Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘stewardship’

This morning, we begin a new worship series that parallels our stewardship season. And as we do, we take a look at what it means to be fearless in our faith.

What does that mean, exactly? What is fearlessness? And is that really the goal? After all, it’s not as though “fear” is purely a bad thing. Fear has been essential to the survival of our species. If our ancestors hadn’t feared saber-toothed tigers, then we likely wouldn’t have been here at all.

Fear is an important part of the wiring God has given us. It lets us know instinctively when we are in danger even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Self-defense classes teach you to trust fear – if a situation feels wrong, then it is wrong.

So in a sense, the suggestion to be fearless is not only counterintuitive; it’s counterproductive. Fear, it seems, is an essential, usually trustworthy part of life.

Usually – but not always.

Our lesson this morning, taken from the first three chapters of Exodus, bears out this complicated role that fear plays in our lives. The Egyptians fear the Israelites because they are growing in number – and so, not only are they enslaved, but their mail children are to be killed. Moses’ mother fears for his life, setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile, an act which ends up saving his life.

The adult Moses, after killing an Egyptian, flees in fear to escape his punishment. And as God tells him to go back to free the Israelites, Moses is gripped by fear again. Fear, it seems, is complicated. It can be life-saving; and it can be imprisoning. While fear may be essential to survival, it is not essential to faith.

You see, when we are afraid, we revert to our most primal selves. We protect ourselves and our tribe at all costs, because somewhere, deeply embedded in our gray matter, are these circuits that convince us that, suddenly, everything is at stake. There are times when fear serves us well. And there are times when it trips us up. The hard part is knowing the difference.

In Exodus, Moses’ mother’s fear leads her to creative ways to preserve the life of her baby; and Moses’ fear of retribution sends him into exile in the Sinai. In both cases, fear led in the right direction. But Pharaoh’s fear led him to unjust brutality; and Moses’ fear of returning led him to protest against what God had set him apart to do. In both cases, fear led them astray. What can we possibly learn about fearlessness when it comes to faith, except that it’s unreliable?

Three days ago, a young man killed ten people, including himself, and wounded nine others at an Oregon community college. Accounts describe the shooter as a white supremacist with anti-religious leanings who was obsessed with guns. Our response as a nation is all-too-predictable. We retreat to our echo chambers where we convince ourselves yet again that we are right because we have always been calling for more guns, or fewer guns, or somewhere in between. Surely, cooler heads will prevail and bring about some common sense reforms in our gun laws, right? Or is it that fear undermines our ability to think reasonably about this uniquely American plague of mass shootings?

I am more and more convinced that the primal fears we could once trust no longer serve us well. Society has developed into this complex set of relationships; our tribes of self-identification should no longer matter, but fear causes us to retreat into our groups of those who are “like us”. Our news media knows that fear is an addictive drug and feeds it to us 24-hours a day, such that we seek out only those sources that feed our fears and convince us of our own self-righteousness.

The goal, I believe, is not to eliminate fear altogether. Instead, while we should listen to fear, and expect it, we should not be ruled by it. If we, like Moses, continue to let fear be our guide at all times, we will miss the moments when God is calling us to places and ministries that make us uncomfortable. To be faithful, at times, means to be fearless. And the only way to make that happen is through discipline and practice.

We now know this about ourselves as a species. Those neural pathways aren’t as hard-wired as we used to think. Through consistent practice and readjustment, we can be rewired for the kind of fearlessness that faith can call us to.

When I think back about things that used to terrify me but no longer do, public speaking comes to mind. I did not emerge from the womb ready to preach. I still remember my first church job out of seminary. There were days when the mere thought of preaching would make me physically ill. And while I would be lying if I said I have eliminated the nervousness altogether, it does not control me anymore. It’s not that I have eliminated it or learned to ignore it, either. Instead, I now use it as a helpful reminder that the very act of preaching is a presumptuous one. My most fervent prayer, each and every time I preach, is that the words of my mouth would be acceptable in God’s sight. I never want to be in the position where I assume I no longer need God’s wisdom to be a preacher. At the same time, I never want to be in the position where fear controls me and convinces me that I have nothing to say.

Friends, there are times when faithfulness calls us to acts of bravery we might not think we are capable of. And yet, if it is truly faithful, God will give us what we need to step out in risk. It takes practice, and there are ample opportunities to do just that.

Today, as we begin our stewardship campaign, I want you to consider what it might mean for you to live your faith fearlessly. Fear convinces us that we live in a culture of scarcity; if I don’t grab it, someone else will. If I give it away, then I am vulnerable. Faith calls us to trust: trust in the God of abundance and provision. We give it away as an act of faith in itself – not because we are fearless, necessarily, but because we have an opportunity to practice faithful bravery even while we remain somewhat skittish.

We have cards with our logo for our stewardship campaign on them. I want you to take one for yourself, and to keep it with you for the duration of the campaign – in your wallet, on your bathroom mirror, wherever it is that you will be reminded of our call to fearlessness.

What I want to be absolutely crystal clear about is this: what you give is ultimately up to you and God. So whatever you do, I want you to do it prayerfully. After all, it is what God desires of you, not what the church or the pastor asks of you, that is faithful. Trust God to lead you in faithfulness.

I simply want to encourage you to practice a lifestyle of giving that grows in fearlessness. What do you give currently? What percentage is it of your income? Is it 2%? 3? Can you increase that giving by an additional 1%? How much time do you give away? Is it four hours a week? Five? Can you add an additional hour?

All of this comes with the careful caveat that faithful living is a larger concept of which the church is a mere part. To be what God has created me to be, I am called to be a faithful husband, father, son, brother, child of God. And I am also called to be a pastor – in this case, pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. But being a pastor is not the entirety of my calling.

Similarly, God calls you to be a member of Christ’s church. But that membership is not the entirety of God’s calling. Perhaps you are a parent, or a spouse; above all, you are God’s beloved, called to faithfulness that takes fear into account but is not ruled by it.

The point in all of this is that we are called to fearless giving, and are capable of far more than we think we are. Let us, in our giving, strive for the model of Moses’ mother. The life of her precious son was threatened. She did what she did motivated out of fear, yes, but also out of love and out of faith. Much like the contemporary Syrian mothers with the same set of motivations, she set her son adrift on the water in a vessel that was not seaworthy. She gave her son to the elements, trusting that God would provide. And in that act of trust, a people were given the hope of freedom, following this same helpless infant pulled from his basket of reeds and given a second chance to live and lead.

With this image in mind, is it any surprise that God would call us, too, to acts of faithful giving? As Christians, as disciples of Christ, as followers of Jesus, we surely know that the fullest act of faithfulness was Christ’s own self-giving on the cross. He did it for our sake, not for his own. How can we not respond by our own selfless, fearless giving of what God has entrusted to us?

Many of you have heard of the hero that emerged in the Oregon shooting. When Chris Mintz heard the sound of bullets, his army training meant that he ran towards the shooting, rather than away from it. He told the shooter, “It’s my son’s birthday” before being shot seven times. He survived and is expected to make a full recovery. That act of bravery most certainly saved the lives of others, distracting and delaying the gunman and giving time for police to respond.

I have not seen any reports on whether or not Mintz is a person of faith; in many ways, that is irrelevant. The point is that he embodied fearless giving – giving of himself so that others would have a chance to live. I would hope that our lives would even be a mere reflection of this kind of fearlessness.

When we come to the table, we recognize that I’m not the one who invites us here, nor is it the congregation or leadership that sets the table, except in the most literal of ways. This table belongs to no one but Jesus. And we, fed here, we are sent to feed. Nourished at this table, we are emboldened to live lives of faithful, fearless giving – of what we have, of what we are – to a world that is desperately hungry in body, mind, and spirit.

So come – let us taste and see that the Lord is good!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

What needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

In the 16th century, a Spanish nobleman named Ignatius changed Christianity forever. He left comfort behind to join the priesthood, establishing the Society of Jesus, an order of Catholic priests.

One of Ignatius’ legacies is the spiritual practice known as Examen. Examen is a daily discipline of reflection designed to develop attention to where God is at work in one’s life. There are many variations on the practice. The one that has come to mean the most to me is one which focuses on two questions at day’s end: What gave you life today? And what drained life from you? The hope in doing so is that, over time, you are drawn closer to those things that are life-giving; and in doing so, you draw closer to God.

It is a practice that parallels with our text from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome this morning. In it, Paul uses the image of baptism, of descending into the water and coming out again, as an image of death and resurrection. Not just an image, though, but an act that binds the follower of Jesus with Jesus. Going under the water, we die to sin. Coming out, we rise, renewed and refreshed, to live in faith and hope.

And for most of us, the journey of faith is not “one and done”; rather, it is one of multiple spiritual baptisms, of deaths and births – some large and some small – that happen time and time again. None of us rise out of the waters of baptism to live lives of perfection. If we do, then we certainly don’t need any of this, since we’ve already got it all figured out.

This leads us back to this daily practice of Examen; and thus our question today: what needs to die so that Christ can live in you?

As Christians, as those who try to follow Christ’s example, we are called to serve others. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let’s be clear, though: we can only love our neighbors if we love ourselves. It is easy to confuse the call to service with a personal desire for martyrdom. But we are followers of Jesus. We are not Jesus. We do not carry the sins of the world. We don’t even carry our own: that’s Jesus’ job!

We can only honor God if we are willing to honor the image of God – that goes for the image of God within others and the image of God that is on our own truest selves.

Faith requires examination. And the purpose of this examination is so that we grow in clarity about what it is that weighs us down. When we do, we also grow in awareness of what it is that the world puts on us and what it is that we pick up of our own accord. Just as there is faithfulness in saying “yes” to things that could possibly make us squirm, there is also faithfulness in saying “no” to things that drain life from us. The thing is that saying “no” is what gives us the freedom to say “yes”.

So what needs to die so that Christ can live in you? What is it that you need to say “no” to so that you can possibly say “yes” to what God is putting before you? What is it that needs to go under the waves so that you can come up renewed and restored?

That’s the essence of our topic today, this idea of weaving the big story with our stories. We have the temerity to believe that our daily lives are sewn into the grand drama of the universe, of God’s creation and redemption and salvation and hope and resurrection. In other words, that Easter morning resurrection was not just a once in an eternity experience. Instead, we should experience that resurrection each and every day. As those things that pull us away from Christ die little deaths, seeds of new life should take root and blossom.

The Sanders have been doing our own version of the daily Examen in our house for a while now. In order to span the generations, we call it “happy sad time”. Each of us shares something during the day that made us happy and something that made us sad. It has become part of our evening ritual every bit as important as brushing teeth, reading bedtime stories, and saying prayers. There are many days that boo-boo’s top the sad list. And yet, the gift that has emerged is a growing awareness of how we interact with the world on a daily basis. It has become our way of figuring out what has to die so that Christ can live within us.

There is, I believe, faithful purpose in practices like Examen. There is also, I believe, practical purpose as well. The paradox of letting things die in order for Christ to live is that, by doing less, we actually accomplish more.

When we deprive ourselves of sleep, we may think we are getting more done. But if we are honest without ourselves, we know that what we do, we do with diminished capacity. We do it poorly. We do it under duress. And we do it with less attention than it demands. If we take seriously our call to self-stewardship, including so-called frivolities like play and sleep, we are actually fine-tuning ourselves toward faithfulness, toward that daily baptism of newness and renewal.

Here’s the hones truth, some good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are only 24 hours in a day. That “to do” list that currently haunts you? It will continue to do so. Whatever it is you have to accomplish, you will always only be able to do so within the confines of the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis.

But there’s good news, too. Are you ready? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Whatever anyone else expects you to do with that time, including your own expectations, what God expects of you is to spend that time as stewards of what God has given you! That includes work and obligation, yes. It also includes sleep and rest. It includes joy and fun. It is, in short, an effort to allow our lives to be transformed so that we spend more and more of our time doing those things that give us life.

This past week, my college alumni magazine came in the mail. The first section I always turn to is the alumni news, where I get to see all of the amazing things that I am not doing with my life. Do you know what I’m talking about? How often do we spend time comparing ourselves with others? How often do we marvel at those who have gone on to greatness, and sowing some seeds of disappointment within ourselves in the process?

How much more faithful would it be to focus on what it is that God expects of us? Friends, success is a fraud. It is a false idol. So is happiness, but that’s a topic for another day. As people of faith, we are never called to be successful. We are always called to faithfulness. After all, it is faithfulness, not success, which gives context to our failures.

We are not asked to defy the laws of physics. We are not called to do physical harm to our bodies and psyches in order to please the gods of others’ expectations. What God expects of us is to spend our time faithfully and wisely in order to give glory to God! For us old school Presbyterians, the archaic language of the Westminster Catechism put it this way:

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: To glory God and enjoy him forever.

Our whole created purpose in God’s eyes is this two-fold expression of enjoyment and glory! If we can begin to see our lives through this lens, then the invitation to let things die in order that Christ might live in us might finally grab hold.

Today, we are ordaining and installing elders. In the Presbyterian Church, elders are those we entrust with leadership, wisdom, and discernment. I am very aware that many of our elders and deacons have busy lives. And what we say is that, through the voice of this congregation, God is calling them to these ministries of leadership and service.

I want us to be just as clear about what ordination is not about. We do not ordain elders and deacons so that they can be busier. We do not ordain them to add one more thing to their “to do” lists. If ordination and installation – if leadership and service – are things that drain life rather than give it, then they are not of God. They are not what God desires of us. They are not what God has created us for.

My hope, instead, is that we will live into this vision of letting things die in order for Christ to live within us. So as we absorb the absurd promise that death actually gives way to life, that is when this grand story of God’s purpose really weaves itself into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Resurrection becomes the moment that smashes our false idols and makes room for Jesus. And when we allow this to happen within ourselves, as we demonstrate that love of self God desires us to know, that is when we can begin to do the same for others, for our neighbors, for those whom God calls us to love and serve.

You see, this grand story, this sweep of God’s history, is not just tied into the lives of those of us here. The bricks and mortar of church buildings cannot limit God’s tapestry. God’s weaving is meant for all created in God’s image. The disaster is that there are so many of God’s children who either think that God doesn’t care for them at all or who believe that God expects more of them than they can ever reasonably accomplish. Our role is to let them know otherwise, and that there are communities of faith that practice realistic, faithful expectations so that the world can look more and more like the one God desires.

So here is my invitation to you today. I invite you to adopt some version of that daily examination, the Examen, in your own lives. I invite you to spend a few minutes at the end of the day reflecting back on the day’s events, taking note of those things that gave you life and those things that drained life from you. I trust that as you do so, you will grow in awareness of those things that ought to die so that Christ can live in you.

I also trust that, as we grow in our awareness of Christ’s presence, we will be able to nurture that awareness in others, to invite them into the astonishing journey that promises life out of death.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine, but it’s what we do with it that matters the most: making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love’. That’s what really matters.”

The words of that great Presbyterian theologian Mr. Rogers: it’s not what we have, but what we do with what we have.

Many of you are aware that Mr. Rogers was, in fact, the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. And his particular ministry was his television program, his gift to the world, teaching young children that they are special “just the way they are”, which may be the best definition of unconditional love that ever existed.

These words about sharing follow in the echoes of many Biblical stories and texts, including our lesson this morning.

This story of Elisha and Naaman illustrates God’s expansive and ever-expanding love. Grace and healing cannot be confined by national boundaries or military front lines, by tribal barriers or religious practices. Instead, God’s surprise is one of outrageous, generous mercy.

In our lesson, the nation of Aram is a mighty one. They roughly cover the same territory as the area around modern-day Damascus. One of their great generals, Naaman, is afflicted with some terrible skin condition. It may or may not be leprosy as our translation related, but the point is that it is both unsightly and painful. Aram is at war with ancient Israel, and one of their raiding parties ends up capturing a young girl who then becomes a servant to the general’s wife.

However, there are times when God transforms something intended for ill into something gracious. Through the young Israelite girl, Naaman learns about a powerful prophet acrtoss the border who might hold the key to his healing.

Surprisingly, the Aramean king sends a diplomatic letter to the Israelite king asking for Naaman to meet with Elisha.

The Israelite king suspects trickery at work – a kind of Trojan Leper. But Elisha welcomes the general, the enemy of his people, as an opportunity to reveal God’s glory.

As Naaman approaches Elisha’s home, the whole story almost comes off the rails as Elisha sends out a servant rather than welcoming the general personally. Naaman is outraged, and his own national pride kicks in. That pitiful little Jordan River is nothing compared to our rivers back in Aram!

Then Naaman’s servants prevail on him to give it a shot. “Why not?” they reason. “He’s not asking a lot. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” He does, and is cleansed. To God be the final, ultimate glory!

Do we get what an unusual story this is? Much of the Hebrew Bible spends time convincing us of the rightness of the God of the Israelites. And it does so by recounting victory after victory after victory over enemy nations. And when Babylon defeats Israel and takes the people captive, the lesson still underscores the same idea: God was so fed up with Israel’s wandering ways that God decided to give Babylon the victory. God is God, ruling by might and power and victory.

Here, the story goes out of its way to illustrate God’s power not through military victory, but through sharing God’s healing power with a feared enemy.

How willing are we to share?

That’s the root message of Stewardship Season, isn’t it? That it’s not about what we have, but what we do with it? As a church, we can only exist to serve because of the fact that we, as a community, share. We pool our resources and serve the broader community through our sharing and giving and serving.

I have to admit that, though I grew up in church, it wasn’t until I was grown that this whole notion finally hit home to me. I have told the story many times before that I was of the school that would drop a few bucks in the plate when it passed. When Elizabeth and I made the decision to tithe, we did so as a mathematical formula: we added up our income, divided by ten, and gave that away.

We did this when we were graduate students living off of loans and working a series of part-time jobs. We did this when we were DINKs (that’s double income, no kids). We did it when we were missionaries overseas. We did it when we returned and became a one-income family with small children. We do it now with two full-time jobs and two school age children. And we try to instill the same practice in them.

While the percentage has remained roughly the same, the amount has fluctuated wildly through the years. The only thing that has remained constant is the intention and practice.

Look: I know it’s dicey business when the pastor starts talking about money. Whenever I do, I can always count on a few of you to let me know. It can be especially odd when the pastor starts talking about his own money. I’ll be honest with you: I’m OK with making us squirm from time to time. That’s part of what I’m supposed to do. And if we truly believe that God is in charge of all of this, that also means God is in charge of our money.

Above all, though, I mainly want to encourage each of you to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what it is that you give. And if I only get one thing across to you today, let it be this: I want you to consider these two questions:

What do you give? What are you willing to share? And how is it that you go about making that decision?

If you can already answer these questions, that’s great. If not, then I would suggest you consider doing this before Stewardship Dedication Sunday on November 16. Calculate your income; calculate your charitable giving; and then figure out what percentage you are currently giving away.

We are together in our sharing.

When Elisha decides to share God’s healing power with Naaman, he does so despite his King’s assumption of treachery. It is not Elisha’s own glory he’s interested in; he doesn’t even leave the house. Nor is it the glory of Israel. No doubt he knows how the Jordan River compares to Aram’s own rivers. He invites Naaman into this healing because he knows that God’s power will be revealed.

But when Naaman is met not by the prophet but by one of his servants, he is furious. He has made this incredible effort to come all this way. He has stooped to cross into enemy territory. He deserves to be met by this Man of God. Instead, Elisha passes a note. “Do you want to be healed? Check one: yes; no.” Shouldn’t a man as great as Naaman be received with all of the greatness his status and standing require?

Friends: we share what we share not for our own sake. We don’t even share what we share for Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s sake. We share what we share for God’s sake. We know that God is generous. And our desire should be to become conduits of generosity, so that it flows from God, through us, and out into the world.

After all, it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it.

This past week I learned that several families who are members of other churches give to Oglethorpe Presbyterian financially, week in and week out. Some of them have historic connections to us; but others have a relatively tenuous relationship. And yet, they give.

I was particularly stunned when I learned that a couple of these families are members of Buckhead Church, where Andy Stanley preaches.

It turns out that, a while back, Andy had challenged his congregation to tithe – that is, to give a straight up 10% of their income away. And, he went on to say, don’t give it to Buckhead Church. Several of these families took this to heart. And knowing Oglethorpe, they decided to share that tithe through us.

I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that Buckhead is Naaman to our Elisha, or the other way around. I don’t think that’s the point here. Instead, this story underscores the message of generosity about as clearly as I can imagine: it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it. And it’s not as important where you give, but that you give, and do so intentionally.

Every year, we ask you to prayerfully consider your pledge. This year, I ask you to consider your pledge both prayerfully and thoughtfully.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

Life teems all around us. We just need to slow down enough to notice.

This is a truly odd story. In the first part of it, we find the newly minted King Solomon, heir to the legendary King David, asking God for wisdom. And in the second part, we see this wisdom in action as he adjudicates between two women arguing over a newborn baby. Everyone is in awe, and his fame carries on until today. And they lived happily ever after.

But wait a minute: there’s a lot to this story that requires a deeper look. Solomon ends up the heir to David’s kingdom after a lot of drama. One small item is that Solomon himself is the son of David and Bathsheba, whose own union was shrouded in scandal. And the united kingdoms he inherits of north and south, after his death, will be split in two by his heirs. When Solomon prays for more wisdom, he specifically prays for more wisdom to govern his people – but apparently not to parent his own.

And the situation that apparently highlights his brilliance is a troubling story. At the heart of it is tragedy: two women who are prostitutes come into conflict after one of the women tragically smothers her own baby in the middle of the night. Her grief leads her to attempted deception, a trick that doesn’t work for even a moment.

The case, then, of two prostitutes arguing over a baby, comes before the King. Apparently his wisdom in governing didn’t include delegation. His wisdom is to cleave the child in two, a decision that leads the two women to reveal the answer themselves. The mother would rather see the child live than be right; the other woman’s loss is such that not even the death of another woman’s child can stir her.

This story, meant to illustrate Solomon’s genius and the respect it brought him and all of ancient Israel, ends up being a story surrounded in pain and anguish and horror. Solomon’s ruling to chop the child in half may have been a bluff to reveal their true feelings, but it does end up predicting the painful dividing of a nation between Solomon’s sons. In other words, what is intended as a story to elevate Solomon and his wisdom is ultimately a story about the deeply flawed world he reigns. It’s a place that feels like it’s bathed in tragedy scouring for moments of celebration.

Does that sound any different from our world, really? A place bathed in tragedy in which we look for moments of celebration? I don’t know about you, but there are certainly times when it feels that way to me. The rise of religious extremism continues. Climate change accelerates. Meanwhile, our own nation, who might actually be capable of providing some leadership on critical issues, seems stuck in pointless partisanship.

But is it really true? Do we really live in a world of permanent bleakness where only momentary rays of sunshine break through? Or is there something about our perpetual brokenness that might lead us to believe that this is the case?

I want to lift up three moments from our lesson this morning that might point us in a different direction.

The first is the moment of Solomon’s humility. Our lesson begins with Solomon at the shrine at Gibeon. And when God asks him what he wants, Solomon could have requested anything. He could have asked for a kingdom greater than his father’s. He could have asked for the smiting of his enemies or riches beyond his wildest dreams. Instead, his wish is a selfless one: the ability to rule wisely. He wants to be a good king. He wants to help his people thrive by guiding them well.

We tend to think of powerful people as people interested in power and not much else. Whether or not that’s the case, here is a man bucking that trend. When presented with an infinite possibility of wishes, Solomon desires nothing more than serving his people wisely.

How are we like Solomon? We may not feel powerful, but the truth is that most of us have more power than we recognize. By virtue of where we were born, or the income we earn, or the very fact that we live in a relatively stable and prosperous society in which we even have a voice, we have power.

What do we do with that power? What are our deepest desires? It seems like a fair question to ask in the midst of Stewardship season, when we as a church consider prayerfully how each of us shares what it is that God has blessed us with.

This summer, in the midst of the ALS challenge, where people were asking friends to dump buckets of ice over their heads or donate money toward ALS research, I overheard a conversation that would have been funny if it hadn’t been so depressing. Two people were walking along, complaining about how a mutual friend had challenged them. One of them was absolutely repulsed: “Why would I want to do that? I’m not going to donate money. I spend my money on myself!”

How do we fare? Do we do with it the very thing we say we despise in the powerful, keeping it all to ourselves? Or do we have the wisdom to seek counsel? Do we use these resources to make the world a better place by sharing it with others?

For Solomon, in the midst of unrivaled power, there is humility. And that alone is reason to celebrate.

The second moment to lift up is the moment that the two women appear before Solomon. Whatever it was that led these women into a life of prostitution, we know that they would not be worthy of much consideration in their own society. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, prostitutes are lumped in with lepers and tax collectors as those to be disregarded – the very people with whom Jesus decided to spend the bulk of his time. But even in Solomon’s time, there is this glimpse of radical inclusion. A king hears the pleas of two people on the margins – if even that close – of society. And rather than dismissing them, he reasons out a way to determine some semblance of righteousness and justice.

How do we rate? Do we have the same mind when it comes to applying God’s sense of compassion? Do we embody the things we say we believe, that all of humanity is created in the image of God? That Christ’s ministry was on behalf of a whole world beloved of God, and unconditionally so? Do we put conditions on those whom we will treat with respect or treat as human? Or do we deal fairly with others, even if they don’t or won’t deal fairly with us?

For Solomon, even on the throne of glory, there is equality. And that, again, is reason to celebrate.

And the third moment is the moment of surprise as truth wins out in the end. The whole court scene plays out like a bizarre ancient world reenactment of an episode of Judge Judy. Unfortunately for Solomon, DNA testing is still a few generations away, and so he must figure out how to rule wisely without the benefit of scientific advances. What he does, ultimately, is find a way to get to the underlying motivations at work. The method he uses, as first, appears quite barbaric. Once the reactions of the two women come to the surface, though, it turns out that he knew what he was doing all along. He had just found a dramatic way to get below the surface and to the deeper truth that was already there.

How deep do we go? Do we keep our observations superficial, or do we welcome that deeper wisdom that leads to deeper truth? When we talk about the importance of Stewardship as a community, the superficial approach is to see a budget and then raise funds to pay for that budget. I hope what we do, though, is dig beneath that surface so that what we talk about and pray about and work toward is a magnetic culture of generosity, where we are excited to share our resources. If it’s out of obligation, then I’m not sure we’re doing it right. If it’s borne out of desire, then we might just be getting somewhere. It’s when we share because we don’t know any other way to be that we are truly getting to the deeper possibilities of generosity at work.

For Solomon, true wisdom meant a surprising ability to get below the surface so that truth would rise to the top. And that, too, is reason to celebrate.

There is always far more to celebrate than we might otherwise notice. All it takes is for us to look a little more carefully, to pay closer attention, to listen more lightly and move more intentionally. When we do that, we will be surprised that we didn’t see it before. It’s like sitting down in a bare patch of grass. It’s not until you’ve been there a while that you begin to see how life teems all around you.

May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to know.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

What does it take to build our life together?

We start our worship series journey at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, at God’s command, has led the people out of slavery, through the plagues and the Red Sea, out into the wilderness, on their way to their promised freedom. And here, at the relative beginning of that journey, they pause at the foot of a mountain so that Moses can confer with God and receive further instructions.

When he returns, among the words he shares with the people are those in our lesson this morning, which are often referred to as the Ten Commandments. There is more to be said about these rules for living than time permits this morning, so let us keep this in mind: these commandments are meant to shape the life of a people. They are meant to guide a community learning to live together in love.

Whatever instincts they might have had toward building a society are long gone due to the ravages of slavery. And so, God takes special care to lead them by the hand into the land of promise as they build a new and promising life together.

Moments like these, these Sinai moments, are important ones in the life of faith. And over the next few weeks as we journey through this worship series, we will touch on several key ones in our Scriptures. These moments act as markers, reminders of what is at stake and what is expected of us. They act as guideposts, pointing out the path we have trod and reminding us of what it has taken to get us where we are.

At its best, our Stewardship Campaigns should act as such a moment, a time when we gather together at a crossroads, remembering what God has done for us already and envisioning what God has in store for us in the years to come.

I do not, for a moment, claim to be Moses. And while I have had profound experiences of God, I do not pretend to have had the mountaintop “written in stone” kind of experience we have heard this morning. Instead, I hope you hear my thoughts this morning as just that: thoughts from your pastor, steeped in prayer and reflection, as we celebrate our 65th Anniversary as a congregation and look forward to what God has in store.

Every year when we begin our Stewardship Campaign, I am reminded that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we hold two important realities in tension. The first is that it takes money to do ministry. All you have to do is look around this Sanctuary to be reminded of that. We have lights, heat, a sound system. We buy paper and equipment to have bulletins every Sunday. Tim, Cheryl, and I are all on staff. You compensate us for our time and work. It takes money to do ministry. And the second reality is this: we give away everything we do. If we truly believe that grace is God’s free gift to us, how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? There are no membership dues, no entrance fees. And if there are, my conviction is that something has gone very wrong.

This is an unworkable economic model. And yet, we make it work. Or should I say, God makes it work. Every year, we ask you to make a prayerful financial commitment to the work of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And every year, you do. And every year, it more or less works out.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course. We have leaders working very hard behind the scenes, keeping costs down, monitoring our books, and thinking through how we ask for your commitment. Your donations and gifts come in weekly, monthly, annually to keep us going. And we make our accounting as transparent as possible. It’s an open book, which we believe is the most faithful way to manage what God has given us.

It’s in that Spirit of openness that I want to spend a few moments looking at numbers. You will have many chances to see these over the course of the next few months, so consider this a first look. I’m hoping that some of you will find this helpful.

For 2015, Session is asking the congregation for a total of $255,000 in pledged giving. We have several sources of income, the largest other one being building usage, but congregational giving is the single largest source of income. The goal this year is to make our ask during Stewardship season only. The past two years we have done an additional mid-year ask in order to fill in the gap, and you all have responded generously. But I get the feeling that we’re all getting a little tired of doing that. So let’s put it all on the table here: $255,000 in pledge giving is what Session projects we will need in order to have enough income to pay all of our expenses in 2015.

If you want to break it down, there are a couple of different ways to do so. For example, we have 131 members on the roles. Per member, that total works out to about $1,950 for the year, or $37.50 per week. Membership is one way to look at this, but there are many who support Oglethorpe with time and energy and finances that are not officially members of the church.

If we break it down by worship attendance, we average about 90 people on a Sunday morning. That works out to $2,850 per person per year, or $55 per person per week. Of course, we have members who give but are unable to attend due to health or work.

One other way to look at it is by income. A few years ago, we surveyed the congregation and learned that our average household income is $117,452. With about seventy pledges coming in, that works out to about 3% of household income, or about $3,650 per pledging household per year, or $70 per week.

I thought he was going to preach today!

Look: the whole reason I share all of these numbers with you today is in hopes that it might be helpful to some of you. These are some of the figures that help paint the financial picture of what it takes to build our life together. None of this is prescriptive. Some of you are able to give above average, and others below. And, above all, I trust you to know what is possible in your own life. All I ask is that you make your consideration steeped in prayer.

The point in all of this is that we make our commitments not as a collection of individuals, but as a community of faith who share life together. Faith is meant to be a shared enterprise. That tends to fly in the face of what our culture teaches us about the centrality of self-reliance and independence. 77% of Americans consider themselves Christians. A third of those attend services less than twice a month. In other words, the number of Americans who self-identify as “Christian” without participating in any kind of church or faith community is staggering.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe for a moment that the Spirit is magically contained by the four walls of a church building, or that somehow Christ can only be present in the lives of those who are on the membership rolls, or that the most important thing to God is your attendance record. That said, what we know – from the stories of Scripture to the way our very bodies and brains are wired – is that the life of faith is meant to be shared together. It’s how we build our life together. It’s how we encourage one another, how we challenge one another, how we teach and learn from one another. It’s how we pool our resources, how we move out into the world, how we become Christ’s hands and feet.

It is, ultimately, how we become partners with God in building God’s beloved kingdom, making mercy and grace something tangible to the world around us! It is how we come together in love and share that love with one another and with the world around us.

We do not charge for God’s free gift of grace. Instead, my prayer today is that it would give us a charge, sending us forward from the foot of this mountain and on into that place of promise that awaits us.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

Two months ago we started this worship series, looking back over Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s 65 year history. We have looked at music and Sunday School, at our traditional of engagement in mission and contemporary issues. And most importantly, we have meditated on what it means to be church, and what it is that is essential to our DNA as a congregation.

Here are some of the words that have popped up over and over again: Honest. Faithful. Welcoming. Selfless. Transparent. Brave. Open. Compassionate. Creative.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that our history is perfect. No one’s is. But what is important is the character that moves through that history, both in times of success and in times of challenge.

And I’m convinced that, looking back at where we’ve been, we also look forward to know where we’re going.

In a sense, that’s a key part of what we do today in our Stewardship Dedication. We are asking for your pledges as partners in our shared ministry at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. We are asking for your commitments of your money, your gifts, and your time, and our pledge cards have room for all of those categories. In other words, we are inviting you to be a part of where we go from here as we continue that honest, faithful, welcoming, selfless, transparent, brave, open, compassionate, creative legacy we have inherited here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow.

And it’s no accident that we do all of this today of all days. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar as we move into Advent next week. As we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday, we remember the central place that God ought to have in our lives. Our love for God is more powerful than any tribal boundaries we might construct. But it is God’s love for us that transcends those barriers first.

What would it look like to give that kind of priority to God? Our two Scripture lessons this morning give some indication. The prophet Jeremiah casts his vision of God’s love as that of a shepherd reclaiming the scattered sheep. Remember that Jeremiah is speaking to a defeated people who have been taken into exile. And so he pronounces judgment on the unjust rulers who have treated the people so poorly. At the same time, he never lets the people off the hook for allowing injustice to flourish. But it is hope that wins out. A new day is coming when a righteous ruler will lead the people. They will flourish, and peace will reign supreme.

Christians have usually read this Jeremiah text as prophecy about Jesus. It was he, the descendant of King David, the Prince of Peace, the righteous one, who came to preach and practice justice. And when we follow Christ, when we reflect Christ’s character of merciful healing, that’s when we become builders of the righteous kingdom that Jeremiah promised. In other words, when we focus on the things of God, we make the world a better, fairer place, just as God desires.

I want to be cautious not to link building the kingdom with giving to stewardship, because I know that churches are not the only way that God is at work in the world. At the same time, I know that we are more likely to see our way forward when we work in community than when we work alone.

I was reminded of this yesterday morning. The Sanders family took to our yard to clear away some of autumn’s magic. I was up on the roof, where I’ve been a hundred times before, sweeping away the leaves and clearing out the gutters. When I finished, I started carefully down the ladder. No sooner had I put my full weight on it than it slid out from under me, crashing to the driveway. Not surprisingly, I was not far behind. Fortunately, the fall was only about six feet, and somehow I managed to land on my feet. So other than being a little sore and scratched up today, and possibly a few inches shorter, I’m absolutely fine. It was a perfect reminder as to why I never go up on the roof unless someone else is home with me. To do so by myself is simply a risk I’m not willing to take.

Living in community has its challenges. And yet, we are always better together than we ever are alone. I have seen this truth time and time again here, perhaps nowhere more so than working with our session (or, for those of you not accustomed to Presby-speak, our church leadership). Every year, you elect our elders and promise to trust their leadership. And every year, we have seen how well-founded that trust is. The weightier the issue, the more seriously session takes it. And in that prayerful process of consideration, we have always come out of it with a clearer vision of what lies ahead and of what God has in store for us.

It was a little over a year ago that we launched our Capital Campaign. And as we did, it took serious consideration and conversation. It was brave, and it was faithful. Because of it, we have made significant improvements to our facilities with more to come. We have also begun to invest in outreach and evangelism. And I can see a renewed energy and sense of purpose in us as a result of that work. We took a chance, stepped out in faith, and it paid off.

And five months ago, we came face to face with the reality of our dwindling savings. Our projected deficit for this year was on the order of $54,000. If that happened, by January of next year we would have been down to some three weeks of operating reserves. At the end of last month, we had narrowed our gap to $6,000. And that gap looks very likely to close by the end of the year. We were honest and transparent, and it bore fruit. In short, the more we lean into that character with which God has blessed us, the more we are able to look forward in faith.

I don’t want us to get too caught up in the financial issues here. There is much more to supporting our ministry than money. And yet, I want to be clear that we cannot isolate money from the conversation. If God is truly sovereign, if Jesus is really Lord, then money must be a part of the conversation. The question is not if we talk about it, but how we talk about it.

And that’s the point I want to leave you with today. How much you give is less important than that you give. The richer we are in blessings, the more is expected of us. At the same time, it is the poor widow that Jesus commends as the exemplar of generosity, giving her two small coins as a sign of her faith.

Yesterday I overheard a conversation at a coffee shop that reminded me what a skewed view of money we have in our society. A young man was talking to his friends and said, “I need to get a job. Seriously. I am so broke it’s not even funny. So I’m thinking of getting this $150 case for my phone. Is that stupid?”

His friend answered with the following wisdom: “Yeah, it is, but…you know…”

“Right,” he said. “I’m gonna get it.” [smh]

It’s easy enough to judge someone else for their stupid decisions. But what would your financial values sound like to the nosy person at the next table? The question is not whether your household budget is a moral document. The question is what your household budget says about your moral values.

I say this all to you not as someone who has figured it out, but as a fellow struggler. And so I want to close by sharing with you what I share with every new members’ class about giving and money and stewardship:

We do not require financial giving to be a part of our community. There are no membership fees or dues. After all, we believe that God’s grace is a gift freely received; how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? At the same time, we ask every person here to consider prayerfully what you might give. Your decision, ultimately, is between you and God, because no one knows your situation better than the two of you.

For some of you, it might be helpful to aim for the traditional tithe, or ten percent of income – maybe not this year, but to build toward it. For others, it might be enough simply to know how much you give compared to what you receive and to track that from year to year so you can begin to get a picture of what your budget says about your values.

Whatever the case, the truth is that we are better when we share in community than when we carry the burden alone. It is in our sharing that God is able multiply.

That’s the gift of the communion table. Many of you will gather around other tables this week, tables creaking under the weight of a massive feast. You will eat and you will be full. You will fall asleep in front of the TV. But the table we gather around today is a different kind of table.

This table reminds us of our call to generosity. What we receive from this table we receive freely. And we receive it because in the very act of coming forward, we acknowledge how much it is that God gives us to feed and sustain us. Our bellies may not be filled here, but the promise is that our souls will find nourishment. And so fed, may we go forth to feed the world.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

A treasure in clay jars.

Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way. I am going to talk about money today. We have talked about money a lot this year. Between our Capital Campaign and whittling down our projected deficit, it has been a frequent topic this year. Now in both cases, we have a lot to celebrate. We have checked a number of items off of our campaign “to do” list, and after starting the year expecting to close out $54,000 in the red, we are now projecting a balanced budget.

That’s good news, right? Even so, let’s be honest: we have talked about money a lot this year. And as we kick off our stewardship campaign for 2014, we are going to do it again today.

I’m not an economics geek; it’s history where I live and breathe. And so the next few months are particularly exciting to me, as we are taking some time to look at our congregational history at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And in that light, I wanted to throw a couple of money numbers at you from our early years. The church budget for 1949-1950 was $5,600 – of which $3,000 was to come from the fledgling congregation. The balance was from Presbytery (who was flush back then) and from other congregations (who also had healthy balance sheets at the time).

The average weekly offering total was $70. The goal of the first building fund, to construct the chapel, was $5,000. The other 80% of building costs were to come from the Presbytery, other churches, and from a couple of individuals within the congregation. And here is my favorite little factoid from those early days. There was a string of session meetings where the hotly debated topic was the $6 a week to cover janitorial costs. The elders were eventually able to get that down to $3 a week, which seemed to put the matter to rest for a while.

The truth is that money is a reality in life, even in the supposedly purer world of church affairs. And while it might be amusing to look back at how much things cost sixty plus years ago, realizing that we pay more now for a cup of coffee than it cost to clean up the church in 1949, money has been a very real issue for Oglethorpe Presbyterian through the ages. There are the anecdotal remembrances of when times were extremely tight. Some of you remember 1966, when we took out a $360,000 mortgage to build the sanctuary and office wing. In the mid-eighties, we were still paying on it. And that’s when session decided to kick off a mortgage retirement plan. We paid off the mortgage two years early, which kicked off a weekend celebration where members symbolically burned copies of the mortgage in an urn.

I have been spending a lot of time each week poring over old session minutes in planning this series. And doing so has been a sobering reminder of the role that money plays in the life of the church. Alongside conversations about mission support and Sunday School programs and fellowship gatherings are conversations about budget and fundraising and financial stewardship. And little has changed in my seven and a half years here. We have had generous gifts from those who remembered the church in their will. We have had years where we have overspent our income in order to keep programs running, hoping possibly to get ahead. And with some trepidation, we came together over our capital campaign, which allowed us to finally retire the boiler that predates this building!

So here’s the question: what is it about money? Why do we, and I very much include myself in this, consider it such a distasteful topic of conversation? I have my own thoughts. I think some of it stems from the fact that money is a distasteful topic in the culture around us. We are surrounded by conspicuous consumption. Our media is obsessed with it. We craft storylines in movies and TV about the richest of the rich. And apparently, it’s not enough for that to exist in the world of fantasy. We have decided that we want to keep up with Kardashians, Duck Dynasties, fashion runways, and various talents as gateways to success.

And don’t get me started on our nation’s economy, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than it was in the 1920s, or where banks created legal but fraudulent products that crippled not only our own economy, but the world’s, turned around and got bailed out, and then paid handsome rewards to their CEOs for their good work and healthy balance sheets!

I wish we could say that the church does a better job with all of this than the rest of the world, but let’s face it: our Christian brethren can be pretty tasteless in their own right. There are the charlatans out there, those who shill for the prosperity gospel, literally selling the idea that giving to God (or at least to their version of God) promises wealth upon wealth in return. Perhaps most disturbing in that regard is the news that we have exported the prosperity gospel to Africa, where the poorest of the poor are being ripped off for promises of riches beyond their wildest dreams. If there is a better definition of taking God’s name in vain, I don’t know what it is.

In short, the conversation about money in our culture seems to lack any kind of moral compass. And instead of trying to provide that moral compass, the church has left the conversation altogether so as not to get sucked down by filthy lucre. So we see money as a necessary evil that we deal with only because we have to, and hopefully, when we do, we can dispense with it as quickly as possible. Even if the preacher says he’s going to talk about it, it probably means we will get out of worship early, because there won’t be that much to say, right?

Can I be so naïve as to suggest a question that might help us focus, something to help lend a moral vision to this conversation? What does Jesus say about money?

One thing he says is that money is an obstacle. That’s the message in our lesson from Matthew. A wealthy young man approaches Jesus, wanting to know how to make it to heaven. It sounds like he’s a pretty faithful individual, keeping up with the laws of Moses and the like. But when Jesus tells him to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him, he goes home saddened because he had so much. Ultimately, his wealth keeps him from following Jesus. And then there’s the moment where Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven. In short, money can easily get in the way of our relationship with God.

While he names this reality, Jesus also wants to take the power out of money. Think of the people who made a big show of their giving to the Temple, and how Jesus singles out the poor widow who gave all that she had. Or how the Pharisees think they have trapped him into a question of whether it is faithful to pay taxes, but he says instead, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Or how he uses the parable of the workers, some of whom work all day, and some of whom work only a short while, but all are paid the same wage, much to their surprise. Jesus works hard to chip away at that stumbling block, trying to take the power, emotional and otherwise, out of money so that we might see it for what it actually is: a resource.

And that’s what Paul is getting at in our lesson from his second letter to the church at Corinth. He writes to them, speaking about the gospel itself, that ridiculous notion we have the foolish audacity to believe in, that the God who created this mind-bogglingly large universe is the same God who loves us enough to experience the joys and heartbreak of human life right there with us. And that, Paul says choosing his words very carefully is a treasure.

And yet, notice what else he says: that treasure is not ours. Preaching doesn’t belong to the preacher. Light doesn’t belong to those who shine. Money doesn’t belong to the wealthy. Ministry doesn’t belong to the church. They are all treasures we hold in fragile clay jars, a power that ultimately belongs to God and not to us. In short, my friends, it is all about stewardship: being faithful caretakers of the resources and even of the very gospel itself that God has given us. And though that might tempt us to think that we hold some awesome power in our hands, the truth is that it isn’t ours at all!

I was reminded of that this past week. I was taking part in an evangelism conference down in Florida, where I met a man who pastors a church very much like ours. One of his members used to work for Apple. His church was struggling financially, and the dark reality that the doors might close came up in conversation. As the session debated the point, he spoke up and said, “You know, at Apple, we constantly worked under the threat of closing our doors. Every time we had a new project launch, the gamble was so big that we were risking it all. And yet, we did it, time and time again.” And here’s the kicker: “If we at Apple had that kind of faith in our products, shouldn’t the church be able to lean into their faith in the God of it all?” Ouch.

With that harsh truth in mind, let me reflect back on our own history. In 1950, we were contemplating a loan of $25,000. In today’s money, that would be the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars. And that was with a membership that was half of what ours is now! Listen to what Harry Wilson, Clerk of Session at the time, said: “This loan of $25,000 looked very big for our church; but if we would have faith and back it up with works we would be able to meet the obligation.” The congregation voted for the loan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Friends, when I look back over those decades, there are two words that come to mind in how this church has approached money. Harry Wilson’s words about that loan illustrate both of them, and we would do well to keep them both in mind. The first is honesty. We don’t sugarcoat our challenges. We are thoroughly transparent with our finances. We tackle problems head on, and we do so with prayerful and thoughtful work. And we admit that it will take work.

And the second word is just as important: faith. We know that all of this treasure belongs not to the pastor, or the staff, or the session, or the members, or the Presbytery. Instead, it is God’s treasure. And there’s no hunting for it needed, because it is right there in our hands already! When we are faithful, when we are plugged into God’s desires rather than our own, then nothing can stop us!

Money? It’s a powerless stumbling a stumbling block. And yet to see it faithfully is to open our eyes to the power that God wields far beyond what’s in our wallet.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »