Friday, December 20, 2013

“A Child For Us” - December 22, 2013


Text: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-14 We have a friend in Illinois named Frances. She is 95, still living alone, still at home, although she is slowing down. Every year, around Thanksgiving, we will get our first Christmas card in the mail - from Frances. It is kind of a marker that the season is officially here.

The Christmas card tradition is changing, as people increasingly go digital. Letter writing in general is kind of a lost art, with Christmas being perhaps the one time folks will send a Christmas letter along with their card or family Christmas photo. 


But while some are sending emails or posting their Christmas greetings on Facebook, others are taking it to another level. Some people are creating complex, choreographed family Christmas videos – there was one with a family dancing in their Christmas pjs making the rounds this week. Some folks will even build elaborate sets in order to film their spectacular family Christmas video. It can be pretty impressive, but for those of us who can barely find time to send a few cards, it can make us just feel more inadequate as far as our seasonal preparations go.
  Everybody wants Christmas to be picture-perfect. For most of us, that doesn’t go as far as learning dance moves and building a set and filming a video, but think about the scenes depicted on the Christmas cards that we send and receive. 

Christmas cards can be very different, some with scripture and religious sentiments, others more of the Winter Wonderland variety, some with Old St. Nick and others with a puppy and kitten on front. But different as they may be, every card is cheery. Every outdoor scene is peaceful. Every home is warm and cozy. Every Santa is jolly and every tree is beautifully decorated. Everyone gets along, including children and animals. In every nativity scene, the humble stable is beautiful. Mary has a glow about her and looks remarkable for someone who has just traveled a long distance and given birth out in a barn. Baby Jesus is always happy and cooing and the animals are all quiet and reverent. Our Christmas cards represent a kind of alternate universe in which everyone is doing well. There is no wrenching poverty, no substandard housing, no hurting families. Everyone is pleasant; there are no Charlie Brown trees, no worn out mothers and no crying babies. And to judge from Christmas cards, you’d think people would be clamoring to have their baby born in a barn, with a bunch of animals all around – it looks so wonderful. Obarnacare, we could call it. 

Let’s face it: the Christmas you will find on Christmas cards is not very real. Whether it is a contemporary scene or a Victorian Christmas or a depiction of that very first Christmas, what we see on cards is not very realistic. But those are the cards that are made and those are the cards that we buy because we all long for that picture-perfect Christmas. Nobody would want a card that shows a modern family fighting on Christmas morning, we want a scene of domestic bliss. Nobody would want a scene of an ice storm with damaged trees and power outages, we want gently falling snow. Nobody wants a card showing a poor family with an empty cupboard, eating spam and macaroni for Christmas dinner. And nobody would want a card that shows Mary and Joseph looking scared and haggard or the shepherds as hard-living guys you would be afraid to have live in your community, much less visit your home. We want beautiful people on our cards. 

Christmas cards may not exactly convey reality, but they do convey our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And we all aspire for a warm, wonderful, joyful, happy, perfect Christmas. 

Some will go to great lengths to insure such a Christmas. Professional decorators will come to your house and do your decorating for you. They will set up the tree, decorate your home, put up your lights, the whole bit. Brite Ideas Decorating in Omaha has over 300 franchises nationwide. It’s a booming business. To decorate your home for the holidays, prices start at about $1200 with no real limit to speak of. I checked their website and unfortunately, they are sold out of their 10' Cherry Blossom Tree with Color Changing Iced Trunk, which retails for $5,272.50 – which I assume that does not include set-up and take down. Fortunately, their 12’ LED palm tree is still in stock, and it’s a bargain at $2747.25. (I love their precise pricing.)

It’s not cheap, but a lot of people find this very attractive. No more second-rate decorations, with homemade ornaments and chipped pieces from years past. These trained professionals will set up a perfectly coordinated holiday masterpiece, and you can have a light display outside that will have cars lined up around the block to see. 


It’s not just our decorating that may be lacking. Who has time for baking? And let’s face it - some of us are not that good in the kitchen. Why do it yourself when you can go down to the bakery and get all kinds of wonderful Christmas goodies. Or, you can rent a baker to come to your home and do your baking for you – that way you get the great smell of fresh-baked cookies in your home. And of course you can also hire someone to do your Christmas shopping. Doing all of this would make things easier, and the end product might be a lot better than if you were doing all of this yourself. You would be one step closer to that perfect Christmas. 

But let’s face it – you could have someone else doing all of these things, and the people you hire could all be models of efficiency and artistry, but it still would not be a perfect Christmas. There is something about our participation that is far greater than having things just right. 

The second chapter of Luke is one of the best-loved chapters of the Bible, telling of the birth of Jesus. The words are beautiful and moving and poetic, but we can lose the power and the surprise of what is being said. 

Luke reports that angels – messengers from heaven – announce the birth of a Savior who is Christ, the Lord. We’ve heard that so many times that we can lose the revolutionary, audacious quality of the announcement. 

Jesus was born in the midst of Roman occupation. The backdrop of Jesus’ birth was an empire in which the emperor was worshiped. Kurt Willems writes about this:
Caesar Augustus was called the “son of god” who was the great “savior” of the whole earth through bringing “peace” to Rome. The announcement of this was heralded as “good news.” (These) themes are examples of the propaganda that was spread via the media of the imperial religion. What is quite interesting is that these are the same themes that permeate the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel.
It is not Roman soldiers making the announcement, it is angels, messengers from God, who bring the news:
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
The Son of God is born, the savior, bringing peace – and this is good news. Jesus’ birth is a complete counter, a complete repudiation of the power structure of the world. It is not just the announcement of Jesus’ birth that stands as a challenge to worldly power. It is also seen in who the announcement is made to. 

Most of us have little acquaintance with shepherds or shepherding, and certainly not as it worked in ancient Palestine. These shepherds were in the fields, with the sheep. At night. Living in the fields, or as the King James puts it, “abiding” in their fields. You didn’t just check in on the sheep every once in a while, provide food and water and let the sheep go. Sheep could wander, there were predators, there were dangers. Maybe they took shifts, but if they did, a night shift shepherd was not what you would call a status kind of job. In fact, it was even lower status than you might imagine. It is not simply that they were on the lower rungs of the social ladder, unkempt, unclean, working with dirty animals. Shepherds and other “people of the land” were beyond the pale of religious respectability. Their occupation and way of life made it impossible for them to follow the prescribed rituals for religious purity. They were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in worship at the temple. 

The announcement that the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, was entering the world, bringing peace, bringing hope, bringing Good News, is made not by Roman officials, but by angels and heavenly hosts. The Savior of the world was not Caesar, but a baby born in Bethlehem. And the announcement was made not to the elite, not to the power brokers, not to the wealthy, not to religious leaders or even to those who were thought of as religious people, period, but to shepherds – socially outcast, economically disadvantaged, religiously ostracized. In Jesus’ birth, absolutely everything is turned on its head. 

And there is more: the shepherds are told that this child who is the Savior is born in Bethlehem. Not Jerusalem, the Holy City, the center of Jewish life. But Bethlehem, a nearby town with an inferiority complex. Luke points out that Bethlehem was the City of David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, and for Jews with a sense of history, this was important. But don’t get the wrong idea: Bethlehem was anything but a glamorous sort of place. 

Bethlehem was the “City of David,” and I imagine that it put that tag line on its municipal sign the way every town tries to make itself look good. Mason City – the original River City. Grinnell – Jewel of the Prairie. Winterset – Birthplace of John Wayne. Sheldahl – the biggest little town in three counties. And Bethlehem – the city of David. OK, it had been awhile, about a thousand years since David had lived, and it was not exactly a bustling metropolis. It would never amount to much in the shadow of Jerusalem, but King David had been born in Bethlehem. 

Jesus was born there. Not at Bethlehem General, not in a family home, not in a nice home, not in a home period, not even in an inn, but in a stable, a place for animals. He was set not in a crib, but in a feeding trough. 

All in all, it was pretty much the opposite of what anyone would plan in order to impress. And yet because of all of this, the message is absolutely, undeniably clear: this is a birth for everyone. God is not bound by nation or wealth or power or privilege or notions of piety or religious correctness. This child, this savior, will be for all people. What did the shepherds do with the angels’ announcement? They did not just sit back and feel hope and gratitude. They did not pass the news on to other, more appropriate people who might go and visit the child. They went themselves. They got moving. They participated in the experience. 

When it comes to Christmas it is easy for us to become observers rather than participants. There are plenty of people who can do Christmas better than we can. There are homes that are better decorated, cookies that are more perfect, gifts that are more tasteful than what we give. For that matter, we could find a beautiful midnight Mass on TV and just skip going to the Christmas Eve service. 

We could do all these things, but we don’t because we want to experience all of this for ourselves. Like the shepherds, we want to go and see the baby for ourselves. We want to be a part of the Christmas story. 

And the wonderful thing, the incredible thing, the message of Christmas is that this is all for us. This child, absolutely, was born for all people. This child was born for us. Christmas does not live up to whatever ideals of perfection we may see in Christmas cards and viral videos. There are families where not everyone will make it home this Christmas, because someone is in jail, or someone is in Afghanistan, or someone is in the hospital, or someone doesn’t want to be there, or someone can’t afford traveling, or someone isn’t welcome. There are families that have suffered loss, and will have to face an empty seat at the dinner table. This can be a lonely and stressful and hectic time. The reality is that Christmas can be messy. 

Just like that first Christmas. Ideal is the last word you would use to describe it. Mary, about to give birth, making a long journey. The couple was not yet married, and tongues wagged. She and Joseph traveled to his ancestral home for the census. Their nation was occupied by a foreign power, and the trip was all so that Rome could collect taxes. They arrive in Bethlehem, and there is no place to stay, no room in the inn. They wind up in the stable out back, with some animals. 

And then who shows up to welcome Jesus’ birth? The grandparents are not there in the waiting room. Excited friends do not arrive with “It’s a Boy” balloons. The only visitors are strangers – rough shepherds. 

It wasn’t pretty. But if we think about it in another way, Christmas is beautiful. Because it says to us that God comes to us in all of the messiness of our lives. God does not wait for us to clean things up, to get our life together. God does not wait for us to make ourselves presentable.

One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us. And more than anything, the birth of Jesus says that God is indeed with us. A child is born – for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Hail, Mary” - December 15, 2013

Text: Luke 1:26-38

If you are even a casual football fan, you are probably familiar with the “Hail Mary.”  Your team is behind, there are only seconds remaining in the game, you have maybe 40 or 50 yards to go or more and there is only time for one desperate play, so your quarterback heaves the ball into the end zone, if he can throw it that far, and you pray that somebody on your team catches the ball and wins the game.

Sometimes it works.  The most famous Hail Mary was probably the Boston College vs. Miami game a number of years ago when in a high-scoring back and forth game, Doug Flutie threw the ball into the end zone as time expired and his teammate brought down the pass to win the game for Boston College.  That pass led to what college admissions counselors called the Flutie Effect, as there was a huge increase in college applications to Boston College the next year.

Every football team will practice the Hail Mary play, and seeing as though the Cyclones have frequently been in desperate situations late in the game, I have no doubt that ISU spends time practicing this play.

Well, why call it a Hail Mary?  Essentially, the pass is a prayer.  For years, Notre Dame had used what it called Hail Mary plays, but the term was popularized when Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys threw a desperation, game-winning pass.  Staubach was hit as he threw the ball and had no idea that Drew Pearson had made a miraculous catch and won the game.  Talking about it afterwards, Staubach, a devout Catholic, said that he threw it and said a Hail Mary.

Now the term is so common that if you google Hail Mary, the football play comes up before the Hail Mary prayer.  I’m not kidding.

But for many more people, and for centuries before football was even invented, “Hail Mary” is a prayer.  The Hail Mary is the best known prayer of Catholic devotion, but it is not what we generally expect to hear in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  The fact is, Protestants in general aren’t sure what to do with Mary.

Peter Gomes, who died almost two years ago now, was the minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard.  He told a story about Dean William Ralph Inge, whom he said was known as the “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  (This has nothing to do with the story, but how would you like to be known as the “gloomy dean?”  It would be like saying that I am the gloomy pastor, which I guess would make Susan the cheerful pastor.)

Anyway, according to the story, when Inge died, he was ushered into the presence of God.  Jesus came down from God’s right hand and said, “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven.  I know you have met my father, but I don’t believe you have met my mother.”

We don’t always pay much attention to Mary.  It might be obvious, but without Mary, there is no birth.  Without her, there is no Christmas. 

Hail, Mary.  The Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, is the best known Catholic devotional prayer.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  The prayer is based on scripture from Luke chapter 1.  In our reading, the angel appears to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one!”  Or in another translation, “Hail, thou who art full of grace.”  And then later in the chapter, when Mary visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child, Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

As we think about “The Cast of Christmas” - the various people who had a part in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the announcement of that birth - we can hardly go without considering Mary. 

The angel Gabriel - a messenger sent from God – appears to Mary and delivers a message.  He says, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son and he will be the savior of the world.  He will reign forever and his kingdom will never end.”

This sort of thing does not happen just every day.  Or ever.  Can you imagine what this experience must have been like?

It isn’t easy to be confronted with a message from God.  We know from Mary’s words and from the angel Gabriel’s response to her that she was perplexed and afraid.  And that is probably Luke’s very understated way of putting it.

We do not have a record of Mary’s thoughts as this conversation was going on, but I can imagine some of the questions she had.

First – "Am I hallucinating?  Is this real?  Is this a dream?" 

And then, "This is making no sense.  Why me?  Of all people, how did I get chosen?  Are you sure you have the right address?  Are you sure you have the right town?  I’m sure there must be some huge mistake."

But the question she asks out loud to the angel is a very practical, and very reasonable question.  Mary is a young girl, maybe 13 or 14, scholars say.  She is young, she is not sophisticated, she is not experienced with angels or men or  the ways of the world, but she knows enough to understand basic biology and she knows that there is no way, that it would be impossible for her to have a child.

But the angel tells her that this will be the work of the Holy Spirit, and that nothing is impossible for God.

There are no doubt other thoughts and questions, and there will be plenty more.  Like, "Will Joseph stick around, will my parents still love me, will I be dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around?  And you say the child will be the king of Israel, but what about me?  Will the pregnancy go alright, will there be someone there to help me when the time comes, will I survive the birth?"

There were a great number of unknowns, but the one near-certainty was that this would not be easy.  Nevertheless, Mary says Yes.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

There are those who have characterized Mary here as quiet, submissive, and obedient, and not in a good way.  There are those who read this and see Mary as being passive through the whole experience.  Some have a hard time making Mary a role model because girls need to learn to be active and engaged.  They need to learn to be leaders, to take charge.  The vibe that you can get from Mary is kind of backward, too meek, too deferential.  One could draw the conclusion that being faithful means being passively submissive.

I don’t think that’s the case.  I don’t think that is a fair reading of the text.  Is Mary’s obedience more demeaning than Jesus, when in the garden he says “Not my will, but thy will be done?”

There are those times when strength may be seen in submission.  God gives her the power to become what she was created to do and become.  Mary affirms the promise that is in her.  You could understand Mary giving birth to Jesus in the same vein as Bach writing the music he was given to write, or Rembrandt painting with the gift he was given, or Mother Teresa doing the work she was called to do.  Mary said yes to God the same as Isaiah and Elijah and John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, and in saying yes, she discovered her life’s work.

Finals start tomorrow.  Some students will be graduating next weekend.  Other will graduate in the spring, or the next year, or the next, at least hopefully.  And the question that gets asked, and gets asked more often the closer you are to graduation, is “What’s next?”  “What are you going to do next year,” or “What are you going to do after you graduate?”

So often the response is, “I don’t know” or “I wish I knew.”  And it’s not just those finishing school; there are plenty of folks a good bit older trying to figure out what their life is about.

The notion of an angel appearing and delivering a message about your life, about your future, about your place in the big picture of God’s purposes, might scare you to death.  It would me.  But if you really think about it, it might be a good thing.  It might be a wonderful thing – to know what it is we are called to do, to know what our life is about.

In Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, she discovered who she was, who she was meant to be.  She discovered her vocation and calling.  And it wasn’t so much that she passively submitted to the plans placed on her; she decided to use her life furthering God’s plan for this world, a plan of which she was a vital part.

Mary said yes.  She was the only one, the only one in the history of the world, who had that particular decision to make.  She said yes to carrying, giving birth to, and raising the Son of God. 

We are not going to be confronted with that particular decision, but our stories are not completely unlike Mary’s.  We talk a lot about all of the choices we have, but sometimes, not infrequently, our plans and visions of the future give way to the plans that life has for us.  Sudden illnesses, surprise babies, family emergencies, economic upheavals, unforeseen opportunities can overwhelm our best-laid plans and confront us with new callings. 

I have been thinking about Nelson Mandela, who died last week.  Most of you are familiar with his story: as a leader in the African National Congress, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid regime in South Africa.  At his trial, he said:
I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
Mandela served 27 years in prison on Robben Island.  He was finally released in 1990, days after the ANC was unbanned.  He was elected president of South Africa three years later.  And the choices he made would determine the fate of that country.

Amazingly, Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation.   The nation could have descended into civil war, but the care and respect he had for all people, even his former enemies, changed the nation.

Sometimes the circumstances we find ourselves in create the opportunity for greatness.  Nobody would have guessed it when he was born, but the times Mandela lived in and the extreme personal hardships he endured helped make him not only a national hero, but a world leader like no other in our time.

The same could be said of Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.  The times we live in, the situations we face, can call forth greatness.

On paper, you wouldn’t think Mary had much going for her: young, poor, in a backwater country, not born to a family of privilege or power.  But Mary lived at the right time, a time when God chose to act in human history, and God called her.

“Greetings, favored One!” said the angel.  “The Lord is with you!”  “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  But here is the thing: Mary was not chosen because she was full of grace.  She was full of grace because God chose her.  God did not set our looking for the perfect young woman to bear Jesus.  It was more a case of because she consented to God’s call, Mary was the perfect one for the job.

The Eastern Orthodox Church calls Mary theotokos – god-bearer, the one who brings God, in Jesus, into the world. 

Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, wrote “we are all meant to be Mothers of God.”  It sounds weird, sounds really odd at first, but he is exactly right.  We are all called to carry into the world something of the grace and love and compassion and holiness of God which we have been given.  It’s not just Mary, and it’s not just the Nelson Mandelas of this world, it’s you and me.  We all have those times when life overtakes whatever plans we may have made, and in those moments it is for us to say yes or no to God’s call.  The way we respond – our yes or no – makes a huge difference.

Mary is an example of faith for us.  She gives birth to Jesus and is there with him all of his life.  At a wedding in Cana, the wine was running low, and Mary asked Jesus to act.  She knew what was in him, and he performed his first sign, or miracle.  Mary continued to be there for her son, through his ministry and right to the foot of the cross.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  Mary’s role was unique.  But I don’t think it is too much of a stretch this morning to say,

Hail, Jenna
Hail, Pat
Hail, Emma
Hail, Dustin
Hail to each of you!
Hail, First Baptist: the Lord is with you.  And it is for us to say Yes.  Amen.

I am indebted to Peter Gomes and Barbara Brown Taylor for inspiration for this sermon.

“How to Prepare for Christmas” - December 1, 2013

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Good morning - You brood of vipers!

You repentance-fakers, saying the right words and acting all holy-like!  Your social standing and your family history don’t mean a thing.  Quit talking, quit posturing, and change your lives!  Bear fruit worthy of repentance! 

You’re nothing but a bunch of snakes!

Well, I thought that I might take a cue from John the Baptist’s playbook on winning communication.  John is one of those characters that show up in the season of Advent.  He was the forerunner of Jesus, the one who paved the way – John was Jesus’ advance man.

But I’m thinking, maybe emulating John is not the way to go.  He comes off – just a little strong.  But once you get past his gruff exterior, his message – well, it’s at least as harsh as his demeanor. 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent.  This is season of hoping and waiting, a season of expectation, a season of preparation for the joy and the wonder and the great celebration of Christmas.  We light a candle each week and the light grows as we get nearer the celebration of Jesus’ birth. 

And we begin this season of wonder and joy and expectation with – with some wild man insulting us?  With a bizarre figure telling us to turn or burn?

John is one weird dude.  Look at what he eats: locusts and wild honey.  Eating locusts was not unheard of, and Leviticus chapter 11 even spelled out the kinds of locusts you were permitted to eat.  Sure, they have a lot of protein, but I once had a cicada fly right into my mouth and it really wasn’t that appetizing.  John was eating locusts by choice.

And then he has honey to go with the locusts.  Well, if it works for Great Plains Pizza, I guess it would work for locusts.  But have you ever gone after wild honey?  Harvesting honey from domestic bees can be a lot of work, but harvesting wild honey is not only a messy job, it can be dangerous.  We try to get our kids to sit up straight and have some semblance of etiquette at the table, and John just has a grab and go meal of locusts and wild honey.

And then there is the matter of his clothing.  Camel hair makes burlap seem nice and soft.  An odd fashion choice, to say the least.  He is an outdoorsy, hardworking kind of guy – so why not flannel?  Why not Carhartt? 

John looks odd, dresses strangely, eats weird stuff.  He is not interested in social niceties.  John is not the kind of guy you want as a role model for your kids.

John should have been a priest.  That’s the way things worked back then.  A son was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Even Jesus honored the tradition, becoming a carpenter like Joseph.  But not John.  Not only did he reject the priesthood, his whole life was a critique of the religious establishment.  His clothing reminded people of the prophet Elijah, who had a lot to say about society and kings and politics and justice.  John’s style and dress and manner were all designed to upset the apple cart.  John was rude, crude, and socially unacceptable. 

But these are mostly superficial issues.  We pay way too much attention to the way a person looks or talks or dresses or what they eat.  So, let’s go beyond appearances.  Maybe more to the point, John is just plain annoying.  Especially in this season of the year.  John has a lot of nerve. 

Can you imagine getting a Christmas card from John the Baptist?  There would be a big snake on the front of the card.  You open it, and it says, “Greetings, you brood of vipers!  If you want to have a Happy New Year, you better turn your lives around.  Happy Holidays, JB.  P.S. I never thought that much of your family anyway.”

In this season, there are performances of the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol and The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever.  There are all kinds of Christmas specials on TV: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  There is a chipmunk Christmas.  But you will definitely not find a John the Baptist Christmas Special. 

John seems completely out of place in this season.  And while we are thinking about Christmas cards, there is a reason that Hallmark doesn’t make cards with John the Baptist.  You can find Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men.  You can find words from the Old Testament prophets, you can find themes of joy and peace and hope and love and light.  But you won’t find a card with a theme of repentance, and you will not find John the Baptist.

John is rude, he is annoying, and yes, he is even embarrassing.  He flaunts convention and tradition, disrespecting his elders.  He scoffs at authority.  He forages for food.  He has fashion issues.  And on top of it all, he is called a Baptist.  We work hard to not be thought of as barefoot and backward and obsessed with hellfire and damnation, and then every Advent, John comes along and undoes all of that.

John is rude and annoying and embarrassing.  But the worst thing is – are you ready for this?  Here’s the worst thing.  The worst thing is, he may be right.  Don’t you hate it when people like him turn out to be right? 

Let’s look at his message.  His message is about preparation – getting ready.  In introducing John, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”

John prepared the way for the Lord by preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins and baptizing those who responded. 

It’s a novel idea.  It’s not the way we usually prepare for Christmas.  When people ask, “Are you ready for Christmas?” what comes to mind?  You probably think first of all about your shopping.  Have I bought something for everybody on the list?  Will that sweater fit dad?  Will my niece be happy with an iTunes gift card?  And then you may think about cooking.  Will we have ham or turkey for Christmas, or maybe do something different – what about enchiladas or lasagna?  And what about all the baking?

And then, you may think about getting the house ready.  You need to put up your outdoor lights.  You need to get the tree up.  There is cleaning and straightening and decorating to do.  And then, some of us get ready for Christmas by getting our calendars sorted out.  We have to synchronize our schedules and fit in the school concerts and the church dinner and the work Christmas party and that play or concert we want to go to, all while working around the ISU basketball schedule, of course.  And then we have to arrange get-togethers for the family.  Maybe both sides of the family.  Maybe 3 or 4 sides of the family.

We are busy doing what needs to be done, making preparations, when John the Baptist shows up and sticks his nose into our Christmas, calling for repentance of all things.  He is abrupt, and it is not at all convenient.  But maybe we need to be inconvenienced, just a bit.  Maybe we need to be embarrassed about what we have made of Christmas.  Maybe we even need to be offended, just a bit.

We need to ask ourselves: after all of the shopping and parties and TV specials, after all the cookies and fruitcake, after all the carols and family dinners and gift-giving, what has changed?  We go through these days leading up to Christmas, and in a few weeks, it’s back to the regular routine of life, and then we do it all again next year.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course.  It’s nice to have a change of pace.  There is certainly joy to be found in all that happens in this season.  But there is a reason that this is the most stressful time of the year.  There is a reason that for many people, it is the loneliest tie of year, the hardest time of year.  And it is possible to forget the reason for all of the celebration in the first place. 

Maybe we need a character like John to shock us back into reality.  John calls us to repentance – to turn our lives around.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Well, let’s face it: repentance is not a big seller.  It’s not what you would call a crowd-pleaser.

There was a Doonesbury comic strip where the minister, Rev. Scot Sloan, is talking to a couple inquiring about church membership.  He describes the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden: “I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity.  Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption.  It’s all there in the brochure.”

The wife says, “Wait a minute - sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?”

The husband says, “I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.”

The wife adds, “That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.”

But then the husband says, “On the other hand, you do offer racquetball.”

But the wife reminds him, “So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more.”

Repentance seems like such a downer.  Fortunately, it really doesn’t apply to us, does it?  I mean after all, it’s for sinners – real sinners, people who don’t go to church like us.  Or, we may think of repentance as a one-shot deal that we took care of years ago, when we were baptized.  In our better moments, we might say, “OK, we all need to repent from the materialism and self-centeredness that affects us all.  We know we’re not perfect and we could all stand some improvement.”

But that is still a shallow understanding of repentance, shallow in that it is rather vague and general.  Susan and I heard Presbyterian minister and homiletics professor Tom Long speak at a conference this fall.  He describes repentance in this way:

Whenever we return to an old and well-worn passage in the Bible and do not, through nostalgia or willfulness, have it to say only what we expect it to say, but allow it to encounter us anew, creating new and demanding possibilities for our lives, we have repented.

When we invoke some experience in our memory and discover, in our remembering, more evidence of the hand of God there than we first saw, more signs of the grace of God than we ever knew were there before, more call for gratitude to God than we have yet expressed, and we find ourselves wanting to live a different, more faithful and more obedient tomorrow because of what we have discerned, we have repented.

Whenever we return to the faith we have been given, to the gospel we have heard so often, to the stories which have been told again and again, and find there not a retreat, but a renewal; whenever we discover that all that God has done in our common yesterdays is pointing us anew to the Christ who comes this day, to forgive our sins and to make possible a tomorrow of faith and joy, we have repented. 

Repentance comes in many ways.  When in our hurried life we visit someone and are able to set aside thoughts of tasks that have to be done and errands that have to be run and work waiting for us and listen, really listen, when we are truly there in the moment, we have repented.

Or, when we are able to set aside judgment of others long enough to look and see their need, or we are able to set aside our critique of others long enough to see their gifts, or we are able to set aside our fear of those who are different long enough to see our common humanity, we have repented.

What if, in this season of Advent, we really did seek repentance?  And what if, instead of looking for others to repent, we listened to John, and we ourselves repented, and looked to Christ?  I have a feeling that would go a long way toward bringing the hope and peace and joy and love that we seek in this season – to our lives, and maybe even to our world. 

John preached repentance, but it’s very interesting to me that John did not go after people.  He didn’t seek crowds; crowds sought him.  John didn’t do an ad buy or a direct mail campaign.  He didn’t have a TV show.  He didn’t use social media.  And he certainly did not have an image consultant.  John went about things pretty much the opposite of what any evangelist would tell you to do.

His appearance and demeanor and personal habits said, “I could care less what you think.”  John just went and set up shop out in the wilderness.  And people flocked to him from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem itself.  Unlikely as it seems,  John’s message drew people.  He had something they needed.  Maybe repentance is something we all need.

John had issues, no doubt, but he had fire and passion and a deep belief that things could change—that change is possible.  And it is.  And maybe we prepare for the change God has for us, maybe we prepare for Jesus’ coming, maybe we prepare for Christmas, by repenting – by turning around, by turning toward Christ, by opening our hearts.  

While we are making our Christmas lists this year, maybe we need to add repentance to the top of the list.  Amen.

Advent Series

Our Advent sermon series is "The Cast of Christmas."  We will look at some of the people surrounding the birth of Jesus and the announcement of that birth.

December 1 - "How to Prepare for Christmas" (John the Baptist), Rev. David Russell

December 8 - "A Stand-Up Guy" (Joseph), Rev. Susan Russell

December 15 - "Hail Mary" (Mary - but you probably guessed that!), Rev. David Russell

December 22 - "A Child Born for Us" (Angels and Shepherds), Rev. David Russell

Friday, November 15, 2013

“Seven Weddings and a Resurrection” - November 17, 2013

Text: Luke 20:27-40

Once upon a time, Barry McNary of Harper’s Ferry and Mary McClary of Eden Prairie were married.  They looked forward to a life that would be nothing but merry, but on their honeymoon went to a wetlands sanctuary and explored an estuary that unfortunately was unsanitary, and Barry tragically developed dysentery and died.

Now the custom was that when a man died with no children, his brother took the widow as his wife.  The first born son of this union took the deceased man’s name, received his inheritance, and carried on his line of descendants.

So Barry’s brother Gary, who worked in a dairy, married Mary and their first son would be named Barry, but shortly after the wedding, Gary suffered a coronary.  The family did not tarry, but Barry and Gary’s brother Harry, who was in the military, married Mary.  Harry and Mary’s sons would be named Barry and Gary, but there was a tragic accident with an actuary and like Barry and Gary, Harry died with no heirs.  So the fourth brother, Jerry, the lapidary, married Mary, and looked forward to raising sons Barry, Gary, and Harry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of Jerry’s brothers Barry, Gary, and Harry, but the stress of all this proved to be more than Jerry could carry, and he too wound up at the mortuary.

Friends advised Larry not to marry Mary, it was just too scary, but Larry ignored their commentary and like his brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, and Jerry, Larry too married Mary, but he met with an unfortunate accident involving a crazed canary, and Larry went to be with the older McNary’s.

Which left brother number six, Perry, the visionary, to marry Mary, but Perry fell off a ferry into Lake Erie and like Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, and Larry, Perry died with no heirs.

And so it was left to the seventh and final brother, Terry, to marry Mary.  Their union would hopefully produce sons Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry who had died.  Not to mention any other sons who might come of the union and who would be Terry’s heirs.  He thought he might name son #7 Elmo, or Fred, or maybe Timmy.

But as he reflected on the task before him, he was overwhelmed.  His cousin Sherry asked how he felt about the coming marriage, and he replied, “Very, very wary.” And his fears turned out to be justified, because at the wedding reception he ate a bad berry, and, well, you know what happened next.

Now Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, and Terry had all been married to Mary, and all had died.  The question is, when they all get to heaven, what becomes of Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, Terry, and Mary?  Who will be Mary’s husband?  That is the query.

----

It’s a silly, far-fetched story, ridiculous.  The person who first told it (and yes, I’ve added just a few embellishments) intended for it to come across as silly and far-fetched.  It was absurd, and it was supposed to be.  The story and the accompanying question about “what happens now?” were intended to make a point.  The real issue was resurrection and the possibility of life beyond death.  Those who posed the question, the Saducees, did not believe in resurrection.  To them, it seemed absurd, about as silly as the story.

For the Saducees, if it were not in the Torah (the books of the law, the first five books of our Bible), then they had no time for it.  The Saducees were rich and powerful and very conservative.  They didn’t put stock in those newfangled scriptures – the Psalms, prophets, books of history.  They followed Torah – if it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for them.  And they did not find resurrection in the Torah.

Other Jews, including the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, and as far as the Saducees could tell, Jesus believed in resurrection.  To show how ridiculous all of this resurrection talk was, the Saducees came up with this story about the woman who had been married to seven different brothers, all of whom died, and asked, what happens now?  In the resurrection, who is married to whom?

It wasn’t a sincere question.  That is, those who asked it did not care about Jesus’ answer. They did not ask because they wanted to hear his opinion, they asked it to make him look bad, to point out how fuzzy his thinking was, and if they could tweak the Pharisees at the same time, well, that was a bonus.

The intention was for it to look like a silly question, in order to reveal the silliness of resurrection talk, but the fact is, within this scenario that the Saducees came up with lies a real question – several real questions, in fact.  Presumably, none of us have come upon a situation where seven brothers were married to the same woman, but we all have some questions about what comes after this life.

People have always been fascinated by these sorts of questions, and a variety of folks have paid special attention to this passage of scripture in particular.   In the early 1800’s, various groups based a whole theology on their unique interpretation of these verses.

Joseph Smith read “in heaven there shall be neither marriage nor giving in marriage,” and he said that since we can’t get married in heaven, we better do it right on earth so that it will last, and from this comes the Mormon practice of “temple-sealed marriages.”  At about the same time, just a few miles down the road in upstate New York, John Humphrey Noyes read this passage and said that since marriage doesn’t matter in heaven, it shouldn’t matter here, either.  So the Oneida Community practiced a kind of “Free Love” arrangement that was scandalous.  It was a very different interpretation, to say the least.  Their community faced a lot of opposition, as you might expect, and it didn’t last, but they did give us Oneida silverware.

And then there were the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee, whose take on the whole matter was a rejection of marriage and a call to celibacy for believers. 

While those groups focused strongly on the marriage question, it seems clear that the real issue here is not so much marriage as it is death and resurrection and eternal life.

Now, any conversation about resurrection, any conversation about what happens after we die has to be undertaken with a lot of humility.  We don’t know for sure and no one can know for sure.  People who have it all figured out, who know all the details, kind of scare me.

In college, I was in the Baptist Student Union, the Southern Baptist campus ministry group at the University of Evansville.  We would sometimes lead services at area churches.  I remember one time there was a little church in a town about 30 miles away that was having a weekend revival.  They had an evangelist, and different students were providing music and leading worship, doing pretty well everything except the preaching.

The evangelist was young, probably around 30 years old, and very slick.  In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a lot of guys used blow dryers, but this guy could have been the poster boy for blow-dried hair.  We rode over to the church with him.  He drove a sporty car and he popped in his 8-track tape with popular Christian music.  Nothing wrong with any of that, but the sermon was another story.  The first night, he preached about heaven.  He took a verse here, a verse there, a little from Revelation, a little from 2 Thessalonians, a little from Daniel.  He added 2 + 2 +2 and came up with 147.

He told everybody exactly what would happen when we die; he told us we would all have a mansion – Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions – and he told us the exact dimensions of our mansion, the square footage, computing this from various verses of scripture.  It was bizarre, and so bad that the little church, which was quite conservative and not at all what you would call a sophisticated bunch – I mean, they were the kind of church that had probably endured more than a few weird sermons over the years – this church had to decide whether or not to continue the revival or just cancel the whole thing right then and there after the first night.

Those folks knew intuitively that none of us could possibly know the stuff this guy was spouting out, and it offended them not just that he was answering unknowable questions, but that he was so darn sure about it.

Rather than speculating about what we do not know, we need to pay attention to what we do know.  In this story, we need to pay attention to what Jesus is saying.

To get a sense of where Jesus was coming from, it may help to know a little bit about marriage in Jesus’ day.  Marriage in the first century was an economic arrangement, usually initiated and concluded by the parents of the two parties.  Generally speaking, the woman had no say in the matter, and the man often had very little, especially if he were 15 or so, which was a normal age to be married.  The laws about marrying a deceased brother’s wife if there were no sons were instituted to keep the property in the family and continue the dead man’s name.  These were economic considerations.

So when Jesus says we won’t be giving people in marriage in the Kingdom, part of what he is saying is that we won’t have the economic necessities that made marriage what it was, and that people will not be treated like property.

Now, we can read this kind of odd, kind of archaic, maybe even kind of silly story, and think of it as irrelevant, but it raises a couple of questions that are very relevant.

First, what will resurrection life be like?  We all wonder what the future will hold, we all wonder about what happens when we die.  The Saducees’ mistake was assuming that the life to come would be just like earthly life – and therefore ridiculing the very idea.  We certainly don’t know the full answer to this question – even if folks like that evangelist back in Indiana think they know all the answers – but Jesus tells us at the very least that that resurrection life will be nothing like our present existence.

It was acceptable - and according to the law, even expected - for a widow to marry her brother-in-law in order to have children and keep the family name alive.  Jesus said, these are concerns for this life.  They will not be concerns in the life to come.

The Book of Revelation often describes heaven by what is not there--no tears, no sorrow, no pain.  With this passage, we could add, no domination, no taking others for granted, no treating someone as if they were property.  People will not be given in marriage because people will not be things to be given.

Resurrection life will not simply be “more of the same” of what we have on earth.  It won’t even be “more and better” of what we have now.  Existence in the kingdom is beyond our describing.  In I Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of eternity and says that now, we only “see through a glass dimly.”  We cannot describe existence in the life to come because we cannot know it in this life.

Imagine a baby, still in the womb.  Assuming that child could understand what we are saying, how could we describe to that child what this world outside the womb is like?  How could we describe the sky and the air?  Or trees or grass?  Or people?  We couldn’t.  How can we describe existence in the life to come?  We can’t.  We have some clues to that existence, but we can rest assured that it will not simply be more of the same.

Jesus speaks to the Saducees’ real issue, their lack of belief in resurrection.  Conditions in this life do not constitute proof of conditions in the life to come, he says.  The realm of God is unlike life as we know it now.

The second big question this story raises for us is, Will we know our spouses, our family, our friends in eternity?  Given Jesus’ words about not marrying in the next life and the emphasis on a qualitative difference in resurrection life, this is an important question.  And whenever there is a funeral, this question is very much on our minds.  Will we be with this person again?  Will we see them again?  Will we know them?  What will they be like? 

Jesus does not address this question here, not directly.  He does not say whether we will know those who have been dear to us in this life, only that resurrection life will be different than this one.

But he does say – and here, he is quoting from Torah, for the benefit of the Saducees – Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  It is not that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God is their God.  To God, all of them are alive.  God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

Jesus says that there is life beyond this life, and his statement implies that relationships in this life persist in the life to come.

Still, we want to know more details.  We naturally want to fill in the blanks, like that young evangelist.  We want to know more, but as Paul says, we only see now through a glass dimly.  I don’t know the answers, none of us do, and I have probably already said more than I know. 

We do not know the what and the how.  We do not know the details.  But we do know who holds the answers, and who holds our lives.  Our faith is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Christ from death and promises to do the same also for us.  For God is the God not of the dead, but of the living.  And for now, that is enough to know.  Amen.

“Great Day of Giving” - November 10, 2013

Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

Today is Stewardship Sunday, and we are talking about money.  This is not easy because we aren’t comfortable talking about money.  People will talk about religion and politics and sex and all kinds of sensitive topics – or once-sensitive topics.  People will share all kinds of intimate details of their lives through social media, but we do not tweet our retirement account balance.  We don’t put a photo of our mortgage on Instagram, and we don’t post on Facebook that we may have to declare bankruptcy.

We don’t talk about money in a personal way, especially in church, but the Bible talks about money all the time.  According to Jim Wallis, there are several thousand verses in the Old Testament alone about money or the poor – it is the second most prominent theme, behind idolatry, and the two were often connected.  In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor or the subject of money; in Luke, it is one of seven. 

People complain sometimes that the church talks about money too much.  But if they want Biblical preaching, people should actually complain that we don’t talk about money nearly enough.

Well, today we are talking money.  Being that it is Stewardship Sunday, I thought we might look at some models for doing stewardship.  We have a certain way we have done things around here, but maybe there are some other approaches, some alternate ways, better ways to do it. 

The first idea comes from news reports from last year.  In Germany, the state collects a levy from tax-registered believers and hands it over to three organized faiths.  Registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews pay a surcharge on their income, which is distributed to their church or synagogue.

This is not new, and it’s not just Germany.  What made the news is that the German Roman Catholic bishops' conference announced that not paying taxes for the church is a grave offense, and that sacraments will be withheld from those who do not pay the 9% church tax.  If you don’t pay, you will be denied weddings, funerals, communion, and other sacraments in the church.

Of course, many Catholics in Germany are up in arms over this policy.  Many of those who pay the voluntary church tax are adamantly against this policy.  But you have to admit, this does provide some incentive for giving.

Now, the government is not going to collect our tithes and offerings, but we could institute something like this on our own.  We could only make the church’s services available to those who contribute 9% of earnings.  You don’t give at that level, no weddings, no funerals, no baptisms, and you can’t attend the annual cook-off.

That seems kind of extreme, but maybe we could go to a membership level system, which is more and more common in all kinds of organizations.  We have a regular AAA membership, but you can pay a little more and get a platinum membership with more benefits.

So here’s a proposal: we could institute membership levels.  If you give a smaller percentage of income, you get bronze level services.  You can park in the bronze parking section, sit in the first two rows – you know, where most people really don’t want to sit – and qualify for the economy wedding package.  Give enough for the silver level, say 5%, and we will throw in the newsletter, standard parking and seating, and a Music Camp CD.  And if you tithe, you are in the Gold membership level.  You get access to all church services and benefits, get in line first for pot-lucks, and you are allowed to sit in the back two rows – the really good seats.  Well, it’s an idea.

A related idea is that we require everyone to turn in a copy of their tax return.  We’ll take a look at it and then assign to each member the amount they should contribute.  Jewish synagogues operate on a structure where members are assessed dues based on their income level.  And I have heard of some evangelical churches where to join, you have to show your tax return and then they can monitor whether you are tithing.  We could all bring in our tax returns and net worth statements, and then the stewardship committee could look them over and send everybody a bill for the coming year.  We wouldn’t have to decide what to give, the church would decide for us.  What do you think?

Another possibility is the Public Radio Model.  In this program, we will call you every day for two weeks and talk for an hour.  For 20 minutes of that hour, we will remind you how much we do for you and how unfair it is to receive services you’re not paying for.  The great part about this method is we will continue to call you even after you’ve made your pledge – but of course after pledging, you won’t have to feel guilty about it.

Another method is time proven and very popular.  It is known as the “Pyramid” method, and it has worked very well for some folks on Wall Street.  Here’s how it works:  the very first person to pledge only has to pledge one penny.  That’s right, just one cent for the whole year!

That amount would double for each pledging unit to follow.  The second pledge would be for 2 cents; the third pledge would be 4 cents.  Sounds great, right? 

The really great thing is that this would completely cover our church finances.  As it turns out, the 25th giving unit would contribute $170,000.  If we had 45 pledges, which is a little more than last year, in the neighborhood of what we might expect, our pledge total would be around 17.6 trillion dollars.  This amount would not only allow us to fund all of our ministries and significantly increase our mission giving, we could also build a staff retreat center in the Swiss Alps.  We could pay for the south end zone expansion at Jack Trice Stadium – well, it would be Jack Trice Field at First Baptist Stadium.  We could also provide universal free pre-school, pay off all accumulated student loan debt in America - well, we could do that for the whole world - and we would still have most of the money left to help pay down the national debt.  And oh yeah, we wouldn’t have to have a pledge drive next year.

The other big plus would be that this method would definitely encourage people to get their pledges in early and not wait until the last minute.

Another possibility is the retail model – one size fits all.  Our proposed budget is $238,000 and we have some rental and investment income, so if we need let’s say $190,000 in pledges, we could divide that by 45 giving units and send everybody a bill for $4222.  It would be simple.  If it works for retail, it should work here.  Who sells a car based on what the consumer thinks God wants them to pay?

Finally, we could use the airline model.  You pay a modest fee for getting in the door.  The catch is, we will charge you for all of your baggage – the personal, emotional, and spiritual baggage you bring with you.  You want a seat – ka-ching.  You want some coffee – ka-ching.  You want to use a hymnal – ka-ching.  We’ll charge you for a bulletin.  We will charge per prayer, per choir anthem, per scripture reading, per communion.

Well, I can tell from looking at your faces that while each of these methods definitely has something to recommend it, nobody is very excited about any of them.  So, here is the plan we are using right now:

We have tried to communicate the mission of our church through various means.  We sent a letter and a copy of our proposed budget.  The budget is not so much a financial statement as it is a plan for ministry – a statement of the ministry we feel God is calling us to.  We sent a narrative budget that attempted to go beyond the numbers to what the budget represented, a story of the ministry that we share together as a church.

We have had testimonies in worship around stewardship.  Jere spoke to us about paying it forward – about the way that others have blessed us and we are called to pay those blessings forward to others.  Sometimes we get caught up in details and minutiae, but Katherine really helped me get a sense of the big picture.  She spoke of how this church has blessed her throughout her life, how it gave her a strong foundation as she left Ames to go away to school and how we were here for her as she came back to Ames.  For me it was a powerful reminder that yes, what we do really does matter, it really does make a difference.  And this morning Jeanette challenged us that stewardship is not just something to think about once a year, but it is the way we live each and every day.

So, we have tried to communicate as best we can what our mission is and why this matters.  We have asked everyone to pray about your own contribution – how you will be part of this church’s ministry through your time, your talents, your resources.

We have thought kind of light-heartedly about the way ministry is funded, but this is really not like NPR or Delta Airlines.  We are not paying for services received; we are investing in the future, investing in building God’s kingdom, investing in what we value highly.  We are investing in the kind of world we hope for and long for.  It is an investment we make with our financial gifts, but it is also an investment we make with our lives every day.

I am so impressed with so many of you who day in, day out make a difference – through involvement in the community in many ways, through participation not only in our congregation but in various organizations that are doing vital work in Ames and beyond.  But more than that, I have been impressed with the kindness and concern and compassion and all of the ways that you show love for your neighbor, each and every day.  This is Christian stewardship.

Our theme this last month has been “It’s a Great Day.”  We had our Great Day of Service, as we worked together to make a difference in our community and beyond.  On Reformation Sunday we remembered that we are part of a Great Tradition, called continually to renew the church that we love and through which we serve.  Last Sunday, we looked at the story of Zachaeus and a Great Day of Generosity.  His experience with Jesus changed his life and he was transformed from a life of selfish accumulation to a life of open-handed generosity.

Today we come to make our pledges of support for the year ahead, and it is a Great Day of Giving.  In our text from 2 Corinthians, we read, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

Now, compulsion has been tried.  There are a lot of stewardship models based on coercion, but our conviction is that we should all give freely, as we are led.  This is true at a congregational level.  Our budget includes ministries beyond our church that we choose to support – we are not assessed any dues; we do this because we want to.  We strongly support United Mission, the program through which we support American Baptist mission and ministry in this country and around the world.

We are among the leading churches in mission support in our region, and we are proud of that, but the fact is that God has blessed us with the resources to offer that kind of support, and we do so gladly.  We support numerous ministries and agencies that are doing good work, much-needed work, here in Ames.  We are under no compulsion or requirement to support such mission; we do so because we believe it is important and we want to. 

As a congregation, I think that we give cheerfully, gladly, to mission beyond the walls of this church.  The same is true at an individual level.

God does not want us giving out of guilt or compulsion or threat.  We don’t give in order to get brownie points with God or because bad things will happen to us if we don’t give.  I once received a letter from the organization of a big-time TV preacher.  It said that we have been praying for you these past several months, but our finances are tight, we only have so many people and so much time, and unless we hear from you soon with a contribution, we will have to drop your name from our prayer list.  They essentially said, “Our prayers have been protecting you and we can’t be responsible for what happens once we stop praying for you.”  (I’m not making this up.) 

Paul writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

The invitation to each of us is to give cheerfully, to give gladly, to give as God leads.  There is no tax or bill sent to us; we determine this for ourselves.  Now, the Bible offers some guidance.  The Bible points us to the tithe, or 10% of one’s increase.  The Old Testament idea was that the first-fruits, the first and best, ten percent off the top, belongs to God.

Jesus put a different spin on this.  The New Testament ethic is, it all belongs to God, not just 10%.  The tithe is not so much a law as a standard, a guide.  Depending on where we are in life, a tithe may be too difficult or it may be too little.  If you are starting out in giving, a good way is to choose a percentage and increase the percentage over time, moving towards a tithe.  For some doing very well, a tithe may be too easy.  Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church, the megachurch in California.  He has become a celebrity, he has written best-sellers – he’s doing pretty well financially.  It’s safe to say he earns more than the average pastor.  He and his wife Kay practice a reverse tithe – they give away 90% and live on 10%.  On the other hand, there are those living on fixed incomes, there are folks just scraping by, and the relatively small amount they give may be a much more sacrificial gift than vast amount given by a wealthy person.

Again, Paul says: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

In a moment, we will receive the offering.  We will offer our tithes, our gifts, our pledges of commitment.  And this is a time of celebration.  The offering is a celebration of God’s gifts, a celebration that we have been blessed, a celebration that we are able to give, a celebration that God’s grace that has found us. 

This morning, we invite you to give generously, we invite you to give joyfully, we invite you to give cheerfully – for God loves a cheerful giver.  Amen.


Thanks to Greg Garland for his thoughts on “creative stewardship models” which spurred this sermon.

Friday, November 1, 2013

“A Great Day of Generosity” - November 3, 2013

Text: Luke 19:1-10

If you know it, sing it with me: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…

If you are of a certain age and grew up in the church, there is a good chance you know “Zacchaeus.”  On the Sunday School hit parade, "Zacchaeus" was about as big as "Jesus Loves Me."

There is something about the image of this guy who climbed a tree to see Jesus that has stuck with me.  I could imagine myself climbing a tree, rising above the crowd and seeing Jesus.  And I could imagine the surprise and the excitement that Jesus picked me, that he wanted to come to my house and hang out with me.

This morning, I want you to imagine with me a bit more about Zacchaeus, about how he came to this point and about the way that this day changed his life.

To start with, Zacchaeus was short.  Not just below average height, but exceptionally short.  As far as I can tell, only three people in the whole Bible are noted for their height.  There is a tall Egyptian whose name is not given who was killed by one of David’s warriors.  There is Goliath, the Philistine giant.  And then there is Zacchaeus.  The word short is used only once in the Bible to describe a person--and that person is Zacchaeus.  That doesn’t mean he was the shortest person in the Bible, but he is the only person whose short stature is mentioned.

Because of his height (or lack of it), things had always been hard.  Growing up, other kids made fun of him.  Phys Ed was especially bad.  It didn’t matter if it was a relay race or Moabite Rules Football, he was always the last one picked.

Nobody thought much of Zacchaeus, and because of that, he didn’t think much of himself.  He never thought he was worth much.  He was actually fairly bright, but he didn’t do very well in school.  He was never very popular.  He never had many friends.  But he tried to hide his feelings by putting on a tough front.  He put down others to feel better about himself.  Of course, all of this only insured that he wouldn’t have many friends.

Zacchaeus finished school and like everyone else was looking for a job.  But jobs were hard to come by.  This Roman invasion had messed up the economy, which wasn’t so great to start with.  But then Zacchaeus saw the ad in the Jericho Gazette for the tax job.  Now understand that working as a tax collector meant burning a lot of bridges.  You were choosing to work for the enemy.  You would be collecting money from your own people to give to the Romans.  To say that tax collectors were unpopular was to understate the situation.  They were despised, hated, social outcasts.

Let me tell you a story I heard the other day.  There was a Hindu priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a TV evangelist all caught in a terrible thunderstorm.  They all happened to seek shelter at the same farmhouse.  “It’s gonna storm all night,” said the farmer.  “You’ll have to stay here for the night.  Only problem is, there is only room for two of you.  One will have to sleep in barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu priest.  “A little hardship is nothing to me.”  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.  It was the Hindu.  “I’m sorry, but there is a cow in the barn.  According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry about it, come on in,” said the rabbi.  “I’ll sleep in the barn.”  But a few minutes later there was another knock and it was the rabbi.  “I’m really sorry about this, but there is a pig in the bar.  In my religion, pigs are unclean.  I cannot share sleeping quarters with a pig.

“That’s all right, said the TV evangelist.  I’ll sleep in the barn.”  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.  It was the cow and the pig.

Now that’s an old joke, of course, and it could be told on anybody.  In Zacchaeus’ day, it was told about tax collectors.  Nobody liked a tax collector.  Zacchaeus understood what he would be getting into.  But what was there to lose?  He already felt like a social outcast.  And he knew that tax collectors made a lot of money.  He would never make that kind of money anywhere else.

So he applied for the job.  This was a bit risky in itself.  Even if he didn’t get the job, if he applied for it and people found out, there would be a price to pay.
 
He was a nervous wreck waiting to hear from the Department of Revenue, but finally Zacchaeus was told that he had the job.  And the amazing thing was, this man who didn’t think much of himself, who had never really been that good at anything, turned out to be great at collecting taxes.  The thick skin he had developed over the years served him well.  He looked down the tax rolls and saw guys who never chose him for the team and girls who would never think of going out with him.  And he stuck it to them.  He took delight in taking money from people who were popular or powerful or successful--people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day.  For the first time in his life, he had a taste of power.

Tax collectors were almost universally known to be corrupt.  They overcharged people, and with the Roman army there to make sure people paid up, it wasn’t too hard to get away with it.  Zacchaeus had no problem overcharging.  He fit right in.  He was a great tax collector.

Zacchaeus’ success didn’t escape the notice of his superiors.  When there was an opening for an assistant regional superintendent, Zacchaeus was chosen for the job.  It meant more money.  They higher up you went in the system, the more you became involved in the corruption, and the more money there was.  Eventually Zacchaeus became Chief Tax Collector.  (Or as he preferred to call it, “Chief Revenue Generation Specialist.”)   It was as high as a Jewish boy could go in the system.  His boss was a Roman.  He was in charge of taxes for a wide area around the city of Jericho.

For a tax collector, this was a plum job.  Jericho was one of the wealthiest areas in the country.  There were palm forests and balsam groves surrounding the city.  The area exported dates and balsam and other products.  Jericho’s rose gardens were known far and wide.  It was a trade center.  There was a lot of money in Jericho.  Being in charge of taxes for this area guaranteed that you would be quite rich.

And he was.  Zacchaeus was successful and he was rich.  And yet, he wasn’t happy.  Money by itself wasn’t all that great.  He was lonely.  His only friends were other tax collectors, but being the chief tax collector, they couldn’t really be friends - he was their boss.  And deep inside himself, he still somehow felt like he was worthless.  Here he was, taking money from Jews and giving it to the Romans.  The Romans that he worked for thought no more of him, maybe even less of him, than the Jews did.

He had heard of this man named Jesus.  Some of the people criticized Jesus, called him a “friend of sinner and tax collectors.”  You better believe that caught Zacchaeus’ attention.  He didn’t know if anybody, especially a religious person, could actually be a friend of tax collectors, but he was intrigued enough that he wanted to go see Jesus.

Jesus was at the height of his popularity and big crowds turned out.  Folks wanted to see this man that everyone was talking about.

This was hard for Zacchaeus.  Remember, he wasn’t just short, he was super short.  He couldn’t see over the crowd.  And more than that, people that knew who he was would push him or elbow him or step on his foot or accidentally spill their drink on him.  This was one of the most hated men in town.  Zacchaeus saw a tree and decided that if he was going to see Jesus, this was the only way.  Besides, he wouldn’t have so many bruises tomorrow.

So he went ahead of the crowd, climbed the tree, sat on a limb, and waited for Jesus to pass by.  He was able to see over the crowd.  And then he saw Jesus.  It seemed like Jesus was coming right towards him.  It seemed like Jesus was looking right at him.  And then, Zacchaeus realized that - he was.  He could hardly believe it when Jesus said, “Hurry and get down from there, I’m going to stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus thought, “Why my house?  Out of all these people, why me?”  Something happened to Zacchaeus that day.  Jesus had chosen him.  Jesus had accepted him.  To Jesus, he was not worthless.  He was not hopeless.  He was not contemptible.  Whatever he had done did not matter.  He was a child of God.

There are two main characters in the story.  And the most important one is not Zacchaeus.  The fact is, this story says more about God than it does Zacchaeus.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Why would Jesus choose to visit Zacchaeus?  If we were in Jesus’ sandals, would we have chosen Zacchaeus?  Probably not.  But God, thankfully, is not like us.  God is in the seeking and saving business.  God is about bringing salvation, bringing wholeness and healing and peace, right here and now.  To people like Zacchaeus, whose lives seem hopeless and meaningless, and to people like us, when our lives need hope and meaning.  Jesus wants to come home with us and stay with us and tell us that we are loved, we are accepted, we count, we are important to God.

Several years ago a school teacher who worked with children in a large city hospital received a routine call asking her to visit a particular boy.  She took his name and room number and was told by the teacher on the phone, “We’re working on nouns and adverbs in class now.  I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind.”

It wasn’t until the visiting teacher walked into the boy’s room that she realized she was in the burn unit.  No one had prepared her to see a boy horribly burned and in great pain.  He obviously was not in any condition to study, but she felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher--your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”  That was about it and she left.

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”  Before she could apologize, the nurse interrupted her and said, “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment...it’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”

How important it is to know that someone believes in us.  More than anyone, God believes in us.  Zacchaeus made the effort to see Jesus, but the initiative in the relationship really is with God.  God is about seeking and saving.

Despite who Zacchaeus was and what he had become, despite the grumbling of more respectable people about Jesus’ choice of companions, Jesus had chosen him.  And that absolutely changed Zacchaeus’ life.

Thomas Merton wrote about truly encountering the living Christ. He said: “True encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope; a capacity for life, a resilience; an ability to bounce back when we think we are completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.”

By the power of Christ, Zacchaeus was changed.  He was transformed.  Until now, he had lived for himself.  He had lived for money.  He had lived to accumulate.  But this encounter with Jesus changed everything.  He was transformed from a cold-hearted man who cared mainly about himself into a changed man with a generous heart.

He had acquired vast wealth by dishonest means.  Now, half of all he had he would give to the poor.  And to any he had cheated (and clearly this was a large group), he would repay them four times the amount.  The law said that someone voluntarily admitting fraud must repay the amount plus 20%.  But having experienced the grace of God, Zacchaeus went far beyond what the law required.  Jesus believed in him and it absolutely changed his life.

It’s not just Zacchaeus.  It’s you.  It’s me.  It’s all of us.  What a difference it makes to know that someone believes in us.  But to know that God believes in us--that can make all the difference.  Knowing that God believes in us, we can believe in ourselves and we can experience a power that can absolutely change our lives.

And the change is from a smallness of spirit to a wide, expansive spirit.  From fear to joyful living.  From tightly clutching what we have to a spirit of open-handed generosity.  When we understand what we have been given, we are glad to give for the sake of others.

The testimony of Zacchaeus was that Jesus had freed him – freed him from fear and shame and freed him for generous, open-hearted living.  May that be so in our lives.  Amen.