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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Books That Have Contributed to My Developing Beliefs"

"Books That Have Influenced Me, My Thinking, and Beliefs"

Over the years people have asked me what experiences have most influenced me to think, believe and live as I do. To be sure, there have been a variety of experiences including the suffering of others, service opportunities with the disadvantaged, action/reflection, and the thinking of others as imparted by word of mouth and/or pen. I thought I would share in this blog post about some of the influential books.

When I was young my reading was limited to school subjects, the Bible, and books dealing with sports. While I now read a variety of books since my being diagnosed with ALS and having much more time for leisure reading, for many years my reading was primarily books dealing with spiritual/religious/church/psychology/sociology/marriage/personal growth subjects. It will become obvious as you continue to read what follows.  

Your God is Too Small (J. B. Phillips) - I especially appreciated the first half of the book. I believe I read it the first time when I was in high school. It was most helpful in ridding me from those images of God as a policemen, Santa Claus or judge in the sky. It also freed me up from a human-like God with a long flowing white beard.

The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) - Not an easy read but helped shape my views about how much more there is to Christianity than beliefs in one's head. Action - based on one's understanding of community, the church and acting on one's beliefs.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold Kushner) - This is the one that helped reform my thinking around how God works or doesn't work, especially related to suffering. Read it and discussed it with a Sunday School class shortly after experiencing several disturbing losses.

The God I Don't Believe In  (Juan Arias) At one point in the introduction to his book, Arias makes a comment something like this : "the god many atheists don't believe in is frankly the same God I don't believe in either."  As I read his thoughts, especially some of the poetry that began several of the chapters, I came to the same conclusion and it is why I do not find conversations with atheists, doubters, and agnostics troubling but interesting and challenging.

The Dream of God  (Verna Dozier) - This wonderful and easy read challenges us to consider whether the early church got it wrong when it chose the direction of the church based on the writings of some of the apostles and Paul rather than on Jesus' dream - - real challenge to conventional thinking - one of the Servant Leadership books.

Listening Hearts - Another Servant Leadership book inviting us all to consider call in our lives. One of the books I encourage people to read when they are contemplating doing something and wondering if it's what God is calling them to do. Not a typical chapter lay out. Great questions to ask oneself at the back of the book.

Cry Pain, Cry Hope (Elizabeth O'Connor) - In my opinion the key Servant Leadership book and the one that most inspired my interest in the Every Member in Ministry model for organizing the life of a local church. It also helps the reader look at the painful experiences of life in a new light.

The Hell Jesus Never Intended (Keith Wright) - The title says it all. A belief I've long held only the author provides much scholarship than I have used to come to where I am. A great help as one moves from a conventional faith journey and system of belief.

A New Kind of Christianity (Brian McClaren) This book pushes the envelope!  I don't agree with everything but found it challenging, inspiring, and interesting all at the same time.  

Christianity For the Rest of Us (Dianna Butler Bass) - A good read but a little repetitive. Basically allows for Christianity to grow with something other than a literal, narrow faith journey. Pop religion is my way of describing what she offers an alternative to.

StrengthFinders - I regret that I didn't happen on this Gallup work much earlier in my ministry. It's an excellent secular assist for understanding gifts/skills/aptitudes/strengths. I think this work is especially beneficial for those persons and organizations who would like to live out their existence from a position of strength.

Reaching Out (Henri Nouwen) - A really old book but one that helped develop my attitude toward our responsibility to be a hospitable people.

What's So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey) - Great stories that really help make the point of just how expansive the concept of grace is.

Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God  (Frank Schaeffer) - Shortly after a recent blog post a member of a church I served several years ago sent me a note suggesting I read this. It is a very interesting and helpful perspective.

Marcus Borg - Over the last few years I've read several books by Borg. As far as I'm concerned he's one of the more interesting biblical scholars. He uses biblical history and the scriptures to make his point. Challenging at times but very helpful.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sermon: "Outlandish Grace"

Matthew 20:1-16

This may be one of the toughest passages in all the scriptures for us to get our heads around as residents of the 21st century. It’s just so contrary to the way we understand what is fair – what is involved in treating people equally.

We understand why the man who left church one Sunday after hearing a sermon on this parable by Jesus said to his minister: “You know, preacher, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to abide, and other parts that aren’t. The story you preached on today is one that I find totally offensive! It’s just not fair to pay everyone the same wage when some have worked hard and some have hardly worked. Jesus was just wrong about that. I think you should have preached on something less offensive.” (1) The minister reported that he preached on the Prodigal Son the following week.

It’s important that we don’t discount this parable because of the way it clashes with the way we normally think about such things. Remember: the purpose of a parable is to compare something we know something about with something we’re not as familiar with to help the unfamiliar become known or understood. We know what it means to get paid for working in a field. We are not quite as sure about what followers of Jesus Christ will receive as a result of believing and working on behalf of the kingdom of God.

The intent of today’s parable is not to revise the economic system of America. It’s not a mini-course in labor management. Its intent is not to influence what fair labor laws should be or to bust unions. It’s simply an illustration about how God works when it comes to giving kingdom-living status to us. So, let’s look again at this challenging parable.

The people listening to Jesus that day understood the scene he was describing. They knew about landowners, vineyards, harvesting, and day-laborers. They knew how important it was for grape growers to hire grape pickers. They knew that when the grapes were ready they had to be picked promptly because the weather could change quickly and the crop would be ruined. It made sense to them that the grape growers would get more and more anxious as the day wore on and the picking wasn’t finished. It made sense to them that the owner would hire more workers even one hour before quitting time because of how desperate he was to get as much of the crop off as possible.

When Jesus talked about the landowner going out early in the morning to hire people to work in the vineyard, the crowd could picture a marketplace with people standing around waiting for the invitation to go to work. They knew the people Jesus described in his parable were people in need of work – people who really wanted to work.

Those listening that day knew the desperateness of the temp-service-like pool of people who were seeking to be chosen to go to work. They knew that their standing in line for work meant they were living very close to the starvation line. The disciples and the others listening to Jesus could picture the scene – how the mood of the crowd changed from quiet and reserved to excited and expectant when they saw the grape grower arrive and heard him announce: “The grapes are ripe! There’s plenty of work for everyone who wants to work! Let’s go!” Jesus’ audience would have had no problem picturing the scene of the unemployed rushing to the grape grower to hear his pay offer and they could visualize the first shift enthusiastically hustling into the vineyard and the same being true for each of the groups hired later who didn’t get hired by anyone else during the day.

Yes, the crowd listening to Jesus that day probably were nodding their heads to acknowledge that they understood the scene Jesus described. That is, until payroll time rolled around. Confusion had to be the look on their faces and questioning glances toward one another had to accompany the ending of the telling of this parable by Jesus. “Last ones hired being paid first? Everyone receiving the same pay? What in the world was Jesus talking about? That wasn’t the way things normally went down on the farm.”

I think there are at least two messages Jesus wanted to convey when he shared this parable. One of them, and it is the primary one, is that God is a God of grace. Some people believe that God’s love and forgiveness are things we have to earn. They believe it’s all about saying the right prayers – giving a certain amount – performing an adequate number of good deeds. Some people believe there’s no room for talk about God’s love and grace – that the primary message should be to “scare ‘em out of hell.” It’s important for them to be able to determine who is in and who is out based upon a bunch of rules and regulations.

Very simply put: this parable challenges all such thinking – radically alters such concepts about how God works. It portrays for us – describes for us – a God of limitless grace. God’s grace is awesome, incomprehensible, extravagant, amazing, accepting, outlandish. Jesus told this story because he wants all to know that there is not a one of us who are beyond the grace of God. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, what we think about ourselves, what others think about us, or what others tell us we should think about ourselves, God loves us, cares about us, offers us grace.

I think the parable offers us a second related message though, and that is that we need to be careful how we think about where we are on this faith journey. We need to guard against thinking we deserve more – deserve special treatment, special places of honor - because we’ve been at this Christianity thing longer than others or because we’ve done more or given more. Length of time we’ve been a believer does not earn for us special grace – special places in the Kingdom of God.

Matthew created the backdrop for the parable Jesus shared by telling about three things that happened in Jesus’ life just prior to him resorting to this story. The implication being that this parable was necessary because of these things.

First, some people brought some children to him for him to lay his hands on them and to pray for them. The disciples tried to put a stop to it. Jesus rejected the attitude of his disciples. He said instead, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he blessed them and they went away.

I think it’s important to note that Matthew didn’t report that the children were in need of some special dispensation by Jesus because of something they had done wrong or some decision they made. They were blessed by Jesus simply because they were children and because of Jesus’ understanding of God’s grace it was his to impart.

The second story Matthew used to set-up this parable had a rich young man approach Jesus inquiring about obtaining eternal life. He sought information about what “good thing” he needed to do. Jesus told him to obey the commandments. The young man asked him to be more specific. Jesus was, and the young man said he kept all of those.

And then, sensing that he still wasn’t in, the young man pressed Jesus: “What else, Jesus? What else do I need to do?” And Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect that he should go and sell all he had and give the money to the poor and then come and follow him. The wealthy young man sadly turned away, implying that giving up his riches was too big a price tag. Then Jesus commented about the difficulty the rich have entering the kingdom of heaven.

His statement astonished the disciples. It caused them to ask: “Well, who then can be saved?” And Jesus, knowing they didn’t quite catch the connection between the scene with the children and this encounter with the rich man answered, “With this man it’s impossible, but with God all things are possible.” “Salvation is not something we can earn or buy – it’s not something obtained by our own action or efforts.” “Only God provides salvation – and it is only through God’s grace that it is provided.”

The final scene Matthew uses to prepare us to hear the parable by Jesus has Peter expressing the concern Jesus’ response created in the disciples. “Jesus, we have left everything for you! What then will there be for us?” “Jesus, if these insignificant little children can obtain your blessing and this rich guy can’t obtain it with all he has to offer, where does what we have done and who we are fit? What do we earn for having given up so much?”

Ready? Jesus responded with: “Peter, you are going to receive salvation, eternal life, a place in the kingdom of heaven, but, it’s not because of what you’ve given up. It’s because of God’s grace. Oh, and Peter, everyone else throughout history who desires it will receive the same thing you do no matter when they come on board and no matter how much they get done for the kingdom, nor how many they bring to me.”

Again, a second message from this story from Jesus’ lips is that we need to be careful on this journey of faith.
We need to guard against envy – against believing that we deserve something more than others simply because we have been a member of the church longer, been a Christian longer, read our bibles more often, invited more people to church, guided more people as they’ve sought to become followers of Jesus Christ.

The painful reality is that despite Jesus’ cautionary words, there’ve been numerous people through the years who have misunderstood what Jesus said. All of us probably know a horror story or two of times people have become overzealous about roles or positions they’ve held in the church. Some have felt they have earned the right to speak on behalf of the whole church because of how much they’ve given or because of their family ties or because of the length of time they’ve been a member. They think they can dictate policy and they are very reluctant to even listen to new ideas from newer members. The point Jesus is making is that we should be on the lookout for such temptations in ourselves.

I’d like to close with a story by John Sumwalt in which he retells this infamous parable utilizing a setting that we’re all familiar with in the life of the church. The setting has to do with a circumstance that developed in a particular choir. Happily, the story doesn’t reflect any experience in any choir I've been associated with during my career, but it does help us visualize, maybe even recall, how it happens in groups in the life of the church.  

Sumwalt writes: “Boyd Dillard joined the choir on his 75th birthday, a week after he became a member of the church. He had been an active barbershopper for years and he belonged to the local chorus guild, but this was his first experience in a church choir. His rich baritone voice was a welcome addition, and he readily joined in the merriment and camaraderie enjoyed by the men in the back row bass section.

“Ann Hershner joined the choir in late October, shortly before the start of Christmas cantata rehearsals. She had just moved to town from out of state to take a position in the music department at the local college. Several choir members commented on her beautiful alto voice at the end of her first practice, and they told her how glad they were to have her in their group.

“The very next week, the choir director handed out the music for the Christmas cantata. It was an old, familiar work, much loved by everyone. The director then announced who would be singing the solos and their special parts. Boyd and Ann were to sing a duet which everyone recognized to be the key musical climax in the cantata. Both Ann and Boyd seemed pleased to be chosen for these important parts, but no one else was smiling. ‘It’s not fair!’ someone was heard to mutter down at the end of the alto section. ‘She just joined the choir. Why should she get to sing the best part?’

“There was also some grumbling among the men in the parking lot later, after Boyd had gone home. ‘It’s not right,’ one of the tenors said. ‘Some of us have been singing in the church choir for years and years. I think we should be shown some consideration.’

“The following week, as the choir director was about to begin rehearsal, Harold Redburg asked if he might be permitted to lead the choir in a brief devotion before they started to sing. Harold was the choir’s senior member. Only a few months earlier they had celebrated his 50th anniversary with the chancel choir. The director nodded his assent, and everyone waited expectantly to hear what it was that Harold had to share.

“Harold opened his Bible to the 20th chapter of Matthew and he began to read verses 1-16: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard . . .” (2)

Some have labeled this parable one of “. . . the greatest and most glorious of them all.” It’s indeed a marvelous one for it at one and the same time offers us a word of hope and a word of caution – a word of encouragement and a word of warning. Through this parable we sense God’s outlandish grace working in our lives and we hear the invitation for us to do the same as we encounter others.

Grace, friends, God’s grace – is awesome – is outlandish – is amazing – is God’s way of dealing with us. Let us resolve anew to accept its renewing power in our lives – to believe that God really loves us and forgives us no matter from what our circumstances. And, let us also resolve to do all we can to live a life of grace-giving so that others will come to know God’s saving grace as well. Let’s get to cheering for the good fortune of one another, rather than jeering the unworthiness we believe we see in others while marveling at our own good fortune in spite of our unworthiness.

Let us pray:  “Lord, we have nothing, we are nothing, we can do nothing – except by your grace. Take us, Lord, as we are. Accept us, even in our weaknesses. Forgive us for our failings. Above all, help us to accept the amazing truth that you love others as much as you love us.  The forgiveness and grace you extend to us, is also offered to our sisters and brothers.

“Lord, help us to celebrate your extravagant grace and not to resent when it is the extravagant grace offered to all. In the name of the one who revealed unto us your graciousness, even Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen."

1.Johnny Dean, “Exasperating Grace” (
2.John Sumwalt, “Preaching to the Choir.”  
((There are probably a few more references I used than the ones I noted.))

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"A Summer/Fall Afternoon"

"A Summer/Fall Afternoon"

I'm sitting in my power wheelchair on the deck of our handicapped accessible home enjoying the sounds of activity in the area behind our house. I mean, there are two guys putting the finishing touches on a new french drain to correct a water issue in our yard (if you think I knew what I just referenced before Dorothy conversed with the multiple men who journeyed through our yard on several occasions the last couple of weeks, you don't know me very well!).

The lawns on each side of us are these beautiful seas of green grass - plush and well-maintained. The home to our west is being mowed as I sit here reflecting on the difference between theirs and ours. Ours looks like we have a contract to raise crabgrass and dandelions. Hence the explanation for our decision to have an irrigation system installed to give our lawn a little assistance. Yes, that is also taking place right now as I sit on my deck and observe this variety of welcome activity. What a magnificent and interesting machine it is that allows them to make what used to be a backbreaking time-consuming task. Oh, the engineering and creative minds that invent such wonderfully useful pieces of equipment to ease manual labor.

Finally, on the other side of the pond behind our house a tree service is busy cutting down some dead and diseased trees adding to the cacophony of sounds, the music of work being accomplished, noise. Not necessarily directly related to the dredging of the pond planned for the coming days, but necessary nonetheless. While we enjoy and appreciate the view from our back deck, there's no question the pond has some issues. Apparently the pond is only about 4" deep and should be much deeper. We're hoping it successfully removes the green slime-like algae covering the majority of it.

Well, this is probably the length of my posts from now on unless I'm reworking a sermon. Hands just not functioning as needed and still learning the eyegaze.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Chocolate Lovers Beware!"

Dear "Giving Wings to Thoughts," Bill's Backers, and Facebook friends and family,

A few months before "The Ice Bucket Challenge" miraculously appeared on the scene and blitzed its way across the nation, a college friend and football teammate, John Smith, contacted us with an idea to help the Walk to Defeat ALS effort. He's a fundraising rep for Sarris Candies out of southwestern Pennsylvania. He offered a direct website ordering fundraiser with no 3rd party handling of product. Then, he sent us some samples! This is good candy! We'll have some at the Columbus Walk, Sunday, September 21 at a new location: COLUMBUS COMMONS!

Here are the steps to order:

1. Go to
2. There will be a tab that says "Start Shopping", and you can click on the products you'd like to shop for, i.e. pretzels, boxed chocolates, etc.
3. Once you click on it, a gray box will come up that asks you to enter your group ID number.
4. Our group ID# is: 10-2582.
5. From there, you can place orders and pay online. You can even select a later shipping date. If, for example, you want to order holiday chocolates ahead of time. We're thinking about Halloween and Christmas and their special candies for those holidays.
6. Once you go through the check out process, 25% of your purchase will go to the ALS Association Central & Southern Ohio Chapter.

We currently have the campaign running until Dec. 15, which we might expand if things go well - sort of like the Honeybaked Ham Holiday fundraiser.

Bill & Dorothy Croy

Friday, September 5, 2014

SERMON: "Pillows of Discipleship"

"Pillows of Discipleship"
Genesis 28:10-19a

If we know anything at all about Jacob it is that he had a dream one night that included a ladder. One cannot have
grown up in the church and attended church camp and not have sung "Jacob's Ladder" thousands of times!

The truth of the matter is, there’s not much in the song about this story of the dream of Jacob portrayed in Genesis.
The ladder referenced in the song and our scriptures actually had no resemblance to what we normally think of when
we think of a ladder today. It wasn’t a step-ladder with rungs on it. Almost all the commentaries agree that it was
probably something more like a ramp or an escalator or a set of stairs like one would see in front of a monument or a
government building.

Perhaps the place where this beautiful and wonderful and meaningful old African-American spiritual is most at odds
with the actual Genesis story is in its reference to us climbing “higher and higher.” Because, you see, the real message
of the story is about God’s coming “lower and lower” or “closer and closer” to old Jacob and thus symbolically
toward us. The Old Testament story of Jacob and his dream doesn’t have anything to do with a good or holy person
getting better and better and thus climbing, figuratively, “higher and higher” and thus approaching God through their
merits. No, it’s really about a rather bad person, a fugitive, (Jacob) not deserving in any way to be approached by
God, being approached by God. (1)

The truth of the matter is that if ever there was a man who didn’t deserve to be paid attention to by God, it was Jacob.
He was a liar and a cheat, a jerk. Let me remind you of a few things about ol’ Jacob and why he was out in that
desolate place using a stone for a pillow in the first place.

Jacob’s misbehavin’ started the day he was born to Isaac and Rebekah. In fact, he was named Jacob because of the
way he came out of the womb. He was a twin - the second born of twins. And, as his older brother, Esau, was coming
out, Jacob grasped Esau’s heel as if trying to pull him back so that he could be the first one born. The name Jacob
comes from the Hebrew word that means “a heel” or “the one who takes by the heel.” From the day he was born, it
was obvious that Jacob's goal was to get ahead any way he could. Jacob would take advantage of any weakness he
saw in another - even if the other was his very own brother - even if it was his very own father!

Perhaps the worst things Jacob ever did, at least the ones the writers of Genesis felt compelled to record, were the
ones when he deceived his dad and took advantage of his brother. Esau was an outdoorsman, a hunter. Jacob was a
man more comfortable with hanging around the house.

These differences in personality created an obvious sibling rivalry. It probably didn’t help matters that the parents
tried to live their lives through the boys with each favoring one or the other - Isaac favoring Esau because he often
brought him wild game which he had a real taste for and Rebekah favoring Jacob because of his helpfulness around
the house.

The day Jacob took advantage of Esau was after Esau returned from some time out in the wilderness apparently either
too tired even to prepare the game he had bagged or with nothing to show for his several days of work. Jacob was
cooking some stew and Esau was starved. Esau begged for some of the stew. Jacob saw a chance to take advantage
of his brother. He refused to share his food unless Esau sold him his birthright. Esau’s birthright was that all the land
that was his fathers would become his upon his father’s death since he was the firstborn.

Well, it didn’t take Esau long to figure out that he was going to die if he didn’t get something to eat and that the
birthright of a dead man was worthless. And so he agreed to Jacob's offer and received the promised food.

The second episode, the one that resulted in Jacob’s fleeing, happened several years later. Isaac was getting up there
in years, blind, and concerned about how long he was going to make it. He sent Esau out to kill some of that wild
game he had a real taste for and promised to bless him before he died if he did.

Well, enter the one who only had eyes for Jacob, his mother Rebekah. She was listening and she concocted a plot that
would allow Jacob to receive the blessing Isaac had promised Esau. Now, I don’t even want to try and understand
these two sorry parents who favored one child over another - it’s simply beyond my comprehension. Rebekah’s plan
was to have Jacob go get two of the young goats from their own flock. She would prepare them and Jacob would wear
some of Esau’s best clothes and cover his hands and neck with the skins of the goats so that he would feel hairy like
his brother, Esau. Although Jacob was fearful that he’d be caught and get cursed instead of blessed and although Isaac
noticed the discrepancy between the hairy skin and the voice, the plot worked and Jacob received the blessing.

When Esau found out, he was livid. He’d taken all he could from this jerk of a brother and so he let it be known that
as soon as his dad died, it would be lights out for his brother. Once again, ol’ mom stuck her nose into the situation.
She got wind of the threat and convinced Jacob that it would be best for him if he left and went to live with her
brother, Laban. She convinced her husband, Isaac, it was a good idea also by lamenting about how bad she would feel
if Jacob married a woman from the people of that area instead of one of her own people. Isaac bought her argument
and sent Jacob on his way with his blessing.

It was while Jacob was on his way to Uncle Laban’s that the scene described in today’s passage happened. Jacob
stopped for the night at a certain place - at this time not yet a significant place, just the place he happened to be when
the sun went down - he stopped for the night at a certain place and in his hurry to get away from his angry brother he
apparently forgot a pillow and had to use a stone for one.

I find Jacob’s use of a stone for a pillow both intriguing and a bit humorous. Whenever I read this story I am reminded
of the times on retreats and Circuit Rider bus trips (a mobile retreat on a converted bus) when I forgot my pillow and
had to use my gym bag for one - a gym bag full of shoes and a hair dryer and numerous other not so soft things.

But, my real intrigue with the rock is the way its role changed in the story from a rock on the ground, to a rock under
a head, to a pillar to mark a sacred place. And I think the reason it plays all these different roles in the story is
theologically significant. My sense is that the stone referred to represented more than the simple physical stone on
which Jacob laid his head that night. My sense is that the stone was both a literal rock and a symbol of all the evil
Jacob had ever done. When Jacob went to sleep that night he not only had a rock under his head, which probably
caused him some physical discomfort, but he also had a lot of things running through his head about why he was out
on the road in the first place. Those thoughts had to have been the source of great psychological discomfort. The two
together would certainly explain a restless, dream-ridden, nightmarish night.

We’ve all experienced such nights in our lives - nights when our actions or words or thoughts have their way with our
ability to sleep - nights when we just can’t seem to shut out those things we’ve done wrong - nights when sleeping is
difficult because of everything we’re thinking about. There are simply some things that practically scream out to us in
the middle of the night, “Get down on your knees and confess what you’ve done and ask for God’s forgiveness.”

I think those were the kinds of thoughts that ran through Jacob’s mind that night when he dreamed about an escalator
and the movement of angels up and down it and God talking to him. The lonely and weary and rotten Jacob became
aware of God’s nearness in a place he did not expect and as a result he marked the “certain place” thus claiming it to
be a holy place, a place where he encountered God, by making a pillar of the rock that had been a pillow under his
head the hours before.

What I believe happened to Jacob that night was that he became aware in a new way that despite the mess he was in
because of the wrongs he had done - the sin in his life - God cared about him and had a plan for the rest of his life.
And as a result of his sensing the nearness of God with the aid of the stone become pillow, he used several such
pillows to make a pillar to mark the place.

Now, there are several things in this story that provide us some helps as we experience our journeys of faith. The first
one is that God is present all the time, everywhere, and in everyone and we can become aware of God’s presence in
the most unexpected ways, places and people. God can be known in the midst of joyous occasions and in the midst of
very depressing events in our lives and in the midst of the day-to-day routine of living. God-events happen when we
least expect them and sometimes through those we least expect. (2)

I had an experience in my own life once that reminded me of this truth. We were new owners of a cottage and a used
pontoon boat that came with the cottage purchase. It was the 4th of July weekend and several people who have places
on Indian Lake had encouraged us to take in the fireworks on our pontoon boat. They also offered us words of caution
about the condition some of the drivers of the other boats might be in and suggested that we might want to try and
stay on the edge of it all our first time. (Apparently drinking and driving isn't just a problem on our roadways.) Well,
we did as they suggested: we anchored our boat about 15 minutes before the firework display began in an area where
there were very few other boats. Then I turned off the boat’s motor. Part of our conversation while we waited for the
show centered around our concern about alcohol consuming boaters and the scary time after the fireworks and how
we would have to make a quick get-a-way to avoid them.

Well, to make a long story short (and to lessen how terrible I am portrayed), when the fireworks ended I couldn’t get
the motor to start! It quickly became apparent that our battery was dead. My wife made one of those suggestions
wives just shouldn’t make to their husbands when things appear beyond their ability to deal with: “Bill, why don’t
you ask one of those boaters going by us to help us.” I knew I should but I just couldn’t bring myself to - male pride,
you know. (I probably should mention here that I had chosen to leave the boat radio on during thee fireworks against
the preference of my wife!)

Finally, after a dozen or so had passed us by with several commenting on how difficult it was to see us because of
how dim our lights were, it became obvious I was going to have to admit my human frailty and ask for help or there
was going to be no help left. At about the same moment, a boatload of people went by and one of them shouted back
to us, “Need some help?” And I, cringing with every male hormone in my body screaming for me not to, said, “Yes.
Our battery is dead.” And they maneuvered their way over to us.

To say everyone on our pontoon boat was relieved would be an understatement. Our rescuers first offered to tow us
back to our cottage. And then one of the passengers remembered they had jumper cables. It seemed like it took
forever for them to get in the correct position so that the two batteries were near enough to one another for the jumper
cables to be used.

Now, although the rest of the passengers on our pontoon boat apparently weren’t aware of it at the time, there was a
reason they took their time moving - one of their female passengers, apparently unable to hold it any longer and too
drunk to care, was relieving herself  a few short feet away from where my head hung over my boat so that I could
have a good grip on theirs. Yes, they had definitely been partying the night away out there on the lake!

It was while this was going on that one of those God-moments hit me: I was being helped by someone I was hoping to
avoid. I, the self-righteous one, was being helped by someone I was judging. To be sure: this is not a condoning of
drinking and driving, either on a boat or in a car, but it is a reminder that God does indeed show up often in the places
and the people we least expect. (Now, it probably will influence a few more giggles if I mention that I first used the
illustration the same summer it happened with  my insurance agent who also served the church as a trustee at the
time, and he wasted no time sending me a boating manual!)

Another group of related things I think it's helpful to note in this passage is that God cares about us no matter what
kind of people we’ve been or are - that God has a plan for our lives - that God reaches out to us because God is a God
of grace - that God can take the rocks of our lives and make use of them for good - and that as a result those mistakes
of our lives, those sins, those evil thoughts and deeds become markers of the occasions when we encounter God. The
rocks in our lives that disturb our sleep and disrupt our lives can become pillows of discipleship if we let God come to
us and heal us of the guilt those rocks produce in us. God can change us and make us new. The rocks in our lives can
become pillars marking those places where God has touched us.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God wants to, is ready to, do great things in us - through us - with our lives - if we but
let God. You are invited today to hear the good news in a new way - in a personal way - that God cares about you - no
matter what the sins are now that are eating at your soul and controlling you with guilt. God loves you and forgives
you and can help you make something of your life. You are invited to face the rocks in your life today and to believe
the good news that God has a plan for you despite what has been controlling your life in the past.    

Won’t you consider letting God heal you, forgive you, today? Let God change the rocks in your life into
pillows of discipleship.

1 Justin W. Tull, “Stairways of Heaven,” Wrestlings, Wonders and Wanderers! (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1992).
2 Robert Cueni, “Empowered By a Vision,” Tenders of the Sacred Fire, (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, 1995).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"My Dilemma: A Personality Trait Issue"

"My Dilemma: A Personality Trait"

As I've been watching the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomena the last few days, a certain personality trait has resurfaced and created a dilemma in my life. Every couple of hours I've reposted my grandson's Ice Bucket effort and challenged a new group of friends and family. The more people I name the more concerned I become about leaving someone out - overlooking, forgetting someone and thus hurting their feelings.

Yes, I know it's a good personality trait to not overlook people, be concerned that everyone is included. Over the years I've also learned that sometimes traits can be both good and bad. That is, sometimes a strength can also create difficult times for us. The Gallup folks have done a really excellent job of helping us examine this duality in our lives with the research that resulted in the StrengthFinders survey and books. Definitely highly recommend their work if you want to understand yourself.

So, rather than continue stewing and posting I'm just going to make this blog post inviting all my friends and family to consider taking the Ice Bucket Challenge! No one needs to feel neglected or not needed or unimportant to me. This effort is huge and I know you all want to be a part of it!
Give where you want but especially consider those ALS organizations that know what is going on with research and where the funds will be best used. We give to the Central & Southern Ohio ALS Chapter which sends a portion of our gift to national where there is a knowledgeable research staff. If you're unsure but want to help, feel free to support a team member of Bill's Backers at the Walk to Defeat ALS - Columbus. If you go to the site, you can also join our team and walk with us on Sunday, September 21 at the Columbus Commons.

Go to If you simply wish to join our team and make a donation, proceed to the Register drop down box and join the Bill's Backers team as a walker or virtual walker and make a donation as a team member or to any of the team members already registered.