Friday, November 21, 2014

“The Secret” - November 23, 2014

Texts: Psalm 65:1-4, 10-13; Philippians 4:10-20

Earlier this fall, we spent four weeks in Paul’s letter to the Philippians – one Sunday on each chapter.  We looked at a key insight or idea from each chapter.  Just for fun, as a refresher, I’ll mention those themes:

“Let the way you live be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

“Have the same attitude as Christ, who set aside his rightful place of power and became a servant.”

“I count all of my achievements and knowledge and pedigree as nothing compared with the surpassing value of knowing Christ.”

We ended with the fourth chapter, “Whatever is just and true and honorable and excellent and praiseworthy, think about these things.”

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, as our hearts turn toward giving thanks, I want to go back and pick up the last part of that last chapter of Philippians.  Paul has been going on for several pages in this letter – and remember, it was an actual letter that was read in worship one Sunday morning at the church in Philippi – he has gone on for several pages and then finally, at the end, he gets to the occasion for his letter – the reason that he wrote in the first place, or at least the reason that he wrote when he did.  He finally gets around to a thank you note.

Paul addresses a couple of situations in the church, he has words of advice and encouragement, he urges them on toward faithfulness in Christian living, and then finally, at the very end, he gets to the matter at hand.  Out of concern for Paul’s plight in prison, the church had sent Epaphroditus to bring a financial gift to Paul and to help attend to Paul’s needs.  Epaphroditus, you may remember, winds up taking ill, becomes seriously ill, and once he is able to travel, Paul sends him back to Philippi, saying in effect thanks for your help but I really don’t need a sick deacon here on top of my other worries.  So he sends Epaphroditus back home with a big thank you note for the whole church.

Now, it’s not what you would call a good thank you note, but it is a thank you note just the same.  Sometimes you will get a card in the mail, and without even reading anything, you know that it is a thank you note.  Well, a thank you note or an invitation.  If it opens bottom to top bottom instead of side to side and it is a smallish card, it is probably a thank you note. 

“Thank you for the sandwich press.  Of all the wedding gifts we received, it is our favorite because sandwiches are the one thing we know how to fix.  P.S. We will be trying some other things.  Love, Bill and Betty.”  Now, there is a good thank you note.  It is short and to the point, has a bit of humor, and it doesn’t matter if everybody’s note says that their gift was the favorite.  It is a thank you note.  It is supposed to make the recipient feel good.

Compare this with Paul’s thank you.  He tacks it on to a rambling theological treatise, and even when he gets to the thank-you part he hems and haws and equivocates and goes on and on.

It starts out poorly.  “I rejoice in the Lord that finally you have renewed your concern for me.”  What kind of thank you is that?  I am thankful you have finally shown concern for me?  Very bad form.  Then Paul backtracks a bit, maybe realizing he had come on too strong.  “Well, you were concerned for me all along but didn’t have the opportunity to show it.”  It makes you wonder if paper and ink were in short supply, especially in prison, and rather than scribbling out and correcting himself or just starting over, Paul puts to paper something that doesn’t sound so great but then just goes on, trying to make up for it.  Then he continues, “Not that I am complaining; I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”  Remember, this is a thank you note, for goodness sakes.  If your spouse asks if you could write a thank you note for a gift the two of you have received, or if your mom or dad tell you it would be a good idea to send Aunt Maude and Uncle Newt a thank you card, you can’t say, “I’m not sure what to say.”  Because no matter what you say, it will probably be more appropriate and less awkward than Paul’s thank you note.
   
“I have learned to be content,” Paul says.  “I know what it is to have plenty and I know what it is to have nothing.  I’m not just banging on the bars of my cell asking, ‘Has the mail come yet?’  I know how to get mail, and I know how to get no mail.  I know how to have a lot, I know how to have nothing at all.  I can handle being well-fed and I can handle being hungry.  Either way, in whatever situation, I am OK because I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.  But at any rate, I do appreciate your concern.”   

Finally, the first actual word of thanks, such as it is, but then he goes on, “Not that I seek the gift.”  He just doesn’t know when to quit.  “I don’t care so much about the gift itself but rather your faithfulness in sending the gift.”

A simple “thank you” would have been a lot better, if you ask me.  How about, “Thank you so much for your gift.  I really appreciate it.”  But Paul does reference the special relationship he has with the church in Philippi.  “Out of all the churches, you alone sent aid when I was in Thessalonica.  Time and again, you helped me,” he writes.

Paul did not want anyone to have reason to question his motives.  He apparently got a good bit of criticism as it was, but to make sure no one could accuse him of being in it for the money, he paid his own way.  He was a tent-maker.  He didn’t depend on the generosity of the churches he served.  This church in Philippi was special; it was the only church that he allowed to help out financially in any way. 

Well, any way you cut it, it is a very strange, very weak thank you letter.  Part of the strangeness is that it had to do with money.  If money is hard for us to talk about, as we considered last Sunday, it was just as hard in Biblical times because there were conflicting ideas circulating, even in scripture, about money.  Wealth was a sign of God’s favor.  “The one who delights in the law of God shall proper in all he does.”  Or, it was a sign of corruption and taking advantage of the poor.  Poverty was a sign of God’s disfavor.  Or, it was a sign of faithfulness.  “Blessed are the poor.”  Luke tells about the rich man who dies, and poor Lazarus who dies.  Guess which one winds up in heaven and which one suffers in the flames of hell?

Part of the awkwardness had to do with the kind of gift, and then part of it had to do with Paul.  Paul is a giver and it is hard for him to receive.  A lot of us are that way.  He is not used to receiving, and he’s not good at it.  “Thank you for the gift.  You finally remembered me.  I know you were thinking about me before.  You just didn’t have a chance.  I don’t really want or need anything.  But I’m glad that you wanted to give.  Not that I needed it … it’s just really, really awkward.  But finally, he blurts it out: “I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

Well, gifts are not easy.  We will be with my family at Thanksgiving, and while there we will do Christmas.  So we are coming up on a Christmas shopping deadline.  The clock is winding down and we have just got started in our shopping.  You try to find the right gift, a great gift, or in the end, at least a serviceable gift.  Of course, some people are harder to shop for than others, and most all of us have been on the receiving end of gifts that were – how shall we say this – underwhelming.

The whole experience of giving and receiving gifts can be very complicated.  With Paul, you almost get the feeling that here is someone who has had a bad experience with gifts.  Some of us can perhaps relate to that.  But at the same time, gifts can be a precious thing, a powerful thing.

In Greek, the word for “gift” and the word for “grace” and the word for “thanks” is all the same word – charis.  We hear echoes of it in numerous words: charisma, charismatic, eucharist.  Gift.  Grace.  Thanks.  The greatest gifts we receive are really not tangible items, not things that you can wrap in a package.  Joy, peace, kindness, understanding, friendship, loyalty, time, compassion, belonging, love.

Tucked into this rather awkward thank-you, Paul includes a very interesting line.  He says, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

“I have learned the secret.”  It is the sense of being initiated into some secret society.  The New English Bible has this, “I have been thoroughly initiated.”  Another translation has it, “I have been initiated into the secret.”

What is it?  What is the secret of being content, of doing well in any situation?  What is the secret of living in plenty or in want?

The secret is gratitude.  Grace.  Gift.  Thanks.  “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”  That is the secret.  To understand that life is a gift, that it is all a gift, and to live our lives in gratitude.

Paul lived with such gratitude that he really was content whether he had a little or a lot.  If you live a life of gratitude, if you are thankful for all that you have, then you focus on abundance and blessing, not on scarcity and want.

The secret of a relationship with God that truly sets you free is gratitude.  You will never meet a truly grateful person who is at the same time mean, or small, or bitter, or greedy, or selfish, or who takes pleasure in another’s pain.  Gratitude can change your life.

The great preacher Fred Craddock said that if he were on a search committee, looking for a minister for the church, and the committee was looking at a particular person, the question he would want to ask first, even before “Can this person preach?” is, “Is there any evidence that this person is grateful?” 

Our choir sang a marvelous piece this morning from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land.  What I like about it is that the overriding feeling and image that one gets from the piece is sheer gratitude.
The promise of living, with hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving our friends and our labor.
The promise of growing, with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.
The promise of living, the promise of growing
Is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving.
And then,
Give thanks there was sunshine, Give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain,
O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful,
Come join us in thanking the Lord for His blessing.
When we have learned the secret of gratitude, we can look around us and find more and more reasons to be thankful, and it can transform our lives.  No less a theologian than the actor Jim Carrey was quoted in USA Today: “I challenge anybody in their darkest moment to write what they're grateful for, even stupid little things like green grass or a friendly conversation with somebody on the elevator.  You start to realize how rich you are.”  A conscious choice for gratitude can change our lives.

The Psalms are a particularly rich expression of gratitude, and they are so powerful because like Paul’s testimony, the gratitude is not dependent on present circumstances.  Even amidst expressions of pain and hurt and fear and disappointment, there is still gratitude.  Gratitude is woven into the fabric of life, and when that is true, one can persevere and move forward, even in those dark moments.

For our closing hymn today, we will sing Now Thank We All Our God, a great hymn of praise.  It was written by Martin Rinkert in the year 1636, during the Thirty Years War.  The city of Eilenberg was hit by a severe plague and Rinkert was the only surviving pastor in the city.  At the height of the plague he conducted 50 funerals a day and he buried 4000 people that year, including his wife.  It was during that time that somehow, with a heart of gratitude, he wrote the words “Now Thank We all Our God.”

Gratitude is the secret that truly sets us free.

Psalm 65, which we read this morning, is a wonderful expression of this kind of gratitude that understands it is all gift, all grace, that all of life is reason for praise:
You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
   your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
   the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
   the valleys deck themselves with grain,
   they shout and sing together for joy.
Look around you.  There are a million wonders right in front of us, every day, if only we will see them.  There are countless reasons for gratitude, not the least of which is thanksgiving for one another.

Paul may have been lousy at thank you notes, but he really had learned the secret.  The secret to living is really no big secret: it is gratitude.  Amen.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Dimes And Dollars” - November 16, 2014

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

We have been thinking about stewardship this month, and it is hard to think of a better example of stewardship than to hear young people lifting their voices in song and praise, using and developing the gifts God has blessed them with!

We have looked at “Friends and Family” and “Minutes and Months,” and this morning we come to “Dimes and Dollars” – our stewardship of money.   

I am aware that talking about money can make people nervous.  We know, at least in our head, we know that God has a claim over all of our life, we know that Christian faith has something to say about the way we use our time, our talents, that is has something to say about our work, our relationships, and so forth, but we somehow want to draw the line at our money.  As they used to say, “Now you’ve gone from preaching to meddling.”

We are not necessarily comfortable coming to church and talking about money, yet many of us could use some help in thinking about money in relationship to our faith.  The choices we make about how to spend our money, how we save our money, how to invest, about the things we spend our money on, about how and how much to give, choices about causes we support – in a sense, these are all spiritual questions.  And so, perhaps, coming to church and thinking about money is kind of like going to the dentist: we may not especially enjoy it, but we know we need it.

Apparently, stewardship sermons have always made people uneasy.  Benjamin Franklin, in a famous passage from his autobiography, tells about the time he went to hear the great preacher George Whitefield preach in Philadelphia:

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved that he should get nothing from me.  I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistols in gold.  As he proceeded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers.  Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.
Well, if nothing else, I have some good news for you this morning.  The good news is, I’m no George Whitefield. 

Our stewardship committee met several weeks back to talk about and plan our fall stewardship emphasis.  We don’t usually follow a full-blown pre-packaged stewardship program, but we often will at least use some theme materials – bulletin inserts, bulletin covers, maybe a poster, as well as a general theme we can work with.  American Baptists along with a number of other denominations have a stewardship consortium and produce these materials together.  Our committee looked at this year’s theme, something about generosity, and to be honest it just didn’t grab us.  It would have worked, but it just lacked something.

So we talked a bit and came up with the theme of “Joyful Generosity.”  Joy was the word we were looking for.  Following Christ faithfully leads to generosity, but it is not a dutiful kind of giving, it is joyful generosity.

We live in a culture where a lot of people define themselves by the things they own, the things they possess, and feel that they deserve all of these things.  Rob Bell wrote a book titled Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  In it, he writes:

Entitlement leads to immunity to the suffering of others, because “I got what I deserve” and so, apparently, did they.  Moses warned about this in Deuteronomy 8, when he said, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”
In an empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities.  Excess can become normal.  And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.

Maybe the key to Christian stewardship is understanding that it is all a gift.  Understanding how much God has blessed us, we naturally want to pass these blessings on to others, and find joy in doing so.   

You may be familiar with the story of Alfred Nobel.  One morning in 1888, Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, awoke to discover his own obituary in the newspaper.  I haven’t had that experience myself, but I can imagine that it would be a bit unnerving.  Nobel was a famed industrialist who has amassed a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction.  Accumulating wealth – getting rich – had been the main focus of his life.

The obituary he read was a simple error – Nobel’s brother was the one who had died.  A reporter made a careless mistake.  Anyone would have been disturbed to read his or her own obituary, but for Alfred Noel, the shock was overwhelming.  For the first time, he saw himself as the world saw him—“the dynamite king” who made a fortune from explosives.  As far as the general public was concerned, this was who he was and what his life was about.  According to the newspaper story, he was simply a merchant of death, and that was how he would be remembered.

As he read his own obituary with horror, Nobel resolved to change, and to make clear to the whole world the true meaning and purpose of his life.  He decided how best to use his wealth.  His last will and testament was an expression of his life’s purpose.  The result was the Nobel Prize, given to those who have done the most for the cause of human freedom and world peace.

How about you?  What is your life really about?  In a sense, this is the question of Christian stewardship.  More than just dimes and dollars, it is a matter of what we value in life.  Jesus saw it as a spiritual issue, a matter of one’s heart.  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  The question for us is, “Where is our treasure?”

As followers of Christ, we are asked to give simply for the joy of giving and simply because we have been blessed, not for what we may receive back in return.  Now the fact is, we may receive back.  Our scripture from Proverbs says, “Honor the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  The Hebrews could see that at times there appeared to be a connection between generosity and receiving material blessing, and there are cases where we too observe this at work.

And yet this is not a prosperity gospel.  Becoming wealthy because we give to God is no sure thing.  The verses that follow our reading in Proverbs serve to make that clear.  Verse 11-14 read, “My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves the one he loves… Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.”  Generosity does not always lead to wealth.  Our generosity brings with it blessings, but not necessarily material blessings. 

I was once contacted by a reporter from the Daily who told me that an ISU professor had done a research study that showed people with strong faith tend to live longer, and what did I think about that?

I told her I could understand the results, that a strong faith contributes to a positive outlook on life, which can be important for health.  But I also said that if a person really takes one’s faith seriously, it can get you in trouble.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero had strong faith but it got them killed, and Jesus’ faith didn’t seem to help him live a long life.

The point is, faith does not necessarily equate to success in this life, and we do not give for what we can get out of it.  Giving to God is not like investing in a mutual fund.     

Alfred Nobel had accumulated wealth, but he found giving to be far more satisfying.  We are created in God’s image, and just as God’s nature is self-giving, we are created to give.  We are at our best when we give.  Until we learn to be generous, we are not experiencing life at its fullest.

Amy Butler is a colleague, an American Baptist pastor who just became pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.  She wrote a column recently in which she responded to an article she had read somewhere 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.  Butler argued that while his view was not uncommon, he was completely wrong, and that the writer had missed a fundamental shift in religious life.  Churches may have once thought of themselves as bastions of benevolence where well-scrubbed do-gooders who have it all together gather to plan how to minister to those poor unfortunates out there in society.  But that is not the case so much anymore.

She wrote, “What we are now is mission outposts.  We are islands in a world full of increasingly adrift people.  We are places of solace and hope, community and hospitality for people who are too smart to believe in God and pretty convinced they don’t need the church — until they do.”

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 liturgy and music and preaching and community that help them start to connect with the tradition of the church and the message of Jesus – things they desperately need in their lives.

Or people may come looking for a nice staging area for their wedding, thinking a traditional twist on things 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.  And the kids have a fantastic week.

Or, as Mark Kubik shared a couple of weeks ago, an offender will come to CCJ at a rock-bottom place in their life, 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.

All these things require substantial investment of resources that are labeled “facilities” or “administration” - ministers, musicians, church staff, air conditioning, building maintenance, snow removal, instrument tuning — but all of these things are ministry.  They are frontline, on the ground, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of ministry.

Now, I did not even mention the vital, continuing, day-by-day, week-to week ministry to those of us who are already a part of our church.  And besides all of this, we support a great deal of ministry beyond the four walls of our building.  Our church often tops the churches in our region in per capita mission giving.  But the fact is, our whole life together as a community of faith is mission and ministry.  The Narrative Budget that you will find in your bulletin today is a reflection of that.  It’s all ministry.

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 do together, I can give joyfully.  As Paul writes, “God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that … you may share abundantly.”

Most of you have received pledge cards in the mail; if you did not, there are cards available in the narthex.  This is not so much about the church asking for money, but Christ asking for faithfulness.  Our financial gifts are a tangible symbol of our committing our lives to Christ’s work.  As we receive our offering this morning, I would invite you to give your pledge of financial support to God’s work as a joyful act of worship.

God has put dimes and dollars in our hands.  Just as God has given to us, we are to pass on the gift.  God has given us so much.  How can we do anything less than be a cheerful giver?  Amen.


Friday, November 7, 2014

“Minutes And Months” - November 9, 2014

Texts: Psalm 31:14-15, 23-24; Ephesians 5:15-16

Last week we began our focus on stewardship by thinking together on the theme of friends and family – stewardship of relationships.  We looked at the Biblical story of Esther.  Now, just to see if anyone was paying attention, and as a way of testing memory and retention, the characters in the story were King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, Haman, Mordecai, and Esther.  (Hopefully folks will remember the "sound effects" associated with each character from last week's sermon.) 

Today, we are thinking about minutes and months - stewardship of time.  I won’t presume to speak for your life situation, but I can certainly speak for myself: time is often in short supply.  Think of all the demands on our time. 

We all live somewhere – home, apartment, dorm, condo.  There are certain things we have to do to keep up the place we live. For some of us, there is yardwork.  Mowing in the summer, leaves in the fall, shoveling snow in the winter (I’m looking forward to it already!)  We have to clean our homes, we have to do laundry, and some of us have to attend to home maintenance and repair.  It takes time to cook meals, and the frequency of eating out has increased dramatically from the time I was growing up.  That has coincided with a general increase in the busy-ness of life.  Who has time to cook?

Work takes up much of our time.  Workers in the US work much more and takes much less time off than workers in European countries.  A large percentage of us do not take all of the vacation time we have coming.  And all of our digital technologies have made it possible to work even when we are not working – which is not necessarily a good thing.

There are kid’s activities – we spend time driving to piano lessons, soccer practice, dance, swimming.  We spend time volunteering for various charitable and community groups.

We need time for family.  Sometimes it can be hard finding time for the people who live in the same house.  We need time for friends.  We need “leisure time” - time for hobbies, interests, movies, TV, sports, theater, concerts.  We need time for recreation – whether it’s golf or ping-pong or tennis or walking or fishing or going to the gym.

We give time to various activities and to organizations to which we belong – political groups, civic groups, interest groups from genealogy to quilting to model airplanes to woodworking.

If you are a student, your interests and the organizations you are a part of may be different, but it’s basically the same deal.  And then you have to throw in time for studying.  A lot of it.

And then we devote time to church activities – choir, committees, social events, student activities, work days.  It is often a challenge scheduling church meetings and events because of all of our competing activities.

Hopefully, in the midst of all of this and more, we find time for worship, time for prayer, time for reflection.

Did I mention time to sleep?  We need that too.  I prefer you didn’t take that time during the sermon, but we need rest.

When our daughter Zoe was busy in grade school and middle school, with numerous activities, it seemed like life would be simpler once she could drive.  And while it was nice when she got her license, life really didn’t seem any simpler.  And then after Zoe went off to college, it seemed like life would be a little less hectic.  And in some ways it is, but in other ways life is just as hectic as ever.  Somehow, stuff always comes along to fill the time that we have.  This idea that we will have more time later in life does not necessarily pan out.

I have talked to folks recently retired who feel as though they are busier now than when they were working.  Between volunteering in various places and social groups and grandkids and activities with friends and family and travel and hobbies, they don’t have much extra time and wonder where they ever found the time to work first place.  

At the same time, I realize that there are folks with the opposite issue of too much time and not enough to fill the time that you have.  Maybe you have lost a spouse, and there is too little activity and too much quiet around the house.  Maybe you are not able to participate in some of the activities you once did.  Maybe you are out of work.  There are those who don’t have enough or don’t find enough to do with their time.  One way or another, the way we use time is a fairly pervasive concern in our culture.

Difficult as it may be, the way we use our time is a matter of stewardship.  The Bible has some things to say to us about time.  It tells us that time is given us by God.  It’s a gift.  We have no say as to when our time begins or when it ends, but we have been given enough time for the things that matter.

We often talk as though time is a flexible commodity—we just need more time, we’ll say.  Well, there are several problems we may have in relation to time, but too little time is not one of them.  We already have all the time there is.  But one of our problems may be trying to pack too much stuff into the time we have. 

We moved to Ames from Arthur, Illinois, a small town with about 150 students in the high school.  That small school excelled in music, with a great marching band and an excellent show choir; and they did very well in athletics, winning league championships in boys and girls basketball and track and making the playoffs in football.  The way that they could do so well in so many different areas with such a small student body is that everybody was in everything.  A girl in our church was on the volleyball, basketball, and track teams; she was a cheerleader, in the marching band and show choir; and on the student council - among numerous other activities.  She was a talented and capable person, but she had no free time and felt stressed out.

Instead of helping her to prioritize and choose what was most important or what she most enjoyed; the culture kind of directed her towards just doing everything. 

That can be a problem.  It is good to be active and involved and to participate in things, it is good to contribute our talents as we are able, but we don’t have to do everything.  We can’t do everything.  And simply by saying “yes” to so many things, we are saying “no” to some other things, whether we realize it or not.  We may be saying “no” to time with family, we may be saying “no” to involvement at church, we may be saying “no” to being well-rested or less stressed or to leisure activities we enjoy. 

Packing too much into the time we have can be a problem.  Another problem is that because we recognize the importance of our time, recognize that there is a finite amount of time, we can come to worship efficiency and crowd out important things that don’t appear to be productive or efficient.

The Shakers were known for making excellent furniture.  It is no coincidence that they lived life at a bit slower pace.  Shaker communities concentrated on the quality of their work rather than time schedules or quick productivity.  Their work was offered to God and thought of as an avenue of worship—“Hands to work, hearts to God” was a common expression.  Because their work was carried on in an unhurried way and done well, the Shaker name became synonymous with superior quality.  When we are concerned with stuffing as much activity as we can into our day, we cannot create the kind of quality work the Shakers were known for.  They could have been much more efficient and mass-produced chairs and tables and dressers, but if they had, we might have never heard of Shaker furniture.

There are some very important things in life that are not efficient or productive.  Here we are, gathered together this morning in worship.  Is worship efficient?  Is our gathering together this morning productive?

If we wanted to be productive with our time, we could have stayed home and raked leaves, or washed the car, or studied for a test, or cleaned the basement.  What we are doing is not at all productive or efficient.

Marva Dawn wrote a book on worship with the title A Royal Waste of Time.   Worship is not productive in any pragmatic sense; in terms of society’s values, it is a waste of time.

Whether worship is worthy of our time, whether it is essential for our lives – that is a different question.  But when we order our time strictly in terms of productivity and efficiency, worship will not make the cut.  

There are any number of activities worthy of our time that are not efficient.  Taking a walk in the woods, reading a book, playing a game, listening to music – these are not efficient at all, not productive, but nevertheless important.  We can get to the point where we order our lives in terms of being productive, maximizing our time efficiency, but this is a temptation caused by our hurry-up world.

All of this points to one of the basic problems we have: identifying our priorities.  Knowing what is truly important to us.

I’d like for you to think for a moment about what is most important to you in life.  Think of the 3 or 4 things you value the most.

Do you have a few things in mind?  Now reflect on those 3 or 4 values in relation to the time you spend on each of them.  I suspect that for a lot of us, what we say is important may not match up with the way we actually spend our time.  If family is one of your values but you seem to never see your family, maybe things need to change.  If faith in God is one of your values but you devote very little time to prayer and worship and involvement in the community of faith, maybe things need to change.  If health is one of your values but you don’t have time for exercise, maybe things need to change.

Scripture presents us with several truths related to time and our use of time.  First, time flies.  Psalm 89:47 says “remember how short time is.” 

Sometimes it seems as though life is flying by.  I will see photos on Facebook of high school classmates, people I haven’t seen in years, and it amazes me how old these people look.  It’s unbelievable. 

Now, I’m still a young man, of course, but in my circle of friends and family – I’m talking about folks my age and younger – there has been serious illness, tragedies, great pain, and untimely deaths.  Life is too short to hold grudges, too short to worry over trivial matters, too short to allow relatively insignificant things to ruin relationships, too short to put off doing what we need to do or would like to do or feel called to do. 

Scripture also says that time matters.  Ephesians 5:16 says to “make the most of the time.”  It is important to make our time count.

A woman named Tracy Tiffany shared:
I knew my mother's 81st birthday was going to be a tough one for her.  She had just lost my father two months earlier after fifty-five years of marriage.  I was out of work that year and had very little money, but I told her that I would drive from Ohio to Michigan to spend a few days with her and that that would be my birthday present.

On her birthday, she took us both out to a very nice local restaurant.  As we were having dinner, an older couple in the next booth said hello to mom, and as I was introduced, I explained why I was visiting. “How wonderful!” they said.  “How we wish our children would understand that we don’t want or need any more things, that their presence means so much more.”

And then time evokes praise.  The way we use our time can bring praise to God.  Psalm 34:1 says “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

When we spend our time in ways that show kindness and compassion and concern and love for our neighbor and love for God’s world, our time brings praise to God.  This way of using our time may not fit with the cultural value of efficiency and productivity.  Spending an afternoon visiting someone is not very efficient.  Spending an afternoon singing in the Good Neighbor Concert is not necessarily productive.  But it brings forth praise to God. 

Scripture also says that time magnifies our choices.  Because time flies, because time matters, because our use of time can bring God praise, the choices we make about how to use our time matter greatly.

Even Jesus had problems with time.  He was in great demand and couldn’t be everywhere at once.  He took time to get away and renew and recharge, but the crowds always seemed to find him.  But Jesus also gives us some good examples of managing time.  He spent time with the crowds of people, but more time with the smaller group of disciples.  He cared for his family and spent time with his mother - he accompanied her to the wedding in Cana, for example.  He took time to enjoy dinners and parties and social occasions.  And he spent time alone, time away, time in prayer, time in worship.

Like so many things in life, when it comes to time, we need a sense of balance, and Jesus seems to model this.  Simply crowding our days with activities sometimes can be a way of escaping life.  On the other hand, doing nothing and procrastinating can also be a way of escaping life.  We need a balance of work and play, of activity and rest, of prayer and worship and service.

One writer put it this way:
     Take time to LAUGH, it is the music of the soul.
     Take time to THINK, it is the source of power.
     Take time to PLAY, it is the source of perpetual youth.
     Take time to READ, it is the foundation of wisdom.
     Take time to PRAY, it is the greatest power on earth.
     Take time to LOVE AND BE LOVED, it is a God-given privilege.
     Take time to be FRIENDLY, it is the road to happiness.
     Take time to GIVE, it is too short a day to be selfish.
     Take time to WORK, it is the price of success.
     Take time for GOD, it is the way of life.

God has put time in our hands.  How we use our time is not an easy matter.  We will continue to struggle with it.  But when we see the time we have as a gift from God, it helps us as we order our days.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

“Friends and Family” - November 2, 2014

Text: Esther 1:1-9 (actually the whole book!)
(this is week one of a 3-week stewardship emphasis)
   
The Book of Esther is one of the lesser-known books of the Bible.  It reads as one continuous story.  Esther is unique in that God’s name is never mentioned, not even once.  That doesn’t mean that God is not a part of the story.  God seems to be all around the story, overlooking the action, but God’s name is not to be found.

There is a Jewish tradition that when the story of Esther is told, everybody hisses whenever the name of Haman, the villain, is mentioned.  We are going to expand that idea this morning and make this an audience participation sermon.  (We did this a number of years ago and as far as I'm concerned this is the only way to tell the story of Esther.)  There are several very distinctive characters, and when their names are mentioned, those of you assigned to one of these characters will respond appropriately.

The king of Persia is King Ahasuerus.  When King Ahasuerus’ name is mentioned, make a trumpet sound: du-du-du-DUH.

Some of you are assigned Queen Vashti.  She had the audacity to say no to the king, so when you hear her mentioned, cross your arms and say, “NO.”

Haman is the villain in this story.  When Haman is mentioned, hiss.

There are also heroes.  When Mordecai’s name is said, say, “Yea!”

And then Esther is likewise a heroine.  When you hear her name, respond with “Woo-hoo!”

Now we are ready for the story.

The Jewish people are in captivity in Persia.  The Persians have a great empire, stretching from India to Ethiopia.  Their ruler is King Ahasuerus.  The king loves to display his power and wealth, loves festive dinners and official functions, and loves all the protocol surrounding such occasions.  The most basic rule is that everybody has to defer to the king, so it’s no surprise that he loves it.

A huge 180-day celebration is held, concluding with a 7-day banquet.  Dieting was out and indulgence was in!   The scripture gives details of golden goblets and fine linens.  While this banquet is going on, Queen Vashti is hosting a separate banquet for the women.  On the last day of the banquet, King Ahasuerus commands his advisors to bring Queen Vashti to his banquet, so that he can show off her beauty to his guests.  Her response was, “NO--I won’t do it.”  She was tired of being treated like a piece of meat and wanted no part of the king’s drunken party.

After a 180-day celebration, it wasn’t good to end it all with the grand finale of the king being embarrassed by his wife.  And so an emergency meeting of the cabinet was held.  The problem was not national security or public health; the burning question was what to do about Queen Vashti.

Now a lot of people would say, “Here are some typical male chauvinist pigs.”  And you know what?  They would be exactly right.  One of the king’s advisors said, “The issue here is not simply the wrong that has been done to the king.  What we are really dealing with is the possible breakdown of life as we know it.  Queen Vashti has not only done wrong to the king, but to all people” (and by this he means all men).  “When women hear that the queen did not obey her husband, what is to keep other women from disobeying their husbands?  There will be no end to the trouble once women get it in their mind that they have rights.”

And so a decree went out: Queen Vashti shall never again come into the presence of the king.  Her royal position would be given to another.  A call went out for beautiful young women to audition for queen.  In Susa, the city of the king, there lived a Jew named Mordecai.  He was in the royal service.  His grandfather was one of the Jews taken from Jerusalem into captivity.  Mordecai had a cousin named Esther.  Her parents had died, and he had adopted her as his own daughter.  Mordecai suggested that Esther enter the contest—and she did.  She quickly won favor with those in charge and made the cut for the 12 months of beauty treatments.  (And you thought Miss America was a big production!)  To make a long story just slightly shorter, King Ahasuerus chose Esther to be queen.

In time, another character enters the story.  His name is Haman.  He had been promoted to vice-king—second in rank in the kingdom.  The custom was for everyone to bow before Haman as a sign of respect and honor.  But Mordecai would not do it.  He refused.  He should have known that people get in trouble for things like that, but it didn’t matter to him.  This custom was a part of pagan religion and not for a Jew.

Haman was furious.  In fact, it seemed to him too small a thing to simply punish Mordecai.  Having been told that Mordecai was a Jew, he determined to destroy all the Jews.

Now in all of this the king seems a bit slow, kind of a buffoonish character.  Haman speaks to the king and says “There are… certain people in your kingdom who have different laws, who do not obey the king and ignore the royal laws.  It is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.  If it pleases the king, may he issue a decree that all the Jews shall be killed.”

Now King Ahasuerus does not know that his wife, Esther, is a Jew.  (One gets the feeling they didn’t talk a whole lot.)  The king agreed with Haman’s plan.  They were to cast Pur (lots) to determine the day for Jews to be killed.

Mordecai found out what had happened.  He wore sackcloth and ashes and went into mourning.  The punishment did seem out of proportion—he wouldn’t suck up to a self-important bigshot and the result is, all of his people will be killed.

Mordecai asks Esther to intervene with the king (who still does not know that she is a Jew).  Esther says that it won’t work—a person cannot approach the king without an invitation--even if you are married to him.  She herself hadn’t seen him in 30 days.  The penalty on the books for approaching the king uninvited was death—and in this kingdom, one didn’t mess around with the rules.

But Mordecai pressed her.  He said, “Don’t think that you alone of all the Jews will escape death.  If you keep silence, relief will come from elsewhere, but you will perish.  Then he speaks the best-known words from this book of the Bible: “Who knows?  Perhaps you came to royalty for such a time as this.”

And so after three days of fasting, Esther approached the king in the inner court, where everyone was forbidden to go unless invited.  The king asked her to enter.  He asked her what she wanted and told her he would grant whatever it was.  (This was a good sign.)  Her request was for the king and Haman to come to a banquet she would give for them.  (The catering business was thriving in the city of Susa!)

Meanwhile, Haman is having a gallows built on which to hang Mordecai.  King Ahasuerus and Haman attend the banquet.  The king again asks Queen Esther her request.  Her response was, “spare my life and that of my people, for we have been sold to be killed.”  The king asked who has done this, and she replies that is was Haman.

The king left the banquet in a rage.  Haman remained and begged Esther for his life.  He throws himself on the couch where she is sitting, just as the king enters the room, and it appears that Haman is assaulting the queen.  That seals his fate.  Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai.  Esther saved her people.  On the day that the Jews were to be killed, the enemies of the Jews were defeated instead.  Mordecai became the second in charge in the kingdom, and the day of Purim, the day chosen by lot for the death of the Jews but which instead became a day of victory, became a feast day. 

(This ends the story, and you can now continue the audience participation part by attentive listening.  You’ve done a fantastic job, but we’ve probably had enough hissing and woo-hoos for one morning.)

What can we learn from this story?  We are starting our stewardship focus his morning; what does the book of Esther possibly have to do with stewardship?

First, what do we do when we are in a strange land or an unfriendly place or a situation not of our choosing?  Esther and Mordecai chose to make the best of the situation.  The Jews would have preferred to be in Israel, a home that by this time most of them had never seen.  But they weren’t.  They were in Persia, in captivity.  They were a minority people who practiced a minority faith in a faraway land.  Yet Mordecai and Esther chose to make the best of it.

The old saying goes when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  That’s far too simplistic.  When we are in the midst of tragic losses and painful crises, “making lemons into lemonade” has a pretty hollow sound.  And yet the idea of doing the best we can in a situation is sometimes all we can manage.  There are some things we cannot control, and we find ourselves in situations not of our choosing.  That’s the way life is.  Sometimes, all we can do is accept things the way they are and move on.

And this is a part of stewardship.  Stewardship involves using what we have been given, and valuing what we have.  Even our relationships.  Stewardship is valuing the people in our lives, seeing one another as brothers and sisters.   I love the words of Mordecai--you may be where you are “for such a time as this.”  Esther was in a unique position as queen. She had an opportunity to save her people.  Now it wasn’t a sure thing, and there was certainly risk involved, but for the sake of others, she took the risk. 

We may not be in Esther’s shoes, but each of us is in a unique position.  We all have opportunities that no one else has.  Many of us are in a position to reach a person whom nobody else has a chance to reach.  Some of you are teachers.  Some of you are grandparents.  You have a chance to impact children and youth in a way that no one else does.  Some of you are faculty or staff at the university, and there may be students that you have an opportunity to influence in a way no one else can.

Some of you may have a friend or neighbor or co-worker or family member who is hurting and you may be the one person God has put in their life for such a time as this.  Some of you make decisions that can impact large numbers of people.  Perhaps you are where you are for such a time as this.

Jack Casey told about his midterm exam week the fall of his freshman year in college, when he learned of his parents’ divorce.  He remembers:

My father came to see me...I had no idea he was coming...He told me about (the divorce), and we were both in tears, and it was a pretty big blow.  I had no preparation for it.  Wham!  I was right in the middle of midterms and taking a bunch of killer courses.  I had just gone through an emotional breakup with a girl I had been in love with for a year.  I was already in a situation that would stress out a lot of people I know...So this guy in my class who found out about it told me just not to worry about it.  He’d cover for me.  I had another friend drag me off to play pinball and tried to help me relax.  He had no idea what to do.  He had no experience with this type of thing...He was basically a lighthearted person, but when the chips were down, he was there.  Anytime in my life if I was really, really, really in a jam, he's someone I’d call.  I was touched by the fact that he knew the chips were down and I really needed him.

We may not feel qualified.  We may not know exactly what to do.  But sometimes, we are the one God has put in a situation.  Sometimes we are the only one.  God may have put you where you are for such a time as this. 

Strange as it may sound, Esther reinforces for us the truth that God is with us.  I say strange because God’s name is not mentioned.  Yet God is present.  Mordecai’s words to Esther were, “If you keep silent, relief for the Jews will come from another place.”  There was an implicit faith that God would provide.  God’s providential care is seen in the story of Esther and is something we experience on a daily basis.  When we are in strange lands, God is there.  When we are in scary situations, God is there.  When we face a great challenge, God is with us.  The Day of Purim, a day that was supposed to mark the Jews’ destruction, became a day of great celebration because God was with them.

Stewardship involves working together with the God who is always with us for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  We need to honor and value the relationships we have, the opportunities we have.  Stewardship is about money, it is about time, it is about talents, but it is also about valuing and loving friends and family.  And in fact, if we are poor stewards of our relationships, the rest may not make much difference.

Cell phone companies will offer a “Friends and Family” plan.  In fact, Sprint has what they call a Framily plan.

Following Jesus involves what we might call a Friends and Family plan.  But here is the deal: with Jesus, there is a whole new definition of family.  We are all part of God’s family, and our care extends beyond the inner circle around us to include all of creation.  It is a big family, but stewardship involves valuing all of those relationships, beginning with those right around us.  And who knows?  God may have put us where we are for such a time as this.  Amen.