Friday, November 1, 2019

“Keeping the Garden” - November 3, 2019

Text: Psalm 24:1-6

One day last week, I left for work and there was a scattering of leaves on the ground.  I came home that afternoon, and our front yard was just a carpet of red and yellow.  I love this time of year – not the early snow part, so much, but the fall leaves and the crisp days.  I love the beauty of the countryside during and after the harvest.

This truly is a beautiful world, and like many of you, I have been fortunate enough to see amazing things in this world both near and far.  Those who went on the mission trip to Puerto Rico saw beautiful beaches and coastal areas as well as the tropical rain forest.  And we saw the Flamboyant tree, with a wide canopy of orange flowers.  I had never heard of this tree before we went there, and it really was stunning.

I have been to the Grand Canyon.  Susan and I just stood looking out in amazement at the vastness and expanse and beauty and just overwhelming immenseness of that place.  Zoe and I hiked in the Swiss Alps, and some of the best photos were of delicate flowers alongside the trail, with the snow-capped Eiger mountain in the background.  We have seen the endless views and wide-open spaces of the grasslands of Montana – after being there I understand what they mean by Big Sky country.

We have enjoyed the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, and when the fog comes in they really are smoky.  I have seen amazing wildlife in Costa Rica – all kinds of birds as well as sloths and bats and crocodiles and iguanas and howler monkeys.  But then, I have also seen amazing wildlife in my backyard: squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and birds, including cardinals who built a nest right outside our bedroom window, and an occasional hawk.  And once in a while a possum or raccoon.  I have even seen amazing wildlife IN my house.  We had quite a collection of canines at our Blessing of the Pets a few weeks ago.

And it wasn’t a Flamboyant tree, but just this week – before the snow - we had a single daylily in our backyard defiantly blooming when by all rights it should have been shutting it down for the season.

I’m sure you have had similar experiences – experiences of the beauty and power and awesomeness and fragility of nature.  Experiences of transcendence - experiences of God in the midst of God’s creation.

We have been thinking about stewardship this fall in various ways.  We have thought about walking as a way of describing the Christian life, and the way we go about living each day.  We have thought about money – about our resources and the possessions we have, which are gifts from God to be used not just for ourselves but for the good of all.  We have thought about our attitude toward life, the way we look at the world - do we live fearfully in the midst of scarcity or do we live joyfully, trusting in God’s abundance?

This morning I’d like to think about the natural world.  What does Christian stewardship mean as we relate to and live in and are sustained by the world around us?

I don’t have to tell you that the earth is hurting.  The planet is in trouble.  Evidence is all over the place.

The number of birds in the United States and Canada has decreased by 29% since 1970.

Deforestation continues all over the world, destroying wildlife habitat and destroying ecosystems as well as removing trees that store carbon and breathe oxygen.

Weather patterns are becoming more extreme.  Globally, the twenty hottest years on record have come in the past 22 years.  There have been more violent storms.  We keep having 100 year and 500 year flooding events.  Sea levels are rising.  At the same time, many places are suffering from prolonged drought.

Fish and sea life in remote parts of the Pacific are dying because they are ingesting large amounts of plastics.

And then there are the fires.  Wildfires in the Arctic.  Wildfires across the western U.S. – devastating fires in California are in the news right now.  I can’t imagine having to suddenly flee your home fearing for your life.  We hear about this kind of thing in our country, but it is all over the place.  They have experienced terrible wildfires in Australia.  And then there is the Amazon, with fires raging.   The area is known as the lungs of the world, but the ability of the Amazon to capture carbon continues to decrease.

With habitat loss and a warming climate, many species are in trouble, if not in danger of extinction.

I could go on but some of you know all of this better than me.  Some of you work in fields that are impacted by such changes in climate.  These crises we are facing are caused by the way we have treated the earth and particularly by burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.  But what I want to think about this morning is not so much the science or the politics or the economics of it, though these are all certainly important.  But this morning, I want to talk about our faith.

The Bible is filled with references to creation and our responsibility to care for it.  Let me mention just three.  We read in our scripture from Psalm 24 today, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  The world is not ours to just do with as we wish; it belongs to God.  Now self-interest is one reason to care for creation, and a good reason.  Our lives are dependent upon a properly functioning eco-system.  But Christians have a reason beyond self-interest for caring for creation.  The earth is not ours; it belongs to God.  We love and care for creation because of our love for the Creator.

And then in Psalm 150 we read, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  When we sing the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise God all creatures here below,” we join our voices with the whole chorus of creation in singing praise to God.  All creatures - parakeets and poodles, humpback whales and snow leopards, emus and orangutans.  We are a part of God’s creation and we are to care for the created world so that all creatures may sing God’s praise.

And then in Genesis chapter 2 we read, “The Lord God put the man in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.” God has given human beings a special responsibility to care for creation.  The Hebrew verb “to keep” is the same word used in the familiar blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  We are to nurture, sustain, and care for creation the way God nurtures, sustains, and cares for us.  Think about that.  That is deeply caring for creation.

There is no lack of Biblical material pointing to our responsibility to care for the earth.  Caring for creation is a part of following Jesus.  But I am amazed at the attitudes some Christians have toward the environment – as though a concern for God’s world is somehow a terrible thing.

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this past week by Katharine Hayhoe.  She is a professor at Texas Tech, where she co-directs the Climate Center.  This is the way the article started:
I’m a climate scientist.  I’m also an evangelical Christian.

And I’m Canadian, which is why it took me so long to realize the first two things were supposed to be entirely incompatible.

I grew up in a Christian family with a science-teacher dad who taught us that science is the study of God’s creation.  If we truly believe that God created this amazing universe… then how could studying his creation ever be in conflict with [God’s] word?

I chose what to study precisely because of my faith, because climate change disproportionately affects the poor and vulnerable, those already most at risk today.  To me, caring about and acting on climate was a way to live out my calling to love others as we’ve been loved ourselves by God.
I have heard people say that Christians should stick to spiritual things and stay out of social issues - and they would put caring for the environment under teh category of social issues.  The problem is that that is an artificial distinction.  For Christian, care for creation is a spiritual thing.

Not only does our faith call us to care for this world, I don’t know that we can meet the challenges ahead of us if we don’t see care for creation as a spiritual issue.  Gus Speith, the dean of Forestry at Yale, was speaking to a group of religious leaders.  He said,
I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation and eco-system collapse, and that we scientists could fix those problems with enough science.  But I was wrong.  The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy.  And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don't know how to do that.  We need your help.
I have to admit, the challenges we face are daunting, to say the least.  It can leave us depressed.  In fact, I actually thought about pulling a switcheroo and preaching on some other aspect of stewardship this morning.  But that is usually a sign that something needs to be preached.  We can’t ignore the issue.

I found myself thinking about Ray Schellinger, our ABC missionary who works on immigration and with refugees.  I shared a few weeks back about Ray’s very difficult, sometimes heartbreaking work.  Given the challenges he faced, I asked Ray how he got up and went to work every morning.  And he talked about small victories.

The same might apply here.  In terms of the challenges facing us as Christians and as citizens of this planet, I have to say that there actually are a lot of small victories happening as we consider the challenge of climate change and caring for creation.

There is a movement toward more local foods.  Rather than trucking in foods from far away or flying it in from other countries, folks are trying to use locally raised food when they can.  People raising chickens in the backyard is actually a small sign of hope.

Here in Iowa, we see a lot of windmills producing electricity.  Some think they are an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope.  In Ames, we will be constructing a municipal solar energy farm next year.  Community members including our church have bought shares in the project.  It’s a sign of hope.

One of my college friends is a fish biologist who teaches at the University of Arizona.  With a great concern for the environment, Scott now powers his home completely with solar panels and his family drives electric vehicles.  He basically uses no fossil fuels.  Of course, everybody can’t do that – and this probably works better in Tucson than in Ames – but people like Scott are signs of hope.

Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, geothermal heating, public transportation, eating less meat, repurposing, repairing, recycling, gardening – these are all signs of hope.  Every time somebody plants a tree, it is a small sign of hope.

Of course, all of these changes have been relatively easy.  There will be more difficult, more costly action ahead.

For me, a big place where hope may be found is in young people, who understand the issue in a much more existential way than those of us who are older.  Exhibit A might be Greta Thunberg, who as a 15 year old began spending her school days sitting outside the Swedish parliament.  She held a sign that said “School strike for climate.”

She started out all by herself in calling for stronger action to combat global climate change.  Before long, other students engaged in similar action in cities around the world.  This year, coordinated international actions have involved over a million students.  From 1 student to over a million in a year.  That is a sign of hope.

Other young people are working at solutions to environmental problems, including Boyan Slat, the young man who devised a way to clean plastics from the ocean.  There is hope for technological advances.

But ultimately, as Christians, our hope is in God, the God who created this world and cares for this world.  There is a lot of fear surrounding the challenges we face, fear that can lead to either denial or paralysis.  But the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear.  Fear is not from God.  Instead, we have been given a spirit of power, to act rather than to remain paralyzed with anxiety or guilt; a spirit of love, to have compassion for others; and a sound judgment - to use the information we have to make good decisions.  These are the very tools we need to address the challenges we face.
Today is All Saints Sunday.  It is a day to remember the saints who have gone before us.  And not just the “big name” saints, but all saints, including those in this congregation who have gone before us and been examples for us.

Maybe a question for us to consider is: years from now – when people look back on our time - what will be our legacy for our children and grandchildren and those who come after us?  May it be that we had a spirit of power and love and sound judgment.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

“Scarcity vs. Abundance” - October 27, 2019

Text: John 6:1-14

Have you ever had a tough day?  The kind that just makes you want to get away?

Everyone has, and Jesus was no exception.  He had just finished a long theological discourse as a way of defending himself against his critics, who among other things did not like the idea of him healing people on the Sabbath.  And now, he just wanted to get away and rest.  In a boat with his disciples, he goes off across the Sea of Galilee to the other side. 

But the crowds can see where Jesus and his disciples are going and follow him around the lake (the Sea of Galilee isn’t really a sea).  The crowd followed because Jesus had been healing the sick.  You start healing sick people and the crowds will follow you around. 

Jesus gets to the other side of the lake and he goes up high on a high hill.  Jesus gets away from the crowds, away from the controversy, away from the stress.  And then he looks out, and what does he see?  People.  Coming in droves.  Hundreds of people. 

Jesus sees this large and growing crowd, and what does he say?  Well, it isn’t what we might expect a person to say.  He doesn’t say, “What does a guy have to do to get some rest around here?”  And he doesn’t say, “Well, I guess I can pull out my ‘No Greater Love’ sermon.”

No, Jesus sees the crowd and he asks Philip, who happened to be from a nearby town, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”

Jesus is a prophet.  He is a teacher and a healer.  He is not a caterer.  Why would this be his reaction on seeing the crowds?  John clues us in that Jesus knew what he was going to do.  This was just the setup.  Philip said, “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food for this crowd!” 

Andrew, one of the disciples, reports that in the crowd there is a boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish - but what would that be among so many people?  It is hard to imagine that in this big crowd, there was just this one kid with the foresight to pack a lunch, but that is the report.

This boy with the lunch has 5 barley loaves.  Barley bread was the food of the very poor – one commentator said that it was held in contempt as a grain for animals.  This was not a loaf of multi-grain bread from Panera.  And don’t think that he had a couple of nice salmon in his lunch box.  Think something more along the lines of sardines.  There were great quantities of small sardine–like fish in the Sea of Galilee that were often pickled.  This boy had some bread eaten by the poorest of the poor and a couple of pickled sardines.  He is young boy, he is very poor, and he has about as meager and pitiful a lunch as you could imagine.  It is not very promising.  It is about as far from promising as you could be.

But Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over what they don’t have.  Instead, he blesses what they do have.  He has his disciples tell everyone to be seated on the grass.  He took the loaves and fish, he gave thanks, and he distributed them to the crowd.  And it was enough.  It was more than enough.  Everyone had all they wanted and there were enough leftovers to fill 12 baskets.  The pitiful lunch offered by one of the most unlikely people in the crowd was more than enough.

You know as well as I do that this is more than simply a story about food.  It is about generosity and stewardship and about God meeting our needs.  It is about the choice we have to live with an attitude of scarcity or to live with trust in God’s abundance.  It is not just about food for our bodies, it is about food for our spirit. 

How do we look at the world?  The predominant mindset is one of scarcity and fatalism.  There isn’t enough to go around.  We can’t afford to worry too much about others; we have to look out for ourselves.  And even if we tried, we really can’t make much of a difference.

It’s no wonder we think this way.  A lot of people are not asking, “When will I be able to retire?”  They are asking, “Will I ever be able to retire?”  Others are simply hoping and praying for a decent-paying job.  We would all like to be generous, we really would, but we can’t afford to be too generous or there will not be enough for us.

It’s not just money.  For some, time seems to be an even scarcer commodity.  We are pulled in a million directions, with all kinds of demands on our time.  There is never enough time.

In so many instances, there is this narrative of scarcity that is the predominant story.  Security is scarce.  Patience is scarce.  Kindness is scarce.  Understanding is scarce.  Forgiveness is scarce.  Imagination is scarce.  

The tension between scarcity and abundance is always with us.  It was certainly felt in Jesus’ time, and no matter that we live lives of ease and comfort and opulence compared to first century folks, we still live with this tension between scarcity and abundance.

It is with this background that we read John, and what do we find in his gospel?  We find pure abundance.     
In the first chapter of his gospel, John speaks about Jesus as the Word from whom we have all received grace upon grace.  The first miracle, or sign, reported in John is when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Jesus instructs the servants to fill some jars with water, and they fill them to the brim.  The result is a profusion, not merely of wine, but of excellent wine.  Abundance.

At a community well in Samaria, Jesus tells a woman about living water gushing up to eternal life.  No just a trickle, but water all over the place.  Abundance.  In Jesus’ address to his disciples before he is arrested, he says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Not just room for a few, not an exclusive view of eternity, but an expansive and inclusive kingdom.  Abundance.  And then John closes his gospel by noting that in addition to the things he has told us, there is so much more that if it were all reduced to writing, there wouldn’t be enough space in the world to contain the number of books that would be required.  Abundance.

Whether it is wine at a wedding or rooms for eternity or picnic food, with God’s grace there is always more than enough.  In John chapter 10 Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

In a Christian Century article, Charles Hoffman wrote:

The church of my youth majored in a miserly view of God’s grace.  Its message was grim.  Life had no edge, no elegance and no joy, but was… largely limited to preparations for the hereafter… That early religion held no attraction for me, but I was bound to it by the guilt and fear it engendered in me.

All of that changed when a new minister walked into our church.  He was winsome, engaging, honest and without guile.  One Sunday morning he preached the most important sermon of my life.  His text was John 10:10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  I still remember the message: Christ calls us to a life of fullness, affirmation and joy.  In that moment the Word reached out and claimed me.
How would life be different if we really lived out Jesus’ way of joy and abundance? 

Philip and Andrew represent us – they represent the church.  “It would take 6 months wages to buy enough food… We’ve got some bread and a couple of fish, but it couldn’t possibly be enough.”  Their vision was too limited.  They were too captured by the story of scarcity.

Like anywhere else, it is so easy in the church to focus on what we lack.  If only we had more members, if only we were in a different location, if only we had more Sunday School teachers, if only we had a bigger choir, if only we had more young people.  If only we had a decent preacher.  If only…

Malaak Compton-Rock traveled to South Africa working on an economic development project with very poor women.  She returned from her trip and went directly to the Salvation Army in Brooklyn where she volunteered in an after-school program.  She told the kids about her trip and they said they wished they could go on a trip like that.  It got her to thinking.  She wound up starting an organization called “Journey for Change.”  She takes groups of twelve to fifteen-year-old kids from New York City to South Africa to volunteer in very poor communities.

The first group of kids who went were involved in that program at the Salvation Army in the Bushwick neighborhood.  Bushwick is a working class neighborhood with a lot of problems.  Less than 50% of the students graduate at Bushwick High.  These were thought of as at-risk kids – at risk for teenage pregnancies, at risk for dropping out of school, at risk for getting involved in gangs, at risk for drugs.

These Bushwick kids were paired with college-aged mentors and worked in Soweto and other shanty towns in South Africa with AIDS orphans and granny families – families headed by grandmothers because the other adults had all died of AIDS.  One of the things Compton-Rock felt was important in organizing the program was to give these kids, who were often on the receiving end of assistance, an opportunity to be on the giving side.  And it has made a huge difference in their lives.  These kids start to dream much bigger dreams.  They learn that they have a lot to give and that their gifts really matter.  Basically, they go from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.  They learn that there is enough, and that they are enough.

Early in the year, a planning team here at our church broke into two groups.  Each group was assigned to plan an engaging activity for the church – one over the summer and one in the fall.  In June we had a Sunday morning service and cookout and fishing that afternoon at McFarland Park.  The fall group planned our Harvest Festival for today.  I love the idea of a harvest festival because it is all about abundance.  God provides for us and blesses us with a bountiful harvest.  With God, there is more than enough.

I read a very interesting article just this week about a church in Lauderdale – it’s a small suburb just north of St. Paul, kind of tucked in between Minneapolis and St. Paul.   Peace Lutheran Church is in an out of the way location, across the street from the sound barriers along Highway 280.  I’m familiar with the area because it’s just blocks away from where I took classes at Luther Seminary.

The church is not in a location that draws visitors, and it had declined to the point that it had 20 members.  They had enough money to keep the doors open for about 18 months.  Basically, they had 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

They hired a part-time pastor, and decided that if they were going to die anyway, they might as well go for it.  They were going to die well. 

So here is what they did: they decided to take “love thy neighbor” to a practical extreme.  They leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.  There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, they didn’t care if you were Lutheran or atheist.  They would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” said one member.

Pastor Dave Greenlund knew that Peace would get few takers.  Lauderdale is a mix of working people and those who’ve seen better days.  These were not people who talked about their troubles, and there was the natural suspicion of anything religious - the assumption that “free” would come with a lot of proselytizing.

Only two women responded.  One needed concrete repaired and the footings fixed in a rotting garage.  Another hoped that her house could be painted.

The church stayed at it.  They cleaned homes for shut-ins, built chair lifts, rewired old houses for widows whose husbands had kept the lights on with the duct tape method. They did not preach or expect recipients to come to church.  They would simply help.  

In time, word spread.   If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, people came to know that you could call the church.  The idea was infectious.  Non-members joined the cause by the dozens.  Donations from the grateful kept the church afloat.  An abundance of love and kindness and community proved bigger and more important than financial limitations.

The church is still small.  They have quadrupled in membership – to 80.  They are still a poor church.  When their air conditioning went out, they could not afford a new system.  So a local contractor offered to refurbish units that had been discarded by a school.  But the contractor showed up with new units instead - the owner said he wanted to “pay it forward.”   

Basically, this church took its five barley loaves and two fish and chose to look at what it had and who it was through the eyes of abundance rather than scarcity.

It is very easy to give in to the prevailing attitude of scarcity – the idea that there is not enough, there is never enough.  But the good news is that with God, there is more than enough.  There is an abundance of hope and joy and love and grace and possibility.  And when we share what we have, our gifts are multiplied.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.     

Saturday, October 19, 2019

“Your Money and Your Life” - October 20, 2019

Text: Proverbs 3:1-10, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

Our niece Hope graduated from college two years ago in December.  After graduation, she moved to San Diego and got a job at a credit union.  It wasn’t by design, exactly; she was moving there because that is where her boyfriend, now husband lived.  But she needed a job and found that one. 

Our nephew Tyler, meanwhile, graduated from college a semester later.  After a first job that wasn’t so great, he now works at the Evansville Teachers Credit Union.

Last spring, our nephew Parker graduated from the University of Southern Indiana, the same school that Hope and Tyler attended.  Do you want to guess where he works?  Of course, he has a job at yet another credit union.  So we have a little joke about credit unions being the new family business.

I was in town a little over a month ago and saw Parker.  It was his second week on the job and he was in training.  I thought I would ask a credit union-type question so I asked him if they had any CD specials.  He just gave me a blank stare.  For him, at that point, I suppose that a CD was something that old people might listen to music on.  A CD special might be if somebody like me found the Eagles Greatest Hits for 50 cents at a garage sale. 

Well, money may not be a career for everybody, but it is a matter that we all have to wrestle with.  And the fact is, it is hard to talk about money.  Just bringing up the topic can lead to anxiety. 

There are those who say they don’t want to have anything to do with the church, because the church is always asking for money.  In my experience and at most churches I am familiar with, that is actually not the case at all.  We really don’t talk a lot about money a lot.  If someone were to say, don’t talk about money, just stick to the Bible – well, when we look at scripture, money is a huge topic.  One commentator noted that there are more than 2300 verses in scripture that talk about wealth, money, and possessions, and that 11 out of Jesus’ 39 parables focus on these matters.  It is Jesus’ #1 topic.

There are so many issues we face as a society, large and small, that have to do with money.  Affordable housing.  Income inequality.   Technology and modernization and automation and employment.  

The cost of medical care can wipe out whatever savings a family might have and is the leading cause of bankruptcy.  So many families are living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from a real crisis.  Debt is a heavy burden for so many people; for those who carry a balance on their credit cards, the average balance is over $9300.  Over 44 million people have student debt, with the average amount over $38,000.  It is such a widespread issue that 68 members of Congress either have student loan debt themselves or a family member with such debt.  The average debt for those members of Congress is $37,000 – mirroring the wider population.  This affects everybody.

Money – and to be more precise perhaps, the lack of it - can be a real source of anxiety, and churches are by no means immune to this.  Churches can find it difficult to talk about money.   But as we all know, ignoring issues does not make them go away.  And because scripture speaks so frequently about our possessions and resources and the way we use them, we need to take time to listen to what the scriptures say.

Psalm 24:1 reads, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”  The view of scripture is that it all belongs to God.  All that we have is a gift from God, and we are simply caring for God’s gifts.  This is the idea of stewardship in a nutshell.  We are to wisely care for all of God’s gifts – our friends and family and relationships, our time, our work, the world around us and the earth itself, as well as our resources and possessions and wealth.  Our decisions about money are not just about us.

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)  Jesus observed the kind of hold that riches and greed and the constant need to acquire more and more could have on a person, and he warned against it.  Money is important, but it is not God.

And yet, we talk about the Almighty Dollar.  Materialism can have an almost religious hold on us.  Our life can become all about earning more, about bigger and better and newer and shinier and more impressive.  But that is no way to live.  It is a god that will disappoint us in the end.  The famed theologian Lily Tomlin noted, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”  Or as Paul put it, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

We may act like we can separate our financial life from our spiritual life, but the fact is we only have one life.  What we do with what we have has spiritual implications.  What we do with our money is connected to and actually influences the deepest yearnings of our heart.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”

The way we use our resources is very important.  Do we control our money and possessions, or do they control us?  Are we consumers, or are we the ones being consumed? 

Our scripture readings today point us toward a different understanding of money.  The reading from Proverbs says, “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.”  And the reading from 2 Corinthians says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  

Giving is not to be understood so much as a command to be enforced but as an opportunity we are given.  We are created for giving, and it is simply a better way to live.  When we live tight-fisted, we close ourselves off – we are unable to receive the blessings around us. 

One of the biggest stories relating to giving recently, at least around here, is the Carson King story.  You probably know who I am talking about.  A guy holds up a sign during the College Gameday broadcast from Ames several weeks ago saying “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” and the way to give.  It was caught on camera, and people actually sent money.  He just did it for laughs, but when money came in he decided to donate it to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.  And it went viral.  It became a massive story that had a number of twists and turns and controversy, but in the end people donated $3 million to the hospital.  A guy makes a joke about beer money on national TV and the hospital gets $3 million.  It was really amazing. 

Why did people give toward that?  The need was always there.  But the publicity surrounding it magnified the need.  And people gave, in a sense, for what they got out of it – but what they got out of it was not a financial return.  What they got was joy, what they got out of it was the satisfaction and the blessing of being part of something bigger than they were and of working together to help make a difference for children in need.  I imagine that most people gave cheerfully.

Well, we are talking about money today in part because this is the day for our annual Budget Forum.  We meet after Church School to review a budget that has been proposed for our church for the coming year and to adopt a goal budget.  Now I realize that this is not the kind of stuff that ordinarily gets everybody excited.  Business meetings are not everybody’s thing, and business meetings to talk about budgets are definitely not everybody’s thing.  They are not necessarily my very favorite thing, either, but I have come to think of church budgets differently.

With a budget, what matters is not so much the numbers themselves, but the ministry that those numbers represent.  And while it is true that the numbers may not change dramatically from year to year, continuing and building on important, vital, compassionate, life-changing ministry year after year is something to celebrate.

Somebody wrote an article with the title, “The Shocking Truth about Church Budgets.”  The article stated that on average, 82% of church budgets go for buildings, personnel, and administration – things that are not even mission and ministry.

That is not an uncommon attitude.  But I couldn’t disagree more.  The church is not a social club that just looks out for itself, or a community of people who have it all together and join to celebrate that fact.  To be a part of the church is increasingly a counter-cultural commitment.  And the church is more and more a mission outpost. 

People who have been away from church for years, if they ever were a part of a church, will stumble in, looking for some kind of hope and solace, and find to their amazement worship and music and preaching and community that help them start to connect with others and connect with the message of Jesus – things they desperately need.

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional venue might be nice, and start to discover that spiritual grounding of relationships has a value they had never considered.

Or parents will bring children here for music camp and find a community that values children, looks to broaden horizons, and sees every person as a beautiful child of God.  Kids who may not fit in so well in a lot of places are embraced at Music Camp, and everybody has a fantastic week.

Or an offender will be sentenced to probation with the Center for Creative Justice and come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life.  They are forced to reflect on their life, they are held accountable for their actions but also treated as a person with potential who has been given a second chance, and a year later, they will be in a much better place, with a bright and hopeful future. 

Or students will show up, facing any number of issues, from fitting in and finding a social group to struggling with academics to dealing with family stresses to questions of vocation and concerns for the future – and find here a community of friendship and support and encouragement that does not treat them as just a part of the pack but as an important individual.

Or someone is new to Ames, looking for friendship and community, and they find here a true family of faith where they can both receive support and find a place to serve.

Or, a person has a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and is filled with worry.  And then they come here to take part in a singing group or a dance group and not only does it help them physically, they find a wonderful community of support.  They find hope.  They find joy.

What do these things look like in a church budget?  They get labels like “facilities” or “administration” - ministers, musicians, church staff, utilities, building maintenance, snow removal, instrument tuning, insurance — but all of these things are ministry - real life, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.

I did not even mention the continuing, day-by-day, week-to week ministry to those of us who are already a part of our church.  This is ministry that we all value dearly.  And besides all of this, we support a great deal of ministry beyond the walls of our building – both with our involvement and with our financial support.  While certainly not among the largest churches in our region, we are near the very top in dollars given to mission beyond our church. 

We do not contribute in order to take care of the building or pay the bills, important as that may be.  We do all of this for the sake of the ministry to which we have been called.

When I think of the way that I have been blessed, I want to give generously.  And when I think of how important and life-giving the work is that we do together, I can give joyfully.  I can be a cheerful giver.

The challenge of giving is much like everything else in life.  And the familiar Proverb we read this morning speaks to all of this.  “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”

What would it mean to acknowledge God in our use of money?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in our decisions about giving?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we invest our money?  What would it mean to acknowledge God in the way we advocate for public policies that have economic implications?  I’ll give you an answer on that one: it might mean not just talking about the middle class all the time but talking about the poor, talking about the marginalized. 

Some of you are old enough to remember the comedian Jack Benny.  He had this persona as a miser, a real tightwad.  He would do this sketch where a robber would come up and say, “Your money or your life.”  And Jack Benny would just stand there, not saying anything.  The robber would say, “Well?”  And Jack Benny would say, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

That was classic comedy from actually before I was born.  Somehow it isn’t quite so funny now.

But the question is not really our money or our life.  Our money – the way we use it, the way we think about it, the way we share it, the way we invest it – this is very much a part of our lives.  And scripture speaks to us with a word of guidance and a word of hope: “In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.”  Amen.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

“The Walk of Life” - October 13, 2019

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Colossians 2:6-7

I walked in my first Crop Walk in 1984.  I was a seminary student doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech.  I walked with some of our students in the Blacksburg CROP Walk.

My next CROP Walk was in 1992.  Susan and I and 6 month old Zoe lived in the small town of Arthur, Illinois, and for as long as we were there, I participated in the Douglas County CROP Walk.  A couple of years into it, the chair of the CROP Walk, a pastor in a neighboring community, moved to a church in another city.  He called and told me that I was now in charge of the CROP Walk.  No committee meeting or anything - I was the chair. 

We varied the route a bit from year to year, walking in and around and between the small towns in that county.  The walk was between 6-7 miles, which was shorter than the original 10-mile walk.  A couple of times, when we walked a route entirely in the country, I had to find a farmer on the route willing to let us put a port-a-potty on their property, and then I had to call Midwest Pottyhouse to order a port-a-potty.  (And by the way, Midwest Pottyhouse is a great company name because I still remember it.)

One year we drove through a hailstorm to get to the walk.  And one of the more memorable CROP Walks was 1998.  Mark McGwire of the Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs were chasing the all-time home run record and it came down to the last day of the season.  They were both playing that afternoon as we walked on the CROP Walk.  The county was 50% Cub fans, 50% Cardinal fans.  (Well, maybe 5% Chicago White Sox fans in there somewhere.)  With a long walk, we always had a Sag Wagon.  If you were too tired to go on, the Sag Wagon would pick you up and take you to the end of the walk.  Susan was driving the Sag Wagon that year – it was our 1988 Plymouth Colt - and so that we would know what was happening in the home run race, she was supposed to honk the horn once if McGwire hit a home run and twice if Sammy Sosa hit a home run.  (We didn’t have smart phones then, but we did have car radios.)

In 1999 we moved to Ames, and I was amazed at how much money our church raised in the CROP Walk – despite our relatively small size we were always close to the top in amount raised.  This was due to the efforts of John Anderson and Harris Seidel.  (If you didn’t know John, he was Joyce Davidson’s father.)  John and Harris were both very dedicated and even if they could not be there the day of the walk, they would walk at a different time.  John often walked from Northcrest to Perkins for the men’s breakfast and used that as his CROP Walk – one year I could not make the CROP Walk and so I walked with John to Perkins.  John was such a fixture at the CROP Walk that the year after he died, our Ames CROP Walk was held in John’s memory. 

Many of you have walked in the CROP Walk over the years, and if we include sponsors, then even more have participated.  It has gotten easier over the years, as we walk about 3 ½ miles, with a shorter option for those who need it.  This is not so much about making it easy as a recognition that there are many folks who participate who physically can’t go the long distances.  We have had some memorable walks, including walking in the cold, having canine walkers representing First Baptist, and last year, walking in a driving rainstorm.  

Well, today is CROP Walk Sunday, and so I’ve been thinking about the CROP Walk.  There is a reason that Church World Service raises funds through a walk.  One of the slogans is “We walk because they walk” – a reminder that there are millions of people who have to walk each day for food and for clean water.  We walk because they walk and we walk no matter what the weather because if you need water to drink, you have to walk no matter what the weather.

A walk to raise money or raise awareness makes sense because walking is a powerful metaphor.  The word walk is filled with meaning.  In scriptural terms, to walk has to do with the way we live.   The way we relate and participate in the community.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  And then there is our reading from Colossians.  It reads, “Continue to live your lives in Christ, rooted and built up in the faith…”  But in Greek the word translated as “live your life” is literally “to walk.”  (You can see that in the footnotes in our pew Bibles.)  Continue to walk in Christ.

Walking makes it sound easy.  And comfortable.  Not a run, not a frantic effort, just a walk.   

If something is an ordeal, a person will say, “Well, it’s no walk in the park,” like a walk would be the easiest thing ever.  In baseball, if the umpire calls four balls, you get to go to first base.  It’s called a walk and you can just mosey on down to first with no regard for how fast you get there. 

But contrary to popular perception, walking can be plenty difficult.  If you have joint pain or use a walker or wheelchair, walking isn’t so simple.  I read this week about a six year old girl with cerebral palsy who took her very first step.  It was a joyful moment, but it was far from easy.  In terms of our life, in terms of our spiritual journey, some walks are harder than others.  If you have experienced heartbreak and loss, if you have experienced those times of desperation – and I should probably say when you have experienced those times - you know that our walk of life can be very difficult.

The 23rd Psalm 23 says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Our walk may lead to some difficult places, but we do not walk alone.

In the coming weeks we will be thinking about issues of what we might call practical Christianity.  In the big picture, the word for it is stewardship.  I try to steer away from the word stewardship when possible because a lot of folks hear it and only think money, but stewardship is much bigger than that.  It is really about the way we live our lives.  It is about our walk.

Richard Rohr is a spiritual writer.  The Theology Class may be familiar with him as they used a video he was featured in last year.  Rohr wrote,

Christianity is a lifestyle - a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving.  However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.  One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness… The suffering on Earth is too great.
In simple language, we night say that you can talk the talk all you want, but it means nothing if you don’t walk the walk.  What we really believe, what we truly believe, will be seen in the way that we live.  To say that we are a Christian, to say that we follow Jesus, doesn’t mean much unless we actually try to follow the way of Jesus.

The prophet Micah took up this theme more than 2700 years ago.  Saying that what God really wanted was not vain words or empty ritual, he wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God?”  Now, that is really not three distinct things – attention to justice and mercy is a part of our walk with God.

Life is a journey, and to walk humbly with God means that we journey with God.  The life of faith is not about arbitrary rules or outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about living our life with God as our companion.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

To walk humbly with God is to live a life focused on love and justice and kindness and faithfulness.  To be honest, for most of us it is probably less about Sundays and more about the way we live the rest of the week.

This is a time of year when mission – making our faith active - is at the forefront for our church.  Last Sunday, many of you were here for our Great Day of Sharing, as we participated in projects aimed at serving our community and beyond.  We were involved in our neighborhood by participating in Make Campustown Shine, picking up trash around Campustown.  We were involved in the wider community by making blankets for newborns at Primary Healthcare and singing and visiting residents at Northcrest.  And we served people in need both across the U.S. and around the world by assembling hygiene kits for Church World Service.  Just this week, additional hygiene kits were shipped to the Bahamas to help victims of Hurricane Dorian.

The other big mission effort for our church this time of year is the World Mission Offering.  We join with more than 5000 American Baptist Churches in receiving this offering which supports our mission work around the globe.

A couple of weeks ago, several of us went over to Boone to hear ABC Missionary Ray Schellinger.  He is our Global Consultant for Immigration and Refugees.  People who are forced to leave their homes, their communities, their countries and seek shelter and safety is a huge worldwide issue.  Ray works with churches in places like Lebanon as they reach out to refugees there, who make up close to 25% of Lebanon’s population.  Think about that.   It would be like having 90 million refugees in the United States.  Among other things, Baptists in Lebanon are providing schooling for Syrian Muslim children in refugee camps.  They are assisting refugees with food and transportation and access to healthcare.  In a country like Lebanon where the Christian community and especially the Protestant community has mostly kept to themselves as a small minority, this has taken the Baptists of Lebanon far beyond their comfort zone.  And it is bringing new life to these churches.

Ray especially shared with us about immigrants at the southern U.S. border.  He shared heartbreaking stories of families who had fled the threat of death in their own countries and walked for weeks or even months on the dangerous trip to the U.S. border, only to be treated like criminals and have their vulnerable situations taken advantage of.  He works with a number of shelters in Tijuana and other places – shelters run by churches or other groups that initially thought they would provide housing for a small number of asylum seekers for a few weeks, but it has turned into large numbers of people for months at a time. These people are serving faithfully and compassionately in extremely stressful conditions.

After sharing so much disturbing information, I asked Ray how he goes on.  How does he get up every morning and continue this work? And he talked about the small victories - how much it meant to people who felt utterly abandoned to be treated with kindness and respect.  How opportunities for schooling for children, opportunities for traumatized people to talk to a caring person, how having their stories heard and having someone pray for them meant so much to people.

Ray is just one of our international missionaries.  Our mission work is done with compassion and integrity and great commitment, and it is worth supporting.  It is a way for us to walk alongside brothers and sisters in need.

We are called to walk humbly with God.  We are called to walk alongside others.  It is a daily walk.  It can be difficult.  I think there is a reason Micah wrote, walk humbly with your God.

Michelle Singletary is the personal finance columnist for the Washington Post.  This week she wrote a column and suggested that people should tip well at restaurants even when service is not so great because the tip is big part of the wages these people earn.  I was struck by her follow-up column:

I’ve written about a lot of personal finance topics — the cost of retirement, health insurance, economic inequity — but which topic has received the most comments?
Tipping…  The outrage factor about tipping is titanic, with hundreds of readers arguing passionately that it’s their right to withhold or greatly reduce a tip if service was unsatisfactory… I was stunned by people’s lack of empathy for folks who wait on them.  And the name-calling and swearing was over the top.
She ended it: “Of course, you are free to do what you want with your money.  I just provide a forum for us to respectfully discuss such issues.  So, stop swearing at me!”

What does this have to do with walking with God?  A lot, I think, actually.  We may not agree all about tipping and that’s OK.  But a lack of empathy for others, and the feeling that it is OK to spew profanities at someone you have never met is an absolute epidemic.  Walking with God is about all of life, remembering justice and kindness even in such everyday matters.  

The invitation today has to do with walking.  First, very literally, I would invite you to walk in the CROP Walk.  It’s not too late, we have Fellowship Time after worship and I guarantee that you will get sponsors.  I would also invite you to give to the World Mission Offering - to walk alongside those around the world in need of hope, in need of help, in need of support as we share in the work of peace and love and justice and reconciliation – as we share in the work of the gospel.

And then, I would invite you to think about your own walk – your own life – your walk with God.  What do you need to do to strengthen that walk?  What do you need to do, perhaps, to get back on the right path?  And who do you need to walk alongside as you walk with God?

God has called us – God has called you – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  Amen.