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Posts Tagged ‘psalms’

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.

These words, that end our Psalm today, close out the whole book of Psalms, the ancient hymnal of Israel: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”

Those who put together our readings this morning have imagined, and possibly so, that David penned these words in response to the triumphal parade, when the seat of his kingdom moved from down in Hebron up to Jerusalem, dancing before the ark of God. As petty and errant as David can be, he also knows, in his heart of hearts, to share his victory – to credit it, really – to God and God alone.

David’s place in the Hebrew Bible is a critical one. The Israelites have made the transition from wandering nomads to a nation governed by tribal judges. Saul has served them as king, but only in the South – in Judah. The north, Israel – or Samaria – is disconnected. David will unite the kingdom under his rule, passing his legacy along to his son Solomon. Unfortunately, David’s grandsons will divide the kingdoms again between North and South, and this will ultimately lead to their undoing. It also means that David’s rule serves as a kind of “good ol’ days” to which the Israelites will look back with nostalgic longing.

That’s the thing about nostalgia, isn’t it? It remembers the good stuff but forgets the rest. Either that, or it tries to justify the bad in light of the good. That’s the kind of thought that hears every criticism and follows it up with, “Yeah, but…” We are capable of so much more nuanced thought! That’s what makes humanity so amazing: not only do we have the capacity for critical thinking, but we also are able to hold conflicting ideas in tension when the evidence warrants doing so.

Let me put it this way: as I see it, we have three ways of looking at David’s reign. One way is to see the whole thing as nothing but “good”; and therefore, anything we might otherwise consider “bad” is just stuff we have probably misunderstood, because it’s ultimately in service of the good. Another way of looking at it is as nothing but “bad”, which casts the “good” stuff under its shadow and, therefore, must not really be “good”. The third way is to be honest about the “bad” and the “good”, while still knowing that God is God and hope is always God’s desire for the world.

A couple of examples might help illustrate the point. David fathered the wise king Solomon. That’s a good thing. The way he did so was to betray his trusted general Uriah so he would die and battle and David could sleep with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. That’s a bad thing. If we assume that everything is good, then Uriah’s death is merely collateral damage toward the unifying of the kingdom. If we assume that everything is bad, then Solomon is suspect from the moment of his birth. If we live with that middle honesty, then Solomon is still wise while David is held accountable for murder and adultery; all the while, God is still God, lifting up Solomon, humbling David, and loving and correcting them both, even at their most unlovable.

Our reading today offers another example. David lets everyone know outright of his hatred for the blind and lame. If everything is good, then the blind and the lame deserve to be hated – or, perhaps, the Jebusites deserved to be wiped out. If everything is bad, then David taking Jerusalem is just evidence of his greed to rule as much territory as possible. If we live with that middle honesty, then we recognize that this was, in many ways, simply a strategic victory: moving the capital city to a fortified hill; that Nathan, David’s trusted prophet, was a Jebusite; and that Jesus himself came to reach out to the blind and the lame who had long been turned aside, and wrongly so, evidence that God can continue to be at work.

Does this make sense? I raise all of this because I am concerned with how we read the Bible. We have a tendency to do so by seeing it as the story of victors who are always be doing as God desires; otherwise, why would God allow it to happen? This tends to make us overlook all the wrong that was done, even supposedly in the name of God, when even the Bible itself goes through pains to point out the times when those wrongs were as clear as day!

When the Israelites chose Saul as their king, they did so not because they thought monarchy was the best system of government, but because they were jealous of the other nations and their kings. They chose Saul not because he was the wisest or the smartest, but because he was the tallest – something, you may recognize, as utterly irrelevant to fitness for office. In the end, God’s word was to the effect of, “This is a bad idea; but if your hearts are set on it, so be it.” This doesn’t mean that God sanctioned Saul’s kingship and everything he did. This also doesn’t mean that God abandoned the Israelites and stopped caring about them and their fate. It simply means that God is still at work in the midst of a messy, messy history; and that God doesn’t give up on God’s beloved easily.

The story of the Prodigal Son illustrates this quite well. One son stays at home; the other takes his inheritance, essentially telling his father to his face, “You’re as good as dead to me”, and takes off. He loses everything and comes crawling home. His father welcomes him back with a celebration, so great was his love for his lost son. None of this justifies the son’s actions, or brings back the wealth he squandered. Nor does this position the dutiful son over the disobedient son. Instead, it is a story of God’s character at work in the father, giving us freedom – even the freedom to make dumb choices – and loving us all the while.

What troubles me about overlooking or justifying wrongs when reading Scripture is that it leads to doing the same in our own lives and in the lives of our own tribes. And we do this all the time. We do this as Christians, speaking only of the times the Church has been persecuted while forgetting the centuries when the Church was the foremost global persecutor. We do this as Americans, focusing on the good only while ignoring the legacy of egregious wrongs committed.

Admiring Tom Brady’s athleticism does not mean you have to agree with his politics. Loving the Huxtables does not mean defending Bill Cosby at all costs. Being a Redskins or a Braves fan does not preclude wanting to ditch the mascot. Though our national political scene tends to work against this kind of nuanced thinking, we are capable of intelligent, critical thought that transcends tribal allegiances. And the same goes for us: people are capable of loving us, even when they disagree with us.

Jesus put it quite simply: before you point out the speck in your brother’s eye, take care of the log in your own – whether that’s individually or collectively.

I may be wrong, but I think the reason we shy away from this kind of honesty is that we are afraid. We do not admit mistakes because we are afraid they will be thrown back in our face. That level of transparency can be a scary thing. There’s a reason we rarely see it. Fear is a powerful motivator – and yet, fear can get in the way of faithfulness.

I think we’re better, wiser than all this. We are capable of believing two things at the same time without picking sides. We can be grateful to the service of police officers who put their lives on the line while being troubled by the increasing militarization of police forces and the distressing statistics around the treatment and incarceration of people of color. These two things can be held in tension, because compassion is not a finite resource – at least, not when it echoes the light of God’s compass.

We don’t have to pick sides – let me rephrase that: we should pick sides, as long as that side is God’s side.

You see, as much as we might cast the Bible as the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, the Bible is the story of God, and God alone – and God’s love for God’s creation.

And King David, as great as he was and has imperfect as he was, recognized that, ultimately, his place in history paled in comparison to what God had in store for him. As our reading says, “David knew that the Lord had made him king over Israel, and that his rule would be exalted for the sake of all Israel.” No sooner has this been said, though, when we are reminded that David’s ascension to Jerusalem was accompanied by more wives and concubines – not exactly a paragon of monogamy.

You see, that’s the thing: the bigger point risks getting lost in this. David was far from perfect. And yet, he was still able to accomplish great things. We have to hold these two things in tension with one another. That’s the faithful thing to do. Because the bigger point is that David was, at his best, God’s vessel of grace. And he knew that. With all of his flaws, he knew that any glory he experienced was due to God and God alone. He knew that the spotlight was not his to hog, but to share.

You see, this is one of the reasons I am a Presbyterian. I don’t think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that we always get it right. At the same time, I think we shape and reshape our lives in such a way that we can strive for this kind of honest, fearless sharing – of our time, our resources, and even of ourselves.

In the Presbyterian Church, we often describe ourselves as the Reformed Church, always being reformed. In other words, we come out of that Reformation period of history when there was a need for sweeping change – but we don’t, even for a moment, think we have gotten it all figured out, or that we will never need to be transformed again.

We are a church that values education and critical thinking. Faith is not necessarily in opposition to doubt; instead, doubt can be the very thing that strengthens faith, as long as we don’t fear it.

And we are a church that strives for transparency. Our leadership meetings are open meetings. Their notes are a matter of public record. We manage our financials in the light of day – our Town Hall meeting following worship is an example of this desire for transparency, of the fearless sharing of information.

And…and…and…we will get it wrong from time to time. That’s not an excuse; it’s the truth. It’s the truth that the God we know in Christ desires from us. It’s the truth that leads us not into perfection, but into a more perfect love and empathy for a world and a creation that creaks and groans to sing praise to the God of all creation, the God who loved, created, and redeemed King David, the God whose judgment held him accountable, the God whose glory shone through him at his best.

May we, too, be such broken vessels of the goodness of God.

Amen.

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Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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The feast is only the feast because of the host.

Throughout June and July, as our worship focuses around the table, we are taking a closer look at what it means when we gather here: our practices, our habits, our customs, even our language. I know that we come from many different backgrounds and traditions, which are all, somehow, brought together in the feast. Today, we consider what it means to call this the Lord’s Supper.

There are really two poles around which the Lord’s Supper hangs. And both of them derive directly from Christ’s own words at the table. When he broke the bread, he said, “This is my body.” When he poured the cup, he said, “This is my blood.” And he commanded his followers to do likewise, saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For some of our co-religionists, it is the statement about body and blood that is most important. When they gather, and when the priest says the words, the bread and cup are transformed literally into body and blood. For them, there is no scientific claim at stake – it becomes a mysterious, holy, sacred moment when ordinary things achieve unrivaled perfection. Time and space are suspended as the congregation becomes, for that moment, connected with the ancient meal and with Christ’s sacrifice.

I remember attending a Catholic service, where a bishop was presiding over the feast. Among the many who responded to the invitation to come forward was a bee. As the bishop waved it away, he knocked the chalice held by the deacon next to him, sloshing wine to the floor. Priests and seminarians sprinted to the scene, like an Indy 500 pit crew. They dove on the floor, wiping with special cloths and pouring holy water to clean up. After all, this wasn’t just a party foul in need of some Morton’s Salt or seltzer water – sacred blood had been spilled!

On the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who believe that what we do at this table is simply a memorial meal. The real thing happened once, and only once. All we do when we break bread and drink cup is remember. It is a sacred memory, to be sure – but what begins as bread and cup continues as bread and cup and ends as bread and cup. We are here, quite simply, to be reminded of what Jesus did for our sake. But this body and blood stuff? No thank you.

Based on what we have etched into our table here, you might have a guess toward which end of the spectrum we fall. And yet, in historical and theological terms, this is a bit misleading. You see, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was real wrestling going on within the European Church about this whole notion of body and blood. The dominant Roman Catholic Church held fast to this concept of the transformation of the elements, on a real, material presence of Christ.

The leadership of the Protestant movement pushed back with different concepts, which they also insisted came from Scripture. Martin Luther claimed there was a simultaneous kind of change going on. He agreed about the real, material presence of Christ, with a slight nuance. The bread was still bread, but at the same time, it was also body. The cup was wine, but it had also become blood.

Then there were the Radical Reformers, the theological ancestors of the modern-day Baptists and Congregationalists. Not only had they gone so far as to stop baptizing infants, a capital crime in some regions. They also insisted that there was nothing more at stake than sharing a meal together, just as Jesus had done with his disciples.

John Calvin, the theological fore-runner of the Presbyterians, was actually much closer to the Catholics and Lutherans, but with an important difference. He spoke of a real presence of Christ – but it was a spiritual presence, not a material one. The bread stays bread, and the cup stays cup. But Christ is truly present in Spirit when we break and bless. After all, as Jesus told his disciples, “Where two or more are gathered…I will be in their midst.”

My own theology of communion holds pretty close to Calvin’s, that the change taking place is a spiritual one, transforming the elements and those who receive them. At the same time, I draw some wisdom from older Eastern Orthodox traditions. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Orthodox Church had a more limber sacramental theology. There were ancient church theologians who held close to this Catholic notion of transubstantiation, or bread becoming body, and cup becoming blood. And they had contemporaries who sounded much like the Congregationalists, that the meal was an opportunity to be reminded of the ancient meal. As long as you were somewhere in between these two, you were on firm ground. It wasn’t until both Catholics and Protestants headed East to recruit the Orthodox to their side in the debate that their sacramental theology become more rigid.

As far as I’m concerned, I am grateful that I don’t get to set the standards or of what kind faith others bring to the celebration.

After all, it is the Lord’s Supper. Jesus, not Aquinas or Luther, was the one who broke the bread, poured the cup, and uttered the words. Jesus, not Calvin or Zwingli, was the one who suffered, died, and rose again. If the feast is the building, then Jesus is the architect.

The feast is only the feast because of the host.

We can see how central Christ is in all of this in our Scripture lesson from today. The Psalm, attributed to David, is one of desperation. The King cries out to God for salvation. He feels as though he is stuck, sinking, drowning. He is humiliated, ashamed, insulted, rejected. And in that moment, the only thing he can do is cry out – cry out to God, and God alone.

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, David comes across as pretty whiny. He is the greatest king in all of ancient Israel’s history – greater than those who have come before, far greater than those who will come after. And yet, he sounds as though he has never been able to catch a break. It can be hard to feel sympathy for David.

Even so, there is something in this attitude that can point us toward faithfulness. We may not be among the pantheon of kings, but few of us have suffered the kinds of suffering that fills our 24-hour news cycle. When we hear about what is happening in other parts of the world and even in other parts of our own city, we get a glimpse of the horrors that others face. For them, this psalm surely strikes home.

And yet, we, too, have experienced pain. Desperation. Disappointment. Loss. Many of us know what it is like to be humiliated, driven as low as dirt. Life overwhelms. Exhaustion sweeps over us. When we try to keep up, it can feel like we’re being pulled under. Those are the moments when our cries become one with David’s: help me, O Lord. Save me. Give me sure footing. Help me to breathe again. Answer me. Turn to me.

And that, my friends, is what this feast is. It is God’s answer to our desperate pleas. I pray that you never experience material hunger and thirst. I hope you never know that gnawing, life-threatening, bodily emptiness, or that your lips and mouths never swell because you cannot get enough water to sustain you. And yet, I am sure that each of us has had and will have moments where we feel caught in a kind of spiritual vacuum. If there is any wisdom in how Calvin understood this feast, it is in the fact that this spiritual void can be just as real, eating away at us from the inside.

And that is why we come to the table to be fed.

After all, it is a Supper. There are material things on the table: bread and cup. They are an answer to our material need for food and drink. And when we share them, when we are fed, they become not only a tangible reminder of the provision God gives us. They also become our salvation, pulling us up from the mud, lifting our heads above the overwhelming waters. They are our spiritual nourishment, filling those real, empty places within us.

And, so filled, we leave the table in order to feed the world in its hunger and thirst. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” it was not a dismissive statement. It was a charge: to face the world and its imperfections head on. We are called not only to recognize the very real, material, spiritual pains that surround us and afflict our sisters and brothers, but to do something about them: to be balm, to be healing, to be embrace.

This past week, as our Mission Committee met, we talked about the various outreach ministries that we support. And in them, there is a common theme: Home. Our Habitat builds put a literal roof over families’ heads. Our partnership with Journey Night Shelter and Interfaith Outreach Home and Mercy Community Church work to be hope and promise for those who have no place to lay their heads. Our leadership in AMIS offers a sense of belonging to the thousands of international students that come to Atlanta. Our support of Thornwell Home works with children and families at risk, both to provide a safe home for those who have none and to bring healing into homes that are desperately hurting.

In each of these ministries, we do not, even for a moment, assume that we are the ones doing them. We know that it is Christ, working through us, that provides this real, material, spiritual hope to those who need a place to call home.

The table is in the midst of a sacred home – Christ’s home. After all, the feast is only the feast because of the host.

I am not the host. You are not the host. This church is not the host. Jesus alone is the host.

And so, we are the guests. It doesn’t matter if you have been to the table 100s of times or never before. It doesn’t matter if you have been to other tables or one table. We are, all of us, guests here. We are, all of us, invited by Jesus to this feast. And so invited and fed, our charge is to make room at the table for all.

Amen.

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So what now?

Many at Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been taking part in our congregation-wide study Engage, where we spent the last two months taking a deeper look at how our own faith has been shaped by others, as well as the roles we all play in shaping the faith of others. In short, even though it might make us squirm, our subject has been Evangelism: or, how it is that we share our faith with integrity.

In case you haven’t read the headlines recently, we mainline Protestants are on the decline. In the last seven years, the percentage of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Christian has fallen from almost 80% to just above 70%. All stripes of Christians shared in the decline, none more pointedly than mainline Protestants, who went from 18% to 14.7%. In short, the status quo is one in which the American church shrinks.

Though it might be shocking to see these statistics, this really can’t come as a surprise to any of us. Simply looking at our own pews would have given you a hint of this. With summer here, we are more likely to notice the change, when our Sunday attendance is such that we could probably all fit comfortably in the choir loft. And yet, in this context, we are actually faring better than average. Over that same period, our membership numbers and average worship attendance have gone down, but not nearly as much as the national average. Meanwhile, our stewardship participation and giving have actually increased. In any case, we are part of this larger trend of a contracting faith.

I have read more interpretations of the Pew Research data than I care to comment on. Every single one of them tries to pinpoint why it is that Christianity, especially the mainline Protestant “brand”, is shrinking. I haven’t found any of them particularly insightful, as they act more like a horoscope than any kind of analysis, revealing more about the bias of the writer than concrete reality:

“Presbyterians are self-reliant; and yet, we desires relationships.”

“That is so true! They really know us!”

So let me run the risk of adding my own reading of the tea leaves, and put it this way: the status quo isn’t working. More important than that, though, the status quo isn’t faithful. Christianity should be comforting; but never comfortable. Any faith that takes the cross as its central symbol can never be OK with the way things are.

This recent news of decline feels particularly galling because it’s over a period of only seven years. That said, do you know what else is only seven years old? Twitter. iPhone. Facebook. And that’s just in the world of technology. For some of us, these are things that we already take for granted. For the youngest in our community, this is the world they have always known, where phones are things you use to take pictures and movies, look up information, listen to music, watch TV… In other words, we are in the early days of seismic shifts in the world. The fact that Christianity is affected should not be surprising. So what now?

The temptation is to move into panic mode: to implement strategies and throw programs out there in hopes that something sticks. And yet, faithfulness calls us to something different.

Our Scripture today, the first of the ancient hymns known as psalms, sheds light on this. It shares wisdom about the faithful, and how they are like trees planted by streams of water, the psalmist writes. They bear fruit and do not wither. That should be our goal: to plant ourselves, our trees of faith, as close to these streams of living water as we can. It is water, after all, not panic, that gives growth. What I want to encourage us to do is to move into regular spiritual disciplines, practices of being still and knowing God is God, of sitting by those streams of living water, of being well-rooted, grounded, and patient.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the practice of Examen, created by St. Ignatius in the 16th century. It is a daily reflection exercise, a self-examination that asks two simple questions:

  • What gave you life today?
  • What drained life from you?

Over time, this is practice gifts us with recognition of those places where God is at work, those life-giving moments. We learn to live in life-giving ways, like trees of faith planted by streams of living water. It is when we root ourselves in faithful practices, when we come to rely on these habits, that we find ourselves bearing fruit: not just living or surviving, but thriving and feeding others!

And that, I believe, is how we address this crisis of Christianity: not by responding in fear and looking for institutional preservation, but by responding in faith and trusting God’s life-giving presence in Christ.

So what now?

I’m not sure why, but our conversations around our chapel space seem to be a perfect example of this to me.

A few months ago, we bid farewell to Iglesia Cristiana de Restauración, the Spanish language ministry that worked out of our chapel building for seven years (seven years, huh?). They have planted themselves in a new building, where there is room for them to grow and thrive. This left us with the question: what do we do with what is, essentially, new square footage in a community where space is at a premium?

Well, like good Presbyterians, we appointed a study committee. And before we talked about the what, we rooted ourselves in the why. We prayed and discussed and discerned our purpose, and therefore, the purpose of the space. Session then designated the space accordingly, as:

  • daring – that is, that faith in Christ is a faith that always moves beyond what we know;
  • incarnational – a space where our faith can be lived out in tangible ways that our community would recognize;
  • evangelistic – a space that is meant for those who are not yet here;
  • bridging the spiritual and the civic – a space that serves the community’s needs and our central purpose as people of God;
  • flexible – a space intended for multiple uses;
  • quality – it has to be done well, because beauty honors God;
  • maximized – it will be used as much as possible;
  • budget-building – that is, something that will not only be self-sustaining, but would contribute to our financial well-being so as to enhance our mission and benevolence.

What is surprising about rooting yourselves in the “why” first is how it sheds light on the “what”. So the committee generated ideas, sought and received your input, and took all of these possibilities into our many lenses of purpose. And, in good Presbyterian fashion, Session has recommended further study, focused on two possibilities in particular:

  • Designating the downstairs space as a Kindergarten (and possibly an after-school program)
  • Designating the upstairs space as an art/performance space and coffee shop (or a venue rental)

So what now? We research the feasibility of these options and make recommendations to Session accordingly. If you are willing and able to take part in this study phase, please let me know. It’s a short-term commitment. In the meantime, we will use the space several times this summer for worship and other events.

I, for one, am excited about all of this, as it gives us an opportunity to spend dedicated time in prayer and discernment for what comes next – to sit patiently by those streams of living water, to be fed and to feed. After all, what we are about here is to be and do what it is that God is calling us to be and do!

So what now? My friends, it’s time to engage – engage our faith, engage our community, engage one other, engage our God.

May it be so.

Amen.

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“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.

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Reflections on our Advent Cantata, The Christmas Light.

What do you trust more: what you see, or what you hear?

We know that both sound and picture can be manipulated. Photoshop has changed the way we see the world: any two celebrities can be stitched together seamlessly for the supermarket aisle. The same is true of sound. In the era of 24-hour news cycles, the sound byte has the power to make or break political careers.

So which do you trust more?

Daniel Barenboim, conductor and pianist, points out that the ear has an advantage over the eye. Sight doesn’t have a chance to develop until after birth; but studies have shown that we can hear in utero. We can also, he says, control the eye: “If you don’t like the way I look…you close your eyes and I disappear. But if you don’t like the sound of my voice…then you cannot shut your ears in a natural way. Sound literally penetrates the body.”

Sound, music in particular, has a powerful hold on us, even for those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. We associate certain memories with songs. We may not remember important dates, but a song can find its way into our ear where it will set up residence and stay forever. If you’ve ever been on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, you know what I’m talking about.

There is probably no time of year more intimately associated with music than Christmas. We sing carols, tune into the radio stations that play 24-hour Christmas music, put on Vince Guaraldi. But today, as our worship service centers around music, we are reminded that song has a purpose for us as a people of faith. The Psalms, after all, were the hymnal of the people of God. Scripture is full of references to singing praise: “Make a joyful noise…” “I will sing a new song…” “How long to sing this song?”

St. Augustine, the influential theologian of the fourth century, wrote that “to sing is to love.” And Martin Luther, the Reformer and hymn composer, said, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.” Music is praise. When we sing, whether we are making a joyful note or a joyful noise, we join our voices with the choir of angels whose song filled the sky that holy night: “Glory to God in the highest!”

As we move through these final days of the Advent season, as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord, may the songs that we sing be ones of prayer and praise to the God whom we know in Christ, the incarnate, reverberating, eternal Word.

Amen.

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“40”


From our Ash Wednesday service for Haiti. The band and choir play the U2 song to close our worship service. That’s me on minimalist-effect-laden guitar. Lyrics can be found here.

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