Wednesday, October 24, 2012

No Arm Twisting, Please!

2 Corinthians 9: 6-8
You’ve guessed it by now.  This is the annual sermon on, and about, money and giving.  And like I said last year…even though Jesus talked a lot about financial responsibility coupled with moral imperative, it is a myth that we, in the church, only talk money from the pulpit.  This is just one sermon out of 52 or it’s a mere 1.9% of the time to be exact, that we will talk about money.  So please don’t go away thinking that’s all the church ever talks about.  Because you see it is not.

It is interesting to note however that if Jesus were in this pulpit out of the 39 parables that are attributed to Jesus, 11 of them are concerned with money, or ‘treasures’.  In fact he talked more about money than heaven or hell combined.  And it is not that he talked about us prospering or protecting our investments, rather his take on this ‘kingdom of God’ is that we should take what we need and then give away a healthy portion of it to help those in need; feed, clothe and house disadvantaged people.  Money is not a bad thing, the handling of it though is what matters to him.

So let’s set the stage for the scripture that we just heard.  Here is Paul the missionary who made his way to Corinth to begin a church.  When he left he had promised to come and visit them again but he changed his mind so he writes a letter to them.  In it he explains why he changed his mind and to encourage them to be generous to other Christians like  the Macedonians who were poor people and were in need. 

I am convinced that Paul did not have an easy life and he definitely was tenacious in character.  He was never afraid, and was always encouraging people to give to the church so that they poor among them could be fed.  He knew what he believed and he wasn’t afraid to share with others no matter the cost.  I like how Eugene Peterson has reframed the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. That will protect you against sob stories and arm-twisting. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.  God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. Amen!
                                                                       The Message – 2 Corinthians 9: 6-8

Peterson gets down to the basics, no candy coating it, if you are stingy that’s what will come back to you but if you are generous, lavish even then that is what you will reap.  Basically, you get what you pay for.  Then he says, think about that analogy and make up your own mind as to what you will give.  We really don’t want to do any arm-twisting, Lyle Heimbaugh, notwithstanding!

God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.  How wonderful a phrase is that, too imagine God absolutely enthralled when you feel really good with what you have given?  Don’t give till it hurts…..give till it feels good.  Really good for you; God will be delighted.  God will be tickled pink.  God loves a cheerful giver.  And you will be blessed. 

There was a family once who joined a church.  They hadn’t much been church goers so the concept of pledging was somewhat foreign to them.  They really didn’t have much and their children were eligible for reduced price lunches in the public school.  They were living hand to mouth.  But through other peoples examples of giving at the church they began to see that they would not go hungry because of their pledge, that God would ultimately bless their generous efforts.  It wasn’t the size of their gift, it was the faith and trust in giving. 

Another family had a stable and higher than average income. They had pledged in the past but had become a bit disgruntled by the handling of particular fund and so they decided to withhold their pledge rather than speak out about their unhappiness.  Issues come and issue go in churches, we all know that. But the mission of the church, as directed by God through Jesus Christ never changes. 

I suppose what they did was one way to try influence change but what about what God has called us to do?  What about the personal call to be generous with the gifts you have been given by God? What about the spiritual imperative that is placed on all of us; to give as we are able? As Archbishop Robert Carlson of the Archdiocese of St. Louis says, “God expects us to take what has been given to us…to nurture and develop our gifts and to return them with increase.”[i]   There are no caveats really.      

This family eventually found that their commitment to church life felt flat and their spiritual engagement was missing something and so they began to give again.  One of the Proverbs tells us, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.  A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.” (Proverbs 11: 24-25)

To pledge and to give is important on many levels.  It helps us be fiscally responsible to this structure and grounds of this church, it provides for creative ways to worship our God who walks with us in this journey we call life.  And it engages our faith outside of these walls through missional outreach. 

Above all of that it is a mark of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have pledged again this year, a total of ______ and I have increased my pledge by 4%.  That’s roughly giving up two latte’s from Starbuck’s a month even thought I’m not a Starbuck’s fan.  It’s doable.

I believe in the church.  I believe in this church.  I believe in the transformative power that each dollar contains for the transformation of this world.

And mostly why I give is that I love God with my heart, all of it.  I walk out in trust that when you receive my monthly withdrawal it will be used to enact the Gospel of Jesus Christ, yes in the electric, yes the maintenance of this building, yes in the giving of ourselves to one another, yes so that we really can feed people, and provide for them while they cannot and yes, worship and love God with our whole hearts. 

Please join me in pledging this year.

Remember: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. That will protect you against sob stories and arm-twisting. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.


[i] St Clare of Assisi, Adult Intention Card.  The Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson.  Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri. 2012.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Through the Air

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Have you ever just walked out in faith?
Has there ever been a time when you forged ahead on a ‘wing and a prayer’ knowing that you have put your very being in God’s hands, without a clue as to how it would turn out?  You just knew that you must and somehow ‘every little thing’s gonna be alright’.

Welcome to my world as an interim minister!  That’s more or less what we do.  We work real hard to put ourselves out of a ‘job’ trusting that God has been working equally as hard to ready another church for our specialized ministry.

Crazy huh??  Today’s sermon is about walking, going maybe even flying out in faith trusting with all of your heart that you will be caught in God’s very capable hands.

Faith!  Particularly Christian faith is a bit hard to explain to someone who does not believe.  They might think we are crazy, some of the things that we do in complete faith that God will take care of us, that we will not be left flapping in the breeze.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a rather forceful book about faith.  It attempts to explain what faith is all about for these ‘new Christians’.  You see both Jews and Gentiles had questions about this religion of the early Christians.  The author attempts to explain that it has its beginnings in the Jewish religion but that it is different.  The primary difference being of course, Jesus Christ and his unorthodox sense and view of Torah, or the law.

Hear now today’s word from the Epistle to the Hebrews from the Contemporary English Version: 

Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. It was their faith that made our ancestors pleasing to God.

Because of our faith, we know that the world was made at God’s command. We also know that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.

Abraham had faith and obeyed God. He was told to go to the land that God had said would be his, and he left for a country he had never seen.  Because Abraham had faith, he lived as a stranger in the promised land. He lived there in a tent, and so did Isaac and Jacob, who were later given the same promise. Abraham did this, because he was waiting for the eternal city that God had planned and built.

Even when Sarah was too old to have children, she had faith that God would do what he had promised, and she had a son. Her husband Abraham was almost dead, but he became the ancestor of many people. In fact, there are as many of them as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand along the beach.

Every one of those people died. But they still had faith, even though they had not received what they had been promised. They were glad just to see these things from far away, and they agreed that they were only strangers and foreigners on this earth. Amen!

Faith.  It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

You see God told Abraham to get up and go, to grab his wife Sarah, pack up their camels and tents and head on off.  Where?  Abraham had no clue.  But he did have faith and we know that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

And Sarah, bless her heart following Abraham all around God’s earth, she was elderly when she finally became pregnant.  Remember?  She LOL’d, laughed out loud when she heard the news that finally, after all these barren years, she was going to have a baby.  But she eventually believed and relied on her faith that all would be ok, and we know that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

By faith they both went, and were blessed. 

I want to share with you a parable that I love and read and think about often.  It is a parable not from the Bible but one that was written by Henri Nouwen, a priest and theologian who has since passed away.  It is called the Parable of the Flyer and the Catcher.

“A Flyer and a Catcher enter the circus ring and greet the audience with smiles and movements that cause their wide silver capes to swirl about them. They pull themselves up into the large net and start to climb rope ladders to positions high up in the big tent.  As the Flyer swings away from the pedestal board, she somersaults and turns freely in the air, only to be safely grasped by the Catcher.”
Like Jesus, Nouwen explains his parable…

“The Flying Rodleighs are trapeze artist who perform in the German circus Simoneit-Barum.  When the circus came to Freiburg a few years ago, my friends invited me and my father to see the show.  I will never forget how enraptured I became when I saw the Rodleighs move through the air, flying and catching each other as elegant dancers.  The next day I returned to the circus to see them again and introduced myself to them to them as one of their great fans.  They invited me to attend their practice sessions, gave me free tickets, asked me to dinner, and suggested that I travel with them for a week through Germany.

I certainly was “hooked” by the Rodleighs and felt driven to see them perform again and again and to enter deeply into their world. One day I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, talking about flying.  He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher.  The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher.  He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”  “How does it work?” I asked.  “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything.  When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely up.”

“You do nothing!” I said, surprised.

“Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated.  “The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher.  I am not supposed to catch Joe.  It’s Joe’s task to catch me.  If I grab Joes wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end of both of us.  A flyer must fly, and a catcher my catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.” [i]

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
I take three lessons from Nouwen’s parable and his explanation.

1)       You have to leave the platform.  I can only imagine what it would be like to grab the bar of the ropes and take off, into the air swinging back and forth.  And yet, leaving the platform is essential to the act, to the performance, to what comes ahead. If you never leave you will never be able to soar.

2)    You have to actively participate in the act.  You see the     
        flyer has to gain momentum while in the air swinging back and forth and readies  
        his body and mind to let go.  Too me it looks like it
        takes physical strength and a fully engaged mind. 

3)       You have got to trust that you will be caught.  Once
you have left the platform and readied yourself all you have to do is fly with your arms outstretched.  God will do the rest.  It may sound easy but this is the greatest test.  Believing that God will do the rest.  This is faith.

Faith is what life is all about.  Living fully, taking good risks knowing with all of your heart that God will be waiting to catch you and bring you up onto the platform on the other side of the tent.  God never fails us therefore you will not fail either.

Let us fly through the air with the greatest of ease, like daring young men and women on the flying trapeze.


[i] Nouwen, Henri.  ‘Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith’. Ed Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird. HarperCollins, NY, 2006. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lessons from the Road

Mark 9: 30-37
Road trips with children sound like fun but in all actuality they really are not.  Kids are strapped into the seat leaving their flailing arms and legs free.  Every five minutes they’re hungry and your attempts to give in to their demands and feed them usually results in spilled juice boxes and crumbled Animal Crackers wedged deep in the upholstered seats. 

And then the questioning starts.  ‘Are we there yet?”  ‘When are we going to be there?”  “I’ve gotta pee use the next facility, can we stop?”  “He’s hitting me.” “No I’m not”.  “Mom likes me best”.  You might think road trips will be quality time but the smaller they are the more difficult it is to invoke meaningful discussion.  So you just keep on truckin’, you push your foot down a little harder on the gas and think to yourself, why aren’t we there yet? 

Well here they are, those disciples on the road with Jesus again.  They traveled a lot, and far or at least back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.  And as always, he used that travel time to teach them and to tell them that soon he was going to be betrayed, die, and rise again, you know, the whole story.  But they suffer from short term memory loss and don’t get it…again.  Yet they keep on walking and talking.  Talking about everything else except the message Jesus was trying to convey.

Somehow on this stretch of the road Jesus must have gotten far enough ahead of them so that they had time alone.  Enough time to get into a heated debate that caught Jesus’ attention.  Finally, when they all got to Capernaum he asked them, ‘So, uhh, like what were you guys talking about on the road?”    

There was dead silence.  They freeze.  A cat had gotten all twelve tongues at once.  You see they weren’t talking about holy things, disciple-like things like feeding more people, or about where to find some more people for Jesus to heal, or even about how they could help their friend and master as he forecasts his awful future, no!  They weren’t even close to being on the same page.  They were talking about themselves and they were too ashamed to tell Jesus. 

Guilt.  Shame.  Avoidance.  Embarrassment. That’s what their silence loudly broadcast.  Caught in the act they were, talking about who Jesus favored more, who was the greatest.  Sound familiar?  They were having a back seat ‘mom likes me best’ kind of argument.  I’d feel guilty too if I was ‘busted’ like that.  By Jesus especially!  I mean come on! 

But that’s not all, the story goes on.  Jesus sits down.  When rabbi’s sat down in the day you were in for a talking to or a teaching.  He sits down and picks up a child and uses that child as a visual aid.  “This”, he says, “this is how you should be like”.  “You may want to be first, but really, you need to be last”.  “Forget about who is greatest, that doesn’t interest me.”

Now let’s talk about children for a bit since that’s what Jesus did.  Children in the first century were ‘nobodies’.  They were not like children of today who are highly valued in our western culture.  They were not the Gerber Baby, or the rosie cheeked toddlers in flowerpots photographed by Anne Geddes or even the Honey Boo Boo’s.  There was no child left behind act because children didn’t receive education.  They were the lowest on the totem pole.

So while it is tempting for us to sentimentalize Jesus’ action, we must not.  Children of the first century were ‘owned’ by their father who could disown them, sell them into slavery or even kill them if he wanted to.  25% of children didn’t survive their first year and half of the remaining 75% would die before the age of 10.  Their purpose in life was to replace adults in the family business if they were luck enough to live that long.      

As preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells it, ‘he (Jesus) takes a person twenty-six inches tall, with limited vocabulary, unemployed, zero net worth, a nobody, as God’s agent.”  In other words she says, “there is no one whom we may safely ignore.”[i]  So when we think that we are to become like a sweet, innocent child of the 21st century we are misconstruing the story.  Jesus is being provocative and reverses the order of idea and reality.

What he is saying is that if you really want to be ‘great’ then you need to be able to welcome the lowliest.  Because when you welcome them, the ‘other’, when you count them as a beloved child of God worth just as much as you are, then you welcome Jesus and even the One who sent him, God.   

Welcoming is a difficult topic and a hard thing to do sometimes.  While we might say we welcome everyone, is it true?  Would we really welcome some scruffy, old guy who smelled a bit like alcohol or urine and who couldn’t quite form a cohesive sentence?  Would we really welcome an openly gay couple and invite them to coffee hour or to be a part of our fellowship?  Would we really welcome into our midst a pregnant teenager and support her in her decision to keep her baby?   

I think that we would, at least I hope that we would.  And if the answer is, not really, not so much, I urge you to think seriously about changing your mind.  To reiterate what Barbara Brown Taylor said, “there is no one we may ignore”.  Jesus clearly illustrates that when he picks up that child on that day in Capernaum.  Absolutely no one! 

Life is short no matter how long you live.  In a blink of an eye it can end.  Wouldn’t it be grand to know that in your lifetime you have accepted and extended your hand of friendship to everyone who wants to join you on the road with Jesus?  Won’t it be comforting to know that you will be accepted and welcomed for exactly who you are, right now, no pretenses?  Of course it would.  Welcome the child and you will have welcomed Jesus and the One who sent him.
Road trips?  Well, they have their challenges.  For the disciples that road to Jerusalem, was a long and rocky one.  There were many lessons that had to be told over and over again.  Lucky for them that Jesus preserved in his message to love and to welcome, to cherish and to forgive.  Lucky for them and for us he has shown us how to do just that. And you will be blessed.  “Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me!”  


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Last of All”, Bread of Angels.

Pastoral Prayer

Healing God, we lift up our hearts to you in thanksgiving for all of the miracles that you have shown us in our lives, even those in unlikely places.  Help us to turn to you always in faith and in prayer knowing that what we say and how hard we may plead you will not turn away but embrace us with your compassionate love. 

As we lift up our prayers today we lift them up in boldness…we ask for healing to be upon all people who are ill, those with cancer, mental illness and dementia, addiction and for those people recovering from addiction.  Sharon, Carol, Steve, Ryan

For people who are in need of spiritual healing we pray that your Spirit of sustenance flow within them.

For people today who have grief in their hearts we pray for your comfort and healing, we pray for the Murtaugh family, for Doris, for Sharon, for Max and Marilyn, especially, be with them and comfort them in their sorrow.

We pray for peace and for the well being of the men and women who serve in the armed forces here and abroad.  Guide them, be with them Danny, Alex, Matt, Crhostopher, Zach, Alex, Jonathan, Ben, Jonathan, Bill and Tom.

And finally gracious God be with our search committee, send your spirit of discernment upon them.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.