Foolishness

Posted 7/29/2018

Scripture: Psalm 14

It has been said “Foolishness is doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome.” Fools and foolishness are the subject of many of popular sayings and a subject that often appears in books. Consider these sayings and quotes:

A fool and his money are soon parted. 

“The fool attempts to predict the next big wave while ignoring the tide.” ― Fahad Basheer

“Only a foolish child would go swimming in the river that swallowed his father.” ― Bamigboye Olurotimi

“Foolproof systems don't take into account the ingenuity of fools” ― Gene Brown

“The biggest fool is one who minds the business of others rather than minding his very own” ― Amit Abraham

“A fool can't help but be a fool, but when others follow, he makes a fool of us all.” ― DaShanne Stokes

Scripture has it’s own definition of foolishness — a definition we hear in our Psalm for today: “Fools say in their heart ‘There is no God.’” In the Bible, utter folly is to deny or ignore the existence of God. But this folly doesn’t consist in simply intellectually saying “God doesn’t exist.” Just as in popular thought, where foolishness is revealed in what one does, so folly in the Biblical understanding is a matter of how we live. It is seen in our behavior.

Notice, Scripture doesn’t say foolishness is to have intellectual doubts about God’s existence. Simply wondering about God’s existence isn’t what is in view here. This “say[ing] in [one’s] heart “There is no God” goes to a much deeper level of our existence than mere thought.

In Scripture, foolishness — saying there is no God — is to say we are not accountable to God for how we live. It is to assume that we can do whatever we want to do without any real consequences. It is especially to feel there are no eternal consequences. Such foolishness — such a refusal to recognize that we are accountable to God — leads to an “anything goes” mentality that inevitably invites one to go against God’s moral order.

While we need to acknowledge that what we think — whether we think God exists or not — is important; what kind of God we believe in is just — or even more — important. That is why the point in the Psalmist’s words are not simply about an intellectual assent to the existence of God. As Scripture says in James, even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). Simply believing God exists is not the problem that the Psalmist is addressing.

Rather the real problem — the foolishness of which this Psalm speaks — is found in not believing God provides a moral order by which we are to live. It is found in an “anything goes” attitude. It is found in a failure to accept that there are consequences — divinely ordered consequences — to our actions.

It is this failure to accept the limits God imposes that formed the heart of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. The serpent suggested that God really doesn’t mean it that they will die if they eat the forbidden fruit, rather they will simply “become wise.” That is, the serpent suggested that what God has established as an ordering of creation and the consequences of breaking that order really doesn’t exist. In suggesting they will “become wise,” the serpent suggested Adam and Eve can do as they please without worrying about consequences. 

And so it is with all of Adam and Eve’s descendants. Unwillingness to believe in the God who created us leads us to deny the limits our Creator has placed upon us as His creatures. We become convinced of our own autonomy — our ability to do what we wish and to care for ourselves without any need of God. We become convinced of our own ability to decide what is right and wrong. We live as the serpent suggested we could live. Having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we believe we alone can decide what is good and what is evil.

Yet, the truth is, we can’t determine good and evil. Despite our best efforts, we consistently fail in this as the ills and evils we so readily see in our world prove. Furthermore, in the grips of this belief that we can determine good and evil, we no longer seek after God for we believe we have no real need of God.

This is the folly of which the Psalmist speaks. A folly that seeks to define reality and the world by our own terms. A folly that recognizes no limits — that fails to acknowledge we are creatures. Such folly is at its heart simply a failure to acknowledge the Creator.

However, when we acknowledge our creatureliness we discover our need for God and God’s guidance. We know that the world has a moral order — that what we do matters. We acknowledge that we are responsible to God for our actions — that we can’t do anything we want without consequences. 

And in that we discover the wonder of the gospel — that Jesus Christ has come so that our own disobedience might be covered with his obedience and our resistance to God might be overcome by the power of his spirit. In recognizing our responsibility before God we discover, ironically, our true freedom in Christ. A freedom that is not a matter of doing what we want, but of living in harmony with all God’s creation. 

While popular notions of fools and folly provide some good advice, only the Scriptural understanding of folly can guide us into true, abundant life. So let’s put our folly behind us and live with the knowledge of God — which truly is, as Proverbs indicates, the beginning of real wisdom!

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Walls or Temples?

Posted 7/22/2018

Scripture: Ephesians 2:11-22

I remember both times when the culture of the presbytery I belonged to then started to change. We were a large presbytery. Well, not that large in number of churches, but very large in geography. Like most large presbyteries we had a few relatively larger cities — complete with colleges — and a whole lot of rural territory. As you might imagine, we also had a lot of theological diversity in our churches.

When I first arrived, we were a presbytery terribly divided, primarily over allegiances to various members of the presbytery staff. But then the staff left and there was some very intentional work to bring the presbytery back together. All this happened very early in my something like 12 years in that presbytery, and it was something that I was aware of only vaguely since I wasn’t particularly involved in the presbytery structure.

It wasn’t long into that healing process, however, that I found myself becoming involved at the presbytery level. That’s when I began to notice what to me became the hallmark of this presbytery during the majority of my years there. It was something I had never experienced in any other presbytery - Christian unity among pastors with very different theologies. And it showed up in one very obvious way.

Our meetings took place over 2 days. (Remember, I said we were large geographically. Many people traveled 8 or perhaps even 10 hours to get to the presbytery meeting.) After the evening session on the first day, which usually ended about 8 PM, presbytery commissioners would go out together for a bit of evening socializing before turning it. It was something about that time of socializing together that is what struck me.

You see, we might have a very heated debate on an agenda item during the afternoon or evening session. But when that happened it was a given that at the next break in the meeting the individuals who had so vehemently disagreed on the floor of the presbytery meeting would find each other and make arrangements to go out to socialize together that evening. This pattern held for something at least 8 years of my time there. To me, this was a presbytery where everyone was committed to building a temple not walls.

In our epistle lesson for today, we read about temples and walls. In Paul’s day, the walls were between Jews and Gentiles. They were not only social walls that divided people in the world “out there;” they were walls that were dividing people within the church. We read about this division in a variety of Paul’s letters as well as in Acts. 

Within the church there were “Jewish” parties, who felt that continuing to keep the Jewish law (for instance, the dietary laws on what was permissible to eat) and those Gentiles who saw no point in such laws. While we read in Acts that Paul confronted those who insisted on Gentiles keeping the Jewish dietary law, in other places (for instance in Romans) we read about his urging church members to be tolerant of each other’s beliefs and practices. In both cases Paul was saying in essence, “Don’t let what you eat divide you!” 

But Paul goes beyond simply urging tolerance, because he knows that mere tolerance won’t build a community up. He urges that both parties be considerate of each other. That both go out of their way to make sure that the relationship between them isn’t damaged. And that, to me, was the wonder of what I witnessed in that presbytery. 

As I said at the beginning, though, the culture of that presbytery started to change before I left. We had a pastor or two who moved in who began to not seek out those with whom they disagreed. It wasn’t long before an undertone of those who disagreed with one feeling that those “others” weren’t really Christians started to develop.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the problem with walls. When we build walls not a temple, we find it perfectly fine to question the faith and faithfulness of other followers of Jesus because they don’t believe just like us or live out their faith in the same way we do. 

But we are urged in Scripture to build a temple, not a bunch of walls. We are urged to not let all those things that can divide us — beliefs, practices, cultures, ethnicity — to divide us. We are urged to focus on our unity in Christ not our differences in how we follow Christ.

More than that, we are urged to actively work at maintaining our unity in the midst of all our differences. One doesn’t build a temple without work. It takes work to fit the various blocks of stone or brick (the building materials of that day) together. It even may take a bit of cutting and grinding to fit them together properly. In the same way it can take some “cutting and grinding” in our lives to enable us to fit together — a process Paul describes in his letters as a willingness to put aside our own interests in favor of those of our fellow Christians.

The fact is, it is easy to build walls. We can always find ways in which we differ from others; no two of us are exactly alike. It is easy to let those differences lead us into judging one another. It is easy to avoid the hard work of learning to live together with our differences.

Yet over and over Scripture tells us we are to be about building temples not walls. We are to be about helping one another live out our faith in the way that fits our own personality and life experiences. We are to be about living together and sharing our spiritual gifts with one another so that each and every one of us might grow in faith and be stronger in our discipleship. 

As I said, building temples is hard work. It requires we listen — really listen — to what another has to say. It requires that we not make our own faith experiences the standard for judging everyone else’s faith experience. It requires a humbleness that quite frankly isn’t a part of our culture.

It requires a willingness to accept that we might be mistaken. A willingness to reconsider and potentially learn. It requires an openness to discovering there is something we need to consider that we never thought of in forming our belief. 

That it is that commitment to Christ that matters more than our own personal (or denominational) theological understanding. That we recognize while we may have important — even vital — insight to bring to the table, there is none of us who have the whole truth.  

In saying that I’m not suggesting that just “anything goes.” What I am suggesting is that we remain humble about the differences that may exist between us, but very serious about our mutual commitment to Christ. That we take seriously what Scripture says about accepting one another in love. That we listen carefully when Paul tells us, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Co 12:3)

Otherwise we become quick to build walls instead of temples. We rush to judgments and divide the body of Christ. Instead of thinking the best of everyone (as Calvin urges we do), we start to think the worst of everyone. 

Building walls is easy and it is also what “comes naturally” to us as humans. Yet we are called to build a temple. We are called to do the hard work of allowing ourselves be bound together with others — including others who differ from us, sometimes radically. We are called upon to value our bonds in Christ more than our own individual ways of living out that relationship with Christ. We are called upon to not simply tolerate each other, but to actively work to build the unity we have been given in Christ.

So, which are you doing? Are you building walls or are you building a temple?

 

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Traveling Light

Posted 7/8/2018

Scripture: Mark 6:1-13

What I would pack for a vacation when I was younger was, quite honestly, absolutely ridiculous. For a 2 week vacation I would not only pack a couple large suitcases with clothes and “personal supplies”, I’d pack an entire large box of books (some “fun,” some “serious”) and at least one, or maybe 2, craft projects (normally knitting, crocheting or embroidery projects). There was also a need for snacks — lots of snacks — to eat while driving. And, of course, I’d need to be sure I had enough for both ways. And then there was my dog and all her supplies — kennel, food, toys, dishes, leash…

By the time I was done packing, my trunk would be pretty full, the back seat would be covered, and the passenger seat would also have its fair share of stuff piled up on it. My packing motto was “Be absolutely sure you have everything you might need or want with you.” Loading and unloading the car would require 4 trips or maybe 5, not counting the couple of trips for the dog.

Over the years I’ve learned to travel lighter. Today for that same 2 weeks I pack 1 medium sized suitcase, maybe a couple of books (or perhaps just my Kindle), probably my iPad and computer, a current craft project and the dog with her food and dishes. Loading now requires more like 3 trips, including the dog. If I had to, I could fit it all on the back seat. Yep, over the years I’ve learned to travel much lighter.

Our gospel lesson for today talks about traveling — and about the need to “travel light.” 

The first thing to notice about this lesson is that the call is to travel. Over and over we read in the gospel how Jesus insisted on traveling from village to village rather than staying in one place. It pretty much seems that any time people would try to convince Jesus to stay in a place, that was the point at which he would insist on moving on. Jesus wasn’t one to stay put and wait for folk to come to him (although there were crowds that did that, even crowds that followed him around). In the gospels we read how Jesus kept moving — traveling to where people lived.

And here we read about how Jesus sends out his disciples — putting them “on the road” much as he lived “on the road.” He sends them out to go where people live. He doesn’t want them to stay put and wait for others to come to him — he wants them “out there” — reaching out to folk who might never come to them.

I think this is important for us to notice because all too often, it seems to me, we in the church have had more of what could be called a Field of Dreams attitude. We tend more toward an “if we build it, they will come” attitude than a “go to them” attitude. We gather in our sanctuaries and wonder why people aren’t coming to us to join us here in our worship and mission. We don’t really think about or plan to go out to where they are. We aren’t all that focused on going “out there” — to the places where the folks who aren’t already coming actually are.

Yet the gospels are clear — we are called to “go.” In this passage Jesus sends the disciples out. He puts them on the road to the surrounding villages. He sends them to find people who weren’t, and most likely wouldn’t, come to them. 

And after his resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples saying “Go into all the world.” He doesn’t limit this sending to just the neighborhood any more. He sends us into the whole world — everywhere people are. He sends us to everyone who isn’t coming to us. (And frankly, we all know that’s a lot of people!)

The fact is, Jesus doesn’t call us to stay put in our comfortable church buildings, but to go out there — where people are. To go out to where those who aren’t coming to church spend their daily lives. To go out into the daily-ness and the ordinary-ness of people’s lives.

Secondly, in this passage Jesus is pointed in telling the disciples to “travel light.” He tells them to “take nothing for the journey.” No pre-made sandwiches or bag of snacks to eat along the way. Not even any money to buy a candy bar much less lunch or supper! No second set of cloths, just what they would normally wear in a day. They are to go with nothing but a walking stick and their shoes. Instead of packing along tons of supplies for the journey, they were to trust that God would supply their needs. They were to trust there would be people in the places to which they traveled who would provide them with food and lodging. 

As I indicated, it seems to me we are not all that inclined as churches to set out on the road. And when we do, we tend to not travel all that light. We figure we need our fancy evangelism programs, or an modern up-to-date building with special attractive events, or a bunch of technological gizmos in worship, or any one of a number of other things to attract people. We look to pack all kinds of things along with us — or even use the lack of those things as a reason to never set out.

But what if all we needed to do was to travel? What might happen if we were to actually decide to do what Jesus tells his disciples to do and travel light?

What if all we needed to do was to go out to where people are with just what we normally carry? What if we — our lives and the story of our own spiritual pilgrimage — was enough? What if it were the quality of our relationships with one another — the kind of community we are — that attracts others, not our fancy programs or modern, technologically equipped buildings? What if the call isn’t to carry a carload of stuff with us, but to trust God to provide what we need when we need it?

What if, instead of worrying about some special evangelism program we simply concentrated on becoming friends, real friends, with the neighbors we seldom talk to? What if we were to quietly share what our Christian journey has been or what our faith means to us when there are natural openings to do so in our conversations? What if we simply did what those early disciples did? What if we assumed WE were enough? That we didn’t need anything more than ourselves to carry the good news to those around us?

And what if we were to go to some of our younger people in the community? Despite what we may believe about younger generations, they really do have a hunger for a spiritual life. What if we were to journey with them, not only in our actions but in quietly, humbly sharing our own spiritual journey? What if we were to help them know how they could experience Jesus in day-to-day life by sharing how we have experienced Jesus in day-to-day life?

And notice WHAT the disciples were sent out to do. We are told they went out “proclaim[ing] that all should repent” and casting out demons and curing the sick. In other words, we are called upon to share the good news of God’s kingdom in word and in deed.

I think the other thing we too often do is we limit our sharing the good news of the kingdom to simply sharing it in deed. We think that our helping others is enough of a witness to Jesus. After all, we know we are doing all these helpful things because we are Christians. 

But that’s the point — we know, but do they know? Let’s be honest; there are lots and lots of people who do lots of helpful things for others for lots of different reasons. If people are to know we are doing these things because we are Christian, we are going to have to say that. Otherwise, how in the world will they know we aren’t just another helpful non-profit, like the Red Cross, or a social service agency? If we don’t speak the name of Jesus, how in the world can they know it is because of Jesus that we are doing what we do? That what we do isn’t just a matter of “helping others” but rather our showing the reality of the kingdom of God come into our midst? How are they to know we’re doing what we do because we know Jesus?

Our call is to travel — to get out there where the people who aren’t already following Jesus are. Our call is to travel light — to recognize that WE are what is needed in our travels, not some carload of programs and techniques. Just who we are and how we have experienced Jesus’ presence. Our call is to share — by word and deed. 

The question is are we willing to travel? Are we willing risk trusting God by traveling light; sharing the good news of God’s kingdom through what we do and through what we say?

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Relying on God

Posted 7/1/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 130, Mark 5:21-43

Sometimes life seems to be spinning out of control and we feel ourselves to be at our wit’s end. Perhaps it was a serious medical diagnosis which left you feeling life is out of your control. Perhaps it has happened because you suddenly found yourself laid off or otherwise out of work. Perhaps you feel this way because of a crisis within your family circle or in the life of a close friend. Whatever the cause, all of us experience times when we feel our life is out of control. 

Whatever else we may feel at such times, we almost inevitably feel disoriented, at least for a little while. The world we had relied upon has suddenly become unpredictable — a world vastly different from the one in which we thought we were living. Our lives have been turned upside down and we aren’t sure how to make sense of what is happening. Suddenly everything feels different — and we don’t know quite what to make of it all.

We may also feel angry. We can’t understand why this should happen to ME. What did I ever do to deserve this? It all seems so totally unfair. We may find ourselves lashing out at others — even those who love, support and are trying to help us. 

At such times we are also likely to feel sad and depressed. This only adds to our sense of being unable to cope with what is happening to and around us. Our sadness and depression can be so intense that they make it hard for us to make any plans for the future or to take any action.

When our world goes spinning out of control and we are at our wit’s end, we have a deep need for something to hang onto. When all else in our world seems to have been turned upside down and to be unpredictable, we need something to be an immoveable anchor. We need something — or someone — we know we can rely upon. Our Scriptures for today include several people who found their world turned upside down and experienced that desperate need for something or someone they could rely upon.

“Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,” we hear the Psalmist say. We aren’t really told why the Psalmist felt so desperate. What we do know is he was experiencing his life as if he were drowning in the midst of the depths of the sea. All we know is that life had become unpredictable, chaotic, even filled with dreadful fear for the Psalmist. He felt himself to be struggling to survive in the “depths” of chaotic and destructive waters. The Psalmist knows his deep need.

In the same way, in the gospel lesson, we read of 2 other people who are desperate — a father desperately seeking the healing of his daughter who is about to die and an unnamed woman who has exhausted not only her finances but also all other possibilities for healing. Both come to Jesus with their deep need. 

And in all three of these cases we discover that they also come with deep faith. The Psalmist doesn’t hesitate in the midst of his desperate situation, whatever it was, to cry out to God, confident that “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.” The unnamed woman comes to Jesus, confident that simply touching the hem of his robe will heal her. Jairus comes, confident that Jesus will go with him and that he can make his daughter well, restoring her to life. 

In these Scriptures we see that deep need calls for deep faith. A deep trust that God’s in his steadfast love will not ignore us when we cry to him. A deep confidence that God has great power to redeem — and desires to redeem. An abiding assurance that Jesus cares and will act to heal, save and restore. A deep faith that God can and will give us new life even in the face of what seems certain death.

This kind of deep faith trusts in God’s faithful redemption. It has no doubts that God can and will act on our behalf to save. This is not a faith that is unfamiliar with trouble and deep need. It is not a faith that has never experienced difficult times, even desperation. Rather, it is a faith that rises up in the midst of the darkest hours in our lives.

What can we do in our dark hours? When life seems hopeless? What all seems lost? When we have no idea where to turn or who can help? The witness of Scripture is this is a time we can turn to God — confident of God’s care. This is a time we can turn to Jesus — the one who knows our every temptation and sorrow. We can turn to Jesus, who like us, experienced the trials, temptations, disappointments and hurts of life. We can turn to Jesus who has himself experienced the depths of despair. We can turn to Jesus who prayed in Gethsemane with such intensity that he shed drops of blood. We can turn to Jesus who on the cross cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

And we turn to Jesus, not simply because he has experienced the trials, temptations, disappointments and hurts of life — not just because he has shared human life with us — but because this same Jesus is also God-with-us and God-for-us. This same Jesus not only rose, but reigns in power and is in heaven interceding for us. This same Jesus not only showed his love for us in his life and death, he continues to show his love for us as our advocate with the Father in heaven. 

We turn to God in our darkest hours, not because of some vague belief that God cares; but because we have experienced the reality of God’s care expressed in the life of Jesus. A care that reaches even into the depths of our lives — even into the darkest places in which we may find ourselves. When all else in life seems to have given way, we can rely upon God.

And this relying upon God means bringing our deep need to Jesus. Like Jairus, like the unnamed woman, we can come to Jesus in our darkest hours confident of Jesus’ healing, redeeming touch. We can come, knowing that Jesus cares for us — cares passionately. That Jesus cares for us not in a general way, but in a deeply personal way. 

Notice how in this story, Jesus refused to allow the woman to go unnoticed. We may not learn her name, but we do learn that Jesus insisted on having a personal relationship with her. No anonymous healing, despite the fact this seems to be the woman’s desire. No, Jesus insists this be a healing that leads to a real relationship as Jesus speaks to her in tenderness and love. Notice how Jesus insists upon establishing this personal relationship with the unnamed woman even in the face of Jairus’ pressing need. 

Yet this taking time to establish a relationship with the unnamed woman did not lead to Jesus ignoring Jairus’ deep need — even when the report comes that all is now hopeless. Even in the face of death, Jesus invites Jairus into a relationship with himself, saying “Do not fear, only believe.” He continues on with Jairus to his house and there he raises Jairus’ daughter, meeting Jairus’ deep need. 

Jesus takes time for each of us. Time to be with each of us personally in our deepest needs. Time to establish a loving, caring relationship with each of us individually in our darkest hours. Jesus walks with us through the deep waters and brings us out of the depths when we cry to him. Granted, as was true with Jesus, our bringing out of the depths may require our taking up a cross. But the promise is, Jesus reigns for us and he will raise us up, even from the power of death.

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Faith or Fear?

Posted 6/24/2018

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 32-49; Mark 4:35-41

Experiencing fear is not at all uncommon as some statistics about our fears show:

Something like 9-20% of Americans say they avoid going to the dentist because of fear. 

Something like 25 million (about 7%) of Americans suffer from some form of fear of flying. These people fall into 2 groups: Those afraid of a plane crash and those who are claustrophobic. 

Fear of severe weather was at least a bit of a problem for 73% of those who participated in a survey of mostly college-aged students.

Three to five percent of us suffer from acrophobia — a fear of heights. 

Fifteen million (close to 5%) of American adults fear speaking in public. Those who are affected with this phobia can also develop a fear of eating or drinking in front of anyone, or even of being around almost anyone but family members.

Fifteen to twenty percent of us experience at least one episode of some kind of phobia in our lifetimes. Something like 8.7% of adult Americans have at least 1 extreme fear.

Extreme fear — phobias — can paralyze us. Yet it isn’t just phobias that can paralyze us. There are many other fears that can paralyze us, leaving us unable to make any plan of action. One of those fears that many of us have is fears about the future. Like our fears of public speaking or heights or small spaces, our fear of the future can leave us paralyzed, unable to plan for the future or to respond appropriately to the changes we notice about us.

This latter fear, the fear of the future, is, I believe, a particular problem for churches. We see the changes in society about us. These changes seem to threaten our faith and the life of the church. We become fearful — a fear that often shows itself in our blaming these changes for the decline in church attendance, social problems and whatever else seems to us to be wrong in the world today.

Within the church, we are acutely aware of the dwindling number of people attending worship. We notice the number of people who used to attend “regularly” who now come much less often. We are anxious over the amount of offerings we are receiving. In so many ways our future seems so uncertain. In fact, the possibility of even having a future may seem uncertain. We become fearful and start cutting budgets, programs and outreach.

But just what does Scripture suggest we are to do in the face of the fears we experience — especially those we experience as a church? Our Scripture lessons for today give us some insight into how we can respond to our fears.

The first thing our Old Testament and Gospel passages suggest to us is that we not pretend that real threats don’t exist. We are not called upon to act as if there really aren’t dangers in our world. We aren’t called upon to pretend that the societal trends and trends in the church which cause us anxiety about our future aren’t real. Goliaths really do exist. Serious storms that threaten to capsize our boats are real. Such dangers are not figments of our imaginations. They are not to be dismissed as if they didn’t exist.

The truth is, changes in society HAVE made “church as we have always done it” more difficult to do. There really are a lot more things happening on Sunday that draw people away from attending Sunday morning worship. Our culture doesn’t assume that church attendance is part of being a good citizen anymore, so fewer people consider church attendance necessary. There really are a lot of changes in our society that make church life as we knew it in the heydays of the 1950’s pretty much impossible today. We need to admit these changes are real — and present a challenge to us as a church.

The second thing these Scripture lessons suggest is that we are to respond to these threatening “Goliaths” not with fear but with faith. But such faith isn’t faith in our own ability to resolve the danger or eliminate the threat. It is faith in God’s ability to save. 

In our Old Testament lesson, notice how David says “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” It isn’t the fact David has killed lions and bears before that makes David confident in the face of the threat Goliath presents. It is the fact he has experienced God’s salvation at work in his life in the face of threats before this moment that makes David confident. He is clear — it is God who has saved him from these ferocious animals, not his own bravery or his skill with a slingshot.

In the face of what feel like threatening changes in society about us, we are to have faith — faith in God and faith in Jesus. Like the disciples in the boat, we need to be willing to trust that Jesus is able to handle the situation. That God is big enough to take care of us, even when the boat is filling with water and in danger of capsizing. We need to trust in God, no matter what our circumstances.

Third, we are called upon to step out of simply doing what we’ve always done. The answer to our fears about the future are not found in working harder at doing the same thing yet one more time. It is found in following the leading of God’s Spirit into new ways of being and doing church.

The answer to the threat Goliath posed wasn’t found in the clash of fully armed military men. Saul and the Israelite army were fearful, because all they could imagine was a battle of warrior against warrior — and Goliath was not only larger and stronger, but was much better armed. In such a conventional battle they had no doubt about the fact they would lose.

The answer to Goliath’s threat wasn’t found in David putting on Saul’s armor so he could fight like any other military man. It was found in David going out like the shepherd he was. It was found in a shepherd boy, not a warrior. It was found in David going out with a slingshot and a few stones, not in armor carrying the weapons of war.

Times have changed. Society about us has changed and frankly we too have changed. That means the things we once did are not the answer for today challenges. God calls us to new ways of being the church. God calls us to new ministries. To new ways of showing God’s love to those about us. To new ways of involvement in our community. To new ways of reaching out to our neighbors. 

And we have changed. Rather than continuing to do old things, we need to met today’s challenges with the skills, assets and faith we have today. We need to imagine new ways these can show the love of Christ to those about us. We need to discover the new ways God is calling us to be God’s people in today’s realities.

But to do this we need to take an honest look at what we DO have. 

We may not have the money we once had, but we still have our building. How can we use our building in ways that show God’s love to those who live in our community not just for our own use?

We may not have the young people we once had, but we do have people who have lived life and gained a certain amount of wisdom. How can we use the experience and wisdom we possess as a congregation to respond to the challenges our community faces?

These are just two examples of the ways in which we might begin to think about how we meet the challenges of ministry that we face today.

Yes, we face changes and challenges as a church — lots of changes and challenges. And those changes and challenges  can feel threatening. But we can respond to them with faith and creativity, knowing that God is with us and calls and equips us for ministry in our world of today.

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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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