always arriving a little late and leaving a little early so that he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.  He just knew everyone was thinking, “Look at that illegitimate boy.  Why, what is he doing in church?”

One Sunday though he got caught up in the sermon and forgot to leave early.  Before he knew it the service was over and people were crowding into the aisles blocking his escape.  He hurried as fast as he could to try and get to a door, but as he did he felt this heavy hand suddenly grab him by a shoulder.  It was the preacher - a big tall man.  The preacher looked down on him and asked, “What’s your name, boy?  Whose son are you?”

The old man said that he died inside as he struggled to offer an answer.  It was the very question he most feared having to answer.  Before he could come up with anything the preacher said, “I know who you are.  I know who your family is.  There’s a distinct family resemblance.  Why, you’re the son, you’re the son, you’re the son of God!”

The old man sitting with Fred Craddock and his wife said, “You know, mister, those words changed my life.”  And he got up and left.

The waitress came over and said to Fred Craddock and his wife, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” they replied.

“That was Ben Hooper, the two-term governor of Tennessee." (1)

The author of I John proclaims that it’s true for all of us – “we are God’s children” – children of God’s.  That ought to be a source of comfort for all of us – we belong to God – we are God’s offspring.

Now, the author of John is describing here what our relationship with God is like, not describing how we should behave.  He wasn’t giving us a license to be childish.

On an Easter Sunday afternoon a few years back all of Dorothy’s family and my mother had Easter dinner at our cottage on Indian Lake so that Dorothy and I could catch an early flight to Florida on Monday.  Caleb, our niece’s son, is the oldest grandchild.  He had been the only grandchild for several years.  He had been used to all the attention of the whole family.  Our two oldest grandchildren were born that year and thus shared the spotlight.

Caleb liked trains.  He had a collection of trains.  Evan, our grandson, was a little over a year old – 14 months.  Caleb got out his collection of trains and Evan went over to observe – er, uh, take a hands-on look at Caleb’s collection.  Everyone held their breath as they watched to see what Caleb would do.  His mom tried to ward off the inevitable as she started to repeat over and over, “Now, Caleb, it’s OK for Evan to play with your trains too.  Caleb, it will be OK.  You need to share your trains with Evan, Caleb.”  She was successful for awhile.

Watching Caleb and Evan reminded me of a piece I’ve seen a time or two over the years.  It’s titled The Toddler’s Property Laws and goes like this:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
If it’s yours and I steal it, it’s mine.
If I saw it first, or last, makes no difference, it’s still mine."  (2)

So, what did the author of I John have in mind when he referred to us as "children of God?" First, we should note why the author wrote the letter and to whom.

 It's believed by some bible scholars that John was writing to persons in the early church who were beginning to become discouraged – who were having their doubts.  A lot of time had passed since Jesus had lived, died and was resurrected and the thrill of it all was beginning to fade.  Their commitment was waning and false teachings were finding their way into the thinking of the day.  The letter by this author of the first letter of John was believed to have been sent to all the churches in that day to challenge these false teachings.

In addition, the scholars believe that the letter was written to a mixed community of faith – that Jews and Gentiles alike were the recipients of the letter - which further contributes to the really radical nature of the author’s assertion – all members of the community of faith are children of God – ethnic origin makes no difference. (3)

We are children of God because of God’s doing.  It’s God’s choice for us to be children.  We are members of the same family because we have the same Father, Parent, Mother, Creator.  We do not choose God.  God chooses us.  We don’t earn a spot in the family by our good deeds or noble thoughts or winsome personalities, but because of one thing – God’s generous love. (4)

Actress Jeanette Clift George tells about a very turbulent flight home one time with a woman and her young baby.  The mother tried to feed the young baby a little fruit and orange juice every time she cried.  Because the flight was so bumpy whenever she did, it would come back up.  When the plane landed it was quite a mess – the carpet and the baby looked just awful.

When they got off the plane, a young man who simply had to be “daddy” was at the gate waiting.  He was dressed in white pants and a white shirt and had some flowers in his hand.  Jeanette George said that she was sure that he would run to the baby, take one look, and keep on running.

That’s not what happened.  She said that the young father ran to his wife and small child, grabbed the messy baby from his wife, and without hesitation held the vomit covered little one against his white shirt and whispered loving things into her ear.  He continued to hug and kiss the little one – continued to stroke her hair – continued to welcome her home all the way to the baggage claim area.

Jeanette George reflecting on this scene asked herself, “Where did I ever get the idea that my father, God, is less loving than a young daddy in white slacks and white shirt?" (5)  God chooses us – embraces us – accepts us with open arms, no matter how messy or how messed up we are.

Another thought of this author of I John is that as a result of this relationship with God through Jesus Christ – as a result of our being children of God’s – we can expect to be at odds with the world.  We are expected to behave differently as children of God and the rest of the world is often not crazy about our different behavior.  It just doesn’t look right – it sometimes causes discomfort with the way world has come to believe it’s OK to order things – think about people – treat people.

I appreciate the way one preacher phrased it: “People who are loved behave differently from those who aren’t.  We are loved.  We are called therefore to love.  This affects our relationship with God and the community." (6)

We’re important to God and we live by a different set of rules now than we did before we understood ourselves loved by God – children of God.  This “different set of rules includes:
We love our neighbors as ourselves.
We listen for God’s voice, not our own.
We consider ourselves to be subject one to another.
We practice kindness and charity.
We bear each other’s burdens.
We forgive rather than bear a grudge." (7)
Jesus had some things to say about how we should behave out of which the just stated list grows.  He said that we should love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.  The message we have heard from the beginning is that we should love one another as God loves us.  It ought to guide everything we think and do.

The preacher I referred to a moment ago went on to say: “Civility is merely following the golden rule – treating others as we wish to be treated.  What could be more Christian than, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew :12).  If you want people to be kind to you, be kind to them.  If you don’t want to be cut off in traffic, don’t be the guy who cuts off other drivers.  If you want to be let out into traffic, let others out.  If you want civil treatment at the grocery store, or in your kitchen, treat others with civility and respect.  Even if you don’t get civility in return, keep your cool, and let the civility flow." (8)

A final note about being children of God it would be well to take note of is that children grow, develop, mature.  The author of I John noted in verse 2: “What we will be has not yet been revealed (I John 3:2b).”  What we do know is that we will be like Jesus when our growth is finished.   Our growth means many things then:
* it means that we need to be prepared to find new ways to share the good news -
* it means we need to serve the poor -
* it means we need to heal the sick -
* it means we need to bind up the brokenhearted -
* “It means walking the self-denying, cross-carrying path of discipleship and following Christ’s example of eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, loving enemies and turning the other cheek.  It means swimming in the same gene pool of Jesus, opening ourselves further to the movement of the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to become ever more effective channels for the ever-flowing love of God." (9)

Brothers and sisters in Christ – fellow children of God – this relationship with God which labels us “children of God” doesn’t carry with the title reasons to turn up our noses at the rest of the world.  Rather, it carries with it the notion that we have special responsibilities – we are called to live for the good of the world, not our own.

1 Tony Campolo, It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’, a quote from Fred Craddock.
2 “Newportance,” Homiletics, March - April, 2006, p. 71-72.
3 Ibid., p. 69.
4 “Charlemagne’s Children,” Homiletics, May – June, 2003, p. 12.
5 Ibid.
6 “Newportance,” p. 69 -70.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 “Charlemagne’s Children,” p. 12.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

SERMON: "A Tear-Wiping Community"

"A Tear-Wiping Community"
Revelation 7:9-17

When serving churches I usually chose the Sunday after November 1st as All Saints’ Sunday. All Saints’ Day (November 1) is the day after All Saints’ Eve (October 31) - or, Halloween. It’s a time in the church year when we not only remember the saints of the church – those canonized by the church – but also, those members of the church who have departed this life and those who still make up the church.

When the Bible uses saints it is referencing the faithful – all the faithful – not just those who have died and moved on to become even more fully part of God’s kingdom – heaven. All Saints’ Sunday or Day is a time for us to think about both the dead and the living saints – all of us.

Now, with that little pre-sermon offering finished let us turn to John’s hallucination-like book. One of the popular ways some read the book of Revelation is with an eye to what is going on in history. They attempt to associate descriptions John offers to people, places and events going on in the world right now. I have to admit to you that I’m not a fan of those who have attempted this down through the ages. I find it a colossal waste of time to try and figure out what John had in mind when he wrote the book.  And, I’m in good company.

Martin Luther once noted that the letter written to the seven churches in Asia should have been returned to sender. Zwingli was almost as harsh. He rather bluntly offered that in his opinion the book isn’t biblical and shouldn’t be included in the New Testament. John Calvin thought it such a worthless work that he never even offered a single comment on it despite writing extensively on every other New Testament work. (1)

Those comments aside, I want to share with you that at times I have found the book to be helpful when I have simply let some of the images in it wash through me. One such image is in the text on which I'm focusing this sermon. The thought – the image - of God being one who wipes away our tears I find powerful – I experience as comforting. It's images such as this one that suggests to me that the message of Revelation is one of encouragement and hope and comfort – a message I am certainly in need of often.

Think about it for a moment: God – the author of creation – the all-powerful one - the Ground of our Being – stoops and wipes the tears from our eyes. I find that to be an amazing image. I think it’s one of the most defining statements about the nature of God in all the Bible (2) – “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” God is with us – God is concerned about our needs and concerns – God is with us in our suffering and our successes, our joys and our tears. It’s the God Jesus showed us. He made us aware that the God he believed in was like “a loving parent bending down and personally wiping the tears out of children’s eyes. (Jesus’ God offers) comfort for the grieving, healing for the bruised and battered, hope for the despairing. There is a God who is aware of our heartaches, our frustrations, our fears – who personally longs to bow down
before us and wipe the tears from our eyes.

“God is an intimate and loving God. That is what Christ taught us and even showed us. God is very close. God knows each of us better than our best friend knows us.  And God cares about our problems." (3)

Now, I would like to suggest to you that one of the reasons God created churches was so that we could help in this tear-wiping ministry – that we would be the way people would recognize God’s tear-wiping.

Clara Null of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma wrote in The Christian Reader magazine: “It was one of the worst days of my life.  The washing machine broke down, the telephone kept ringing, my head ached, and the mail carrier brought a bill I had no money to pay. Almost to the breaking point, I lifted my one-year-old into his highchair, leaned my head against the tray, and began to cry. Without a word my son took his pacifier out of his mouth … and stuck it in mine." (4)

The community of faith – the church – exists to help with the tear-wiping of God – to offer our brothers and sisters in Christ pacifiers – not as a way to avoid the discomforts of life – the painful realities of life – but to provide comfort in the midst of the discomforts and pains.

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was developing her work among the dying she showed a class of seminary students a drawing a child had made. The child had terminal cancer but wouldn’t talk to anyone. His drawings were all the communication he offered.

The drawing Kubler-Ross showed the class included a beautiful little cottage set off to the side of the paper. Above the cottage was a bright, brilliant shining sun. Surrounding the cottage was a beautiful lawn with flowers and trees. In front of the cottage was a family of four: a mother, a father, and two children playing. In the center of the paper though was this tiny figure representing the dying child and this large tank pointing right at him as if ready to destroy him.

Dr. Kubler-Ross asked the group of students how they thought they could help this child communicate his fear? How could they offer him comfort?

The first one that tried drew a picture of a person holding a stop sign in front of the tank. There was no reaction from the boy.

A second seminarian drew a picture of a person standing beside the little figure in the picture and had the figure holding the hand of the child. Suddenly the child’s wall of silence broke and he began to pour out all his pent-up feelings. (5)

Our God stands beside us. Our God holds our hand. Our God gently wipes tears from our eyes. And we are the ones through whom others come to recognize the tear-wiping.  We are a tear-wiping community.

Now, this is not a Pollyanna faith we are espousing.  It does not say that we will avoid tears.  Far from it.  What it says is this, there is One who wipes tears from children’s eyes – all ages of children’s eyes. We can keep standing and hold on because we know that someone stands beside us – that someone holds our hand. (6)

And one of the ways we wipe away tears is by our being present when others remember – by mentioning the names of loved ones in a worship service – by recalling with – by lighting candles in memory of and being willing to sorrow again alongside and with those who know the pain the most.

1.   Robert S. Crilley, “When the Saints Come Marching In”, Veiled Glimpses of God’s (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1995), 0-7880-0464-6.
2.  King Duncan, “When You Feel Like Crying,” Collected Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2005), 0-000- 0000-20.
3.  King Duncan, “Oh, God!” 2007 Second Quarter Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2007), 0-000-0000-20.
4.  "When You Feel Like Crying."
5.  Ibid., as quoted from Dick Underdahl - www.fpccolumbus.org/public.
6.  "Oh, God!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Some Final Comments About #Ice Bucket Challenge"

"Some Final Comments About #Ice Bucket Challenge"

There are not enough positive words to describe the miraculous impact the "Ice Bucket Challenge" phenomena had on those of us whose lives are affected by ALS. To sense the new people made aware of the disease and its impact on PALS and our friends and families lifted our spirits beyond anything most of us thought possible! And, an awesome amount of money was raised by and for The ALS Association (National and local chapters) and many other ALS organizations involved in the fight against this disease. Thanks goes to many people and whatever it was that caused the public's psyche to add the fuel necessary for this simple activity to become a highly successful craze.

Despite our overwhelming joy for the surprising results of the Ice Bucket Challenge some reactions have created some disappointment in some of us. First, there are the comments that seem to suggest that some people feel the ALS groups shouldn't have been the beneficiaries of the gifts because there were other starts that had a different intent.

Second, there are some high expectations that these funds will result in a cure and finally an understanding of causes. I share that high hope, but I sense there's almost an unrealistic expectation that this one effort will reap eternal results and no more awareness or fundraising will be necessary. Why do we expect the results for research relative to ALS to be so much higher or greater than any one of numerous other life-depriving diseases? I choose not to name names because my intent is not to criticize the advocates on behalf of other diseases, rather it is to create an apologetic for a similar playing field of expectations. We can all think of diseases that have seen some treatments developed as a result of walks, rides, and runs of interested and motivated supporters. Seldom have such advances meant the fight was over and events need no longer be held. The advances that hopefully will happen as a result of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge probably end the need for further efforts. It's a war we're waging, not a single skirmish!

Third, I think many have somewhat of a misunderstanding of what was raised. My sense is that all the money that was reported raised nationally included much that was being raised by local chapters for their local Walks to Defeat ALS and thus only a portion of it will go to national for research. My point here is not to argue against more money going to research as a result of this year's outstanding effort! I absolutely expect more money (dollars and percentage!) to go toward appropriate research projects. I only wish to offer a cautionary and explanatory word about what's available to do what. I know not all local ALS Chapters are as highly regarded as the two chapters in Ohio. I have nothing but praise though for the local chapter and thus am bias in my support of their work. It's because of the Walk efforts that they are able to effectively perform their mission. I know some expect other than their mission from them but that's not what they are chartered to do.

Which brings me to my final comment for this blog post. There are numerous other worthwhile ALS organizations that are filling the gaps that exist between what the Association can do and other needs of PALS families. There are also numerous research-only efforts that are vital to the need to fight this disease on multiple fronts. None of us can get the job done alone. We all need to work together if we're going to ultimately win the war. We need to guard against stepping on one another's toes or areas of expertise. We need to guard against jealousy and envy and greed and pride. We all don't need to be involved in supporting research, especially when it will hinder us from performing what motivated our coming into existence in the first place.

I cannot say enough about how impressed I am with what some organizations are doing on behalf of PALS and CALS. The only one I'll mention is PHAALS (Playing Hardball Against ALS) because it's a group I know about, received help from, know many of the people they have helped, and its birth began in an area of the state in which I was raised and still have many family and friends. They are most involved in raising awareness by holding events at high school baseball games and other fundraisers. Their funds are primarily used to provide scholarships for the children of PALS and the fulfilling of personal dreams of PALS. (This isn't a research project so people will have to seek out groups doing similar things in their own area.)

O. K., I'm done. I'd like to write more but the fingers and hands say time to stop.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

SERMON: "To Love and Serve"

Love God … and … Love Your Neighbor!
Matthew 22:34-40

There’s a Jewish story with a Mr. Kleinman cast visiting an unfamiliar town on the Sabbath. He went to the local synagogue for services and met a Mr. Putterman. Putterman invited him to his home for the evening.

At Putterman’s home Kleinman enjoyed a beautiful hot bath with scented soap. He dried himself with fluffy towels. The evening included a delicious meal. Mr. Kleinman spent the night sleeping on a really comfortable bed with fresh sheets.  Basically, Mr. Kleinman was treated like royalty by Mr. Putterman.

As Mr. Kleinman prepared to leave the next morning he said: “This was a delightful Sabbath. Thank you so much. What can I do to repay you?”

With that, Mr. Putterman presented Kleinman with a piece of paper on which was written: “Warm bath – six dollars; two cakes of soap – four dollars; clean towels – three dollars; full dinner – twenty dollars; overnight lodging – forty dollars; fresh sheets – three dollars; Total: Seventy-six dollars.”

Kleinman was shocked.  “You’re charging me?” Putterman replied: “Certainly.”
“But you invited me! I was your guest! I’ve never heard of such a thing! This is outrageous!” Kleinman protested.

Putterman said, “Nevertheless, if you could just settle up.” Kleinman responded, “I will do no such thing!”
“Alright,” sighed Mr. Putterman.  “Let’s not argue.  Let’s take this case to the rabbi and let him decide.” “That suits me fine,” said Kleinman and off they went to the local rabbi.
In the Rabbi’s study Kleinman laid out his case. The rabbi listened and stroked his beard. When Kleinman finished, he asked Putterman, “Do you have anything to add?”

Putterman replied, “No, it happened just the way Mr. Kleinman described.”

The rabbi then said, “Very well. In that case, based on numerous Talmudic precedents and on similar cases found in the Reposa, it is my decision that Mr. Kleinman should pay Mr. Putterman.”

Kleinman of course was dumbfounded. Still, a rabbi had heard his case - had considered it - and reached a decision.  The two men thanked the rabbi and left.

Once outside, Mr. Kleinman began to count his money.  “What are you doing?” asked Putterman.
“I’m going to pay you,” said Kleinman.

“Don’t be foolish,” said Putterman. “You were my guest. I was honored to have you spend the Sabbath with me.  I hope you’ll come again.”

“But you gave me a bill. We had a dispute, a decision was rendered,” said the confused Kleinman. “Oh, that!” said Putterman.  “I just wanted to see what kind of schmuck we have for a rabbi.”1
The lawyer who approached Jesus in the temple that day and asked for his opinion on the greatest law  wasn’t really looking for new insight into what made Jesus tick. He wanted to show Jesus up as a schmuck – as a fraud. He was trying to trap him into saying something that would turn those who were flocking to him against him. Once again the religious of that day failed. Jesus’ response was right on and everyone in the temple that day knew it.

“What of all that is written in the Old Testament – the teachings of Moses and the Prophets – the works of at least 30 authors, describing events which occurred during over 2000 years of history – books of a variety of literature styles: history, poetry, songs, prophecy, wisdom, story form – what of it all is most important, Jesus?”

With no hesitation, Jesus proclaimed: “First, love God with all of your heart, mind and soul. And there’s a second one very closely associated with it, love your neighbor as yourself.  All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Of course, Jesus was quoting some very familiar verses to those raised in the Jewish faith. They are the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, known as the “shema” and memorized by every Jewish child as early as they are able to memorize.

Suppose a visitor approached you after the service some Sunday and said something to you like: “You know, I used to go to church a lot when I was a kid, but I’ve been out of the church for a long time now. It just didn’t seem that important to me, I guess. I couldn’t fit it into my busy schedule. But now I want to come back. I feel like something is missing in my life, and I think I know what it is. So I’ve been visiting around at some of the local churches, trying to find out where I fit in. I wonder if you could tell me what would be expected of me if I joined your church?”

Remember, the person has just experienced an hour worship service. They’ve already seen and heard the pastor. That's not who they want to hear from. They want to hear from a pew person. They want to know from someone who won’t take forever to provide an answer. What would you say in a matter of a minute or two?

Now, at the last church I served there were two things I hoped would immediately pop into everyone's head. One was the mission statement: "we are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors" (which was our interpretation of Jesus’ response to the lawyer in the text we are considering); and the second would be the emphasis on the concept that all members are ministers. Of course, then hopefully would follow comments about specific ministries unique to the person being asked the question. I would think things like the Stephen Ministers, music and drama, outreach to the community and the sharing of space.

There’s a similarity between the question I’ve phrased from the lips of the hypothetical stranger and that which the lawyer asked Jesus in the temple that day. “What if I wanted to be a follower of yours, Jesus? What would be expected of me? What is most important for those of us who say yes to following you, Jesus?” “What should be central to our lives – central to how we should live out the faith?”

“Love God and love your neighbors,” that was his response and it is still his response to us today. “Love God with every aspect of who you are – with all your body, with all your mind, and with all your soul. And, love your neighbor as you love yourself." Yes, I said ‘as you love yourself’ so you better get that right in your head as well. You should love yourself because God made you and God don’t make any junk.” (There’s just so much more that could be - needs to be - said in this regard. But that’s all I’m going to say today - love yourself.)

The love Jesus has in mind here is more than a doctrine.  It’s more than words.  It’s more than a feeling.  “(It’s) a sacrifice, obedience, partnership, turning the other check. We may sing ‘I love to tell the story of unseen things above,’ but what the world is looking for is not words or melodies, but love, love that manifest itself in the way we spend our money, the way we vote, the way we treat those who don’t deserve our love, those whose skin color or beliefs are different than ours.  ‘Mother, father, sister, brother, everybody sing and shout, cause
that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love.’”2

In another place Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for another person.” In John’s letter he uses these words: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. If we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us. God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”

“In the end, the bottom line is: God wants us to love one another. It’s God’s commandment to us. Love sums up all the commandments. It has authority behind it.  It’s not an option.  It’s not a theory, an idea, a philosophy to bounce around.  It’s not a question or suggestion as one possible route you may take.  It’s a command.  This
is my commandment that you love one another. It is the ‘law,’ that the psalmist meditates on day and night (Psalm 1).”3 The Word of God became flesh. In Jesus’ life we see love as a binding, relationship, a caring, a willingness to sacrifice, to lay down one’s life, to enter into the other person’s situation.4 We who choose to be his followers agree to follow in his footsteps.

One winter, a woman was walking down the main street of Birmingham, Alabama. She was shopping for Christmas presents. She happened upon a small boy – she estimated about seven-years-old. He wasn’t dressed very warm - barefooted - standing over a heater vent in the sidewalk to keep warm. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm that he was trying to sell to those who walked by.

The woman went up to him and she said, “Son, where are your shoes and socks?” He said, “Lady, I ain’t got none.”
She then invited him to go with her into one of the nearby department stores and there she purchased for him a pair of socks and a heavy pair of shoes.
The young lad skipped away and out of the store without so much of a thank you. Suddenly he reappeared and he asked, “Lady, are you God?”

“No, son,” she said, “I’m not God.  But I am one of his children.”

The little guy turned to leave again while saying, “I knowed you must be some kin to him.”5 It’s about love, folks, love.

When Alice Trowbridge was an associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago she told the inside story of a tragedy that was on the national news after the flooding in the mid-west.  The tragedy that she referenced in the sermon happened in Chesterton, Indiana.

A ten-year-old boy named Doug and a couple of his friends were dipping their toes in the creek following the torrential rains that caused the flooding. Doug was sucked into the raging river. Doug’s neighbors were home and saw what happened. While most people along the river were screaming, Mark Thanos, one of Doug’s neighbors and a high school English teacher, jumped into the water to try and save the boy.

Mark wasn’t particularly a very good swimmer and began to struggle. Mark’s seventy-four-year-old father, John, jumped into the water to try and help his son.  Father and son both drowned.

Ten-year-old Doug survived. Later that day as he clung to his mother he was heard to keep crying, “I wish he knew I could swim … I wish he didn’t love me that much.”

It was love of course that drove son and father into that water to save a neighbor – a force greater than any force in the universe.

There’s more to the story though as Alice related it to her congregation. In the Chicago Tribune two reporters by the names of Stacy St. Clair and John Kass told the “rest of the story.” Tragedy had not the final word.

“The day after John and Mark Thanos, father and son, drowned in that churning creek, the young Doug and his family visited the newly widowed Victoria Thanos and her own sons. Ten-year-old Doug had made Victoria a home-made cake. Victoria hugged the neighbor boy tightly. She asked if he was feeling better, and she made a fuss over his cake.  She then invited Doug and his family to sit down and have something to eat with her boys.

“So they did. And Victoria began to tell stories. Stories about her husband, her own sons,  and  their grandfather.  And as they broke bread together, the gravity of grief gave way to the grace of love.

“By the way, to this day Victoria tells her friends that if they are praying for anyone, they are to pray for that little boy Doug.”6
“Uh, Jesus. Uh, Jesus, which is the greatest of all the laws?”
And the love Jesus had in mind when he summarized all of the teachings in the law and the prophets was not that sort of vague understanding we’ve made it out to be in our society. It was not philio love – the love we enjoy with our friends. It was not eros love – the love known as erotica. It was agape love - that which has no dependency on wanting or even expecting something from the other. Jesus pretty much redefined it by modeling it, embodying it. He loved by commanding that it involves such things as turning the other cheek, going the second mile when commanded by an enemy to go one mile, forgiving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, giving without expecting anything in return.

As a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we who are his followers understand that it’s not simply about believing “in love.” It’s believing that love is defined as suffering, sacrificing, nonviolently acting. You know, like we saw him do on the cross.

It’s like that slogan that was on a tee-shirt a few years back. “I asked Jesus, ‘how much do you love me?’ And he spread out his arms wide on the cross, and he died.”

The Jewish Humor List. 5. pp. 140-141 as quoted in King Duncan’s “Insincere Religion,” Collected Sermons, 2005, 0-000-0000-20.
George S. Johnson, “What Does It Mean to Love?” Critical Decisions in Following Jesus (Lima: C.S.S. Publishing Company, 1992), 1-55673-427-1.
Stephen M. Crotts/George L. Murphy/Stan Purdum, “How to Love God,” Sermons For Sundays: After Pentecost (Last Third): Rendering to God (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 2004), 0788023233e.
Leonard Sweet, “The 2 Love Laws,” Leonard Sweet Sermons (ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2008), 0-000-1415.

Monday, October 13, 2014

SERMON: "What's God's?"

What Is God’s?
Matthew 22:15-22

A wealthy member of a congregation stood up at a meeting to share with the others some things about his journey of faith. He began with: “I’m a millionaire and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life.” He went on to describe an event that he considered a turning point in his relationship with God. It happened on the day he earned his first dollar. There was a meeting at the church that night. The speaker talked about his work as a missionary. The wealthy man shared that near the end of the evening the pastor of his church got up to receive the offering and announced that everything given that night would go to the missionary to fund the work he was doing.

The man continued to explain the dilemma he felt he had.  On the one hand he wanted to support the mission work, but on the other he wasn’t sure he wanted to put the whole first dollar he had just earned in.  He noted that he knew he couldn’t make change from the offering plate when it went by him.  He knew that his choices were either to give all of that dollar he had just earned or nothing.  He shared with those who were at the meeting that he decided that he had to give all that he had to God.  He closed by observing that he believed that God had blessed his decision and that was why he was wealthy.

You could have heard a pin drop when he finished and returned to his pew.  When he sat down, an elderly lady behind him leaned forward and said, “I dare you to do it again.” (1)

I started basing my sermons on the membership vows ("to uphold the ministries of the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness") during the annual Stewardship Campaign in the last two churches I pastored - two churches that were organized for ministry around the Every Member in Ministry model. I found it wonderfully fulfilling as well as challenging. Oh, it didn't entirely remove the awkwardness of mentioning money in a sermon but it helped. Rewriting a sermon on finances to no particular church is even more freeing!!  (Sidebar: I heard a really fine sermon this past Sunday at Maple Grove UMC by Pastor Glenn Schwerdtfeger. Part of it dealt with this uneasiness that usually accompanies the preparation to present and listen about money. Good effort, Glenn!)

Before I offer a word about the text, I'd like to share a basic belief I think is essential for us to buy into if we are ever going to have a proper understanding of stewardship.

The word itself comes from an Old English expression, “sty ward” – ward of the sty – a keeper of the pigs.  There came a time when the word referred “to anyone who had responsibility for the estates or properties of another.” (2)

Later the word became a proper name of a royal British family, the Stuarts.  When we use the word “stewardship” in the life of the church we usually have in mind the money that we give to support the ministries of the church.  And, there’s no question that that is a part of it.  But the biblical concept actually goes beyond our financial gifts to the church.  The concept of stewardship that we glean from the scriptures and which we should remember whenever we are making decisions about what we are going to do with what we have and who we are; the concept that we glean is that every aspect of creation is God’s.  God made everything and then gave us the responsibility of caring for the day-to-day operation of it all.  We were made stewards of all of God’s creation – keepers of all of God’s creation, not just the pig pens - but everything God created and provides for us.  This simply means that we are responsible for how we use the planet, the environment, our talents - personally and corporately - our time, our ability to think and to feel, our very physical bodies.  We are keepers of our bodies, minds, spirits, the earth and all that is on it and around it.

It is out of the gratitude we have for God’s gifts that we care for, use, what God provides us.  Stewardship involves not just the portion of money we give to the church – not just the portion of our time when we do something for or through the church – but rather how we spend all of our time – all of our money – all of the skills and interests and intellect and passion that makes us who we are. (3)

A well-known phrase that is often heard when we are discussing these matters is: “Where a person’s treasure is, there is his (or her) heart also.”  The saying is often followed with the observation that if we really want to know what it is we value, all we really have to do is take a close look at our check book and our calendar.

Martin Luther once noted that we are in need of three conversions: our hearts, our minds and our purses. Billy Graham phrased it this way: “If a person gets his attitude toward money right, it will straighten out almost every other area in his life.” Sir Winston Churchill once noted: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” John Updike wrote: “In America, it is hard to achieve a sense of enough!” And, Maya Angelou noted: “The New Testament informs the reader that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the believer.”

And so these two strange bedfellows approach Jesus in the temple one day in an attempt to make Jesus look bad. The Herodians and the Pharisees are indeed a strange tag-team. The Pharisees were devout Jews whose primary role was to interpret the Torah. They didn’t have much use for the Romans and especially the Roman government.

Although not much is known about the Herodians most biblical scholars describe them as a secular political party supportive of the government – supportive of the Roman occupation and the taxes necessary to support it. The exchange involves the first of four “controversy stories” – stories seen as attempts on the part of religious authorities to discredit Jesus.  It’s noted that all three of “the synoptic gospels record this intellectual wrestling match between Jesus and the strange tag-team of Pharisees and Herodians.” (4)

What brought them together was their mutual concern about the influence and popularity they sensed Jesus gathering.  They assumed that Jesus had to have some sort of political agenda: “Why else would he be touring the countryside, making speeches, and hugging all those children?” (5)  And so they went to Jesus to try and trap him into making a political misstep.

The Jews (you remember) resented the Roman occupation.  They particularly didn’t like the idea of having to pay taxes to this despised government on their own land.  The tax they were supposed to pay in this case amounted to about the amount a common laborer made working one day.  The tax could only be paid with the denarius which was a coin that had Caesar’s image on one side and his title and divine status on the other.  The very coin itself was offensive to the Jews.  They considered it to be a breaking of one of the Ten Commandments which prohibited graven images.  Because of their attitude about the Roman coin most Jews refused to use them.  After all, they had their own temple currency.

And so these two groups – the Pharisees, represented by their disciples, and the Herodians square off with Jesus.  They start with a compliment, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  They didn’t really believe it, but they wanted the people standing around listening to think they were giving Jesus a fair chance.  “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

They thought they had him.  If he said that the tax should not be paid to the Roman government, he would have been in trouble with the Roman government represented by the Herodians.  He would have been perceived as siding with the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Roman government.

On the other hand, if he said yes he would have been in trouble with most of his following.  He would have lost face with his constituency.

Knowing the real motivation behind the question, Jesus asked to be shown the coin used for the tax.  Jesus held up the coin and asked them whose head was on it.  It’s helpful to know at this point that the Greek word which we translate as “head” is a word from which we get our English word icon.  Some have suggested that perhaps “a better translation of Jesus’ question would be, ‘Whose image is this on the coin?’”

The word “image” allows this text to reveal to us a deeper fundamental truth of our faith.  If we give the coin to the emperor because it is his image on it, then what is it that we give to God because God’s image is on it?. . .

“In other words, we give to the emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God ourselves because you and I are created in the image of God, both male and female.  Jesus is not only refusing to play the win-lose games of the Pharisees, but he is backing it up with a more profound truth: we owe the one who made us our very lives – not just money, but everything of who we are.” (6)

We are God’s coin.  We are what is God’s!  We give to God what is God’s when we take seriously what we do with all that God has entrusted to us: our possessions, our skills, our resources, our minds, our bodies, our decisions, our motivations, our time, our feet, our mouths, our eyes, our prayers, our hands, and yes, our money.  Stewardship is based on the belief that all that we have is God’s and we are responsible to God for what we do with it – not just the portion of our time and resources that we give to the church.  The first step to being a steward of God’s is to buy into this understanding – to get our minds around what it means for the choices we make.  Once someone does, it changes every decision they make.

Susie Scott was a Playboy centerfold back in the early ‘80s.  After her appearance in the magazine she spent the next ten years modeling, acting, and doing promotional work for the magazine.

She made a good living and enjoyed the life that is often attached to the lifestyle of celebrities.  After a failed marriage, she married an Aspen, Colorado attorney and settled down with him to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that their wealth offered them.  She was a partner in an antique store and a sushi bar for a time.

Her life changed though the day she watched a documentary on Mongolian orphans.  She just felt that she had to do something.  A friend suggested that she take a look at the situation in Haiti because of how poor it was and how close it was to the United States.  She did and that resulted in her selling her businesses and traveling to Haiti.

When she arrived she told the taxi driver to take her to where “the poor people are.”  He dropped her off in a shantytown and quickly sped away.  A family of 17 took her in for the night.  With their help she learned how really bad it was in Haiti.

Susie later shared with a reporter, “I knew I had been born that day.”  She also said in the article that she completely committed herself to Christ once she began to work in Haiti.  With her husband as a partner, Susie launched the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, an organization dedicated to serving the children of Haiti.  It now operates six schools, five orphanages and a hospital ward for abandoned children. Susie’s group feeds, clothes, educates and nurses close to 2,000 children.

She isn’t a hands-off administrator.  She spends a great deal of time there nursing sick children and helping any way she can.  It’s not been easy.  She contracted lice, scabies, mange, and was treated for encephalitis.  She has also had some run-ins with gangs and bureaucrats.  But, sticking with it has won for her the respect of the people of Haiti and the Haitian government.

Susie’s story is a story about stewardship.  Susie and Joe fund the foundation’s expenses – administration, publicity and travel expenses - with their own money.  They believe in what they are doing – it shows in where they put their time and money – it shows on their calendar and in their checkbook.   Donations, including some which come because of Susie’s unique personal story and the Playboy background - which shows that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted – donations cover the operating budget of the foundation.

“But, it’s also a story about stewardship because Susie was able to see that not only her money, but her position of privilege, her celebrity status, and her life experience itself were treasures on loan from God, and she put them to use in a way that honors Christ.” (7)

There’s no question that not very many of us have the resources at our disposal that she does.  But all of us do have our own unique set of gifts that God has given us.  “The worst error we can make is to think (that those gifts) are only for our personal use.  But it is a correctable situation, and one we can start in motion by acknowledging that everything we have comes from God’s hand.” (8)

In this stewardship season I'd like to simply invite us to prayerfully consider the difference believing that all we are and have are God’s might make in what we do with the resources God has entrusted to us.  What would it mean to our giving effort if we really believed we were accountable to God for all that we have and what we do with it?

What is God’s?  Everything.  I believe that most churches have not scratched the surface of what is possible through the ministries of our churches if we all give out of the gratitude we feel for what God has gifted us.
What were they thinking when they asked Jesus that question in the temple? What were they thinking after he responded? More importantly, what are we thinking about how we should use the resources God has made us stewards of? The worship of money is a deadly spiritual problem. Why is it the more we have the less we seem able to give? Why is it that the more things we own, the greater is the temptation for our things to own us? What indeed are we thinking?

Brett Blair, www.eSermons.com.
Homiletics, “Mint Errors,” September – October 2005, p. 54.
HomileticsOnline, “Paying Dues to God,” October, 1996.
Johnny Dean, “Another Tricky Question,” www.esermons.com, 1999.
Paul J. Nechterlien, “A win-win answer to a lose-lose question,” October 20, 2002, Girardian Reflections Web Site, girardian-lectionary.net.
“Mint Errors,” p. 54 – 55.