Walking by Faith

Posted 6/17/2018

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17

During college, studying to be an agronomist, I had to take lab courses. Now mind you, these labs weren’t research — they were simply “re-proving” various theories we’d already learned in class. But, as good “scientists-in-training,” reproving what had already been proven was an integral part of our learning “the scientific process.” Proving a theory, and proving it over and over again, is at the heart of scientific work — the kind of work that our agronomy knowledge was based upon. Besides that, there could be little doubt that some of us would go on to do jobs in labs as technicians, or even do original research, and we’d need these kinds of scientific lab skills. So, in the framework of my degree, even though I expected to never, ever need to do another lab-type process in my life-time, my required agronomy labs made a certain amount of sense.

But the truth is it isn’t just those training in science based fields who are shaped by the assumptions of the scientific process. We live in a world that has been significantly shaped by the scientific process. Much like scientific theories, we generally expect statements people make can be proven to be true. In fact, there are times we demand proof before we will believe what the other person is saying. Even in our “post-truth” society filled with “fake news,” there is still the demand for proof — although finding any kind of proof that everyone will accept is increasing difficult.

As I said, this expectation of a person being able to prove the truth has shaped our entire world. That is one reason that some Christians from the earliest days of Christianity have made such serious attempts to prove the existence of God. Such proofs have taken many forms, but ultimately all such proofs have been subject to doubts. In pre-scientific days, such proofs were normally based upon philosophy. However, in the last 400 or so years, the attempt more often than not has been based upon the kind of logic that scientists use. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is a part of me that really admires those who do the hard work of very carefully thinking through the difficult theological issues such proof present. And certainly, the work such apologists (as they are called) do can help all of us in understanding the faith in a deeper way and responding to the real questions of those about us who don’t believe. But in the end, no one — and no argument for God’s existence — has been able to prove the existence of God beyond all doubts.

But that inability to prove God’s existence shouldn’t really surprise us as Christians. As our epistle lesson for today reminds us “we walk by faith, not by sight.” What we believe can’t be proven — philosophically. scientifically or in any other way. That isn’t to say what we believe is either illogical or not real because it can’t be proven. The fact we can’t prove what we believe shouldn’t really make a difference to us, because, as Paul reminds us in today’s lesson, we know that the inability to provide such air-tight proofs is actually inherent to our faith, for we live in faith.

Yet if we don’t rely upon scientific or philosophical or any other kind of proofs, what is it we rely upon? How is it that we know what we know about God? What does walking by faith mean in today’s scientific oriented world?

Walking by faith means, as Christians, we know what we know about God because of Jesus Christ. This is the classic Christian answer to how we can know God — we can know God only through God’s self-revelation. It is Christ who reveals God to us. It is in Christ that we come to know God’s character, God’s will, and God’s desires for our world. Again, in classic theological terms, we know about God only because God has revealed himself to us in Christ. While there may be all kinds of things we can discover about God by looking at nature, classic Christianity says, it is only in Jesus Christ that we see God, as it were, “face-to-face.” 

But this seeing requires what Scripture describes as a new way of seeing with what can only be called new eyes. Just as in Jesus’ day, it is still possible today to know all about Jesus and not know who Jesus is. In Jesus’ day, the scribes, Pharisees and many others were witnesses to Jesus’ miracles and heard his teaching, yet didn’t understand who Jesus was or come to believe in him. Scripture is clear, knowing isn’t the same thing as believing. We can know without coming to faith. Scripture tells us it is only the power of the Spirit that can open our eyes to the truth about Jesus and give us new eyes and a new heart that responds to the good news of Jesus in faith.

Yet such faith isn’t simply something we hold in our hearts as a private, personal opinion. Paul says we “walk” by faith. In the Scriptures the word “walk” is used to describe a way of living. Our faith in Jesus impacts our daily lives. It shapes them in ways that make them different that the ways of the world. That is, to walk by faith is not only to be given new eyes but also to be given a new heart. And in this passage, Paul identifies several aspects of that “walk” — several signs of that new heart.

The first sign is “we make it our aim to please [the Lord].” “Do what feels right to you,” is a common maxim in our day. The assumption is whatever gives you happiness is the right thing — the thing you ought to do. Right and wrong are subjective things — based on how you feel about something and how an action affects you. Yet Scripture is clear. We who are Christians are guided not by what “feels right” but by what God says is right. We know ourselves to live in a moral world, where there is objective right and wrong. We know that right and wrong aren’t simply matters of what we subjectively feel, but a matter of how God has created the universe. And so we live in a way that seeks to please God, that “fits” with God’s moral order.

Secondly, we “try to persuade others.” Because we firmly believe in a moral world where there is objective right and wrong, we attempt to help others see this moral structure to the world, which includes knowing God through Christ. We desire that others would come to faith. While we recognize that we can’t prove our faith, we also recognize that we are called upon to witness to our faith. We are called upon to speak about our faith. We are called upon to “always be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting of the hope that is in [us].” That is, we are to be prepared to explain WHY we believe as well as WHAT we believe. We are to be prepared to explain our faith.

For many of us “being prepared to explain our faith” feels scary. We feel unprepared to do this. We are inclined to say, “That’s the job of pastors, not my job. They’re the ones with the education.” Yet Scripture is clear — this is the “job” of every Christian. And it is not a job which requires a seminary education (or any other form of formal education). What it requires is our reflecting on our faith and our willingness to continue growing in our faith. Yes, it does require that we prepare ourselves — but it is the kind of preparation that should be the part of every Christian’s life. It requires we spend time reading and studying Scripture. It also requires us walking in faith — trusting God’s Spirit will give us the words we need at the time we need them.

Paul reminds us, we walk by faith. We don’t walk by proof. We walk by the faith the Spirit gives. Our lives are changed by the power of God’s Spirit working in us. We witness by the power of God’s Spirit. We live in a new way, with new eyes and a new heart — all given to us by the Spirit of God working within us. May we walk by faith — living the Christian life and witnessing to Christ in our daily lives.

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What about Satan?

Posted 6/10/2018

Scripture: Mark 3:20-35

“He’s out of his mind!”; so thought Jesus’ family. “He’s possessed by Satan!”; so posited the scribes. Quite frankly most of us here today are probably a lot more comfortable with the first suggestion, that Jesus might be out of his mind, than the second, that he is possessed by Satan, because most of us grew up in a world where thoughts of devils and Satan seemed ridiculous — remnants of superstitions long ago left behind us. (This despite Flip Wilson’s “the devil made me do it” of my youth.)

Yet perhaps it is time we re-examined our attitude toward the reality of Satan. In a world where there is mass shooting after mass shooting, terroristic attacks seem ever present and the reality of evil seems to be woven into the fabric of our lives in ways we never believed possible, it just may be time to take Scriptural comments about Satan more seriously.

First off, let’s be honest about what we face today. Yes, the world truly does seem to be a more scary place now than it did in the past. But some of that has to do with the fact of our constantly available news. As I was recently reminded, in my childhood there was, at best, a 1/2 hour local news program and a 1/2 hour national news program in the evening. In contrast to that, today we have multiple cable channels devoted to news 24/7 — and the fact is they have to come up with SOMETHING to fill all those hours. Furthermore, not only do they broadcast news 24/7 they frequently are also running a scroll of news across the bottom of the screen. Now I know a lot of the news on news channels is repeated over and over again; yet to get audiences to continue to listen, they really have to come up with something new as often as they can. That means they are constantly looking for anything that might be called news. So, to put it simply, we are exposed to a lot more of what happens in our world than we were in the past.

To feel the impact of this reality has on how we view the world, consider these statistics: The homicide rate in 2014 was 4.5/100,000. This was the lowest it has been since 1963. To get a lower homicide rate you have to go back to 1957, when it was 4.0/100,000. The rates of murder and violent crime in 2017 were almost 50% below their early-1990’s peak. The fact is, in some ways our world really isn’t a more dangerous place; we simply hear about more crimes because our ever-present news broadcasts cover more than they used to. 

In addition to our hearing more news, this sense of things being so much worse is also is driven by a news bias toward covering the negative news because that’s what is “sensational” and draws audiences. Let’s be honest, most of us aren’t going to tune in to hear what happens next if a reporter talks about a teen helping an elderly person across the street. Yes, the story will probably tug at our heartstrings for a moment or two; but then we move on. However, let there be a report of a mass shooting or a potential terrorist attack and we will tune in to hear every last detail the reporter can uncover. These stories will grab our attention for days as we anxiously wait to hear the latest on the investigation.

In saying all this, I’m not trying to minimize the actual presence or the seriousness of evil in our world. Clearly, there is a lot of evil. I’m saying this not to minimize the reality evil; but because it seems to me the fact we now find ourselves so struck by the amount of evil in our world indicates we may have been taking the reality of evil too lightly for too long.

So what are we to make of all this evil? How are we, as Christians, to respond?

As I’ve already indicated, the first thing we need to do is admit evil is real. One of the practical ways we need to do this is to stop believing everyone is “good.” For too long even we Christians have bought into the popular idea of our culture that “everyone is good at heart.” We have treated evil as if it were an aberration, somehow alien to the true nature of people. Yet evil is real and real people do evil. 

Please pay attention to what I am saying. I’m NOT saying that real people are completely evil. I am saying real people — including you and I — do evil. We are none of us angels, despite our desire to consider everyone “good.” As John Bradford is reputed to have said in reference to a group of prisoners being led to execution, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” His remarks, and the reality of evil in our world, points to the truth that ALL of us are capable of sin — and under the right circumstances could be guilty of grave sin — that is real evil.

Jesus clearly pointed out in our passage for today both the reality and the power of evil. He describes Satan — evil — as being like a “strong man” who must be “bound” before his possessions can be taken. Clearly Jesus doesn’t consider evil to be a minor problem — it is both real and really serious.

So where does that leave us? Is there any hope — or is evil simply something we must accept — must learn to live with? 

The good news is that Jesus declares he is the one who is stronger. He is the one who is able to bind that strong man, Satan. But that means in the face of evil our hope isn’t in falling crime rates or eliminating terrorists, it is in Jesus — the one who is both able to and actually has overcome evil. Our hope isn’t in somehow better educating people, so they don’t make “bad choices;” it is in Jesus — the one who is both able to and actually has overcome evil. Our hope against the sin in our lives — the evil we do — isn’t in somehow making a greater effort to be good, it is in Jesus — the one who is both able to and actually has overcome evil.

Jesus is the one who is able to address the evil in our own lives. As Christians — individually and as a body — we are empowered to fight against the evil that is found in us by the power of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives. In Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we are empowered to be the people God would have us be — people who are loving, just and merciful — people who are growing to be more like Jesus. Our lives can be changed — not to the point we no longer have to struggle with sin in our lives; but in a way that gives us true victories over sin despite our sinful tendencies. 

Jesus is also the one who is able to address the evil in our world. But we need to remember just how Jesus has addressed this evil. Jesus didn’t address the evil and injustice in his world by calling down angels to save him from the cross. Jesus bore the injustice of his condemnation. Jesus bore the cost of human evil — and responded with God’s love. On the cross, Jesus didn’t call down a curse on those who crucify him, but asked for their forgiveness. 

We dare hope, not because Jesus died, but because the same Jesus who was crucified also rose and ascended to heaven to reign. And this same Jesus promises us God’s kingdom WILL come. There will be a day when the power of the cross — the power of God’s love, forgiveness and grace — will overcome all evil. 

All this means that as Christians we take seriously the reality of evil. Sin is real — evil is real — Satan is real — in our own lives and in our world. Yet we also take seriously the promise that in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension Christ has overcome Satan and is now “plundering” Satan’s “possessions.” We can hold onto the gospel declaration that God — not Satan — will have the final word. That in Jesus the power of evil has been broken and we — and our world — are in the process of being redeemed and made a new creation by God’s love and grace. That in the face of even what may seem like overwhelming evil we can hold onto the hope that God’s kingdom WILL come and God’s will WILL be done. 

In the face of evil, may we hold onto Jesus.

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Hidden Treasure

Posted 6/3/2018

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Sylvia Bloom worked as a secretary in a law firm. She was an unassuming woman living an frugal lifestyle in Brooklyn. Leonard Gigowski was a shopkeeper in New Berlin, Wisconsin. A bachelor, he loved ballroom dancing and pigeon racing. He too lived a frugal life. Grace Groner lived in a one-bedroom house in Lake Forest, Illinois. She shopped thrift stores and chose to walk not drive. The one thing they had in common — they each amassed millions of dollars in their lifetimes, and no one knew. 

And then there’s Donald and Mildred Othmer lived in Brooklyn Heights. He was a professor at Polytechic University in Brooklyn and she was a former teacher and buyer for her mother’s dress stores. They were like any other faculty couple. They died in the 90’s, having amassed 3/4 of a billion dollars.

Hidden treasures. Looking at each of these individuals — at their occupations and their lifestyles — you’d never guess they could be worth so much. Their true worth was discovered by their family and others who knew them only after their death, when they left huge bequests to various organizations or causes. Throughout their lives they had hidden treasures.

Paul knew something about hidden treasures, but his treasures weren’t financial treasures. In a world that valued appearances, Paul was a physically unassuming man with it would seem some kind of debilitating health problem. Furthermore, he had the reputation of having been driven out of this and that town, causing riots and having been stoned for what he said and did. In other words he had a grade A-1 reputation as a trouble-maker. Not exactly someone you would consider as a prime candidate to have a treasure. And that’s exactly what the Corinthian Christians thought. They considered Paul to be inferior and his message to be less important than that of more the impressive individuals who had come into their midst with what Paul calls “another gospel.”

The Corinthian Christians might not know and believe it, but Paul knew he DID have a treasure,  the treasure. He had the treasure of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Certainly, it was a “hidden treasure” — there was nothing about him or his life that screamed out “treasure-owner!” In fact, if anything, his life screamed out “failure.” He knew how unimpressive his life would seem to those who saw only with the eyes of the world. Yet he also knew that Christians see with other eyes — eyes that should see the treasure his life held. Yes Paul knows he has a treasure, even if it was, as he would say, a treasure in a clay jar.

Now clay jars are nothing exciting. Archeologists find them all over the place at most dig sites. Clay jars were cheap, everyday kinds of things. If broken, a clay jar would not have been repaired, but simply thrown out. Clay jars would have been familiar to anyone in Paul’s world and their relative lack of value would have been well known.

Furthermore, Paul is writing the Corinthians. Corinth made clay jars — lots of them. The Corinthian clay jars were very thin-walled, making them extremely fragile. Yet their thin walls served a purpose. When used as a lamp the light would shine through those thin clay walls giving more light than any ordinary clay lamp would give. 

Like the Corinthian-made clay jars, Paul’s life is fragile, unremarkable, not at all impressive, seeming of little value in a world that prized public esteem. Yet through his life — and particularly through his sufferings for Christ — Paul knew the treasure of the gospel shone as the treasure it was. Paul knew that in his unremarkable, persecuted life the treasure of God’s power had been set loose and was at work in the world.

Living years later and in a totally different culture, none of us have undergone the kinds of suffering that Paul endured. We have not endured the threat of death, much less found ourselves at the point of death, for the gospel. I’m fairly sure none of us have been driven out of town because we are a Christian, much less has our Christian faith cause a city-wide riot. Our reputations are probably not that of an A-1 troublemakers, but rather that of fairly solid, respectable citizens. In many ways we are quite unlike Paul.

Still we are, all of us, rather unassuming, ordinary people, just like Paul. Our lives don’t scream out that we have a treasure, at least not a treasure our world would recognize. In other words, like Paul, the treasure we have is in a clay jar. It isn’t seen in our living celebrity lives but in our ordinary, even fragile, lives.

But what a treasure it is! This treasure enabled Paul to endure suffering that he might proclaim the good news of Christ because it was the treasure of Christ, crucified and resurrected. And, like Paul, our lives hold the treasure of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Our treasure is the good news that what the world sees and assumes is not the true reality. It is the good news that life can be lived in a new way. It is the good news that God has opened the door to forgiveness, reconciled us to himself and offered us the gift of a new life. The treasure in our clay jar is the good news of God’s kingdom come into our midst. It is the good news of the gift of true life.

This treasure we have is a gift that shines through the thin walls that are our fragile, ordinary lives and reveals the glory of God. God’s glory is seen in the gift of grace poured out upon us that makes us a grace-filled people. God’s glory is seen in our service to others; service freely given for the sake of Christ. God’s glory is seen in the love we show to others, especially those who are the least and the lost and our enemy. God’s glory is seen in our lives, re-made by God’s power into lives that reflect the life of Christ.

Paul knew beyond a doubt that his through his life —ordinary, yet also so disreputable in the eyes of many of his day — the power of God in Christ was revealed. What about us? Do we realize that it is in our ordinary, daily lives — lives that sometimes seem disreputable to some simply because we are Christians — that God reveals the power of the gospel and the presence of his Kingdom to all those about us?

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Children of God

Posted 5/27/2018

Scripture: Romans 8:12-17

When I was a child in Sunday School I remember singing “I’m a Child of the King.” Singing that song I sensed that somehow, we who followed Jesus, were different from others, even in a certain way “special.” Our epistle lesson for today makes this point. 

Yet there is a way in which Christians today at times seem to have lost this fact. We worry that any claim to being “special” as a Christian smacks of superiority. In today’s world it is common to hear people, and especially Christians, talking about how we are ALL children of God. 

Beyond a concern about not sounding superior, the assumption in stating we are all God’s children seems to be that unless we are all called “children of God” there is no real basis for our treating one another with respect, compassion and grace. However, as we’ve seen in our stewardship series, we are stewards of all God has created. That means our relationships with one another are a part of our stewardship. We respect others, not because they are God’s children, but simply because they are God’s creation. 

As I’ve indicated, in a world focused on equality, for us to claim a special status seems somehow “wrong.” It seems, as I’ve said, to smack of superiority and to be exclusive. But if this is true, why does Scripture repeatedly indicate that God’s people enjoy a special status with God? What does that special status mean? And what are we to make of all this today?

I think the first thing we need to understand is that any claims to a “special status” with God isn’t a claim that we are somehow better than others. The fact is, our status as “children of God” has come about not by our own efforts, goodness or anything we are or may have done. Our being “children of God” comes about only because we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have nothing to brag about for what we are is a gift of God, pure and simple. With that in mind, let’s turn to what our epistle lesson for today has to say about what it means to be “children of God.”

The first thing that this passage our being children of God means is that we aren’t fearful. We know God as our “Father.” Once again, in today’s world that may not seem like much. After all, we think of Jesus as our best buddy and tend to view God as a tolerant, kindly being. If we were to consider our mental image of God it would probably bear more similarity to that of an indulgent grandfather than being even vaguely close to that of a demanding father. For modern people the Scriptural notion of “fear of the Lord” seems outdated. God is a God of love — there is no reason to “fear” God.

All of this makes it very difficult for us to recognize just how radical — even blasphemous — it was for Jesus and his disciples to address God as “Father.” Such familiarity with God was to ignore God’s holiness, glory and majesty. It was sacrilegious. It was treating God as if God were just like any other human being. It was a blatant affront to God’s honor. God was in heaven and humans were on earth….

Now there is a certain “goodness” about our modern easy familiarity with God. It IS in certain ways a true reflection of the good news of the gospel. Jesus IS God come among us in as a human being. God no longer is simply “in heaven” but has actually lived among us as one of us. And, Jesus did teach his disciples to approach God without fear, with the same intimacy with which he himself approached God.

Yet the thing we miss in this is the reality of God’s holiness. The reality that we aren’t simply children of God because God created everyone and loves everyone (true as those statements may be). Rather we have become children of God by virtue of being in Christ. We are not children of God by right, but by adoption. 

As I’ve indicated, I suspect one of the reasons that this biblical idea of only Christians being children of God has fallen into disfavor is the fact we have too often used this as an excuse to say (in our actions if not in our words) we are somehow superior to everyone else. And certainly, this passage indicates we do have blessings from God as God’s children that are not promised to everyone. The passage indicates we are not only children of God, we are told, but we are also heirs of God — that we are receiving all the blessings Christ has received. 

However, all too often we want to stop reading at that point. We don’t want to hear or acknowledge the passage goes on to say “if, in fact, we suffer with him.” That is, we want to claim the blessings of being God’s children without claiming the responsibilities of being God’s children. 

To be a child of God means to live as a child of God. It means to live in a way that is different from the ways of the world. It means to live as Jesus lived. 

Yet we are also told that to live this way is to live in conflict with the world. It is to live “by the Spirit, …put[ting] to death the deeds of the body.” To live in this way is to be at much at odds with the world around us just as Jesus was at odds with the world of his day. 

Suddenly our “specialness” doesn’t seem quite as appealing! After all, who wants to suffer as Christ suffered? Who wants to be rejected as Christ was rejected? Who wants to take up a cross (even if it is only a metaphorical cross) just as  Christ took up his cross?

Yet this is the witness of Scripture. To be a child of God is to live as Jesus lived. It is to love as Jesus loved. It is to offer mercy and grace to everyone, just as Jesus did. It is to be a servant to others, just as Jesus was a servant. It is to suffer, just as Jesus suffered. It is to know, as the song says, “if you don’t wear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown.”

Such a life certainly isn’t one in which we live with an attitude of superiority. In fact, it is the life of a servant. It is a life of service, not one of privilege. It is a humble life, not one of a prideful sense of being “first” and “best.”

And notice how this passage connects this life of service, this humble life, to our being heirs. It says the blessings we receive are dependent upon our first being willing to live as Christ lived. The one gift we receive in this life is simply that of not being afraid. It is the gift of knowing God’s holiness, majesty and power and yet also knowing God’s grace, love and mercy. It is the gift of approaching God as those who truly are God’s children — knowing God intimately as both Lord and Father. 

Yes, we are all God’s creation. But we who are Christians have been adopted into God’s family in a special way. We have been called to live a life of humble service. We have been called to show mercy, grace and love to all. We have been made stewards of God’s gifts. We have been given the privilege of suffering with Christ in this life. And it is as we live into that privilege that we also live into the privilege of inheriting with the risen Christ when our life is over. 

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You Can't Fool God

Posted 5/20/2018

Scriptures: Malachi 3:8-12, Matthew 6:1-4, Acts 5:1-11

As we come to the end of our series of stewardship sermons, we also come to some of the hardest Scripture lessons. Several of today’s Scripture readings seem harsh — even unnecessarily harsh. Why in the world did Ananias and Sapphira have to die? After all, weren’t they were giving to the church? And frankly God’s angry diatribe against Israel concerning the tithe is disturbing in its own way. But beyond how disturbing these passages may be, we probably wonder “What do either of these passages have to do with us?” 

I think the lessons for today all have one thing in common — you can’t fool God. In the story of Ananias and Sapphira we are told that they conspired to withhold part of the proceedings of the sale of their land. At first blush, then, it would seem their “crime” is simply not giving all the proceeds to the church. Yet as we follow the story we see that the real “crime” is not in having withheld some of the proceeds — after all Peter is quite clear that after the sale, the proceeds remained their own. What is the crime — what is the sin — in this story is that they tried to claim they were giving all the money to the church. That is why Peter asks Sapphira why they “agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test.”

And, quite honestly, God’s angry diatribe against Israel is for the same kind of reason. Israel claimed to be bring all the tithes to God; but they weren’t. And God makes no bones about it — this is exactly the same thing as robbing God.

As our passage from Matthew indicates, God knows. God knows what we give. God knows what we keep. God knows what we say about what we give — how we represent ourselves to others in the church and to the world at large in terms of our giving and generosity. And all of that means while we might succeed in fooling people; we can’t fool God.

In other words, we need to take a serious, sober and realistic look at our own giving. We need to be honest about what we are giving. When we say we are giving as much as we can, are we really? Being good stewards means being brutally honest with ourselves about ourselves, our generosity and what we give.

Probably the best way for us to do this is to sit down with our checkbooks and our bank and credit card statements. From these documents we can probably create a pretty true picture of how we are spending the bulk of money. 

Yet I would encourage you to go even farther — for 2 months keep track of every penny you spend. Keep track of not only the large, monthly bills, but all of it. Write it all down in a notebook, every last bit of it. Include that $5 you spend from your pocket on a speciality coffee when you are out. Include that $1.50 you pull out of your pocket to buy a bag of chips at the mart when you are filling up your car with gas. Include it all.

Then, after you have a couple of months of information gathered, begin to look at how you actually spend your money. Put those individual entries into categories like utilities, groceries, dining out, entertainment (which includes the cable or satellite TV bill and “what we spend on hobbies), clothes, debt payments and so on. (If you have difficulty determining a list of categories to use, either do a web search for “budget categories” or ask me and I will help you with a list of typical categories.)

Take a good hard look at where your money really goes. For most of us, there will be some surprises as we discover just how much we spend on certain kinds of things. Do I really spend that much on eating out and “snacks” when I’m traveling?! Am I really paying more for entertainment than I give to the church? Whatever it is, unless you are already living with a budget and keeping track of your spending, I can pretty much guarantee there will be at least 1 surprise as you take an honest look at your spending.

Then, once you have figured out how you are spending your money, begin to look at some of those surprises. Why are you spending so much in some areas? Are you making purchases you really wouldn’t have to make? Are you buying things you really don’t need or use? (For instance, I regularly find myself seriously questioning if I should continue to pay for DISH TV given how little TV I watch. Do I really watch enough TV to pay that amount?)

This kind of serious, sober and realistic look at how we spend our money can give us true insight into not only how much we truly are giving, but how much we might actually be able to give. I know I’ve found almost every time I’ve intentionally sat down and looked at what I bought over the last 2 months I could find at last a few things I could have done without. I can find a few places I could have spent less on “my needs” — needs that really were only wants — and given more to the church or been generous in other ways. 

When we become realistic about our spending, we can also become realistic about our giving. We can stop lying to ourselves about how much we can give. And if we continue to track our spending from time to time, we will discover we become more and more aware of what are true needs and what are only wants. We learn to not only distinguish needs from wants, but also to think more about how we are using our money and whether we truly are living as generous, grateful stewards of what God has given us. We stop deceiving ourselves and begin to be truly honest with God — who knows the truth already.

The fact is, as our Scripture lessons for today remind us, we can’t fool God. When we simply continue to go along without really looking at our spending habits, we may be able to fool ourselves about what we do and can give. We may even be able to fool others about how generous we are. But in the end, we never fool God.

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What Kind of Giver Are You?

Posted 5/13/2018

Scriptures: Exodus 35:20-29; 2 Cor 9:6-15; Luke 14:7-14

As we’ve been looking at the nature of stewardship — what it means to be a steward of what God has given us — we’ve seen the first “leg” of stewardship is the fact that all we have and all we are is a gift from God and the second “leg” is   trust in God. It is when we have these two legs in place that we can dare to be generous. Today we are going to look a bit more at just what it means to be a generous giver.

When we think of generosity I’m fairly sure what we think of first is how much someone gives. We talk about Bill Gates and his substantial giving to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the large gifts of that Foundation. Or perhaps we think of someone like Ronald Read, a janitor and gas station attendant, who amassed an 8 million dollar fortune during his lifetime and at his death left 6 million dollars to his local library and hospital. These are generous people — giving huge quantities to worthy causes.

Certainly, such large gifts are important in the work of many charitable and public organizations. Yet, as our Gospel lesson for today indicates, it is not how MUCH one gives that counts. In fact, as our reading from 2 Corinthians says, it is not how MUCH but HOW we give. Do we give out of willingly, as we have made up our mind to do, or do we give reluctantly or under compulsion? That is, do we give because we WANT to give or because we feel we HAVE TO or SHOULD give.

I want to address something some may consider a bit controversial now. I know many who indicate that a tithe is the minimum one should give. And I certainly agree with them in some respects. But I worry a bit about the way tithing is often presented to Christians. I worry about it because it is often presented as if giving a tithe were are duty. Yet, if it is a duty, we are likely to be giving because we feel we HAVE TO or SHOULD give a tithe.

But our giving should not be a matter of meeting a duty — whether that duty is giving a tithe or meeting the budget. It should be a matter of our sober consideration and decision about what is an appropriate amount to give in thanksgiving for all we have received. That means, for me the tithe is more a guide that helps me in thinking about how much is appropriate for me to give. It is not some hard and fast rule — but something that helps me in thinking about how I express my thanksgiving. 

So the first thing for us to keep in mind as we consider what Christian generosity means is that Christian generosity grows out of thanksgiving not duty. Our generosity is our carefully considered giving that expresses our thanks for all God has given us — for all we have and all we are. That is, like the Israelites, we give because our heart is stirred to give — to share — what we have.

The second element of generosity is that because of our thanksgiving to God we give to help others who are in need. In the gospels, Jesus talks about this kind of giving as being like hosting a banquet where we invite not those neighbors who might “repay us” by inviting us to a banquet they throw at a later date. Instead, Jesus says to invite those who have nothing and cannot possibly “repay us” in any manner. In fact, Jesus doesn’t even suggest we invite people who are going to at least “repay” us by at least saying “thank you”! 

And when we look at the context of the passage we read in 2 Corinthians, we discover it is the gathering together of an offering by Gentile Christians to help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who are in desperate need. Paul says this offering will be not only a blessing to both those who give — because they are practicing generosity — and to those who receive — because they are receiving what they need. But Paul also says this will be a blessing to both those who give and those who receive because it will bind them together in love. By showing their care for the Jewish Christians, they will have demonstrated that Gentiles and Jews truly are brothers and sisters in Christ. 

In other words, our joyful generosity is a way of not only of saying “we care” but also of saying “we belong together.” It is a way of showing that we know that “we” — the “givers” — are bound to “them” — the “receivers” — in a way that means we really can’t be separated. It says we recognize when we belong together, we do things just because we belong together; not to receive thanks or something in return.

Christian stewardship invites us to reflect on the kind of giver we are. Are we generous givers? Do we give joyfully or only out of a sense of duty? Do we give without expecting something in return? Do we give because we recognize we belong together?

What kind of steward, that ism what kind of giver, are you?

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Where's Your Treasure?

Posted 5/6/2018

Scripture: Matthew 6:19-34

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Words we all have heard. Words that, as we saw last week, raise questions about the way our society views wealth and the pursuit of wealth. Yet in the context of the gospel of Matthew, these words take on a meaning much deeper than simply that which the usual sermon on this verse implies.

The verses we read this morning are all part of what is called the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon begins with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and continues through the end of Matthew 7. Near the middle of this sermon, in Matthew 6:9-13, we find the Lord’s Prayer. 

Now all this is significant because in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is teaching about the life of the Kingdom. He is explaining what life in the Kingdom of God looks like. He is also instructing his disciples what a life of discipleship involves. It is as a part of this instruction in the life of discipleship that Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer.

And, having taught the disciples the form of prayer throught the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus goes on to explain what the various phrases look like when God’s “will [is] done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus, the passage from Matthew that we read today is helping us understand what it means to ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” 

It is in the light of this that we can see that all the verses we read for today truly do belong together. They are not just a loose collection of sayings. Together they form Jesus’ commentary on the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.”

Over the last 2 weeks we have been looking at how everything that is is God’s and all that we have and are is a gift of God. This truth forms the “first leg” of any understanding of Christian stewardship. We give, because all is a gift to us. We give in thankfulness for the multitude of gifts we have received from God. We give, because it all belongs to God in the first place.

Last  week we noted, in the Deuteronomy passage we read, how when we fail to remember this — when we start to claim that what we have is ours by virtue of what we have done — we become idolatrous. Today’s lesson continues to spell out just what form that idolatry takes.

When we recognize that the entire passage we read in Matthew has a unity we begin to see that the words “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” talks first and foremost about where we place our trust. This is why the passage goes on to speak about not being anxious or worrying. It is not a matter that we are called to simply “be happy” or to act as if everything will work out in the end no matter what. It is that we are called upon to trust in God no matter what.

And so Jesus raises the question, “Where is your treasure?” Where does your trust lie? Where is it that you seek security? Is it in wealth or is it in God?

And like the passage in Deuteronomy, Jesus goes on to insist we can’t have it both ways. We must choose. Will we seek our security in wealth — in having lots of possessions, in high-paying jobs, in holding a large bank account, in having a fat retirement fund — or will we seek our security in God’s daily provision? Are we going to trust in our own provision for ourselves, or are we going to trust in God’s provision?

The reality is, to trust in God isn’t easy. The promise we have isn’t that we will be given all we want. Nor is it that we will be given all we need for the next week, much less for the rest of our life. It is that we will be given enough for today. However, our human tendency is to want more than enough and to want to be sure about having enough for more than just today. In other words, our human tendency is to trust in wealth.

Yet trusting in wealth for our security brings with it anxiety and worry, for, as the scripture says, moth and rust and thieves DO exist and they will have their way in the world. What we have gained by our efforts, in our trying to provide security for ourselves for not just today but also for tomorrow, can just as easily be lost by the vagaries of life. Our grasping after security in wealth, ultimately leaves us feeling less secure as we worry the potential of losing our wealth in a downturn in the stock market or the actions of an identity thief. Not only that, we constantly find ourselves worrying not only about provisions for today but also for tomorrow, the next week, the next month, the next year.

How hard it is for us to trust in God for our daily bread! This is partly because, as we’ve seen, our human tendencies and our world encourage us to put our trust in ourselves and our wealth. We are encouraged to seek to make ourselves secure not just for today, but for all the tomorrows we can imagine having. Yet, such trust in ourselves and our wealth leads us away from relying on God’s generosity toward a view that there is never enough to go around, so we must grasp what we can when we can. 

And it is here that a second problem arises. This anxiety lead us away from generosity — from freely giving as we have freely received. From generously giving out of what we have. From giving with generosity out of what we have to God and toward the needs of others about us. 

In Judaism one of the most basic acts of piety was almsgiving — giving to the poor. Such generosity was described as having a “healthy eye.” Thus we see in this passage Jesus is not only teaching us to trust God to give us today what we need, but to also share out of what we have received. We are to be a generous, giving people. Just as God is a generous, giving God — giving us every good and perfect gift — so we are to share out of our abundance with those who have less. We are to share out of our abundance with those who do not have enough. We are to trust in God enough that we DARE to share, rather than hoarding up for tomorrow.

Such trust in God is the second leg of stewardship. It is the leg that opens our hearts to give freely. To share, knowing that all we really need is enough for today not enough for the rest of our lives. To share, knowing that when we grasp at security through the accumulation of wealth then we are truly poor, for we discover we don’t experience security but rather anxiety.

Thankfulness for God’s good gifts and a generosity the comes from trust in God’s provisions — those are the 2 legs of stewardship. May we experience the wonders that come with being good stewards of all God gives!

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What's the Gift?

Posted 4/29/2018

Scripture: Deuteronomy 8:1-20

Last week we saw how all that is — all we have and all we are — belong to God as the Creator of everything. As we read this reminder given to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy, however, we discover that sometimes our biggest problem may be forgetting this truth. In this passage we read the reminder, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

In a world that prizes self-made men and women we are tempted, much as Israel was, to forget that all we have is a gift. We are tempted to say to ourselves that we have earned what we have. We have worked hard for it and it is ours — ours to do with as we see fit.

In Israel’s day the temptation they faced was simply that of having become wealthy. Living in a society where wealth is common (the truth is even the poorest of us in this congregation is wealthy by the standards of the whole world), this is also our temptation. As I said, it is easy for us to join in our society’s assumptions that we have earned what we own and it is ours to do with as we please. It is difficult in our cultural environment to remember that even our ability to have anything is a gift from God — that all we are and all we have is a gift from God.

We might be tempted to think this failing to remember is, at best, a relatively minor thing. Regrettable perhaps, but not anything all that serious. However, this passage indicates that our forgetting that all we have and are is a gift from God and claiming it is the result of our own efforts is, plain and simple, idolatry. It is to “follow other gods to serve and worship them…”

This is one of the “dirty little secrets” that we Christians in America don’t want to acknowledge. Our society’s views toward wealth are, quite simply, idolatrous. Our insistence on seeing ourselves as “self-made” is, as the passage in Deuteronomy indicates, idolatry. Our focus on “getting ahead” as the most important thing in life and our defining getting ahead as “success” is idolatry. It is placing other gods — the gods of self, of possessions, of accomplishments — in God’s place. It is the worship of other gods. 

Our passage from Deuteronomy tells us this idolatry, rooted in the beliefs of our society, leads us away from recognizing that all we have and all we are is God’s gift to us. In this, we (and I mean all of us, myself included) are, like the Israelites, living with temptation — and often succumbing to that temptation to see ourselves as “self-made” and so claim everything as our own. 

Yet, as I reflected on this notion of the gift(s) we have received, especially as I reflected on it coming back from a recent week of vacation, I found myself wondering if there wasn’t also another dynamic beyond the temptations our society places in front of us that makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that all we have and all we are is pure gift — a gift from God.

One of the delights of my vacation time was the opportunity to slow down. To start my day in a leisurely way, I had time to stop to reflect any time I wanted to. I had the opportunity to savor time. I was able to simply BE rather than always trying to DO. 

How different this vacation experience was from the expectations that are normally a part of our daily lives! Normally we “save time,” treating it as a precious commodity that we dare not “waste.” Productivity — “making something” of our time — is the norm. We even schedule our free time to make sure we can jam in as much “fun” as possible! 

The reality is we are constantly trying to squeeze more and more into the day, until we haven’t a moment to pause, breath and simply notice what is around us. In such a world, time spent simply enjoying the beauty of a sunrise or sunset is viewed as time that could have been spent accomplishing something of value. In other words, we jam our days so full of activity we have no time to consider what gifts God has given us, much less to pause to notice God’s presence.

In the press to do more — to have more, to experience more — there is precious little to no time to slow down. There isn’t time to acknowledge what we have received. There isn’t time to relish the gift. 

I’ve heard grandparents complaining about how their grandchildren don’t write “thank you” notes for Christmas and birthday gifts any more. Certainly, our society — and modern parents — don’t encourage this habit. But I suspect the habit has fallen into disfavor at least partly because we seldom take the time to appreciate a gift as a gift. We look at our gifts for their usefulness. We consider how the gift may save us time. We rejoice in how the gift can “add to our lives” by either giving us more free time or by making our free time more “productive” of fun and enjoyment. But we don’t stop to consider the gift as a gift. The gifts we receive are too often viewed simply as one more thing for us to use for our own advantage, one more way of making our lives more “productive” (even if that “productivity is simply having more fun). 

What is the gift? As we saw last week and this week, the gift we have received is all we have and all we are. Yet in our world, perhaps the greatest gift of all is God’s invitation to slow down, to relieve ourselves of the demand to be productive in every moment. To take time to appreciate the gifts we have received. The gifts of life. The gifts of what we possess. The gift of God’s presence in our midst.

When we pause to consider the gift, we discover we have received so much! We discover we have so much to be thankful for. We even discover that we ourselves are a gift — that our mere being is God’s gift to us. 

May we take the time to pause and recognize the gifts and give thanks to God, the giver of “every good and perfect gift.”

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Who's the Owner?

Posted 4/22/2018

Scriptures: Genesis 1:31-2:4; Psalm 24:1-10

“In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). We’ve all heard this start to the Scriptures. We all have heard the account that lists, day-by-day, God’s acts of creation. And, all arguments over such things as the length of the days and whether or not evolution is true, the basic claim of Genesis 1 is a very simple one: God created… That is, everything that is is all God’s work.

And that is also the claim of Ps 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” When it comes to the question, “Who’s the owner?” Scripture tells us it really doesn’t matter what it is we are talking about, it is all God’s.

We hear throughout Scripture witnesses to this reality such as that found in Ps 50, where we read: “For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. … the world and all that is in it is mine.” (Ps 50:10-12).

Yet what does it mean to say God is the owner of everything? The first, and most significant thing it means for you and I is we are stewards. We are the stewards, not the owners, of all we have and all we are. God has made everything we own and God has made us. We are not really the owners of what we “possess,” we are simply the managers on behalf of God.

We are simply managers of what God created and owns. In other words, no matter how much we may like to believe ourselves to have “earned” what we have, it all really belongs to God. No matter how much we like to think we have “made something of ourselves,” it is God who made us to begin with and we belong to God.

We don’t own the world. We are only managers — or stewards — of God’s world. And if that is true, the real question we need to ask isn’t “what have you made of yourself?” but “what kind of manager are you?”

1. Are you a manager who recognizes that all you have and all you are comes from God as a gift or do you think you own it all? As I just said, the real question isn’t “what have you made of yourself?” but “what kind of manager are you?” It is so easy to forget that we are simply managers, not owners. 

But such a forgetfulness is both dangerous and potentially “deadly.” In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a parable about tenants of a vineyard who refuse to give their portion of the produce of the vineyard to the owner. In fact, they finally seek to seize the vineyard for themselves. As we heard this refusal to recognize the true owner leads to their death. 

To forget that we are merely stewards and not the owners leads to our death. It leads to our death as we strive harder and harder to gain ever more of the world’s resources and find our souls dying in the process. It leads to our death as we seek to control a world that is beyond our control and find our peace dying in the process. It leads to our death as we find ourselves bearing the burden of the world on our shoulders in the mistaken belief that it is all ours and find our lives to be anything but truly living. 

In contrast, when we recall we are but managers — stewards — of God’s world, we allow room for God to work, and no longer have to be in control all the time — or even much of the time. We trust God to provide, and no longer have to frantically strive to get more and more. We discover peace and life.

2. Are you a manager who seeks to both preserve and make fruitful God’s good creation? In Genesis God blesses his creation, telling it to “be fruitful.” While in the context of Genesis 1, this means primarily reproducing and expanding in numbers; in the context of our stewardship of the earth today it means making sure that the ongoing life of all the creatures of earth is assured. It means making sure we, like God did in Genesis 1, provide an environment where all creatures of God may thrive. To, as Genesis 2 says “tend God’s garden.”

To forget that we are merely stewards and not owners leads us to abuse and potentially destroy the earth. Yet in such destruction we eventually discover our own destruction, for we are dependent upon the creation for our own sustenance. To destroy creation is to destroy the very food, water and air we need. It is to make earth uninhabitable for ourselves. It is to see the world as only something to be used for our own benefit, not something to be tended and cared for.

In contrast, when we recall that we are but managers — stewards — of God’s world, we seek to work for the benefit of not only our own lives, but the lives of all that is within creation. We seek to ensure an environment where all plants and animals — everything God has created — can grow and flourish. We see the world, not as something created only for our own benefit but as a good creation in its own right.

When we truly understand that “The earth is the Lord’s” we know that we, all we have, and all that is is God’s good creation. We are clear that God is the true owner of everything. We know ourselves to be not the owners of our own lives or of the world, but simply stewards — those entrusted to care for all God’s good gifts. 

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Who Are You Seeking?

Posted 4/1/2018

Scripture: John 20:1-18

It’s Sunday morning and the Sabbath Day — the day of rest — is over. The absolute shock of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion is somewhat past. The body has been buried and the grief is perhaps a little less intense. Yet as anyone who have ever experienced the death of someone they love knows, grief doesn’t just go away because there’s been a funeral. And, like so many of us, Mary seeks comfort in her grief by going to the graveside. Who or what was Mary seeking? She was seeking the body of her dearly beloved Teacher. She was seeking to be near her dear friend — even if it was only near his corpse. She was seeking the one she had known these past few years and longing for just one more moment with him. She was seeking and longing for the one who had loved her when everyone else reviled her. The one who had forgiven her when everyone else condemned her. The one who had been her friend when everyone else shunned her presence. 

And so Mary came to the tomb, seeking her Teacher and friend. Perhaps, despite the stone over the entry, she even hoped to do what would be traditional — place more spices with the body. But when she got there, she saw the stone rolled away. Mary quickly jumped to the only logical conclusion one could come to — grave robbers had been there. The body would have been taken. Having come to be at the graveside of her beloved Teacher and friend, here was yet another — a new — grief. Even the body was gone. Even what she came expecting to find was now missing.

And what about the disciples who run to the tomb? Do they expect — do they look for anything more than a body? It would seem not. They rush to the tomb, only to walk away. They walk away, like Mary, somewhat perplexed by the fact the body seems to have been stolen. And probably even more perplexed because this must have been a very strange grave-robber. A robber who not only took time to remove the grave-cloths, but even left them — perhaps the most valuable thing in that grave — behind. 

It would seem the two disciples, like Mary, came to the tomb looking for the body of their beloved Teacher — now dead. Entering the tomb and verifying the body wasn’t there, they too come to the only logical conclusion one could make — the body has been stolen.

That first Easter morning both Mary and the disciples  come to the tomb seeking a corpse. They come seeking only the one who was. They come longing for the relationship that had been to be once more. They came longing for life to continue as it had been only a few short days before. And they come to the only logical conclusion they can make based on the evidence — Jesus’ body has been stolen.

It is this same logical conclusion that drives Mary as she looks into the tomb and then turns to speak with the one she believes to be the gardener. She has come seeking Jesus. She has come seeking the body of a man — even if a remarkable man — who had been crucified and buried. She has come, seeking to be near to the one she had loved — even if it was only near his corpse. She comes seeking only the one who had been. 

Even after Jesus speaks, Mary responds with words that show she still is seeking only the one who had been. “Rabbi” (Teacher), she say. She still doesn’t understand; as had already been noted earlier in the passage, where it is speaking of the two disciples who ran to the tomb. She still doesn’t get “the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” She still only thought of Jesus as the one he had been.

And this Easter morning, who do you come seeking? Do you come seeking closeness with a great teacher? One whose words give guidance and wisdom for living? Do you come seeking only one whose words inspire? One who gives you new heart and strength to face the next week? Do you come seeking one whose moral example is worthy of following? One who lays out the path for “the good life” and helps you to make “good decisions?” Do you come seeking only the one who had been?

And yet, the one Mary met that morning was not simply the dear friend she had known. He was not simply “Rabbi,” Teacher. He was not simply an inspiring leader or a great moral example. He was not just a corpse re-animated — one who would continue to live just as he had lived up until his arrest and crucifixion. He was not one with whom the relationship that had been could simply be restored so that life would go on unchanged.

No, this was no ghost or zombie. This is the one who is raised from the dead. This is one who lives — and lives a new life. This was the one who is ascending to God. This is the one who receives all power from his Father. This was the one who could no longer be understood by the categories of logic and the power dynamics of this world. This was the one to whom Mary couldn’t cling because her relationship with this one — this Lord — must be new and different from any she has had before. This was the one is no longer simply “Rabbi,” but also “Lord.”

This Easter, who do you come seeking? Do you come seeking the one who is Lord? The one who  quite honestly bursts all the bounds of our neat logic? The one who is not simply Rabbi, or inspiring leader or a great ethical example, but the risen, living Lord? The one whose power is the power of God, whose love for us is the love of God, and whose life is the gift of life for us — the very gift of God?

Do you comes seeking the one who changes not only the “rules of the world” but the lives of all who follow him — making the impossible possible? The one whose forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new life — a life with God that we never would have dreamed possible. The one whose death leads to victory over death? The one whose crucifixion leads to Lordship over all the world? The one whose humble service leads to ever-lasting glory?

Just who do you come seeking this Easter morning? Do you come seeking a re-animated corpse or the one who is the risen, living Lord of your life and all creation?

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