This Sermon Approved by Number 37

cattle and calf

(sermon 3/11/18)

Genesis 1:28-31

God blessed the human beings, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good. 

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Hannah, if I’ve done the math correctly, was about eight or nine years old when I first met her. She and her younger brother and her mother and father were members of the little southern Ohio church I first pastored. They lived on a farm, and they raised Angus cattle. Being a kid on a farm, you learn at a pretty young age that the livestock aren’t pets, and what their final destiny is going to be, so it isn’t wise to get too attached to any of them. They’re commodities, just identified by the number on the tags attached to their ears. But despite that, some animals do have a personality that makes them stand out from the others, and you do end up having favorites, and that was the case with Hannah this particular year and one of the herd. Well, time moved on, and the realities of raising Angus cattle continued, too. Sometime later that year, Hannah’s mother had made hamburgers for dinner, and Hannah got very upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she said “Oh, Mom – don’t tell me it’s Number 37!”

Hannah definitely had a good understanding of where her food came from – how it was produced, where it came from, every step of the process that led to it being on the dinner table. But most of us don’t have that kind of direct connection or understanding. At best, most of us have some vague assumptions about where our food comes from, and how it gets to us, but in most of our cases there are some pretty big gaps in our food awareness. There are a lot of details that we don’t know; and there are other things that we know enough to know that we don’t really want to know. Most of us, I suppose, have seen news stories or documentary films of the terrible conditions endured by calves, and chickens, and other animals in the mass production of our food. And we know that the people who grow, and pick, and process our food are often paid terribly, unsustainably low wages for what’s often backbreaking work. And we also know that these conditions exist in order for us, as consumers, to be able to buy our food at the absolute lowest cost possible – and really, who doesn’t like low prices?

Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us that according to the scriptures, our sacred story that shapes our faith and bonds us into a community, all of creation is God’s, not ours – and that God has instructed us, entrusted us, to care for it, and tend to it; to use it wisely to provide for us, and not to abuse or exploit it. I think it’s a shame that some people read that passage and latch on to those phrases to “subdue” and  to “have dominion over” creation, and mistakenly take it to mean that God told us we can do whatever we want with it – exploit it, trash it, even destroy it, because really, it doesn’t matter – when Jesus comes back he’ll set everything right again. It’s a shame, since this passage actually means the exact opposite of that.

We’ve been created by God in God’s own image, and that includes that part of God that creates, and cares for, and sustains. We discover another part of being created in God’s image just a little while later in Genesis, when we hear the story of Cain and Abel, and we’re told that according to God, yes, we are indeed expected to be our brother’s keeper, just as God is our keeper. Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we were created to tend and care for one another, and to do whatever is in our power to see that all of God’s people are treated fairly and justly.

So today, when food is the topic in our “Tread Lightly” Lenten series, I invite us all to consider that all of the decisions we make about our food actually come together to become a kind of statement of faith. Those decisions reflect what we believe about having been created in God’s image. They reflect the way we understand our place in creation, and not just being in it, but being part of it.

You heard some things from the youth today about the boycott that the Presbyterian Church endorses in order to get Wendy’s to agree to fair payment to the tomato growers who provide their restaurants with produce, trying to get them to sign on to the same fair-pay agreement signed by most, if not all of their competitors. You heard about the “Meatless Monday” movement, which would result in significant environmental benefit. There’s a movement that I’m sure Number 37 could get behind.

Beyond those things, we can be more mindful in general about buying foods that are locally and sustainably produced, cutting down on fossil fuel use and pollution caused by long-distance transport and environmentally-unfriendly production methods.

We should consider doing all those things, not just because this happened to be a topic on our Lenten calendar, not because they’re trendy, not because they might be considered “politically correct.” We shouldn’t do them just to show everyone that we’re nice, socially conscious, responsible people, although hopefully, we are. The reason we’re talking about this subject during Lent, as we’re engaged in self-reflection as we approach the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday, and the reason we should make wise decisions about our food, is because it goes right to the core of what we believe about incarnation. I don’t mean the kind of incarnation of God in Jesus, but, through Jesus, the kind of incarnation of God in us. God dwells within each of us, and because of that, and out of gratitude for it, we’re called to use the thoughtfulness and compassion that God created in us to be God’s agents in creation – to help establish healing, and wholeness, and justice, for creation, and for all people wherever it’s lacking. To be part of that Hebrew concept of tikkun olam; mending or repairing the brokenness in the world. That’s all a part of the charge that God gave us in Genesis.

At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the world, and warns us that salt is useless if it loses its flavor. Frankly, I think the bigger danger isn’t the salt losing its flavor, but rather, that the salt would just stay in the shaker and not seasoning anything, and just feeling proud of itself for being salt. So this Lent, let’s consider how we can be salt outside of the shaker. Let’s consider how making wise and ethical decisions about what food we will or won’t buy can be that salt, seasoning and adding flavor to the world, and to the lives of others.

Thanks be to God.

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Make It So.

(sermon 2/18/18 – First Sunday in Lent – Scout Recognition Sunday)

Courier-Journal 2018-02-18

2 Corinthians 8:10-14

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.

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If you saw the church’s email this week, you know that this Lenten season, our worship will be based on themes suggested by the 2018 Lenten Calendar issued by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Our Creation Care Ministry Team first brought the calendar up for discussion, and after looking it over, it seemed like a good resource for us all to focus on during Lent. The calendar is really very good. Each week, there’s a scriptural reference lifting up a particular theme – some issue of how we might live in ways to help create a more just world, not only in terms of creation care but other related areas of justice, as well. The rest of the days of the week offer thoughts and questions for reflection, easy action items to do, and other things that are related to the weekly scriptural text and theme. Each Sunday in Lent, the preaching text will be that weekly scripture passage from the calendar, so using this Lenten calendar will be an easy way to relate what we get into on Sunday, throughout the following week. I hope that you’ll make use of this calendar; Thursday’s email included a link to download a copy of it, and if you can’t make that work, if you call the church office we’ll make sure you get a copy of it.

This first week’s topic is giving. Helping to create a more just world, in all the ways we talk about justice, is at the core of how we show gratitude to God for God’s goodness. It’s at the core of how Jesus teaches us to be his followers. Short of worship itself, it’s the primary way that we express our love for God. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the actions that we take to create a more peaceful and just world for all of God’s people, and the creation that we’re part of, are themselves a form of worship.

In this part of Second Corinthians that we heard this morning, Paul points out that God wants us to give of ourselves, not out of a sense of burden – and certainly not out of some attempt to buy our salvation through good works – but rather, as an expression of our faith, and out of thanks for knowing that we’re already part of God’s beloved community. Paul lays out some fairly straightforward thoughts, that in this kind of giving out of thanks to God, it’s what’s in the heart that matters, not the actual numbers. He essentially says the same thing here that Jesus did when he pointed out the poor widow who dropped three pennies in the offering plate, saying that she’d given more than all the others who were better off – because they had all given only out of their surplus, but that she’d given all that she had.

When we think of giving, that’s usually what we picture – putting money in the plate. Mailing a check. Automatic Bill Pay. Maybe giving materials in kind. But there’s another way to think about our giving, too. How about the idea of giving to create a more just world, by buying the more expensive Equal Exchange coffee, or chocolate, that you know the producers are being paid fairly for? Or spending a bit more for produce that was grown without using dangerous pesticides that pollute the environment or wipe out the honey bee population, which all our agricultural industry depends on? Or making the upfront investment on energy-saving retrofits, to cut down on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? Or spending more for clothing or shoes that you know weren’t made by children working as slave labor? I know as well as anyone else that those lower prices are tempting, but it really is important to us, as followers of Christ, to live in ways, including the way we spend our money, that help to eliminate injustice and to care for our creation however we can. And if we don’t act in ways that eliminate or minimize those injustices, then we become complicit in them.

But there’s another kind of giving, as a component of our faith, that Paul talks about in this passage, that I think we have to think about this morning. It’s the giving of our full attention to something. Giving our commitment to see something through. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth that if they’d set out to do something, or had even thought about doing it, that now was the time to follow through and finish it. Stop all the talking. Make it so. I’ll bet that the scouts here today have been taught the same thing in their training – to have the perseverance to see something through to its conclusion. Even if it’s hard, even if you hit obstacles, if it’s the good thing, the right thing, then push through and complete it.

We’re in a time now where we have some major incomplete business in our society. We come here today with our hearts grieving over the most recent mass school shooting, in Florida. We haven’t even fully processed the last school shooting, the one here in Kentucky just a month ago, and now we’re dealing with another one.

You know, in a sense there really aren’t any new arguments to make about this issue. There aren’t any new insights that haven’t been offered, over, and over and over again. After every single one of these tragedies, one group calls for stricter gun control laws, and says that the problem is caused by too many guns being available, and points out that an eighteen-year old can’t buy alcohol because we don’t believe they’re mature enough to use it responsibly; but they can buy an AR-15. Another group says it isn’t a gun issue at all, it’s really a mental health issue – that there were plenty of guns when they were growing up, and every kid had a gun or two and even on occasion brought them to school to show off, and these kinds of shootings weren’t taking place. Another group says it’s all because we’ve lost our moral compass as a society, and that we’ve failed to instill in people an understanding of the value of human life and human dignity, and that the violence that bombards us continually on television and online and in video games has morally desensitized us. We have become morally numb, morally tone-deaf; and if you need any evidence of that, all you have to do is look at the front of today’s Citizen-Journal – the Sunday after this terrible mass murder, they don’t see how morally reprehensible it is to wrap their paper in a four-page wraparound ad for rifles and handguns.

To be perfectly honest, each one of those issues has contributed to the situation. The problem is complex; there isn’t any one single fix – but in the middle of the bickering and arguing, *none* of the problems get addressed. Not only are our gun control laws not reasonably adjusted for better safety and protection of us all, some of the laws already in place have been cut back. And there really is no adequate mental health care delivery system in this country, but in the wake of any shooting-of-the-moment, no one seriously proposes any legislation to fix that problem.  So lines get drawn, and all the ugly stereotypes get dragged out. Gun owners are all a bunch of stupid redneck hillbillies who just want to go around shooting up stuff and don’t care about innocent lives being lost. People calling for better gun regulation are all a bunch of wussified libtards who don’t understand guns, who hate guns, or are afraid of guns, and who want to take away everyone’s guns and get rid of the Second Amendment. And in the end, everyone just gets mad at each other, and everyone keeps talking across one another, and not a single blessed thing gets done.

Stepping into that, you know that tonight we’re hosting a Community Conversation on Guns and Gun Violence – not  because we think we’re going to come up with some new argument, or some easy one-step-fixes-everything solution. We’re doing it so that all of us, who come to this problem from different vantage points, different beliefs, different backgrounds, can have a civil conversation. So we can grant good, noble intentions of the other. So we can honestly hear one another, and maybe, just maybe, as we see the goodness and good intentions and humanity of one another, we can find some common ground, and find some way to move the conversation forward.

Because it’s time – no, it’s way past time, that we come together as God’s people to demand an end to this craziness. This is not a partisan political issue; it’s a matter of being God’s agents of love in this world. It’s a matter of faith. And as a matter of faith, all of us have to demand that our leaders enact sensible legislation that addresses all sides of this complex problem – because the problem has to be solved. Close loopholes and fix problems in the current gun laws. Enact national policy that establishes adequate, affordable, accessible mental health care, and that most definitely makes it impossible for the dangerously mentally ill to have access to guns. As Paul advised the Corinthians, it’s time for our leaders, and for us as people of God, and the people who put those leaders in place, to finish doing this good, this right, this important thing. And Church, if our society is in a state of moral failing, it’s on us – not the government – to reinstill that respect for human dignity and human life, and helping people to see how we’re all created in God’s image, and worthy of love. So if you think the answer is better gun legislation, contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on it. Make it so. And if you believe that this is a mental health problem, then contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on that. We need to do this, because just as with other forms of our giving, if we can do something to help end an injustice, and we don’t do it, we become complicit in it.

God calls us, God leads us, God is begging us to do this – because just as every time one of these tragedies happen, and our hearts break, God’s heart breaks, too.

We need to work toward a time when people remember “active shooter drills” in schools as some odd thing from the past, the same way that we now think of the “duck and cover drills” that came before them. In the name of Christ, whose name we carry, we need to work to make the kind of peaceful and just society where the biggest thing these scouts have to worry about is who’s going to win the Pinewood Derby.  It’s time, and it’s our calling, to make it so.

Thanks be to God.

Use the Oil You’ve Got

(sermon 11/12/17)

lamp oil

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

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There’s an unassuming-looking man with an easy smile, a quick laugh, and an immense talent who lives in New York City named Sam Zygmontowicz. Sam is arguably the greatest violin maker living in the world today. He’s a colleague of George’s; we bump into him from time to time at violin functions, and George communicates with him via email on a somewhat routine basis. George considers it a real honor and a great help when he’s able to get one of his instruments in Sam’s hands, and have Sam check it out and offer him pointers on how it might be made even better. But when Sam does that, he never gives cut-and-dried “you need to do this and this and this” kind of advice. Instead, he just drops a trail of bread crumbs, as George puts it – giving him information bits that get him on the right track, but George still has to do the legwork – he has to use his own knowledge and intellect to really put the pieces together for himself and use the information in the way that works best for him. I suspect most of us can think of some teacher, professor, or boss who helped us to develop our own skills by giving us the same kind of help.

Most of the stories that Jesus told in order to teach us were similar to that. They’re trails of breadcrumbs that get us started on our way, but still leave us needing to go further. They leave us with at least as many questions as they answered. It’s a way of teaching that requires you to continue to engage your brain, to keep thinking about what’s being said, and asking questions, and maybe drawing new or different answers out of the same story at different times.

This story from Matthew’s gospel is certainly no exception to that.We’re all familiar with this particular story, and we’re all familiar with what we’ve generally considered its point: Jesus calls the five bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra lamp oil, and ran back to get more, foolish because they weren’t prepared when the bridegroom was delayed in arriving. So the moral of the story is that unlike those foolish bridesmaids, we need to be prepared, laying up enough spiritual stores, as it were, to sustain us until the Lord returns – we shouldn’t be found spiritually short-stocked when Jesus, the eternal bridegroom, returned.

I don’t mean to dismiss that meaning. It’s a valid moral to the story, a good spiritual lesson for us to hear. But at the same time, I always like to study a passage and try to see if there isn’t something other than the generally assumed, traditional understanding that we might also benefit from. I know that lots of people take the scriptures and twist them, often beyond the point of recognition, to say whatever they want, often crazy, ridiculous, even obscene things. People have done that over the ages, and they continue to do it; we just had an example of that in the national news this past week. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to look at a passage and see if there aren’t additional understandings we can draw out of it that’s still consistent with Christ’s teaching and the overall witness of the scriptures.

As I was researching this passage, and reading what other people have thought about it, I came across an article that someone had written that I thought had some real merit. In the article, the author questions the traditional understanding of this passage. She questioned the reason we’ve typically assumed Jesus was calling those five bridesmaids foolish. Was it because they’d fallen asleep before the bridegroom arrived? No, because all ten of them had done that. Was it really because they didn’t bring extra oil? Well, I don’t know, think about that for a moment. Would you consider yourself foolish if you left your house to go to a party with plenty of gas in your tank, but you didn’t also bring a few extra cans of gas in the trunk, just in case? Of course not; it wouldn’t be reasonable to think you’d need to do that. And what if the bridegroom had been delayed even longer than he was? If even the five bridesmaids who brought more oil ran out because they didn’t bring even more, would they have been foolish then, too? And if the bridegroom was delayed in getting where he was supposed to be at a certain time, wouldn’t *he* have been the foolish one for not leaving in time to account for traffic on the Gene Snyder at that hour, instead of the bridesmaids? Isn’t that typical – the guy screws up, and somehow it’s still the woman’s fault? Many Mormons have a practice of stockpiling a full year’s worth of food to tide them over in case of some extreme cataclysmic event. But would we consider them foolish if such a catastrophe really did happen, but the actual crisis ended up requiring *367* days’ worth of food? Probably not.

The author of this article suggested – and I think she’s correct – that maybe, what made the five bridesmaids foolish wasn’t that they didn’t have enough oil. Maybe it was that they missed out on the party because they ran back to get more oil. Maybe they were foolish because they didn’t just stay, and use the oil they had, trusting that the bridegroom would get there in time for them, even though their oil supply was running low. Instead, they used what little oil they had left to run back to buy more, buying into their own fears and worries rather than just staying put and trusting the bridegroom to come through. If they’d have done that, they’d have been fine, being there when he arrived.

I think that makes a lot of sense. And when Jesus says “stay awake!” at the end of the story, he’s saying to stay alert, and stay on focus, doing what God has called you to do, and faithfully using the resources God has given you to do it. Maybe, in this story, Jesus is saying to make sure that however much oil you may have, to remain focused, and to use the oil you’ve got faithfully to the very end, and trusting the rest to God.

And you know, that makes for a pretty good message for Stewardship Sunday, too – this culmination of the season when we’ve prayerfully considered how we’re supposed to use the financial resources – the “lamp oil” –  that God has given us, whether great or small – realizing that in a very real way, the way we use our oil, the way we use our financial resources, is itself our statement of faith.

So when we turn in our pledges this morning, let it be a sign to God, and to ourselves, that in gratitude to God, we’re joyfully committing to using the oil we’ve got, in the way that God intended when it was provided to us. That we aren’t going to give in to our worries and fears and turn away from where God is telling us to be, or to use our resources in ways other than the way God wants us to do. I promise you, if we all do that today, it will be like music to God’s ears – music more beautiful than even one of Sam’s violins could ever make.

Thanks be to God.

 

A Coin Called Gratitude

(sermon 10/22/17)

denarius - tribute penny

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This morning, we hear another story from Matthew’s gospel, this one immediately following the one we heard last week. At this point in Matthew, tensions are building between Jesus and the various power groups of the time, and this tension is continually building up to the climax point of the story that we all know is coming a just a few chapters later.

In this passage, we’re told that two groups came to Jesus – the Pharisees and the Herodians. It’s an odd coalition, since the Pharisees and the Herodians were political opponents, each vying for power against the other. The Herodians were a political group whose power was derived by their open support of the occupying Roman government. They were the “go along to get along” group within Jewish society. Many people felt that the Herodians were sellouts – that if they could even still be called Jews, they were apostate Jews who had allowed the norms and standards of the day to divert them from the true Jewish faith and what the Jewish scriptures clearly taught, which, presumably, would never permit working with an occupying government. By contrast, the Pharisees derived their power by portraying themselves as the true voice of the people, the supposedly “true,” pure Jews who hadn’t allowed their faith to be distorted by the society around them. In their role, the Pharisees prided themselves on a meticulous, rigorous, highly pietistic observation of the faith. They still pretty much went along with the Roman occupiers, but they gained popularity with the people by at least putting to voice the religious and nationalistic thoughts of the general population before ultimately going along with Rome in the end.

So when it came to the issue of paying the tax mentioned in this story, the groups were really of two different minds. The tax needed to be paid using a particular Roman coin – a denarius. In value, it was a day’s wage for the average worker, the first-century equivalent of Joe Six-Pack. It wasn’t anything big or fancy; in fact, here’s a reproduction of the coin itself – it’s hardly bigger than a modern dime. Being supportive of the Roman government, the Herodians supported paying this tax, considering it just the price we pay for the benefits and protection given by the government, even if it was sometimes heavy-handed. But the Pharisees took the opposite approach, saying people of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be forced to pay this tax – which made them as popular with the people then as any political group who wants to lower your taxes today. The Pharisees’ argument against them having to pay the tax was made on religious grounds. The coin itself bore the image of the emperor, and the inscription that ran around the edge of the coin identified the emperor as divine – which was clearly inconsistent with Jewish belief. The Pharisees argued, then, that for the people to pay this tax using a coin that called the emperor divine would be a violation of their deeply held religious beliefs – it would make them complicit in something that their religion taught them was improper and immoral.

But now, these two opposing groups find a common cause – they’re both feeling the pinch of large numbers of people following Jesus and his teaching, instead of falling in line with one of them. It’s in their mutual interest to find a way to get rid of this upstart. So they come up with this attempt to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used to discredit him. They ask him if it’s right to pay the Roman tax. If he says yes, the people will all turn away from him and hate him. If he says no, then he’s become an enemy of the Roman state, and we all know from history that there was very little future in that.

In the end, Jesus gives them the brilliant answer that we’ve all heard many times. He doesn’t fall for the trap. He rejects the Pharisees’ claim that to pay a tax with the coin that is inscribed with something contrary to their religious beliefs would be inconsistent with their faith. He rejects their argument that to do so would make them complicit in what they perceive as immorality. He simply acknowledges that in this life, there are things that are the emperor’s, and things that are God’s, and we’re responsible for both – but by far, the more important thing for us is not get bogged down with silly, counterproductive arguments, and to focus on giving to God the things that are God’s.

Ever since this story was written, Christians have debated about where that actual divide is. What is the emperor’s – what is the world’s – and what is God’s? What do we owe to our civil government, either in terms of our money or our obedience to civil laws established for the general population which might conflict with our own particular beliefs, and what do we owe to God?

Based on the many times Jesus is quoted in the gospels talking about faithful use of our money, our financial resources, there’s really no question that regardless of how much we might owe the government, we still have an obligation to use our finances in a faithful manner to support the kingdom of God, and most directly, to do so by financially supporting the local congregation in a way that is reflective of our total resources. Someone was said that if a preacher were to preach about money in the same proportion that Jesus is quoted about it, the preacher would deliver 17 sermons about money per year. I’ve never actually checked that statistic, but I suspect it’s probably about right. But don’t worry – I know that if I preached 17 sermons about financially supporting the church per year, you’d run me out of town, so I’m not going to preach that many money sermons – but I am going to preach some, and this is one of them.

You know that we’re in the midst of “Engage,” our annual stewardship campaign. And all through this campaign, you’ve been hearing – and you’re going to hear again today – about some of the amazing and wonderful things about our congregation; the things that should make us really enjoy and be excited about what we’re all about, both in terms of spiritual support and development for those of us who are part of the congregation, as well as in terms of our broader outreach to the community. Springdale is indeed a remarkably active congregation, living out the kingdom of God in both of those directions, and as we truly, prayerfully think about what Springdale means, to the community at large and especially in our own personal lives, we should be grateful to God for this congregation and we should gladly support it financially.

In your stewardship materials that were mailed out to you, you found a “step” chart, that showed how many households were supporting the church at five various levels of giving. I think it’s helpful to see where we ourselves are on those steps in relation to how many are on other steps – and especially, to consider if maybe this is the year that we should step up. Maybe it’s time to step up to the next level on the diagram. Maybe it’s just time to move somewhere up even within the same step, but then maybe next year move into the next level. I can tell you that I’m increasing my pledge this year, and I invite you, I challenge you, to do the same. I’m doing because, yes, I know the pragmatic reality that everything costs money, and every year everything costs more – but mostly, I’m doing it because I know how important this congregation is to my own spiritual life and development.

Being faithful stewards of the financial resources that God has given to us is a very important part of “giving to God what is God’s.” But it’s also important to remember that our time has been given to us by God. And our talents, our skills, our passions, all of these have been given by God. Because of that, we need to be faithful in the giving of those things back to God, too. These are two faces of the same coin, if you will, of giving to God what is God’s, and if the coin in the gospel story is a denarius, maybe we can call this coin “Gratitude” – gratitude for the fullness of the love and mercy that God has blessed us with. That’s exactly why this year, in addition to the standard financial pledge card that came in your stewardship mailing, there’s also the checklist to indicate how you might like to offer your time and talents in service to God. I hope that everyone will fill out both sides of that card, representing both sides of that coin called Gratitude – both sides being important spiritual disciplines that help us to deepen our faith.

In this story, Jesus asks his opponents whose image is the coin created in. For ourselves, we all know whose image we’re created in – God’s. We’re supposed to reflect God’s image in this world. In order to do that, we need to act in ways similar to the one whose image we were created in. And being faithful stewards, with both our money and our time, with both sides of the coin, is how we do that.

Thanks be to God.

God Isn’t Fair!

(sermon 9/24/17)

unfair god

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Today, we heard two really deep and rich texts; you could do a month of sermons on either one of them, but I wanted to look at these two texts and think about the one commonality they share. In both of them, we’re looking at things where people perceive that God was not fair. God just wasn’t being fair. You heard that first story; you know the story of Jonah and all of his trials and tribulations as he did what God had called him to do, and of course we’re picking this up at the very end of the story – he’s very upset, because ultimately, at least, Jonah did what God had asked of him; he’d gone to Assyria and told the people of the city, “Forty days, and you’re history – God is going to overthrow you; you’re going to be destroyed. And of course, we know the outcome of that story, that hearing that terrible thing that was about to befall them, they repented and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy – and God relented. God did not do what was originally the plan. And of course, Jonah is upset at this, for a couple of reasons, I suspect. First, I imagine he just felt like a fool. He told the people of the city what was going to happen to them, and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, so he’s got a bit of egg on his face. But also the fact that these are the despised Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, in our equivalent they’d be like North Korea and Iran and al Quaeda and ISIS all rolled into one; if anyone deserved receiving the wrath of God it would have been them, and it didn’t happen. So Jonah was complaining, he was grousing, he was saying, “God, you are being unfair!”

Then in the second story, this is one of Jesus’ parables, we’re told that the Kingdom of God is like this story, where the workers in the field who were there and worked just an hour are paid the same as the ones who were there working hard all day. The first workers looked at the situation and said, “This is unfair!” And yet, we’re being told that this is the way that the Kingdom of God is. Unfair. And I suppose that’s true; God is unfair, especially if you’re looking at these two stories from one standpoint versus another. If you’re experiencing the first story through the eyes of Jonah, it certainly looks unfair. If you’re experiencing that gospel lesson, the parable, through the eyes of the people who started working at the beginning of the day, it certainly seems unfair.

I think it’s kind of interesting, whenever we hear these kinds of stories from the scriptures – I know I do this, and I suspect most of us do – we tend to experience the story through the eyes of the “good guys.” We tend to automatically put ourselves in the place of the people who are doing what we think God wants of us; we’re the ones who are working hard; we’re the ones who are adhering to what God wants us to do, so we deserve the reward, and the others deserve something else, or something less. We’re the good guys.

But what if that isn’t the case? And frankly, I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that if we look at our own situations, we’re probably like the people who receive the undeserved benefit of God’s unfairness. We’re the ones, like the people in the city of Nineveh, who needed to be reminded, who needed to have it pointed out to us, that where we were headed wasn’t really God’s direction. We are like the latecomers in the parable. From that standpoint, God’s choices don’t seem so bad, do they? We’re benefitting from this unmerited, gracious, extravagant kind of unfairness on God’s part.

I think that’s an important point of both of these stories. They both tell us something about what God is doing in the world; that God’s sense of fairness is somehow different from the way we might perceive it or want it to be. That God is calling each of us into a new and different kind of existence, with different rules. God is actually trying to create a new kind of community. A new kind of being together. Almost a new kind of family, if you will. Through God’s turning things upside-down, God’s changing the world through this new way of understanding and being, God is establishing what we call eternal life. That isn’t just something out in the future, in the sweet by-and-by; God is saying no, I want this to be the way that you live in the here and now, and that means some new rules, some new ways of looking at things and understanding things are going to apply.

One of the things that happens in order to usher in this new way of being is this right here. This – the church. I don’t mean the roof and the walls; I mean you and me. God is calling us into a new way of experiencing life. We’re being called into a new way of being a family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the church lately, for a few reasons, but one of those reasons was that, as you know, we’re beginning to kick off our annual stewardship campaign, “ENGAGE.” You’ll be seeing and hearing more about that in the coming weeks. As I was thinking about the stewardship campaign, I was considering the reality that there are two primary reasons why someone will support a church with their time and financial resources. The first is that to do so is just the way we were raised; we were taught that this is just the right thing to do; you support your church – it’s a sense of duty; of obligation. And that’s correct; for us, as Christians, it is. The second reason why someone might support a church congregation is because of what it means to us. What is the significance; what’s the benefit; what’s the importance of this group of people in *my* life?

We know that the church gives us opportunities in several directions. First, it gives us a place to explore and deepen our faith; our spirituality; both as an individual and as parts of a larger group, as we work this faith journey out together. It also gives us a good and easy way to engage with the world around us and to do something positive, taking concrete steps to make the world a better place and to improve the lives of the people within it. It gives us a place, and a way, to roll up our sleeves and really make a difference, and not just talk about it, and not just worry about it, and not just share pictures on Facebook about it, but to actually do something about it. And I think the third important thing that the church is to us is that it is this new kind of community. It is this completely illogical, irrational, new way of understanding what the word “family” means.

Family. We’re a family that is brought together not by blood relationship. We’re not brought together by shared socio-economic status. We’re not brought together by race, or ethnicity. We’re not brought together by any of those other categories that the world normally thinks about. We’re called together in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Called – think about that. Each and every one of you have been called by God to be part of this family. What does that mean to you?

He was a young man, in his late twenties. He was the very definition of his generation. If there was some hot new electronic gadget, he had it. He lived in a city. His parents lived 500 miles away. His siblings and his high school and college friends all lived at least that far away. He saw them all routinely, virtually, on the computer screen, on the phone, on the tablet. He was connected with them through Instagram, and texting, and yes, even Facebook, even though he didn’t like it much but that’s where he could connect with his parents so he did it. He was connected. When he talked about the issues of the day, he did it online, with people from around the world. When he wanted some recreation, some downtime, he grabbed his gaming controller and his headset, and he teamed up with someone from Germany, and someone from Sweden, and someone from Australia, and together they joined up and zapped aliens, or wrestled with trolls, or whatever the online game called for. He’s connected. He is more connected than any other generation that’s ever been – virtually – but then again, he really isn’t. And he knows it. Because he knows that someday, the batteries will die, and when they do, he’s going to be sitting in his apartment, alone. And his parents and his friends are still going to all be hundreds of miles away. And he knows he’ll still be stressed out, because he has to work two jobs just to be able to barely make ends meet, to pay the basic bills and to make payments on his student loan to pay for an education that was a thousand percent more expensive than that of his parents, and he isn’t able to save anything for his future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and there’s no one around him that he can share all this with. He’s alone. He is part of the most connected generation ever, and he’s still alone.

She was well past retirement. She’d lived a long and productive and happy life along with her husband, but he had died five years ago. And she got out of the house from time to time, but it was different now, being just her. Not experiencing life with the person who was connected to you for decades. And when she did get out, she’d often have the experience shared by so many older people – other people, younger people, and they were almost all younger people, actively avoiding her, maybe not wanting to be reminded that someday they, too, will be older. More often than the active avoidance, though, she experienced that feeling of invisibility that so many older people experience. To walk through a room and have no one notice. When she was home, she was alone. She realized that it had been a month since she’d known the simple, wonderful gift of another human being’s touch. A hug. A hand on a shoulder. The stroke of a cheek. She longed for that. She was set financially, she didn’t have to worry about that, but what she wanted the most was just simple human contact. She was alone.

The two of them both found what they were looking for here – in church. As different as they were on the surface, they ended up being part of the same groups and classes, and volunteering for the same mission projects around town. He sat in one pew; she sat in the pew just behind him. Over time, this odd couple struck up a friendship. They cared for one another; they watched out for one another. They found the personal, human connection that they’d both been hoping for. Through the church, they became family. She danced at his wedding. He cried at her funeral.

They knew what was special about this – the church. They knew the great gift that the world has given to the world, and to us by treating us unfairly, in a way we needed but didn’t’ deserve, by establishing the church and uniting us in the Spirit to be part of it. They knew the great extravagance of the God who calls us together.

So, is God unfair? Friends, you should shout it from the top of your lungs, “YES!!! God is unfair!!!” And for that,

Thanks be to God.

It Mite Be (sermon 11/8/15)

widows mites

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:38-44

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The envelope arrived in her mailbox looking like so many of the ones that came before it. Her first name printed in bold red ink, asking for her attention to this urgent request. It was the perfect teaser to get her to open the envelope, but truth be told, she’d have opened it anyway. What was the latest news from the Reverend’s ministry? What was the urgent situation that had caused him to send out this letter? We’re so close to reaching a breakthrough for the gospel in this remote location of the world; we just need a bit more resources to make it happen. Or we suffered a setback leaving our ministry financially strapped. If you could just be a faithful servant of God and give just a little bit more, just a little bit more. You’ve been one of our most faithful supporters in the past, won’t you please help us through this current time of need? I just know that God will send you a special blessing for being so generous.

So because it was such an emergency, she sat right down and wrote out a check for the Reverend. It wasn’t much, only ten dollars, but it was all she could spare. And then she went back to her dinner – the fourth time that week that dinner was a can of tuna and a small portion of store-brand macaroni and cheese, served with the second cup of tea made from the same tea bag. Some variety would be nice, she thought, but everything is just so expensive these days, and you just had to have your priorities.

In the portion of Mark’s gospel that today’s Lectionary story is part of, Jesus has been criticizing the scribes, the religious leadership of the time, for any number of things. At the beginning of this particular story, Jesus is blasting the scribes for, as he put it, “devour(ing) widow’s houses,” in order to preserve their own luxury and perks. And right after that comment, Mark turns our attention to the scene that plays out in today’s reading. You can see it in your mind: the wealthy people dropping large sums of money in the offering, but it was still just coming out of their surplus – they weren’t going to miss it; they hardly felt any sense of sacrifice giving it up, if they felt any sacrifice at all. And then we see her – a poor widow, dropping in her two mites, these two tiny little copper coins – next to worthless, really, but still, it was all she had. She gave it because apparently she’d been led to believe by the scribes that that was what a good, faithful person should do. Her giving was most likely a sign of great faithfulness, and her act probably came from a pure place in her heart, just as was the case with the woman who got the Reverend’s latest urgent appeal. But based on the way the whole story is being told, it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ actual point was to praise the widow or to say that what she’d done was the right thing to do. Truth be told, it just might be a very different point Jesus is making. It seems more to me that, without taking anything away from the widow’s faithfulness or her good intentions, Jesus is incredulous at hat he’d just seen. I hear Jesus’ words in the context of what he’d just said before this. In that voice, Jesus seems to be saying, “Just look – do you see that? That’s the kind of harm that the scribes’ words cause; making even the poorest and most vulnerable fear God so much that they think they have to do something like that in order to gain God’s favor.”

This is another one of those texts that show up during stewardship pledge season, and it’s offered up in order for us all to seriously consider how we understand stewardship as part of our overall life of faith – that stewardship isn’t just paying our dues in order to be part of the club. Stewardship, the way we handle our personal finances to support God’s mission, is itself a spiritual discipline, just like prayer, or any other spiritual discipline, through which we express our love for God, and through which our faith is deepened and strengthened.

And most of the times when we hear sermons about this widow, she’s praised for her faith – which is indeed very great – and that we should all strongly consider whether we’re using our finances in the way God would want us to – which we should. But despite that, I can’t preach about this story in the same way that it usually is – that the woman is a model for us to aspire to, even if we never reach her degree of faith and commitment. To be honest, based on the total context of the story, I see the woman’s actions as a result of spiritual abuse, extortion, ecclesiastical malpractice, on the part of the religious leaders who had made her believe that such a total sacrifice, even in her extreme poverty, was what God would want from her.

So, here in the midst of our stewardship campaign, am I saying to not have the same mindset of the widow who gave all she had to the offering? Well, yes and no. Clearly, almost all of us could take a look at our stewardship giving and realize that the way God would prioritize our spending and giving would be different than the choices we make ourselves, and we should move to correct that. Most of us should truly be giving more to support God’s mission through our stewardship giving to the church.

On the other hand, in the midst of all the money talk this time of year, and the usually soft-pedalled but clear message to consider increasing our pledges, there are also those of us who can be made to feel guilty for not giving more. Some who are on fixed, and small, incomes who, if we aren’t careful, can be made to feel like they’re freeloaders, church-squatters who aren’t pulling their fair share just because they aren’t giving at some imagined level of giving. We all need to be very careful during our stewardship campaign to not make the same mistake as the scribes that Jesus was skewering for offering the same message. Sometimes, even if we aren’t trying to say that, that’s the way it can come across. I know; I’ve felt that same guilt when I was at my absolute poorest – when I was having those four tuna dinners per week. And I’m sure that many if not most of us here have been there at one point of their life or another, even if you aren’t there now.

I guess I can’t say it any more bluntly than this: if you have a limited income, for whatever reason, I’m speaking directly and specifically to you: If you’ve carefully considered what you can do to support the church and you’re doing that, do not feel like you have to go even further, depriving yourself of the things you need in life like the widow in the story did. I don’t believe God wanted her to do what she did, and I don’t believe God wants you to do the same thing, either, just because you think that’s how you’ll stay in God’s good graces.

Because the good news here is about exactly that – God’s good graces. God’s grace, God’s love and acceptance and mercy, are already yours. You can’t buy God’s love, there’s no giving God more of your money in order to get some special blessing. God already loves you and keeps you in the palm of his hands. You don’t need to feel any guilt about how you can or can’t financially support the church. If you’re in a precarious financial situation in your life, to be perfectly honest, the church should be reaching out trying to find ways to help support you, not the other way around. Of course, that would mean that the rest of us who are more financially able would need to increase our giving to make it possible.

Is that what Jesus’ message really is here? You never know – it just might be.

Thanks be to God.

The Eye of a Needle (sermon 10/11/15)

SONY DSC

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  – Mark 10:17-35

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It happened all the time as they went from town to town. He’d make an appearance in the synagogue, or the town square, and the people he encountered were amazed at him, some for the better and some for the worse. And eventually, he’d end up catching the eye of someone in the upper class, someone in the power structure, who would need to meet him in person. It seemed to play out like this in every town. Sometimes it was a religious leader, who wanted to test him for his religious orthodoxy. Other times, it was some toady of the Romans, who wanted to trick him into saying something treasonous against the government. Sometimes they just wanted to get up close to him because he was famous, because of the youTube video of him sending a Legion of demons into a herd of pigs that had gone viral. And other times, it was someone from an important family who’d gone to an Ivy League school who wanted to have some fun putting this uneducated hillbilly in his place. Every once in a while, though, they came to see him honestly, sincerely, wanting to hear him and learn from him. As he looked at this one, kneeling in front of him in this moment, he could see that this one was coming to him with questions from the heart. This one was for real.

“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” “What do I have to do to be saved?” There it was, the same thing that so many people asked, and each time they did, he’d turn their question upside down – making the point that a person’s salvation is like something that’s only visible out of the corner of your eye, but you can’t see if you try to focus directly on it. Rather than thinking about your own personal salvation, you need to concern yourself with extending gracious behavior to others.

That’s what he’d said in the past, and that was what he’d do here, too. So he told the man, you know what’s important; listing off half of the Ten Commandments – interestingly, all the ones that dealt with treating others with compassion and justice, and none of the ones dealing with honoring God. But even the man himself knew that wasn’t the whole story; there had to be more than just that. And of course, there was. Sell all your stuff. Give the money to the poor. Come follow me.

If the man were like so many of the others that had come to see him he’d have just left at that point and written Jesus off as an imbecile, a lunatic. So much for this one being the messiah; he’s just a garden-variety kook. But this man wasn’t like them. These words sunk in; they hit home. He left, dejected, upset, grieving over the thought of giving up all the perks, the comfort, the security, the power and prestige that came along with all of his possessions.

This story shows up in three of the four gospels in different variations, but none of them really tell us what the man did – did he reject Jesus’ words as being too hard to live up to, or did he actually follow through with it and become one of the nameless, faceless crowd of people following him wherever he went? We’ll never know, but either way, it’s clear that stepping into a new future, a way of living life more deeply shaped by faith can be painful. The emotional letting go that’s necessary to use whatever God has entrusted to us in ways that benefit others more, and ourselves less – that’s very hard.

Of course, it isn’t any accident that we get a Lectionary text like this now, in the time of year when many churches, including ours, are about to kick off their annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a time when we all have to wrestle with Jesus’ words. Surely, he didn’t mean that everyone who followed him had to sell all their possessions, did he? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us all to be poor; he isn’t saying there’s anything inherently great or noble about living in poverty. So how is this supposed to work?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any insights into how we’re supposed to understand this story in our own lives. I’m sure that there’s some line, and up to that line God wants us to benefit from the financial blessings we have; and beyond that line, we’re supposed to use those resources for the benefit of others. I don’t know where that line is exactly, not for you and not for me – but I admit that the whole question gives me a knot in the stomach, because in a world where half the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live on less than $1,200 per year, and where an income of $32,000 per year puts you in the wealthiest 1% of the world – richer than 6.3 billion of the world’s seven billion people – wherever that line is, I suspect God has drawn it in a very different place from where I have. This time of year, as we’re about to enter our stewardship campaign, we all need to deal with this admittedly unsettling question of whether we’re using our finances in the way God intended us to when we were given them. Are we using our financial resources in a way that pleases God?

Jesus’ words are unsettling for us when we try to apply them to our lives as individuals. Could another child be fed if the next time you buy a car, you go for the cloth seats instead of the heated leather ones, and gave the savings to the church? I know I could adopt a child at Montana de Luz through their “God’s Gift” program if I’d just go to Moondog’s Cafe one time fewer per month. Where’s the right balance? It’s the same when we ask this question together as the church. As an architect, I always admired the wonder and beauty of the world’s great cathedrals. I marveled at the work of the minds and hands of these artists, who were dedicating the very best of their talents to the honor and glory of God. But when I’d stand in those cathedrals, I could never totally shake the nagging question, how many children went to bed hungry, or even worse, how many people starved to death, that the church could have saved if it hadn’t diverted the money to the building of the beautiful cathedral? Was it a trade-off worthy of the Kingdom of God? We can feel the rich young man’s pain when we put ourselves in his place in the story.

Let’s look at things from that level for a moment. How would we respond if Jesus walked in here today, this morning – I’m up here blathering on and on, just like every Sunday, and Jesus comes walking through the back door and strides up here to the front. It’s amazing, a miracle. And everyone forgets they’re Presbyterians and crowds up to the front of the church to get close to Jesus, and the love and the compassion are incredible; it’s a big love-fest among us all. And Jesus smiles and he sits there and and speaks with us, and he says: “You’re a great congregation. You do so many wonderful things, reaching out to people in need. You provide a voice for social justice in the community in ways that most congregations don’t. But you lack one thing. This building is holding you back. It’s way too big for you, and it’s costing you a fortune to maintain. Sell it. Sell the Tiffany window, sell the Skinner organ, sell the real estate. Then take the money, and buy the vacant bank building over on Genesee Street as your home. It’s plenty big enough for more than all your needs, the main banking hall would seat more than twice your typical Sunday attendance, it’s energy efficient, much cheaper to maintain, handicapped accessible, has its own parking lot and a great central location. Then, take the rest of the proceeds from selling this place and use it for targeted mission outreach to the community downtown – serving the needs of the elderly in the apartment towers, the students at Lattimore Hall, the homeless and the poor living around downtown – be a real “downtown church.” Do all that, in order to serve others around you, and do it gladly, and then – then, you will have eternal life.”

What would we do if Jesus said that to us? Would Jesus ever say something like that? I don’t know. One thing for certain, even if he did say it, and even if we did it, there would be a whole lot of grief to process, just like with the rich young man. On the other hand, what if Jesus just said to increase our annual pledge by five or ten percent? Would we do that?

Is God calling us to give more of our individual finances to the kingdom of God? Collectively, are we being called in this generation to use the church’s resources with a different understanding of being missional than we’ve had in past generations? Do past mindsets and practices still hold true today? Those are questions that you and I both have to consider, and pray about as we try to be faithful to Christ – who can make us uncomfortable just as often as we’re comforted.

Thanks be to God.