Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘stewardship’ Category

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

We continue our look at Psalm 23 this morning. And as we do, we are expanding on this image of God as shepherd, as provider and protector. I remember as a child being utterly baffled by this phrase: I shall not want. It was as though the writer was saying, yes, the Lord is my shepherd, but I want nothing to do with that. Why in the world would you ever say something like that?

All I needed was a little more sophisticated understanding of language to get at its real meaning. And other translations put it in a way that is probably less confusing: I lack for nothing; I have everything I need; I will never be in want. If the Lord is my shepherd, then all of my needs are taken care of.

Fair enough: we often give voice to the idea that everything we have is God’s gift to us. But do we really believe this? I mean, really and truly?

I’m reminded of the story of a man named George who was struggling, looking for work, barely making ends meet. And that was when he heard a sermon on tithing, that is, the practice of giving ten percent of your income to support the work of the church. For some reason, the message struck home that day of all days. Given how little he was making, he figured, “well, what’s the harm in living on less?” So he began to tithe.

Soon, his luck changed, and he landed a steady job with good income. He continued to tithe, figuring his fortune had something to do with the practice. And as years went by, he rose through the ranks at his company until he was making a seven-figure salary. It was miraculous, given where he had been just a few years prior. But suddenly, a tithe seemed like an impossible amount to be giving away. So he scheduled a meeting with the pastor, saying, “I just don’t know how I can keep tithing. Given how much I’m making, this ten percent has just gotten to such a level that it’s just a real hardship.”

The pastor thought for a minute before she said, “Well, I can certainly see how this would be a problem. I tell you what: let’s take this to prayer.” They bowed their heads, and she said, “Lord, you hear our cares and provide for us. Bless George in all of his labors. He is having a difficult time tithing with his new salary. I ask, Lord, that you would reduce his salary so that he can tithe again.”

Don’t get me wrong: I do not think that there is a connection between our generosity and what God gives us. I don’t think that giving away material goods leads to personal wealth. If you’re interested in that kind of approach, it’s called the Prosperity Gospel, and there are plenty of churches and pastors out there willing to sell you that bill of goods.

What I tell folks who are interested in finding out about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is simply this: we have no membership dues. There is no minimum giving requirement. After all, if we really believe that grace is a gift freely received, how can we possibly, in good conscience, turn around and charge for it? In my opinion, that would be nothing short of hypocrisy.

That said, I do think that the approach of tithing can be a good standard against which to measure your own giving. Let me ask you this: How much do you away give compared to what you take in? What percentage would it be? Five? Fifteen? Less than one? Or do you even know? Have you ever calculated it? And what would happen if your income increased? Would you give more, or would your giving stay about the same?

The point that lies behind all of this is summarized best by Jesus in our lesson from Luke this morning: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.” In other words, how we use our money says something about who we are. Christian writer Jim Wallis puts it this way: “Budgets are moral documents.” Are we OK with that? How many of us would be willing to say that our finances are an accurate picture of our values and ethics? How many of us could point to our household budget as a moral document?

Enough money talk?

Fair enough. I’ll be honest: it makes me squirm. When I see how forthrightly Jesus talks about money – and how much he talks about money – I begin to see why he might have run afoul of the powers that be. Look at what he advocates! Sell your possessions? Give to those in need? What kind of madness would this world be if we took Jesus at his word, running around loving enemies and turning cheeks?

The truth is, Jesus’ teaching is simply an extension of the moral compass he was born with. The stories and lessons of the Hebrew Bible, of Deuteronomy and the Psalms, were the ones he was raised on, and the ones he took seriously enough to believe might actually be true. Remember his first moment of public teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth? He read from the prophet Isaiah about the year of the Lord’s favor, about the giving of sight to the blind, of good news to the poor, of release to the oppressed and the captive. And then he went on to say, in effect, “Now is the time to make this promise of God all true!”

“What? You don’t really believe that stuff, do you? That’s just what we tell our children so that they’ll behave and grow up to be good, nice folk. But when they’re old enough, they’ll understand how the world really works. That’s when they’ll get that these ideas are nice and all, but completely unrealistic.”

But let’s take a step back to our Deuteronomy lesson. I think it’s key to understanding the rest of our conversation today. The Hebrew people have spent four decades in the bleak desert between the slavery of Egypt they have left behind and the promised land of Canaan that lies before them. And Moses wants to make sure that they understand what is at stake in all of this.

God has freed them. They yearned for freedom, cried for it, and God delivered them. In the midst of the barren desert, God gave them provision: water from rocks, meat and manna from the heavens. God kept them safe from snakes and scorpions. And now, they are preparing to take hold of unprecedented favor. Water flows. Springs well up out of the ground. Trees and crops grow in abundance. They will never be in need. They will eat and drink their fill. And in return, they will keep up with what God has asked them to do.

And yet, it is clear that temptation is right around the corner. Because as they thrive and prosper, as their possessions increase, there lingers the possibility that they will forget God’s role in all of this, that they will become arrogant and think themselves self-sufficient. There is a good chance that they will begin to think, “I am responsible for my own prosperity. I have earned it by my own toil, my own blood, sweat, and tears.” And in fact, that’s exactly what happens. It’s not long before the nation dissolves into the same petty politics that mark every other nation in the region. And after a brief stint with prosperity, it is exile that becomes their watch word yet again.

Are we any different? If we prosper, do we see this as a result of God’s good gifts? Or do we see it as the work of our own hands, our own power and ability to produce?

Or can we even make such an easy “either/or” distinction? Our reading from Deuteronomy ends with these simple words: “Remember the Lord your God, the one who gives you the ability to prosper.” Prosperity does not mean that we wake up one day with our baskets full when they were empty the night before. Prosperity often means hard work and toil. Where in the world do we think we got the ability to do all of that hard work and toil? Did we come to that all by ourselves? Or has there been a guiding force in our life, working through our experiences and our relationships, to mold us into the kind of people we are and the kind of people we hope to be?

Friends – or, if the Lord is our shepherd, may I call you “my fellow sheep”: I want to leave you with this thought today. I encourage you to think about the journey that has led you to where you are. And I also want to make it as clear to you, as I possibly can, something that I’m pretty sure you already know, but might choose to forget: you did not get here all by yourself! Remember the path you took to get here. And remember the guiding hand that led you here. God is your shepherd: you will never be in want! May we all live as though we actually believe it.

Amen.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

What would Jesus’ prayer for us be?

This past summer, we spent a great deal of time looking at the Lord’s Prayer in detail. For me, the most meaningful takeaway was that we ought to pray, and pray simply. In his model prayer, Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray”, but “When…” And so the assumption is that we do pray. And for those of us that don’t, the most common barrier is being worried that our prayers aren’t interesting enough, or flowery enough in their prose. And so, when we peel away the centuries of tradition that have built up around this prayer, it is important to recognize what remains: a simple prayer with simple words. And that is all the model for prayer that we need.

When we pray to Jesus, the lesson is straightforward: keep it simple. But today, I want to flip the equation: what would Jesus’ prayer for us be? When Jesus looks at our lives, as individuals, as a church, what is it that Jesus desires for us?

I make no pretense to speak for God today. That’s a fool’s errand. And I make no attempt to address all that ails us. The best I can hope for is to glance off the world we live in by offering my own observations on this world. I do trust that the Spirit fills in the gap between preacher and congregation. And I trust that the still small voice within each of you will flesh out God’s desires for you in the here and now.

What would Jesus’ prayer for us be? Today, I want to touch on three things.

And the first is that we would see the Christ in others. In some ways, this is the lesson that probably undergirds all that we do as a church, and all that we do as people of God. Seeing the Christ in others is a call to compassion. It is a call to justice. It is a call to mercy and righteousness. We not only weep for the children of God that suffer; we not only reach out a hand to those who constantly live on the margins of our world; we also get angry for them, because the world can be such an unfair place.

When we learn that a close friend has been struck with an untreatable illness, or when we hear of innocents who have become casualties of war through no fault of their own, or when we see a political system that has become absurd in its theatrics and brinksmanship, our hearts break for those who suffer; and our anger rises against those who seem not to notice the result of their actions. If we ever lose sight of those who constantly live on the edge of our vision, may God have mercy on us. It was with such as these that Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry: lepers, prostitutes, murderers, children, widows, orphans. And for those of us here in Brookhaven, even though we may feel like it at times, we are rarely the ones the world has forgotten. Our own spirits are in danger if we live in a bubble with only those who are just like us.

At the same time, as hard as it may be to admit, we cannot lose sight of this: the faceless corporate CEOs whose chemicals unleash the cancers of the world, the soldiers whose bombs have taken lives they were never intended to take, the politicians who such easy fodder for mockery and revulsion, they, too, deserve the dignity of Christ within them. After all, we are not only commanded to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. That love may take a different form, but it is still love that is required.

Underneath all of this is the fact that we need to honor the Christ within us. Loving your neighbor as yourself requires loving yourself. And so, the first prayer: see the Christ in others.

The second prayer is that we would trust in God’s abundance. So often, we seem to live our lives as though we live in fear of scarcity when the Scriptures speak most often of God’s rampant generosity. Think of the sower who goes out, casting seeds this way and that. Some fall on good soil, most don’t. Beyond the question of what makes for good soil is the fact that God has way more seeds than there is soil to receive them. It reminds me of the image of the woman walking a worn path to the well from which she draws water daily. The pot she uses is cracked; so much so that by the time she gets home, half of the water is gone. And yet, as a result, the path itself grows with the abundance of well-watered earth. There is always more than we think.

When we launched our capital campaign this Fall, the biggest question we had was, “Can we do this?” And I was one of those asking the question. In the end, not only did our stewardship look exactly the same as the past few years, but we discovered an additional $350,000 out there – so far. Not everyone can give, I know. Each of our circumstances is different. Those of us on fixed incomes and with battered savings in a rough economy are doing what we can, I know. And at the same time, as a community, we clearly underestimated the riches of God’s blessings in our midst and how much more we had to share than we ever knew.

Where else are we living practices of scarcity? Where else do we keep our lights hidden away rather than letting them illuminate our surroundings? I have often heard it said that Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is the best-kept secret in Brookhaven. Why is it a secret? Who ever told us that we shouldn’t talk about it? This isn’t Fight Club! When it comes to Jesus, is mum the word? Are we worried that more people will water down what makes this church special? If so, then we would do well to hear this prayer again: trust in God’s abundance.

And the third prayer is that we would rest in the presence of the Spirit. Or, to say it in a less churchy way, may we get some sleep.

As silly as that might sound, and as much as you might think my subtext is how much I hate springing forward, I’m actually quite serious about this. It’s my conviction that we are a sleep-deprived society, living with all of the dis-ease and disease that this deprivation brings. Whether it’s hustling between three jobs to make ends meet, or working our fingers to the bone at the one job that expects more of us than we could ever give, we are working ourselves sick. We get up too early. We stay up too late. We go on vacation, but we still answer emails and field phone calls. We are tired. We don’t think straight. And we still don’t manage to cross off everything on our “to do” list.

Make no mistake: I’m not speaking as one who has this figured out by any stretch, but rather as a fellow struggler. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we might not even realize it when it happens to us. Are we really trapped? Or are there choices we make that trap us: mixing up our priorities, confusing what we want with what we need, our inability to say “no”? And what example are we setting for our children? What are we expecting of them by giving them more to do in a day than is reasonable to expect? Their brains aren’t even fully formed yet. Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s the way God designed our bodies so that they can heal and strengthen themselves. Even Jesus slept. Right there in the boat, even when the storm was raging, Jesus slept. Friends, the storms are always raging. We can always find a fire to put out. We can always find more to do. But God created other people, too. The fate of the world is not on your shoulders.

May we see the Christ in others; may we trust in God’s abundance; and may we rest in the presence of the Spirit. What is Jesus’ prayer for you today?

Read Full Post »

Sometimes all we need is a little nudge…

It was summer camp, I was maybe eight years old. I don’t have many memories from that camp, except for one: the high dive. By this time, I knew quite well how to swim. I had no fear of jumping in the water from the side of the pool, or even from one of the diving boards or platforms. But the high dive, sitting there approximately fourteen miles above the surface of the water, was fearsome.

It was summer camp’s ultimate proof of courage.  No matter what else you might do, it wasn’t until you conquered the high dive that you showed that demonstrated bravery. Why we cared so much to prove that, I’m not quite sure; but at the time, it was apparently the most important thing of all.

But I just couldn’t do it. The long climb up the ladder, the look over the edge, the certainty that once you hit the pool that it would hurt and that water would find its way into your body, all of that just made it seem all the more terrifying. I don’t remember how, or why, but I do remember finding myself perched on the edge of the platform, looking down into the water.

But you know what got me to jump? It wasn’t about proving I was brave, or being afraid that I would be called “chicken” for the rest of the summer. None of that really mattered. What worked was some of my fellow campers, down in the pool, counting in unison: “1…2…3!” And I did it. I didn’t particularly like it, but I did it. I conquered the high dive.

Sometimes all we need is a little nudge…

I can’t help but wonder, reading our New Testament lesson this morning, if something similar was at work. In John’s gospel, all that has happened so far is that John the Baptist has called Jesus “the lamb of God”, and Jesus has gathered four of his disciples. Jesus has done anything yet – well, if you don’t count that whole “being born the incarnate Word of God” thing, of course…But this is Jesus’ real first public appearance.

The scene is a wedding in a Galilean village called Cana. The celebration has included the whole countryside. Jesus is there, as is Mary his mother, and his disciples are in on the festivities, too. Suddenly, they have run out of wine. As embarrassing as such a scenario might be today, the ancient situation would have been unimaginable. The hosts would have experienced societal shame – not just on them, but on their entire extended family. What is at stake, then, is much more than just whether or not the party can go on into the wee hours. They could lose face.

That’s the moment when Mary turns to Jesus, and simply says, “They have no wine.” But he’s not ready. He says, “My time has not yet come.” So Mary brings the servants into the incident. Pointing to Jesus, she says to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” And the rest is history.

Sometimes all we need is a little nudge…

There is an element to faith that requires risk. There are those times when we are called to step out into the unknown. Maybe it’s that friend who suffers in private, but our upbringing has taught us not to be nosy. Or perhaps it’s that big change: a move, a job, a transition that has incredible possibilities, but would mean letting go of what we know. Or maybe it’s doing a little something that lies just beyond our comfort zones: teaching a Sunday School class, or inviting a friend to church; confiding in someone with a sacred trust, or welcoming a new, different family to the community. Faith is comforting, yes, but it is never comfortable. Faith is not complacency. And sometimes, each of us needs that little nudge.

It’s an energetic time in our life here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. We are wrapping up a capital campaign that has exceeded many of our expectations already. The roof is replaced, and we are finalizing bids on the glass doors and the HVAC system. And even then, we will not have yet exhausted all of the funds committed. Some of us assumed that doing the campaign would have a detrimental effect on our annual stewardship, but that is not the case, either. In fact, our number of pledges and amount pledged are up from last year.

But when we look back at the process it took to get there, it brought out our anxieties. As a session, your church leadership, we waited until the last possible minute to contract with Church Development. Some of us expressed our concerns about the potential negative consequences of launching a campaign at this moment and whether or not we were rushing into it. Our conversations raised differing viewpoints about the priorities and needs in the church. Even so, somehow, we took that risk. We stepped out on faith. And, I would say, we are the better for it! Or as a young camper might have put it, we may have climbed the ladder and peered out over the edge. But we still needed that little nudge, that voice calling out, “1…2…3!”

I want to take the privilege of this moment to share one more thing with you about this present moment at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Perhaps it’s a risk…but I figure that if Jesus could make wine for a party, or if a camper could jump off the high dive, your pastor could talk about money from the pulpit.

Your session met most of yesterday and will meet again today to discuss our current financial situation. You see, while there is much good news about the capital campaign and the stewardship drive, the reality is that there is still a gap between what we expect to spend in 2013 and what we expect to raise, to the tune of about $40,000. We are still very fortunate that we are a church with no debt, and that we still have reserve funds in the bank. Even so, we are at an important moment. We have policy to keep three months of operating funds in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency; and we are now at the point where we could drop below that mark.

So what happens now? I think that’s the challenging question before session at this moment. And I’m pretty sure that, as I bring it up this morning, many of us feel some discomfort about it. But remember this: while there is momentary uncertainty in our present, we have just raised more than $320,000 in financial commitments to the future of Oglethorpe Presbyterian! There is so much more in front of us.

It’s almost like we’re at the party; and, for the moment, the wine looks like it might run dry. So what happens next?

Friends, I’m convinced that this is our moment; that our time has come. All we need is a little nudge. I think 2013 is our year of good fortune. Let’s give ourselves the goal of making up that difference in giving and spending this year. This is doable! The good news is that we have found the money. The bad news is that it’s in our pockets.

I won’t say much more at this point, because you will be hearing from session in the coming weeks with a plan. But I will say this for now: if you have not yet pledged to stewardship, I ask your prayerful consideration. And if you have already pledged and think you can possibly increase that commitment, please do so and let us know.

But the truly good news is this: it’s not up to us to make this happen! The groom didn’t have anything to do with the miracle of water becoming wine, the moment that allowed the party to continue. It was, simply, the work of God at work in Jesus.

And even Jesus needed that little nudge…

Amen.

Read Full Post »

“There is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That’s just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to turn just as it brushes past you…”

With these words, Jan Richardson begins her book Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas. These words summarize our curious intersection here at OPC today, where Advent and Stewardship meet.

I don’t know about you, but these past six months have left me almost breathless with anticipation. It all began with the feasibility study this summer, where an outpouring of energy and excitement led us to move forward quickly. Within a week, we had our campaign leadership in place, and our teams all hit the ground running. You have already seen the fruits of many of these labors: the theme and logo that pointed us in the right direction, the Jeremiah text and prayer that have grounded us, the multitude of events that gave us an opportunity for further conversation and discernment. You have probably heard from one of the campaign ambassadors already, making sure that you received your packet, and you will see the fruits of the children and youth working together with the thanks team to create beautiful tokens of appreciation for all who give. And I do invite you to watch the video after worship today: it summarizes well what is unique about this community. And lest I forget, we have to thank our amazing unsung heroes who have folded more newsletters than they probably care to remember!

What an amazing experience this whole process has been for me, and it has been a fantastic opportunity to be reminded of the amazing gifts and talents we have here in our congregation. And what we begin today, as we dedicate our commitments to both the capital campaign and the stewardship drive, is to become a part of what Jan Richardson describes, this thing that is on the horizon, the likes of which we have never seen before.

What we constantly need are those sentries, those folk who are positioned in such a way that they can see the horizon and report back to us. Otherwise, we are far too likely to get caught up in our own nonsense, to assume that the world is flat, that there is no horizon at all, that the soup pot is empty, that this is all there is. And so, the words of the prophets float down from their perches and remind us that there is far more to life than just what we can see.

If we listen carefully, we can hear the voice of Jeremiah calling down, this text that has anchored our campaign, where God promises us a future that is filled with hope. It may be beyond what we can see right now, but it’s truly there. And we don’t even have to strain to hear John the Baptist shouting to anyone who might bother to listen: Prepare! Prepare the way! Prepare the way of the Lord!!!

You see, we get so bound up in worlds of our own making that we forget how much more there is out there. It is truly strange how we fail both to learn from history and to plan for tomorrow. There is here; and there is now. And all else is pushed just beyond our peripheral vision.

Let’s put it this way: we are the horizon for those who came before us. If we are just talking about here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, there were decades of folks who heard the voices calling down from their watchtowers, reminding them that so much more was still on the way, encouraging them to share their gifts to help build something that was far bigger than just them. And we are the inheritors of those faithful!

Think about it: Because someone was fielding phone calls from neighbors living on the financial edge, our Food Pantry has fed the hungry for more than forty years. Because someone left the church in their will, we have weathered serious economic crises time and time again. Because someone saw the community’s growing need for childcare during the week, our Preschool has cared for thousands of children, and their families by extension.

Folks have taught Sunday School, have paid for organs and roof repairs, have cleared brush and hauled cinder blocks and cleaned gutters and made bread and delivered groceries and priced trinkets and hosted dinners…in short, people have brought their gifts to bear for the sake of God’s desires here in Brookhaven.

And the whole time, we were beyond their horizon! We are the ones who have sensed God’s call in our lives because of the space that was carved out by our ancestors in faith. There are those who have come to know that they are called to professional ministry; those whose calling is lived out each and every day in subtle and glorious ways; those whose lives have been forever transformed by what they have learned from our preachers and teachers and fellowship and care and worship and service. The service and giving, both small and grand, of this community, has come together in ways that those who came before could never have imagined in their wildest dreams!

For all of the memories it houses, this building is nothing more than a vessel. It is the gifts that go into the vessel that makes the feast which will feed thousands.

And now, we are the ones who are being invited to bring what we have to offer, to listen to the prophets, to build and serve and give for the sake of the horizon beyond which we cannot see. And we have no idea what is coming. But…that’s not our concern! If the promise of Jeremiah is true, if there is a future filled with hope awaiting us and those who come after, and if that future is in God’s hands, then who are we to be anxious?

In this season of Advent, we re-live those moments of ancient faith when the promised Messiah came as an infant born to a family of meager means in a chaotic time. Who could have seen that coming? And in these days of modern Advent, we are reminded time and time again that what is to come will shatter all of our expectations with hope and grace and glory beyond our wildest imaginations!

Listen again to Jan Richardson’s words:

The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That’s just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to turn just as it brushes past you…So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

“…we pray that our present actions will honor those who have come before us 
and bless those who come after us…”

These words have been part of the prayer that has guided our capital campaign from the beginning. They say so eloquently in a few words our hopes and desires for all that we do as a church.

If you have entered the building through the lobby any time in the past month, you have seen the photos culled from our archives that mark the historic passage of time. From the groundbreaking ceremony of 1950 through various phases of construction to the 50th anniversary celebrations and beyond, there is a whole lot of OPC that has come before us. And indeed, part of what we do in this campaign is to honor all of that. In order to ensure that there would be not just a building, but a community of faith, here at the corner of Woodrow and Lanier, those who have come before us made sacrifices, financial and otherwise. And without them, it is safe to say that we would not be here today.

And here we are! We have embarked on an ambitious capital campaign totaling more than half a million dollars. Item number one, the roof, is already scheduled to start this week, weather permitting. The rest of it, whether it’s deferred maintenance or improvement, programming or physical plant, is up to us and what we are ready to commit in this present moment.

As you contemplate what it is that you can give to our campaign, please remember that we are asking you not to reduce your annual giving. As we minister in 2012, our annual giving is what makes it possible for the church to operate from day to day. Think of it this way: your annual stewardship gift is for the church that is; your campaign gift is for the church that will be.

In the next week, you will be receiving a brochure with more information about the campaign. You will also be hearing from our campaign ambassadors who will simply contact you to make sure you have received the information. And in two weeks, on December 9, we are asking each of you to make a three-year financial commitment to this campaign.

The request is to consider making a three-year commitment of 3-5% of annual income, or 3-5% of accumulated assets, depending on your situation. And more importantly, we ask you to make your commitment prayerfully. If you haven’t already, take one of the prayer cards in the pew in front of you home, that it may be part of what guides your decision-making.

And that’s the question: what is it that guides your decision-making?

Some of you have heard my own story of how financial giving plays into our family life. I was raised in a faithful church family that did not talk about money or giving. The only modeling I remember was that of my grandfather, who would quietly hand me a dollar bill each Sunday so that I could put something in the collection plate. There was no adjusting for inflation, no understanding that the gift would come out of my allowance. One dollar in 1973 was still one dollar in 1993.

Fast-forward to seminary, where I had no classes on stewardship. Instead, my lesson was to come through relationship. My soon-to-be mother-in-law, a faithful woman who has lived hand-to-mouth as long as I’ve known her, made a regular practice of tithing. She would calculate 10% of her income, pre-tax, and give it to the church. Period. What she has discovered through the years is that there is always enough.

Elizabeth and I began doing the same. As a household with the income of two graduate students, we were not making a huge impact on our church’s budget. But if we ever questioned the wisdom of the tithe, those questions were soon to be eclipsed.

We had been married for a year and a half when Elizabeth was rushed to the hospital, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Within a week, she had been admitted for surgery to remove a “mass” from her brain stem. The surgery was successful, the tumor was benign, and she experienced none of the possible side effects that a brain stem surgery might bring about. We were floating on grace.

And then the medical bills arrived.

I had just graduated from seminary and, coincidentally, out of a spectacular health insurance plan. While we worked part-time jobs, we jumped into Elizabeth’s graduate school insurance with its generous major medical cap of $10,000. The surgery and hospitalization bills came to a total of $70,000.

We began working our way through the hospital billing system, applying for state and federal aid for which we did not qualify. The hospital asked for a thorough accounting of our assets, and stifling a few laughs, I imagine, they put us on a payment plan which would cost us $5,000 in two years. The rest of our hospital debt would be forgiven.

That took care of about half of the bill. The other half was the individual responsibility of each doctor. To them, we were encouraged to write “dear doctor” letters, explaining our situation, and asking for clemency. To our shock, all but one of the doctors agreed to our request, including the surgeon. In the blink of an eye, more than $60,000 in debt was eliminated.

At that point, the whole question of giving seemed superficial. God could not have provided us with a more coherent parable of the meaning of tithing: in our hour of need, we were taken care of not only physically and emotionally, but financially as well. How could we hold back from sharing our good fortune?

This has been the financial foundation that we have lived with ever since. Our pledge every year is based on tithing 10% of our anticipated income. It is the first check we write every month. The meaning of this commitment is something that we are working to pass on to our own children. And as we have contemplated how we will give to this capital campaign, it is these life lessons we have kept in mind.

What about you? What is it that you have learned about the way money works? Is God a part of those life lessons at all? Is it possible that you missed something right before your nose?

You see, it took me almost forty years to realize what I missed in those early days of sitting in the pew with my grandfather: what I had to put in the plate was never mine to begin with. It was a gift. As short-lived and small as it might have been, it could only stay a gift if I was willing to give it away. Is there a better way to describe the blessings that God has given us?

So what about you? How is it that your gift can not only honor those who have come before us and bless those who will come after us, but can also be part of that blessing and honor and glory and power that the angels sing constantly in the presence of God? What is it that could be your sacrifice? Maybe skipping that cup of Starbucks in the morning, or limiting the number of meals you eat out each week? Or perhaps as you contemplate gift-giving this Christmas season, how about taking a page out of our Alternative Gift Market? Do you really need more “stuff”? Or might you contemplate asking family members to give their gift to your church instead?

Whatever your decision, know this: we, too, will be counted among those who have “come before”. There will be those who are grateful for the many, many gifts that this church has given them. Like many of you, I know that there is a desperate need for a church like OPC in this world; and it is ours to make that possible for those who come after.

In short, God has blessed and honored us so richly! May we do the same.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

Transparency.

In our reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul draws on the Exodus story, where Moses led the people out of slavery and through the forty years in the wilderness. Much of that time was spent at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the people waited while Moses conferred with God at the summit.

Moses would spend vast amounts of time in private consultation with God. And when he would return to the base of the mountain to share these conversations, God’s glory would still be surrounding him in such a way that it became distracting to the people. And so, Moses began the practice of descending wearing a veil so as to focus attention to the words of God.

I can’t help but think of it like Moses spending so much time in God’s luminous presence that he would start looking like he had fallen asleep at the tanning bed, getting that weird orange tint to his skin, making it impossible to take what he said seriously. And so, somehow, covering his face meant that the Israelites could focus on his words without their minds wandering and wondering what sort of odd, toxic radiation he had been exposed to up above the cloud cover.

God was understood to be so “other”, so separate, so different as to be inaccessible. Anyone who had the kind of direct access that Moses had would be affected to the core, transformed. Or, as the saying went, “No one has seen God and lived.”

For Paul, that whole story shifts with the arrival of Jesus. No longer was God disconnected from our reality. Instead, God had become present, immediate, fleshy, incarnate, human, in Jesus himself. There was no longer this need to veil faces. To be in the presence of Christ is to be transformed. And it ought to give us this otherworldly, heavenly glow that can then reflect to those around us.

And that’s the key right there: transparency. It is God’s light, as the prayer for our capital campaign says, “shining through us”, that reflects love into the world. And the best thing we can do is get out of the way.

There is an apocryphal story told of John Calvin, the great French theologian of the 16th century. When preaching in his church in Geneva, he would ascend the staircase to the elevated pulpit, covered from head to toe in black fabric. I’ve heard it described as wearing a Presbyterian version of the burqa. The legend goes that he did not want his physical presence to distract from the word of God. I have not found any discussion of a weird, orange-ish glow.

Now, that story may or may not be true, but the underlying point is carried through by one that is: When Calvin died, he had requested that he be buried in an unmarked grave in Geneva. As influential a figure as Calvin was, he knew that, ultimately, it wasn’t about him at all: it was about the God he served and the Christ he worshiped.

Transparency. It’s a word that we use a lot here at OPC. We have an open-book policy. Our finances are transparent, available to anyone who wants to see them. Our Session meetings, where most decisions of church policy and direction are made, are open meetings, held the third Sunday of every month. In fact, you’re welcome to join us after worship today in the Library! The congregation elects the committee that nominates our leadership, and elects those leaders once they’ve been nominated.  And then, we approve the minutes of the meeting that we just had to elect those we have nominated!

I know that there are times when it can seem as though we do process for the sake of process, but the point that lies behind it all is a simple one: transparency. As a matter of principle, we Presbyterians don’t do things in the shadows, hidden behind a veil; but in the light of day, where they may be seen.

We are not perfect by any stretch. If we are truly transparent, then the light of God passes through us completely unchanged. But we get in the way. And yet, when we shape our lives in such a way that we yearn for transparency, that light may come out imperfect, but reflected nonetheless. And if it’s really God’s light anyway, then no matter how much we might screw it up, it is going to get through. The great songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it this way: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And, I would add, that’s how the light gets out! Our cracks, our imperfections, are what allow God in; and they are also, paradoxically, the places where God can shine out to the world.

That’s the heart of transparency: not pretending as though we are perfect, but to let our imperfections exist as proof that God is at work in our lives! Who else would take us as we are and say, “Yeah, I can use that”?

With the conflict escalating in the Middle East again, my mind is brought back to our time there more than ten years ago. One of our students’ homes was located right in the firing line, and the family would often hunker down at night as shells rained down in the fields next to their house. In the morning, the kids would go out and look for spent casings – aware of the danger, but also seeing it as a kind of treasure hunt. One morning, the eldest brother found one of the empty tank shells that no longer posed any danger. He brought it into the house, where he put a candle in it. The family took this relic of war and turned it into a vessel of light.

That is how God sees us! We don’t get it right…but God doesn’t see that as a reason to dispose of us; rather, God sees that as the reason that we can be God’s instruments of light!

One final story today. Most of you know that a few months ago, our friend Ted Kloss was diagnosed with cancer. You can ask him yourself about how this community has surrounded him with love and care, acting as those agents of grace and light in his life at a time when darkness could have easily taken hold.

Last weekend, Ted’s musician friends hosted a benefit to raise money for his treatment. Four tables full of OPCers were in attendance. And when Ted’s band got on stage to perform, the first thing he did was call several of us up on stage to introduce us to the audience. He told them in no uncertain terms that his family, his friends, and his church were the ones who had made it possible for him to move forward in the midst of treatment.

Think about that for a second: more than a hundred baby boomers have come out for a fun night of classic rock and dancing. And in the middle of the concert, one of the musicians takes time to give a shout out to his church? What’s wrong – or should I say, what’s right – with this picture?

The simple truth is that it was a night where God’s light shone through transparent souls: the OPCers who were there because it was one way they knew to show God’s light to one whom they loved; the bass player who felt that love so clearly that he wanted everyone to know it. Not a single hymn was sung, but I’m pretty sure we went to church that night!

Friends, this prayer of ours, that God’s light would shine through us so that we might reflect divine love into the world, this prayer is already true! The question that remains is this: how is it that we take that light into the world with us? How is it that your life is changed by being in the presence of Christ? How is it that that weird, orange-ish glow is made manifest in your appearance? Do you veil it up for fear of distracting? Or do you let it shine, so that the glory of the Lord may be made visible to all who see it?

Amen.

Read Full Post »

A loving and serving community…

Seven years ago, our U-Haul pulled up in front of our new house in Chamblee. And there to meet us were fifteen to twenty of the OPC faithful, there to help us unpack boxes and furniture and carry them in through the narrow front door. That was just the first of our many glimpses into the character of OPC.

Since then, we have welcomed two boys into our family. We have also buried my father and my grandmother. We have weathered illness and surgery. And you have been there with us, every step of the way. You have brought meals. You have sent our children greeting cards for every conceivable holiday that could ever exist and then some. You have prayed for and with us. You have been there at our sides. And we are grateful.

Loving? Absolutely.

I have also heard enough of your stories to know that I wasn’t singled out for special treatment just because I’m the pastor. You, too, have experienced that same love firsthand. And you know how powerful it is to know that when things are tough, you are not alone.

When I was in Chicago, I volunteered at a local community radio station. We prided ourselves on being a close-knit bunch. When my friend Dave had a death in the family, I did what I thought was the normal thing to do: I wrote him a note expressing my condolences. He later thanked me, noting that it was the only one he received from that same supposedly close-knit crew. It’s not that nobody else cared: it’s that they didn’t know what to say, and so they kept silent. And it’s not that I did know what to say: I just knew enough that saying so might provide some small bit of comfort.

We are not unique as a community that cares for one another. And yet, there are far too many places in this word where folks find themselves unable to express that care in word and deed. They may not know what to say or do, and so they stay silent and keep their distance.

Loving.

It’s the essence of our Mark text this morning. An unnamed scribe, an expert in religious law, challenges Jesus to name what the most important commandment is. And Jesus begins not by reciting the Ten Commandments, but by reciting their prologue from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” In other words, we hold nothing back from the love and devotion that we show to God. There is no corner of our life that remains hidden. To love God is to go “all in”.

And we do so because the object of that love is also its source. We love because God first loved us. It’s this thought that ought to reside at the very heart of everything we do. As Presbyterians, we baptize infants not because we believe that the water contains some magical formula: it’s still two H2O. We do so because it is one of the many reminders that God has been work in our lives long before we had any clue how to name that love.

Loving and serving.

What amazes me about that divine gift of love is that God doesn’t demand it all back. It would be one thing if God were to love us just so that we would return that love full force back to God. That would make God the friend who tells you how great you look not because they want to compliment you, but because they expect you to turn around and tell them how great they look.

No sooner has Jesus answered the scribe’s question about the greatest commandment than he goes on, unsolicited, to name the second greatest: love of neighbor as love of self. Elsewhere, Jesus goes on to define neighbor in such broad terms that it breaks down all tribal pretense. The word “neighbor” does not restrict us to those who look like us or act like us or live like us. In fact, Jesus’ definition is so absurdly broad that our “neighbors” include those whom we are prone to consider enemies.

And it’s not just that we love them some, but we love them as we love ourselves! I don’t think we’re even wired for that kind of care! We know enough to look after our own needs – and as a sidebar, it is important to note that what Jesus says here reminds us how important self-love is. But to look after the needs of complete strangers as though they were our own needs? Who does that?

I’ve told the story before of Trevor, a gentleman who had been using our front porch as his bed for a couple of weeks. He would arrive late enough and depart early enough that he was undetected for a while. But there is just too much activity here, and so it was inevitable that he would be discovered eventually.

One night, we got word that there was a man sleeping on our porch. Brian and I came over and approached him, finding out what his story was. It was sadly familiar: a day laborer, Trevor had come to Atlanta to make money in construction. As the economy dried up, so did his opportunities. On top of that, his body was starting to fall apart on him, meaning that the jobs he knew how to do were the ones that he just couldn’t manage any more. To make a long story short, we were able to get him a hotel room nearby for a week while we worked connections and got him a bed at the Druid Hills Night Shelter.

Loving and serving.

Friends, we have just started our both our capital campaign and our annual stewardship drive. In a little over a month, we will ask you to make your commitments to both. And if I manage to get only one thing across to you between now and then, I hope that it’s this: loving and serving are the most faithful acts of stewardship we can do.

When we speak of stewardship, we usually speak of material goods. We talk about our time, and how important it is to devote time to things that are important to us. We talk about our abilities, our talents, and how we are called to use those gifts not just for our desires, but for God’s. And, last but not least, we talk about money, how we receive the resources off of which we live and how we offer them back in a spirit of grateful generosity.

The truth, though, is that all of these things are just outward signs of an inner process. We take the love that emanates from God, and we share it with our neighbor – not just because we think we have to, but because we don’t know any other way to be. To keep it to ourselves would be, well, it would be selfish.

And that, I think, is the question that lies before us today. We have this treasure here at OPC, this loving and serving community, a congregation that God has molded and nurtured. And I believe that this love is something that the world needs, even more that it knows. What do we do with it? Do we keep it to ourselves, anxious about exhausting a limited supply? Or do we open our doors to our neighbors, wherever they may be, trusting that the source of love is inexhaustible?

To love and to be loved is a blessing. To serve and be served is a gift. And a gift is meant to be shared!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »