Friday, December 19, 2014

The Road to Bethlehem - December 21, 2014

Text: Luke 2:1-14

It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  According to Google Maps, it would take 33 hours to make the journey on foot.  That is just walking time, not counting meals and rest stops.  Of course, if you had to walk for 33 hours, you might be walking more slowly by the time you got close to your destination.  And of course, to arrive at 33 hours, Google is counting on paved roads, bridges and other improvements in infrastructure that would not have existed in the first century.  Google does not account for such contingencies as marauding bandits hiding along the route, deep rain-washed gullies cutting through the path, or lack of available rooms at the inn.  And if you are 9 months pregnant as you travel, you can throw the estimated travel time that you get from Google Maps right out the window.

It is hard to imagine how difficult that journey was - long, tiring, exhausting, dangerous, unpredictable.  And you might add inadvisable and foolhardy.  But it wasn’t Joseph and Mary’s idea.  They are not taking a vacation; they are not heading south for the winter.  Caesar Augustus has called for a census, and everyone has to go to their ancestral home.  Joseph lives in Nazareth in Galilee, 100 miles to the north, but his family roots are in Bethlehem and that is where they go.  Many days of difficult travel ensue, Mary threatening to go into labor at any moment, and it is all to sign some government forms so that they can be taxed.

I’m sure this did nothing to add to Caesar’s popularity; it is stuff like this that can really make you really hate an invading, occupying power.

Count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under some soulless bureaucracy.  They represent all of the poor, powerless, defenseless people everywhere, in all times, who suffer under the whims of whatever Caesar happens to be in power at the moment.  They represent all of those who are disrespected, oppressed, put down, and feel out of control.

Joseph and Mary go on this long, arduous journey at the worst possible time.  Why?  Because they have to.  It is not up to them.  And even though Bethlehem is his ancestral city, either family ties are not that close or most of the family has by now moved away, because the best Joseph can do is find a barn where they can stay, and that is where Mary winds up having the baby.

They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome.  They are nobodies.  Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the power of Rome or the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.

Tom Long points out that as American power and influence grew over the last century, hope became a casualty.

We became more confident of our strength and promise, and we began to imagine ourselves as those who need no hope.  Who needs hope when you have unfettered progress?  Instead, we began to express our longings for the future as “hope nots”: I hope the stock market doesn’t crash again.  I hope my children don’t get hooked on drugs.  I hope I don’t [have to go to a nursing home] – all expressions of the fact that we were steaming along complacently, simply hoping that no icebergs lay in our path.       
A lot of folks come to the point where they feel they really don’t need anything beyond their own resources.  If you have arrived, if you have it all together, if you have caring friends and a supportive family, if you have health and a good job and relatively few worries, then you don’t really need to hope.  If you are in such a place, as Long points out, “hopes” can become “hope nots”: we hope not to lose the good thing we’ve got going. 

As a nation, we have at times been in such a place.  We are America, for goodness sakes.  Life is getting better and better.  But look around us.  Glaciers are melting, terrorists are striking, predators prey on children, economies are faltering, seemingly endless wars go on and on; various corporate entities, North Korean hackers, and our own government apparently have access to our personal information; and our culture becomes harsher, more polarized, more angry, less compassionate.  Our 21st century world is not completely hunky-dory.

Considering this from a more personal level, while we can sometimes believe we are self-sufficient, that we can handle whatever comes our way, life can change our minds pretty quickly.  Losing a job, facing illness, losing a loved one, going through divorce, struggling with addiction, worrying about your children, watching someone you care about make terrible choices – we can quickly be disabused of the idea that we don’t need hope beyond ourselves.  At some point, we all become Marys and Josephs, traveling a weary road that we did not necessarily choose.

It is 101 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  A long, hard journey.  It is 6393 miles from Ames to Bethlehem – that is in straight-line travel, although if we were to go to Bethlehem, we would certainly not travel in a straight line.  It is a long way, but with modern travel, we could leave right after church this morning and arrive in Bethlehem more quickly than Joseph and Mary would have gotten there by walking from Nazareth.

For us, the road to Bethlehem is more a journey of the heart, a journey toward hope, a journey toward the wonder and promise and love that God sends into our world and into our lives, so often in unexpected times and places and ways.

The Ames Area Religious Leaders Association (that’s AARLA for short) met a couple of weeks ago.  There were newer folks and guests present, so we began by introducing ourselves.  We were to give our name and what church we served, and then in this season of Advent we were to share something we were hopeful about.

Well, that is a tough question – sharing our favorite pizza topping would have been easier.  Something you are hopeful about…  Nobody really wanted to go first, but finally one person, who works with a Hispanic community, spoke of the hope so many in his community were feeling about changes in immigration policy – they were less fearful of their families being separated by deportation.  Another spoke of hopes for those suffering from mental illness.  Another spoke of hopes for a more civil society.  People talked about cultural and political and big-picture hopes. 

Then some spoke more personally.  Our guest that day spoke of so many outstanding young police officers that he works with, and how this gave him hope for the future. 

And then some of us spoke about our own lives.  There were personal losses in families and the pain was fresh.  There were friends and parishioners who had been diagnosed with cancer or were facing very trying situations.  And the hopes we had were for healing, for peace, for strength.  Sometimes we get to a place where when it comes to hope, the best we can do is hope to have hope.

Joseph and Mary made this long, hard journey to Bethlehem.  Not yet married, subject to public ridicule, wondering perhaps if the angelic visions they had received were for real or maybe just strange hallucinations, the hard journey no doubt matched their emotional state.  They were hopeful, but maybe afraid even to hope.

For the most part, Palestine consisted of dangerously rugged expanses of land.  Arid temperatures scorched the soil.  The earth was parched; vegetation was scarce – as was water.  Joseph and Mary trudged along through this mostly harsh, bleak landscape.

But as they approached Bethlehem, things began to change.  Bethlehem was different.  The name itself means “house of bread.”  Travelers approaching Bethlehem would be excited to see wheat fields and vineyards.  In the middle of this desolate environment, a fertile land appeared.  Figs and olives abounded.  Bethlehem was a place of promise. 

Bethlehem was not at all known as a religious city; before the birth of Jesus, nobody thought of Bethlehem as a holy place.  Jerusalem was the Holy City.  It was just six miles away, but in terms of culture and sensibility, it was a lot farther than that.  Though a small place, Bethlehem was a governmental and political center.  Herod lived in Bethlehem.  Tax collectors and census takers worked there.  By no stretch of the imagination was a trip to Bethlehem a spiritual pilgrimage.

Bethlehem was known as the ancestral city of David, and people hung on to that past.  It had now been hundreds of years since the time of King David, but for a lot of people, that was still what came to mind when they heard Bethlehem.  A small town near Jerusalem whose glory days were long past.

There were a few references to Bethlehem in the scriptures – we read one this morning, as Micah spoke of coming glory for Bethlehem.  But these hopes seemed like a quaint idea, or something that was still yet a long way off.  There were prophecies and dreams about a messiah coming from Bethlehem, but it is not as though anyone really expected anything to happen anytime soon – there was no evidence to support such an expectation.  Depending on how you looked at it, Bethlehem’s best days were either long past, or somewhere out in the distant future.  The present certainly did not offer much promise.

But in a time of foreign occupation, when the nation was at a low point, and in this place with a glorious past and a possible future but not much of a present, Jesus was born.  He was born not just in Bethlehem, but at a particular place in this town.  There was no room at the inn, and the best that Mary and Joseph could do was to find a stable, a place for animals, a most humble, inauspicious place, and that is where Mary gave birth.

Luke tells the story of that night.  The child was born in a stable and placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  We have head this story so many times that we have romanticized it, but I doubt that many of you would want to have a baby in a barn and then finally set that baby in a feeding trough because that is the only option you had.  It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t sterile or hygienic, it wasn’t easy.

That night, angels announced the birth – not to religious leaders, not to leading citizens, not to world leaders, but to shepherds – lowly shepherds, out working in the fields. 

This was an unexpected birth in an unexpected place, announced to unexpected people.  A common, humble birth.  And it was a birth that brought great joy and great hope.  It still brings joy and hope, because if the birth of Christ was celebrated by rough shepherds, then what the angels said was true: this really was good news of great joy for all people.

This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen.  Sometimes it can be a literal road.  A couple of weeks ago, Susan’s father died unexpectedly.  We had to make plans to travel to Arkansas.  We had to decide whether to bring our dog Rudy – which can make traveling that much more difficult.  (Some of you have been there.)  We had to make arrangements for Zoe, who was in the last week of classes, to fly from Indianapolis to Little Rock.  Emotionally as much as physically, it was a hard journey.

And I know that there are those of you who are in the midst of hard journeys, sometimes journeys that do not involve any actual travel but are difficult nonetheless.  A journey can be 101 miles or 6393 miles, but sometimes the journeys that take place in our hearts and souls can be the longest and hardest ones.

We can reach the place where we are no longer confident in that idea of continual progress.  We can come to the point where the empty promises of Caesar no longer ring true.  We can get to the point where our own resources, our own strength and intelligience and good looks and good fortune are not enough. 

We all reach that point.  And when we do, then maybe we are ready, maybe we are open, to the hope and the wonder to be found in Bethlehem. 

God does not force God’s will and ways upon us.  More often than not, God does not show up with pyrotechnic displays.  Sometimes God arrives in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, even in the midst of our difficult journeys. 

In Christmas, we celebrate the love of God that reaches out to us even in the midst of those hard journeys, the love of a God who came to us in all the weakness and vulnerability of a baby born in an out of the way place in an out of the way country to young, poor, parents.  A birth announced by angels to lowly shepherds. 

Kate Compston offered a prayer which speaks to the joy that may found on the road the Bethlehem:

Thank you, Scandalous God, for giving yourself to the world, not in the powerful and extraordinary, but in weakness and the familiar: in a newborn baby.

Thank you for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning; for setting, in the poverty of a stable, the richest jewel of your love; for revealing, in a particular place, your light for all nations.

Thank you for bringing us to Bethlehem, House of Bread,
where the empty are filled, and the filled are emptied; where the poor find riches, and the rich recognize their poverty; where all who kneel and hold out their hands are unstintingly fed.
It can be a long and arduous road to Bethlehem.  But at the end of that road, we find hope and joy.  Love came to us in Bethlehem, and that Love is with us, even here, even now.  Amen.  

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.