Monday, October 31, 2016

October 30, 2016 - Reformation Sunday

Last week I talked about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and said I would talk this morning about how we keep discovering the way of the Pharisee.  Just a review on that, the way of the Pharisee is not all bad.  The primary belief of this form of the Jewish religion was that anyone could live a righteous life, God had revealed what it means to be righteous in the Torah.  The Pharisees studied that law and interpreted it as times changed.  As Israel went from being a nomadic people to a settled, farming people, to a city people, especially around Jerusalem, to being an occupied people, the meaning of the text changed.  Work means a different thing to a farming people than a city people.  Most of the discussions of tithing in Leviticus are based on an animal economy, everyone has a flock and dedicates every tenth animal to God.  What happens when you go to a money-based economy?  The Pharisees asked these kinds of questions and helped Israel adapt their religion to changing times.  Especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. it was this flexibility that allowed Judaism to continue.
                They were more focused on daily life than formal Temple religion.  This made them some of the more popular teachers because they talked about practical matters of faith.  How should I prepare my food?  How should I wash my dishes?  How should I do these daily things in a way that is pleasing to God?  The Pharisees offered an answer, and the people who followed their teaching had the confidence that they were living lives pleasing to God.
                So that sounds good to me: a practical faith; a day to day faith.  I spend a lot of effort on the on the goal that what we do here on Sunday morning will walk out the door and affect you on Monday morning.  How does a group that, on the face of it, seems to be helpful and faithful, become the adversaries to Jesus?  For one thing, rule-based religion tends to leave people behind.  It is a lot easier to talking about tithing 10% when you have a surplus of income.  It is much easier to observe a Sabbath when you know you have enough food for the day.  This kind of theology also struggles to deal with tragedy.  When you have been taught that righteous are rewarded and bad things happen to bad people, this kind of theology falls apart when tragedy strikes because either there is a secret sin you didn’t know about or God is unfair.  But fundamentally,  I think it is what happens to many religious traditions and certainly happens within Christianity.  We turn a good idea into a law.  We turn a way of honoring God into something you have to do and if you are not doing it, you must not be a good Christian.  And at our worst, we get so attached to the rules, figuring out who is following them best, who is breaking them, that we miss the fact that Jesus came to set us free from this very line of thinking.
                  For example, the Sabbath is a great idea.  It is a gift that reminds us that we are not made to work all the time, that we need to rest.  I think everyone should find time for Sabbath, whether a day a an intentional hour.  Resting on the Sabbath is a traditional way to honor God, and in Jesus’ time, people wanted to do it right.  The Pharisees had long lists of Sabbath rules to help them.  And Jesus comes not to disagree with the Sabbath as a good idea, but with the burden the rules could create.  You don’t have to go hungry to observe the Sabbath.  Pick some food if you need it.  You can heal people on the Sabbath.  It is a day for setting people free.  The Sabbath was made for you; you were not made for the Sabbath. 
                It’s a beautiful message and a beautiful way of being.  It is so easy to get wrapped in Christianity as a way of life, but Jesus seems to present faith much more as a way of being in the world, a way of seeing the world.  Jesus presents a vision where we have been set free from the social and family structures that often bind us, told that the last will be first and the first will be last; we have been set free from the mistakes that pursue us, told by a joyful Messiah that our sins are forgiven; we have been set free from the fear of death, by a Son of God who accepts death and walks away from it leaving an empty tomb; we have been set free by the love of God to love the world and love the people God has made.  It is a beautiful vision.
                But you know what is easier and more practical?  Following rules.  Just telling people to love God is nebulous but telling people to love God by tithing 10% or telling people to love God by going to church each Sunday or telling people to love God by obeying God’s church, that’s more concrete.  Once again, the Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages was popular.  It helped people feel secure in their relationship with God.  It told people, “Do this list of things and God will love you, accept you and forgive you.”  Of course, that open up all sorts of possibilities for abuse, but it also provides a way to say, “I am living a righteous life ; I am living a good life.”
                Martin Luther was one of those folks who felt left behind in that system.  Today we might call him obsessive, but he just couldn’t get behind the idea that our actions alone, no matter how frequent, no matter how holy, could free us from our mistakes, especially when it comes to the way our minds work.  I go to the confessional.  I do my penance.  But then these thoughts creep in.  I’m jealous of people.  I’m selfish.  I’m spiteful and hateful and now I need to confess again and the cycle never ends.  The gospel only works if it is God who chooses to set me free.  That’s the grace we talk about in our tradition.  It only works if it is God acting and not us.  This is why Romans 3 was such good news, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift.”  By grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.
                But you know what is easier and more practical?  Following rules.  Oddly for our tradition that seems to have gotten much more wrapped up in rules of liturgy and organization.  The greatest arguments in the churches I have served have been about the dippiest things: the shoes the acolytes were wearing, the color of the paraments, which committee makes the road sign, which mixer for the kitchen.  Yet there was this sense that we had to get it right, that there was a right way to do it and that really mattered.  And people were left out because traditions were too strong and new ideas were frowned upon.  Others left because they were asking, “Is this really what God’s church is about?  There has to be something more than the color of the pew cushions.”
In response to these deficiencies, we have seen the rise of more Bible-centered traditions.  They serve as a critique, really questioning whether the things that we thought were so important actually matter.   We get wrapped in the rules liturgy and they come on the scene with worship that looks nothing like ours and the world does not end.  However, we are at this strange place where seemingly the most popular and growing traditions are the most rule-based.  They use very positive language about it, things like “Biblical principles for successful living” or “How to live God’s way,” but subscribe to a literalism that the Bible was ever intended to have and offer a faith that is similar to what the Pharisees were promoting.  Let us show you how to live a righteous life or a godly life.  And again, it is not bad in and of itself.  Many people are changed by it and deepen their faith through it.  I am reminded of a story that one of my seminary professors, Ralph Klein, in Chicago told me.  He was waiting at the airport and one of his neighbors in the terminal engaged him in conversation.  When he found out that Dr. Klein taught at a Lutheran seminary he said, “I used to be a Lutheran.  Now I go to Willow Creek (a nondenominational megachurch).  I go to church twice a week.  I help guide traffic for one of the services.  I tithe my income.”  And I remember Ralph said he wondered how to grow that kind of enthusiasm within Lutheranism while at the same couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector we heard last week.   If you recall the Pharisee came before God bragging about what a great and faithful guy he was because of the things he did while the tax collector stood before God acknowledging his need for God’s mercy.
And people do get left behind in this model, because when you are bound up in literalism, it is very difficult to talk about things like same-sex relationships or interfaith discussions.  When you are focused on personal piety, it can be very difficult to talk about social justice and advocating for those in need and seeing that as part of Christ’s message.  When you think you have figured out God’s way, it can be very difficult to respect those who don’t follow it.
What I am saying is that no one gets it right on this end.  As long as we think we have it right, we are missing the point.  The only one who has it right, who has ever had it right, is God.  Jesus, the divine one walking among us, came to show us what right looks like but not to turn right into a rulebook.
I sometimes imagine the gospel story as though Jesus comes to us and sings this marvelous song of love and life and then he says to each of us, “Go and sing your song of love and life.”  And some people respond saying, “We don’t want to sing the song, but we will listen to other people sing (and then critique it).”  And some people respond saying, “We will research and learn how to sing exactly the song that you sang, because that is the only way to do it right, Jesus.”  And other people listen and say, “We will sing song of love and life, but we’ll include a few verses about death to our enemies.”  And other people say, “We will sing the song if you agree to pay us or bless us in some fashion.” 
And Jesus looks at us and loves us saying, “You don’t have to sing my song.  Listen to my song but also listen to all the songs that are out there.  Listen to the songs of Israel.  Listen to my song but also listen to Buddha’s song and Muhammad’s song.  You don’t have like the whole thing but you’ll be surprised how much beautiful music is there.  Listen to the songs of the universe.  Listen to the songs of Steven Hawking and Rachel Carson and Neil Degrasse Tyson.  Listen to the love songs of parents and children: lullabies and silly songs and songs to make us wiggle and dance.  Listen to the songs of lovers: tender songs and whispered songs and songs of promise.  Listen to all these songs and then go and sing your song of life and love.  Sing it because it is what you were made to do.  Sing it because it is the song that is in your heart.  I sang first to teach you what music sounds like, but you go and sing your song life and love.  This is the kind of praise God hopes for.”

Sisters and brothers, sing your song.  It doesn’t have to be on key.  It doesn’t have to have perfect rhythm or compelling lyrics.  It doesn’t even have to follow the conventional rules of music.  Let your life be your song of life and love.  Dedicate it to God who gave you breath to sing and showed what love and life mean in the first place.  You have been set free to sing your song.  You have been set free to be life and love for the world.

Monday, October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 - A Faithful Religion

The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector should come to us as a warning.  This is a story about what happens when we think we have faith figured out, when a philosophy of faith is taken to the extreme.  The Pharisee in the story is an easy target.  The Pharisees are the bad guys of the gospels.  They are the ones who create difficult rules to follow, who challenge Jesus’ authority.  They are so judgmental and so legalistic.  One might say, “I’m so glad that we are not like those Pharisees.” Ignoring the irony of saying it.

                It turns out that historically the Pharisees were not so bad.  In fact, they end up as some of the heroes of ancient Judaism.  What was their religious philosophy?  God had revealed how to live a righteous life in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) but the Torah needed some interpretation.  Even in Jesus’ time, the stories of the Torah were centuries old.  When it says, “Don’t work on the Sabbath,” what does that mean?  How many steps can someone take before walking becomes work?  The rabbis got together and debated these questions.  They then created bodies of interpretive work like the Talmud which showed people what it means to be righteous. 

                That work gave people certainty and security.  It made them feel better about their relationship with God.  A few decades after Jesus, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, it was the Pharisees who were able to continue Judaism.  Judaism, as we know it today, is a product of the work of the Pharisees.  If you look at their writings you will also find that it is not all about making law.  It is instead about living a righteous life, a life that pleases God.  For the most part, they were popular, not seen as creating burdens.  Instead, most people saw them as freeing them from difficult decisions.  If you don’t have worry about how to live, then you can just go about the business of living.  This is still a popular message.  Walk into almost any Evangelical church, any Baptist church, any megachurch; listen to almost any Protestant preacher on television, you are going to hear a message about how to live a faithful life or the rewards of living a faithful life.  I’m going to talk more next week about how we keep adopting this way of thinking and why it is problematic.

The Pharisees we encounter in the gospels are probably a bit exaggerated by the authors for dramatic effect, and certainly the Pharisee in the parable is a caricature but Jesus is making point.  Almost any time a religion is based on a particular way of life, somewhere there is transition and the people who follow that way of life end up judging people who don’t.  The things that the Pharisee talks about are good.  He doesn’t steal from people.  He doesn’t commit adultery.  He fasts, showing self-discipline.  He tithes 10% of his income, showing dedication.  Pull him out of the story and this is someone you wouldn’t mind having sit next to you in the pew. 

The things the Pharisee does are good things.  I know people for whom tithing, intentionally giving away 10% of their income, is a transformative experience.  It forces you to pay attention to what you have and how you use money.  That 10% represents both a discipline and a biblical standard for giving.  People who tithe aren’t looking at church needs to decide what they give, what they give is based on what they have.  Tithing has been transformative on the religious front.  One can argue that a big part of the growth of the evangelical movement is that they challenged people to tithe, which meant a larger income, which meant the ability to simply do more, maintain better facilities and have more paid/full-time staff.  It also meant that while congregations like ours were spending time and energy doing bake sales and yard sales, fundraisers and relying on special emergency appeals, they were developing ministry.  As I said last week, the church you have is a reflection of the stewardship of the people.  If you give just enough to get by, that is what the church will look like.

But as I said there is often a transition that happens where the person who fasts or tithes or adopts some other transformative way of life starts to become judgmental.  First they are so excited about it that they want to tell other people.  And the response they get is underwhelming.  People say “That’s great,” but they don’t start doing it.  I can testify to this with contemplative prayer.  That silent prayer has really transformed how I understand and experience faith and those who have participated seem to have been helped by it, but the general reaction has been, “That’s great, Carl.  I will try to make it some time.”  And there was  a time when I would think to myself, “What is wrong with these people?  This is such a good thing.”  And periodically I find myself going down that road.  I had to realize that the forces that were driving me down the road toward contemplative prayer were not the same forces that were operating in everybody else’s lives.

Yet it is the religious impulse that says, “There is something wrong with the person who isn’t adopting my understanding of faith and practice.”  What Jesus is pointing out in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that you can do wonderful things in the name of God and still miss the mark.  You can be a very religious person and still not be a particularly faithful person.  What seems to happen to us is we teach religion as though it were faith, when religion, whether its prayer or fasting or tithing or Sunday-morning liturgy, is a response to faith.  Faith is a relationship and it is a relationship based on need.  The tax collector in the story knows that he needs God’s help.  The Pharisee thinks God wants him there whether he personally needs it out not.

There is a popular saying these days, “Fake it until you make it.”  If you want to be happy, act like you are happy and eventually you will be happy.  Faith doesn’t work that way.  Traditional religious disciplines can be transforming in some ways.  If you give away 10% of your income to charity as a discipline, other parts of your life will be changed by that action, but that has little to with faith and more to do with being disciplined.  Faith is about being able stand in front of God with your doubts and fears, with your mistakes and failures and knowing that you are welcome and accepted.  Faith is acknowledging your brokenness and imperfections.  Faith is admitting the sins and addictions of our lives to a loving god and by admitting them finding freedom in that love.

And then we respond, with our time, our talent and our money, whatever we have; with our acts of devotion and acts of service; with prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of intercession and prayers of silence.  When we have encountered the love of God in Christ we are freed to turn back to God in love and turn out to others in love.  And when we are living in ways that spread that love or deepen that love, it is pretty hard to mess up the religious part.  There doesn’t need to be a cookie-cutter Christianity by which we measure true faith and worthiness.  If you tithe 10%, 5% or 20%, good for you.  If you say grace before every meal, good for you.  If you get the worship every Sunday, good for you.  But doing these things doesn’t make God love you any more and not doing them won’t make God love you less.

Yet there are some attitudes that need to be present.  There does need to be a sense of humble need, not that God is nice to have around but that God is necessary for us, and there does need to be a sense of gratitude for what God has done in creation, in Christ, in the community of faith.  If the religion that we are living and teaching doesn’t inspire those kinds of feelings, the religious actions we take will be dry disciplines, maybe helpful in some ways but unimportant in the long run; the community that gathers will be a social group maybe with a shared heritage, but only appealing to people with that heritage.

Our faith is not based on the things we do.  We do not have to prove our love for God because God has already proven an infinite love for us.  The things we do are a reflection of our faith.  If we say we have been touched by the love of God but are not moved to respond (and again I am not telling you how to respond but that there needs to be some response) maybe we need to dig deeper into that faith.

The punchline to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is that holy reversal that “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  The story doesn’t say that tax collector left and starting living a clean life.  Instead it says he left justified before God.  It is not that he fixed his mistakes and perfected himself.  Instead, he was the one who trusted God enough to stand before God and admit his brokenness.  He was the one who knew he needed to be at the Temple rather than just feeling good about being there, another duty to check off the list.  He was the one who came before God because he was faithful, and not because he was religious.  May your religion be a reflection of your faith, and may your faith in God’s promise, God’s forgiveness and God’s love deepen and grow.

Monday, October 17, 2016

October 16, 2016 - Stewardship of Time

One of my frustrations can be summed up in a description of a meeting we had about 6 years ago.  We were going to talk about children’s ministry and a few people stayed after church for the discussion.  We talked about programming.  We talked about curricula and organization.  We talked about having a youth group.  Then as we closed I said something like, “These are great ideas.  Who wants do something about them?”  The room got very quiet.  And the meeting eventually broke with quiet excuses about being too old to work with kids or not being able to be here every week.   In ministering at Christ Lutheran there are two conflicting messages that I hear, sometimes from the same person.  First, I think we should have more programming.  We want a choir; a Sunday school; more classes and events.  Second, I want a place where I can show up and just go to church.  I don’t want to have to do anything. 
As pastor, I want to respect both of those desires, especially because I think the church doesn’t need to be another place where we define ourselves by what we accomplish, because I have come to believe that learning to simply be with God is probably more important (and more difficult) than finishing some to-do list of holiness.  I want to respect both of those desires, but you need to understand that they are in conflict.  I suspect that this conflict is part of the reason for some of the trends in church growth and decline that we see today.  Overall, nationally, fewer people are going to church.  Those that are going to church are gravitating toward larger congregations.  In general, larger congregations are getting bigger and smaller congregations are in decline.  People tend to gravitate toward larger congregations in part because they already have the programs in place.  They are big enough that a new person can just show up and hang back until they want to get more involved.
                Some will say this all a product of the 20% rule, 80% of the work of congregational life is done by 20% of the people.  In a church our size, that is about 15 people.  In a larger church that could be a larger pool of 100 to 200 people.  It is not surprising that there is growing group of people in traditional churches being referred to as the “Dones.”  These are people who were once very active but are now burnt out, who have worked to feed others and then realized that they were not being fed.  So they walk away.  They are done with church, not done with faith, but done with church.
                I want to talk about the stewardship of time and talent, but especially time.  I hate wasting time.  I hate it when my time is wasted and when I am wasting other people’s time, because time is a gift from God.  This is not a call to radical productivity, always getting something done.  The idea of a Sabbath, a day of rest, is not a day of waste, but ideally a day when time is savored.  I try to spend some time each day in contemplative prayer which some people see as wasteful, doing nothing, not even asking God for anything and yet I find that it is some of the most important and most holy time I experience.
                Ideally as the church, we would help one another find ways to minister that used the gifts and talents we enjoy.  People who love to organize things would serve God by organizing things.  People who love to sing would serve God by singing.  People who love to talk would serve God by visiting lonely people and talking.  People who love to cook would prepare food for hungry people.  In an ideal world, we would do what we love to do and are gifted at in service for God. 
                In my ideal church, there would be no council or committees.  That’s a model that comes from mid-20th century business structures.  It wouldn’t be a pastoral dictatorship either.  Ideally, people who were passionate about an issue would come and work on that issue and we would minister based on the gifts and passions that are in the community.  Some things wouldn’t get done, and we would have to be all right with that.  Where that model falls apart is that there is this baseline of things that have to get done to be a responsible organization.  Someone has to be responsible for money.   You have to have some sort of financial oversight.  Someone has to be responsible for the property or someone has to provide a place to meet.  Someone has to coordinate things, make sure things don’t get double-booked.  If those things don’t happen, it is hard for any organization, sacred or secular, to maintain itself.  Even Jesus had a treasurer (It was Judas and it didn’t turn out so well, but he had one.)
                My point in all of this is similar to one I made last week in talking about money.  The church you have is a reflection of the stewardship of the community, in how you give of yourselves and how you give your time.  If you want a good, old-fashioned, four-part church choir but only three people show up, you will have a trio, and God bless that trio and thank you for showing up, but it will be a trio unless other people come forward.
                Some of this also has to do with an understanding of mission, that question of why we are here as a community.  We had a couple of stories about persistence in the readings today.  One is the image of Jacob wrestling with God, refusing to let go.  The other is Jesus’ story of a persistent widow, who basically nags a judge until he gives in.  To be clear, this is not Jesus saying this is a good legal system, rather it’s one of those comparison stories where, if an unjust judge acts like this in response to persistent cries for justice, how much more will God act for God’s people when they cry for justice.   I think that the context for this story being told in 1st century Palestine is important.  This was a story told to a conquered people, overtaxed by the occupying government of Rome.  People were praying that God would do something about that situation and that injustice.  This is not a story about how if you pray long enough and hard enough will always get the thing you are asking for.  It turns out that Jesus is God’s answer to their cries for justice, but rather than kicking out the Romans, he changes what it means to be part of Israel, to be part of a chosen people, changes what it means to be righteous; changes what it means to be accepted.
                The good news is that because of Jesus all of this stewardship talk is an invitation and not an obligation.  I’m inviting you to consider how you give of your finances and your time and your talents not because you have to, but because stewardship draws us closer to God.  Using our time in service deepens our relationship with God.  Changing our relationship with money deepens our relationship with God.  There are certainly roles within the congregation that if we do not fill them will make life complicated, but even carrying out those roles is a gift of service.

                The good news is that if all you ever do is come and worship, God will not love you any less than God does now.  Also the good news is that if you teach Sunday school, sing in a choir, bake casseroles for the homebound and become church treasurer, God will not love you any more than God does now.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are our proof of God’s great love for everyone.  The rest is an invitation to deepen our lives in that love.  All of the stewardship and all of the discipleship talk I’ve been preaching this year is invitation and not obligation.  What the church looks like is up to us, the ministries we offer and the facilities we have are dependent on how we give of our time and our finances; but what the church stands for has already been taking care of; the love of God; the promise of life in Christ.  These are what gather us.  The love and life we find in Christ are already taken care of; and I will persistently invite you to consider how you will respond.

October 9, 2016 - Stewardship of Money

Today I’m going to talk about money and giving, in part because it is important and we need to talk about it as people of faith and in part because I want to move onto other aspects of stewardship.   Often when you talk about money and stewardship, people get defensive and start talking about time and talent.  I agree, as I said last week, there is more to stewardship than money, but if we never talk about money, we are missing this crucial part of our lives.  We have to talk about the stewardship of money because every day we have to deal with money.  As I mentioned previously, money is a common topic in scripture, sometimes it is described as a positive blessing; sometimes it is described as a stumbling block.  Most importantly, scripture challenges us to consider how we feel about money.  Do we love it?  Can we learn generosity?

                In the church there are a couple of reasons why we give.  The most common seems like some form of transactional giving, giving to get something.  This is how most of our dealings with money work.  I go to the store.  I give money and can walk out of the store with something.  I pay bills and I can communicate, heat a home and be entertained.  Theologically, the most extreme version of this is the prosperity model that talks about seed offerings.  You give something away as a sign of faith and trust so that you can be blessed by God with more.  To be clear, you can find some places in the Bible that point in this direction, but you have to ignore a whole bunch of other places that serve as a corrective to this attitude in order to say that the prosperity is the primary thing the Bible has to say about money.

                Part of the reason that this kind of thinking doesn’t work with Lutheran theology is that it is essentially graceless.  We proclaim God’s free gift in Christ.  Prosperity thinking celebrates a transaction, doing something so that God will do something.  We may think that we are beyond that kind of thinking, all wrapped up in grace.  However, the transactional model is how we deal with money every day and it is hard to step away from that when we go the church.  Many of the discussions of giving that I have heard in the church over the years are transactional.  Any time we base our giving on the church budget, we are in the realm of transaction, that area of asking “What am I getting for what I give?  What is my fair share based on what I get out of it?”  That can sound crass but is not completely inappropriate because the leadership of the congregation has the responsibility to be good stewards of what the congregation gives.   There is a problem when the church wastes what it has been given.

                But I will also say that, in this transactional model, the church you have is often a reflection of how you give.  If as a community we give the least that we can, then as a congregation, we will have the least that we can.  I’ll talk more about this with time and talent as well.  Suffice it to say, anytime you are asking things like “Why don’t we advertise more?  Why don’t we have more guest musicians?  Why don’t we always have a substitute when the pastor is away or the minister of music is away?  Why don’t we have more of something?” the answer is often a reflection of how the congregation gives both financially and in terms of time.  I’m not saying that to make you guilty.  It’s just the reality.

                Another motivation for giving is more mission-centered, this is when we give in order that the church can do something.   Here the giver is saying that if the community is meaningful for me, I want to help it be meaningful for others.  This is also the kind of giving that happens when we give to the World Hunger Appeal or Disaster Relief.  I may not be able to go to Haiti, but I want to empower the larger church to do ministry in Haiti.  I will not get any practical benefit from the giving but I know this is what the church is supposed be doing and I want to support the mission.  This tends to be a lot easier to do when you are giving to a relief-agency or specific ministry.  We know that the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal is going to help people.  In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, we know that disaster relief organizations are going to help people.  Locally, we know that the Falmouth Service Center is going to help people.  We aren’t always clear about what this community is supposed to be doing in terms of its mission.  We have trouble finding that outward focus that inspires mission-centered giving where we say, “I’m going to give to the ministry of the congregation without expecting something in return so that Christ Lutheran Church can do important work.”

                Those are the two most common ways that giving is thought about in many congregations.   And while I would say that mission-centered giving is more faithful than purely transactional giving, both of them are really focused on how I am using my money to make something happen.   In the transactional mode this is making something happen for me; in the mission-centered mode it making something happen for someone else.  This leads me to a third reason for giving, one that is a common theme in scripture, gratitude.

                In the gospel lesson we have the story of the 10 lepers who are made clean by Christ.  Now it is important to understand that in Jesus’ time, people who were unclean basically had no identity other than being unclean.  You were no longer Jew or Samaritan.  You were an unclean person to be avoided by all.  When these 10 are healed, 9 run to the priests and, we assume, are declared clean, welcomed back into full membership into Israel.  They would have made sacrifices of thanksgiving at the Temple.  But one, a Samaritan, was not Jewish.  His identity is restored but it is the identity of an outsider.  He returns and gives thanks to God through Jesus.  In the story, it’s not the other nine weren’t showing gratitude to God, but it took an outsider to realize that showing gratitude to Christ is showing gratitude to God.  He has nowhere else to go, but he has to give thanks somewhere.

                Gratitude is a gift in and of itself.  The feeling that inspires thankfulness is a gift.  Some people have it more than others.  It is often associated with holding lower expectations of what you deserve.  If you think you deserve something, you won’t be thankful for it.  The transactional model doesn’t promote gratitude because it is based on what I expect and deserve. 

                The real model for grateful giving is the burnt offering that we find in Hebrew scripture, especially what was known as the whole offering, where whatever you offered was completely consumed by fire.  There was no practical benefit to the priest or the Temple or the one offering the sacrifice.  It was burnt; it was gone.  Imagine if we took the weekly offering and set it on fire, what a waste.  Another image is in the passion story where a woman comes and pours expensive oil over Jesus’ head to honor him.  Everyone around him says, “How wasteful!”  But this is the nature of grateful giving.  It is giving simply in response to what you have already received without expecting more in return.  It is giving that is shocking, extravagant, wasteful.   It is giving that is not inspired by budgets or buildings or traditions, but rather by the deepest place of faith.

                And you may be asking yourself, “Why would I do that?”  All I can do is point you back to God and ask, “Why would God do what God has done?”  This moment is brought to you by that God.  You didn’t have to be here (as in existent).  A shocking, extravagant, wasteful God said, “I want this person here.”   And we have the story of Jesus where a wasteful, shocking and extravagant God said, “I want this person not only to be here but to be whole; to be complete.  I want this person to know love and to be love.  I want this person to know the meaning of hope and joy,” and so Jesus lives and dies and rises so that we can know the meaning of life. 

Your life is not a rational transaction but an extravagant gift, a gift renewed in the story of Christ.  Consider that today and don’t think about how you will respond but what it means to you.  Gratitude is the heart of stewardship, whether we are talking about financial giving, or how we use our time or simply how we care for this life that we have been given.  The way we respond is shaped by what it means to us.  What does it mean to you to be truly alive, to know that you are loved, to know that there is real peace and real joy?  What does it mean to you to know that your mistakes do not define you and your errors do not condemn you?   What does it mean to you to know that you are fully known and accepted by the holy One, the One who brought creation into being, the one who knows every atom in the universe, this One knows who you are?  Whatever we give pales in comparison to those gifts, those wasteful, extravagant and shocking gifts, but if we are shaped by gratitude, we can’t help but respond, whether it’s to sing a song, write a check, do a dance, share a meal or mop a floor real well, we can’t help but respond.  We respond in thanks to a wasteful, extravagant and shocking God.  This is the meaning of grateful stewardship.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

October 2, 2016 - An Introduction to Stewardship

We are going to spending a month talking about stewardship.  This is not going to be a series directly about our pledging plans for 2017.  I will be touching on that because our financial stewardship as individuals has a direct impact on our collective stewardship as a congregation.  But stewardship has to be more than an idea that we trot out in the Fall as we look at an annual budget.  Stewardship is an important part of the life of discipleship.  If we are going to say that we follow Jesus, we have to look at our lives as stewards.

                A couple of weeks ago I used image of Jesus walking into your home and claiming everything: your knickknacks, your family photos, your car and your checkbook.  “This is mine,” he said at every step.  This is where stewardship begins.  It means that we do not own what have but rather have been entrusted with it.  It is a bit like a role of a sommelier in a fancy restaurant, the person who comes and recommends wines for the meal.  This person has been trained in wine appreciation and pairing; has studied and is familiar with the collection of the restaurant; treats that collection with care, and yet does not own a single bottle of that collection.  He or she is empowered to dispense the wine but does not get to take it home.

                In a like manner, we have a collection of things: possessions and money (which is where we often limit the idea of stewardship), but we also have time which we can use or waste; brains with thoughts and ideas that we can share or hide or ignore; a body that we can care for or neglect, a planet we can treat as precious or simply use as a resource.  All of this is stewardship and all of this is discipleship, walking on the path of growing toward God.

                In the gospel lesson, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to increase their faith.  I often talk about the hope of deepening faith or growing toward God.  Good stewardship begins with knowing that you have been given everything that you need to increase your faith or deepen your faith or grow toward God.  By grace, the relationship has already been established.  God has already taken care of that.  Part of the reason that we baptize infants is as a sign that the divine promise and relationship is not in our control but is a gift of a gracious God, a gift that comes to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

                But now I am saying that you have everything you need to increase and deepen that relationship.  You have a body of scriptures that you can take and read.  You have a brain that can question, form opinions and doubt.  And let me be very blunt.  If you are not asking questions, forming opinions and doubting; if you just taking my word for it because they call me “Pastor,” or because someone gets up and talks in an impassioned way, that is some poor stewardship of the brain.  Ask the tough questions.  Read and think critically.  Listen to voices outside of the Christian community (you don’t have to agree with them) because if God is everywhere like we say, God speaks there too.  Don’t just look for the voices that tell you what you already wanted to hear.  Listen to voices that make the gears turn and your world expand.  Listen to voices that come from faces that don’t look like yours and accents that don’t sound like yours.  Listen for God speaking in such voices.  This is also stewardship.

                You have everything you need to grow toward God.  You have a community of faith with people walking with you, supporting you.  On the “Growing Toward God” sheets I asked you to turn in last week (and I will certainly take more suggestions) a common theme was getting together, being together.  I would push that idea and say, “Getting together for what?”  Yes, it’s fun to sit at a meal.  Yes, it is nice to be in fellowship, but how is that any different than any other social gathering?  How are we different from a Reformation Heritage club?  How will we use that time to grow toward God?  This is a question of stewardship.

                And you have a body, a body, that if cared for can take you far into God’s good creation, can act as the hands and feet of Christ in our community.  What are you feeding that body?  How are you caring for it?  How are you letting it rest?  These are faith questions and stewardship questions.

                And yes you have money.  I talked a little bit about our relationship to money last week, how the intersection of faith and money can be an uncomfortable place.  You have money to buy food to care for that body and mind, God’s great gifts.  You have money that you can give away that can bring joy to the world around.  You have money that support the ministry of your faith community, that can help it be a place of growth rather than a place that just gets by, that can help this be the community that helps people grow toward God rather than that church by the high school.  I have never been in a church that didn’t have enough money, but I have been in many churches that didn’t distribute it very well.   Every congregation I have been in has all the money it needs, just locked away in personal checking accounts or locked away until there is a good project or important reason.  A common pattern I have experienced is “to the rescue” giving, people hold their giving until the pastor or the president talks about an emergency.  In my last call, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter, the congregation came close to missing my health insurance payment.  We announced it at worship that Sunday and, thankfully, enough additional funds came in to cover it.  And I understand, it feels good to come to the rescue.  The congregation felt relief and felt good about itself until the next crisis.  But how much different our life would be as a community if we donated before the emergency, if we could invest in ministry rather than bailing ourselves to pay basic expenses, if we could invest our energy in growing toward God rather than keeping the building open.  These are stewardship concerns and stewardship issues.  It’s not just about how much we give, but when we give, how we give and most importantly why we give. 

                I’ve been talking a lot about questions and challenging you to think about how you use the things you have, the gifts of a gracious God.  When you get home today, take a few moments to look around you, at what you have and consider how you feel about it, how you are using it, what it is for.  Ask the stewardship questions.  That being said, I want to emphasize that stewardship is about joy.  Too often we treat stewardship as a hardship and obligation, but stewardship is a joy.  The first step of stewardship is acknowledging what you have and then giving thanks.  Good stewardship is taking the time to admire the rising sun, giving thanks for each passing second, giving thanks for each breath as a gift.  Joyful stewardship is offering the sunrise back to God, dedicating those days and seconds and breaths back to God. 

                A recurring theme you will hear this month is simply that we have been given what we need.  I can say that with certainty not because I know how much you have or how much you give.  I can say it because our lives are rooted in the cross.  We live because Christ died; we live because Christ lives.  Every impulse of stewardship that you have begins with a good God bringing good things into being and the Son of God renewing that gift through his life, death and resurrection.   We live because of God’s good gifts.  We give in response to God’s good gifts.  This is stewardship.  This is growing toward God.  This is joy.

September 25, 2016 - Joy and Generosity

Today is a transitional Sunday.  This month I have been preaching about joy and discipleship.  Next month I will be looking at stewardship.  Today we are going to be looking at joy and generosity.  For our lessons today, it is as if the people in charge of preparing the readings asked one another, “Why don’t we have a day where we make everybody really uncomfortable?”  So we get Amos who is railing against the rich.  We get the letter to Timothy with its challenge against the love of money.  We get Jesus telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  All of the readings point to a weak spot that we have about money. 
                However, we also can be tempted to give ourselves a pass because we are not super-rich.  We do not lie on beds of ivory as Amos talks about.  We do not feast sumptuously every day like the rich man in the story.  We don’t love money; we just want to use it wisely.  We may not love it, but life is a lot easier when you have some. 
                I once heard a stewardship professional who was meeting with the council of a congregation in New York City.  He asked them, “Does this church need money?”  Apparently these were very learned and faithful people and they started talking about the early church and meeting in people’s houses and being a community that shares in common.  So the professional had everyone walk outside to the front steps of the church.  People were walking by.  He stopped a couple of people on the street and asked them, “Does this church need money?”  And after he established that he wasn’t asking them for money, they replied, “Of course.”  Of course, there are buildings and grounds, staff and programs.  We may not love money, but we kind of need it to get along.
                Wealth and money are mentioned quite a bit in scripture in somewhat contradictory ways.  On the one hand, you have the passages that prosperity preachers focus on, which see wealth as a sign of God’s blessing.  On the other hand, you have passages that talk about wealth as a burden as we heard last week when Jesus said that you can’t serve two masters; you cannot serve God and wealth.   It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  You have prophetic passages like the one from Amos that imply that wealth is a sign of unfaithfulness, that draw a line from the life of luxury to taking advantage of the poor.  Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, the fact is, scripture does not always treat wealth as a positive thing or sign of good faith and in several places treats wealth as a stumbling block to faith or even a sign of faithlessness.
                The author of Timothy makes the distinction between money itself and the love of money, which I would probably translate “desire for” money or “attachment to” money.  The love of money just conjures up Scrooge MacDuck doing a blissful backstroke through a pile of gold coins.  What seems to trip us up is an attachment to money as something that defines us, represents our worth or gives us security.  You may say we don’t have an issue with money.  If that’s the case, why do we treat our giving statements and pledge forms as though they were classified documents?  Are we ashamed of our giving?  Or do we want the option to do a Trumpian, “Folks.  Believe me.  What I give is tremendous.”
                I think that we do have an issue with our relationship to money.  Part of it is cultural, we have learned to be secretive about money.  People will try to scam you if they know you have money.  People will treat you differently if they know you have money.  People will try to get your money if they know you have money.   Those are cultural ideas that we have learned.  Part of it is spiritual, we are attached to the stuff.  I would surmise that the majority of people in our congregation have more money than they need.   Maybe not a lot more, but more.  If you, in the past month, have purchased clothes when you had a closet with clothes; if you have purchased wine, beer, soda, coffee (especially with an Italian suffix), candy, donuts, lottery tickets; if you bought something because it was a good deal; if you bought something because you could or you deserved it; more than likely, if traveled more than 20 miles; if you sat down at a restaurant and enjoyed a lovely meal, you have more money than you need.  If you have done none of those things in recent history, I’m not talking to you, take a breather because your life is probably stressful enough.
                But for the rest of us, who have more than we need, that is where the fear and the attachment begins.  We may not feel that we love of money, but we are often fearful that we won’t have enough.  So we plan, if we can.  We set some aside just in case a larger expense comes up.  There is nothing wrong with that.  That’s wise.  And if it is wise to have 6 months set aside, it will be even wiser to set aside 12, wiser still to set aside 18 or 24 months.  And it is wise to save, but at what point do we say enough?  At what point do we have enough?
                This is not a new struggle.  From Amos berating the rich to Paul dealing with classism in Corinth, faithful people have struggled with money.  And somehow the answer to every one of these questions and issues is generosity.  “God loves a cheerful giver,” Paul says to the Corinthians.  The cure for the love of money is giving it away.  The cure for an over-attachment to money is learning to hold it with a looser grasp.  This is not saying that you should not save or should not ever enjoy a slice of pizza or a latte.  I am saying don’t wait to be generous.  
                Often we do wait.  We make unconscious rules about generosity.  I will be generous once I have enough savings.  I will be generous after I take care of myself.  I suggest that generosity, even in small ways, is part of taking care of yourself because generosity requires you to look beyond yourself, to look at how something you have or something you are can help somebody else, can bring joy or healing or life to somebody else.
                And it doesn’t just have to be about money.  Generosity is also about how we use our time and how we use our skills and talents.  And at a more fundamental level, generosity is about how we share love in the world, how we share joy in the world.  Because I tell you, grumpy and generous rarely go together.  Fearful and generous are also a pretty rare combination. 

                I started by describing this as a transitional sermon, moving from a month on joy to a month on stewardship.  But really joy and generosity go hand in hand.  Those of you who have been reading “We Make the Road by Walking” and looking at the creation stories in Genesis will remember God’s refrain.  The whole creation story is an act of generosity, God giving of God’s self.  Yet it is also the story of God looking at that creation and continually declaring, “It’s good.  It’s very good,”  finding joy in process of creation.  Generosity continues that image of creating joy.  It may be challenging for us, but I encourage you to find ways, even small ways to be generous, to continue the process of bringing divine joy into the world.