The Spirit of Surrender

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A little bit later in the service today, we will be receiving a new member of this Body of Christ.
And we will ask Tom some questions… questions that all of us were asked when we joined this church, questions that our parents and sponsors were asked when we were baptized.
Do we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do we put our whole trust in God’s grace and promise to serve him as our Lord in union with the church Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

In light of those promises, I want to invite Pastor Todd to read a statement that Bishop Laurie has invited all churches in Iowa to share this morning:

Many of you have heard about the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier today. White nationalist and other right-wing groups had scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the removal of Confederate symbols in the city, including a statue of Robert E. Lee. This afternoon a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others. Two others have died. Self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi and hate groups were very open in their intentions to provoke violence, and Virginia’s Governor declared a state of emergency.

The United Methodist Church condemns the evil, hatred, and bigotry that led to this violence, and we ask you to pray for those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed. We also ask you to pray for the restoration of order and peace for the community of Charlottesville.

At this tragic time, may each one of us renew our commitment by our words and actions to create a world where all people live out the words in this prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

In today’s scripture from the book of Acts, we find a scene from the early Christian community.
In many ways, those early followers of Christ were trying to create that world in which their whole lives exemplified the teachings of Jesus. In the chapters before this, twice we hear tales of how the believers sold everything they had and made sure there were no needs in their community.
Twice, we have been told of their love and faithfulness and how everyone who joined this community of Christ was full of prayer and devotion and the church was growing exponentially every day.
They were standing up for what was right, willing to die for their beliefs, and always sought to share the love, grace, and mercy of God with one another.

But, living in community is not easy… in fact, to truly commit to living with one another is dangerous.
A community that truly cares for the needs of others is a community where people can share their needs without being embarrassed with them.
A community that heals the sick is a community where people are not afraid to speak the truth about their own disease.
A community that cares for the widows and the orphans and the oppressed is a community where people sacrificially put their own lives on the line for the lives of others.
A community that offers grace and mercy is also a community that speaks the truth and names evil and sin in the world when they see it.

And I imagine that many of us in this room today would hesitate and pull back from that type of life, because there are great risks involved in being vulnerable, open, honest, and accountable to a community.
We might have to take off our fake plastered on smiles and tell the truth about the problems in our lives.
We are afraid of our own tears, afraid of our own weakness, afraid that the community around us will turn their backs if they really knew what was going on.
We are afraid of what those outside the church might think if we took a stand for something that we truly believed in.

In Acts chapter 5, we find the story of this couple who just couldn’t surrender it all to God.
They had seen the acts of sacrificial love and were on the fringes of this community who shared everything in common without worrying about what belonged to whom. And perhaps they were inspired by a man named Barnabas who sold a plot of land and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples.
Immediately following his sacrificial act, Ananias and Sapphira decide to do the same… sort of.
They, too, sell a plot of land and bring the proceeds from the sale to the disciples… except they lie about how much they sold it for and keep some of it back for themselves.

In the midst of a community where all are of one heart and mind…
in the midst of a community where everyone cares for everyone else and no one has need…
in the midst of a community – united by the Holy Spirit – where no one says “that’s mine, you can’t have it…”
… Ananias and Sapphira are looking out for themselves.
They essentially embezzle money from the sale and hide it for themselves. In doing so, they reject the community, reject the Holy Spirit, and seek to provide for their own welfare.
Ananias and Sapphira were telling the church – it’s nice what ya’ll are doing, and we want to help, but we’re not going to become beholden to you.
We’re going to stand over here on the sidelines and get praise for our giving but we sure as hell are not going to let you take care of us.
We can take care of ourselves just fine, thank you very much.

What they fail to understand is that the Body of Christ asks every person, every member, to fully participate.
No one is more important than another.
An eye can’t see without a brain to process the information.
A hand can’t reach out to help without an arm to support and extend.
A stomach is pretty worthless without a mouth to bring it food.
For this Body of Christ to work, for it to witness to the world, it asks us each to play our part and to do so with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We can’t hold back.
And we have to allow others to do their part.

In the last question we will ask Tom as he professes his faith, we invite him to confess Jesus Christ as his Savior, to put his WHOLE trust in his grace, and to serve him as his Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.

The reason that we, as Christians, as baptized members of the United Methodist Church, have to look out on the actions of white nationalists and Christian hate groups and denounce their words and actions as sinful is precisely because they go against everything we proclaim in that profession of faith.
As Bishop Trimble wrote, “naming hate, injustice, and the sin of “-ism” is the only way for us to tackle the forces that would divide us and that would have any of us believe that there is less opportunity to reach our highest God-given potential because of one group of people or another.”

I used to think that the greatest sin of Ananias and Sapphira was the fact that they lied to God and the community about how much money they had sold their land for.
But the more I put this story into the context of this community of believers who relied upon a spirit of trust and vulnerability and risk in order to be united, I realized that their sin wasn’t so much that they lied, or stole the money, but that they believed they could follow God without relying upon the rest of the community.
They thought they were better than everyone else.
They thought they had the right to stand apart.
They were not just clinging to their money… they were clinging to their ideology and trying to carve out a space in their life where God and God’s people couldn’t exist.
And in the process, they were denying others the opportunity to reach their “God-given potential.”

We are asked to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.
We are to become “living sacrifices.”
Jesus Christ died for us and he wants our whole selves in return.

And here come two people who want to be a part of the community and want to walk with Jesus, but who don’t want to dive all the way in.
They pretend that they do – they want the prestige, they want to be a part of this awesome new movement, but they just are not ready to commit ALL THE WAY.
And you know what is really sad – they didn’t have to. They could simply have said that. They could have been up front with Peter and said “Hey, we want to support the church and see what you guys are doing and maybe someday we’ll be at the point where we can do what Barnabas has done and really place ourselves in community.”
Peter even reminds Ananias that the land was his to do with as he pleased and he didn’t have to sell it and he didn’t have to give it to the church…
but when they did so, and when they lied and pretended to really surrender themselves, when they hid who they were, they were actually putting the whole community in danger.
They were acting directly against the Holy Spirit and the unity it brought to the church.
In their act of holding back their resources, of refusing to fully give in to the power of God, in their lack of surrender of their ideologies and power, Ananias and Sapphira let a Spirit of Discord into the body of Christ.
They said with their actions, “it’s okay God, I’ll take care of myself.”
And God’s response… well – this is the difficult part of the story.
First, Ananias and the Sapphira fall dead.
I find this so troubling because I sometimes hold back, too.
We don’t always let God have our hearts and minds and soul.
We are timid with our faith.
We surrender some… but not all.
This passage makes me uncomfortable, because I realize that I’m really no different than Ananias and Sapphira… what on earth prevents God for striking me dead, right here and right now for holding back, myself?
What we learn in the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that we still worship a holy, awesome, and fearful Lord.
In a world full of grace, we do not simply have a free pass to act however we want.
God is still righteous and just and has every right to punish sinners by death or other means.

We are tempted to simply believe that grace covers all and to run through this life as if our actions do not matter.
We are tempted to rest in the love of God and not consider what the consequences of our sin might be.
And, we are tempted to sit back and not speak out when we see the words and actions and beliefs of others in our community or neighborhood or world… we are tempted to not hold one another accountable for the sin and evil that is perpetuated out of fear.
And yet the consequences of sin in the world is real.
Three people died yesterday… communities and families can be destroyed… when we allow sin to run rampant in this world than we have essentially turned our back on God.
Christ demands all and we give some.
We hold back and don’t fully let the Holy Spirit build up this Body of Christ.
We refuse to surrender and therefore we deny the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts, this church, and the world around us.
We might not be struck dead here in this place at this moment, but what do we stop from growing and living and thriving by our blatant denial of the Holy Spirit?
This path of Christian faith is not easy.
While the book of Acts has begun with all sorts of joyous accounts of healing and transformation and triumph over the powers of evil, these passages remind us that discipleship is hard.
It is a warning to those who are considering this faith: think twice.
Think about the price you are being called to pay.
Think about what is being demanded of you.
But also think about the joy and the possibility and the abundant life that awaits if you are willing to let go of what you think and what you believe you deserve in order to embrace what God knows you need.
Are you willing to let go?
Are you willing to dive in?
Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit transform us into the body of Christ?

The Spirit of Healing

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A few years ago, I was in Tampa for a church conference in a part of town that had a lot of homeless folks around. I have to be honest that when I saw the folks standing on the street looking for handouts, I didn’t stop to respond. I spent a lot of time diverting my eyes, or politely saying I’m sorry and moving on quickly.

Until a man on a bench asked me for some money for food.

I went through my usual explanation – I don’t have cash, I’m in a hurry, I’m sorry… and kept moving.

But I got about 25 feet from him and I stopped.

I knew that I could help him. I knew there was something I could do.

The Holy Spirit filled me up and turned me around and before I knew it, I was introducing myself to Fred and taking him across the street to Quiznos.

I really was in a hurry, but I stood in line there with him and he ordered a nice hot sandwich and we talked about his life. He had lost his job and had moved here looking for work. He hadn’t found any. He was waiting for his unemployment check to catch up with him and until it arrived he had nothing, so he was staying in a shelter.

He was hoping to be back on his feet in a week or two… but I had the feeling that this was only the beginning of a tough road for him.

I knew I couldn’t fix all of his problems… but I could get him a nice, hot dinner. As we parted ways outside the door, he gave me a huge smile and said, “God bless you.”

As we heard in our scripture this morning, a lame man was carried to the temple every single day to beg for the resources that would sustain his meager life.

He was begging for bread and water and shelter.

And when Peter and John encounter him – his life is turned upside down and would never be the same again.

It wasn’t a sandwich that stirred his blood – it was the power of the Holy Spirit and the name of Jesus Christ that strengthened his weak legs. This broken man stood up leaping and laughing.
He ran in through the temple gates and made a joyful exuberant scene – praising God for the chance at new life.

I want to invite us to look at this story from a couple of different angles this morning.

First, from the perspective of Peter and John.

After the ascension of Jesus, these two had found themselves leaders of a small movement – three to four thousand people were now following their guidance and were committing themselves to the way and the teachings of Christ.

Each person had given up everything they knew before in order to support and care for and nurture this precious new community. They had gone all in with their time, money, and talents.
One of the primary things they did together was to worship and pray. One of the customs of the Jewish faith is to pray three times a day – morning, afternoon, and evening – as a way of keeping your whole life focused on the Lord.

And so it is not surprising that these two are on their way to the temple for the 3:00 prayer.

They walk to the temple, passing through the same gate they may have entered hundreds of times before, passing the dozens of beggars who would often gather along the way.

I think to fully understand this story of healing, we need to understand the culture of begging that would have been present. It was present in downtown Tampa, some of our participants on the VIM Trip to Memphis experienced it, and it would have surrounded Peter and John at the temple.

Bob Deffinbaugh describes his experience with a begging culture in India this way:

There were so many beggars there was no way one could respond to all of them. The solution was often not to “see” any of them. But the beggars made this difficult. Those who were mobile would press themselves on you. They would approach your taxi at an intersection, tugging at your sleeve and pleading for help. Those not mobile would call our for charity. The beggar would be aggressive, something like the salesmen as you try to walk through the appliance section at Sears. You would concentrate on not seeing them as they converged on you, and you hurried to get through the section before you were trapped.

Living in the midst of this culture, you train yourself to ignore them, because you simply cannot respond to the needs of all.

Maybe you occasionally stop and help one person to make yourself feel better.

But you don’t make eye contact. You keep moving.

Peter and John are walking along the same road they do every day and they see countless beggars along the path.

What is different about today? Why do they stop? Why do they reach out to this particular man?

I think Peter and John felt that tug on their heartstrings that caused me to turn back in Tampa. It is the feeling we get when we encounter someone that God is inviting us to help – even if we might not have the confidence, or money, or resources to do so.

Peter and John felt that tug of the Holy Spirit and knew there was something they could do for this man.

They had not a dime in their pockets, no food to offer, nothing that could satisfy this man’s earthly needs, except for their faith in Jesus Christ.

These two disciples knew that was enough.

They had once been sent out to preach and heal and teaching with nothing but the clothes on their back. They had learned through practice that God truly can be depended on, that God is our very present help in times of trouble. They knew that faith could move mountains… and if it can move mountains than it can certainly help this lame man to walk.

They looked him in the eye, they reached out their hands in faith, and the lame man leaped for joy.

Every day, you and I pass countless people who are broken and hurting.

They may not be sitting on the street corners and their pain might not be visible to the naked eye, but if we look closely – we can see the strain of tension by the eyes, we can hear the waver in the voice, we feel the frustration and despair in the way they move and live in this world.

And because it is so common, we keep walking. The world we live in is begging and crying out for healing and we don’t have the heart to pay attention because it might overwhelm us.
Listen to those promptings of the Holy Spirit that stop you in your tracks.

God will give you everything you need to share with that person the hope and faith and love you have experienced through Jesus Christ.

You know, sometimes we have the opportunity to be Peters and Johns – going through our daily lives and coming across the opportunity to heal someone.

But we are also the lame beggars who sit by the gate.

Each of us has a whole host of problems – aching backs, sore knees, family disagreements, conflicts in our marriage, struggles with our children, sinful pasts and temptations in the present, stress around deadlines and finances, cancer, disease, death.

You name it, this community has experienced it or will experience it.

But unlike the lame beggar, we tend to hide our struggles. We don’t sit with them out in the open for all to see, but hold them close to our hearts and silently wait for an answer.

This lame man knew he couldn’t remain at home and do nothing. So every day, he convinced someone to carry him from where he slept to the Beautiful Gate.

For nearly forty years he had done this daily.

He went to the temple, to the place of God, and begged.

I wonder if sometime during the last year or two, he heard rumors of Jesus passing by.

I wonder if he had heard about the miracles taking place all around Jerusalem.

Maybe Jesus had walked through that very gate, but that man was too weak or too quiet, to catch his attention and to ask for a miracle for himself.

Maybe he didn’t feel worthy, like a lost cause, a hopeless mess.

It doesn’t matter how sick you are, how broken or how sinful; the grace of God has time for you.

The Holy Spirit has time for you.

And so even though our beggar could not even look them in the eyes, Peter and John stopped in front of him and healed him.

He leapt for joy.

Some of us have experienced miracles, healing, and forgiveness… and we know that when we have, we cannot go back to life as it was…. nothing will ever be the same.

I must admit, I always have a deeply engrained “BUT” on the tip of my tongue whenever I talk about the power of healing and the miracle of faith.

I know too many people who have prayed for miracles that have never come.

Earlier this week, I got word that Greg Leonard passed away. We have been praying with the Harvey and Leonard families without ceasing for healing in his life and yet no cure was to be found.

I have watched with agony as so many friends and so many of you have prayed for healing for loved ones that did not come in this lifetime.

One summer, I worked as a hospital chaplain and watched one young woman healed and watched another die within a week. Both had leukemia and both were clutching their faith.

Sometimes, I think we hide our problems, our disease, or our sins because we are afraid that we will be found wanting.

We are afraid that if we tell the truth, everyone will know we “didn’t have enough faith” for the answer we desire to come to pass.

Friends, prayer is not magic.

It is not an incantation we can repeat over and over in order to get what we want.

Prayer is a relationship with God. A two-way relationship.

And sometimes the answers we receive are not the ones we initially begin praying for.

Sometimes we receive the gifts of peace and comfort instead of cures.

Sometimes we hear a calling to be strong and to share our faith with others in spite of the pain we are experiencing.

Sometimes the answer to our prayers is that we ourselves have to change – that we need to forgive or give up a lifestyle that was harming us or move away from a difficult relationship.

But in the miracles of healing in the scripture and in my experience, Jesus or the disciples never told someone to go out and find more faith and THEN come back and be healed.

No, the words the Holy Spirit speaks into our hearts are: “be still and know that I am God… trust in me and my goodness… I am with you… Do not be afraid…”

Sometimes, as is the case with our lame beggar, the healing comes in the present moment.

Sometimes, complete healing and wholeness only comes after our time on this earth is over.

But still we pray, and still we have faith, and still we trust, because we have a relationship with the One who is able to bring some goodness and beauty out of the brokenness of our lives.

Today, we are both disciples and beggars.

We can both offer prayers of healing for others and we can ask for healing in our lives as well.

One of our primary gifts, one of our strengths, a huge piece of our vision is prayer… and this room is filled with people who believe in the power of miracles and that God truly can work for good in our lives.

I want to invite us to claim that gift today and before you leave the sanctuary this morning, I encourage you to take time to talk with someone, to listen to their prayers, and to pray with and for them.

The Spirit of Community

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This summer at Immanuel, we have been exploring how the Holy Spirit shows up in the lives of characters throughout the scriptures.

Today, we find two men who have very different attitudes towards the work of God: the sorcerer and the eunuch.

Philip is a deacon, a servant of the church, and he encounters lots of people who hear and believe the good news about Jesus Christ. So, what is it about the sorcerer and the eunuch that make their stories so special?

It is how they respond to the work of the Holy Spirit.

One is arrogant and brash, the other humble and full of questions.

For one, the power of the Holy Spirit is a commodity to be bought and sold, possessed and tamed.

For the other, that power is precious, mysterious, and a gift to be treated delicately.

First – there is a difference in how they each are introduced to the Holy Spirit.

The sorcerer was familiar with magic and illusion and he saw the Holy Spirit working from a far. When he heard the good news of God he joined the fellowship of believers. So, in many ways, he is a changed man, but he still desires to be the center of attention. He still wants to draw a crowd. And so when he sees the apostles laying hands on people so that they could receive the Holy Spirit, he suddenly wants their job.

So he runs over to them and throws down a bag of coins… “I want to do that, too!” he begs. “Give me that authority.”

The sorcerer believes the Holy Spirit is something to be possessed. The sorcerer wants a new bag of tricks for his show.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit was working behind the scenes to bring Philip and the eunuch into a relationship. She leads Philip to take a certain road. She tells him to walk alongside the cart. And, She has been present in the life of this eunuch – they are reading the scriptures, hoping to understand them. And so, when they hear the good news, and an oasis of water suddenly appears alongside their desert road, they ask – what would stop me from being baptized too?

It is not a demand, it is a humble question of faith.

In our journeys of faith, sometimes we get jealous of what other people have – faith that seems so strong, a prayer life that seems so powerful. We often struggle with what we don’t have.
Maybe you have uttered the phrase, “I wish I could pray like so and so” or “if only we had a choir or a praise band” or “I wish I could read the scriptures like that person.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to grow in our faith. There is nothing wrong with seeing what other people are doing and seeking God’s guidance about the ways we can live out our faith.
But in the stories of the sorcerer and the eunuch, we are invited to see that it is not what we don’t have that matters…. what matters is what the Holy Spirit has already brought into our lives.

We can be so busy looking at what others have and what we desire that we can’t see the gifts right in front of us. We each have a voice that we can use, we each have a part to play in our time of worship. Just because we don’t have robes and lights and big voices does not mean that there isn’t a song to be sung.

Secondly, there is a difference between these two characters and what they hope to gain through the Holy Spirit.

While the sorcerer had once been the center of attention, he finds that notoriety fading as a new player, the deacon Philip, comes on the scene. Suddenly, it is someone else doing the healing… someone else drawing the crowds… and the sorcerer himself is astonished by the power that the followers of Christ possess.

But as soon as he perceives the source of this power, he wants it for himself. He wants to again be someone that others flock around. He wants to have the magical ability so that he can carry it to some far off place and again be on the stage with people at his feet.

Our sorcerer is a performer and faith is a tool, a prop, to get him what he wants.

Maybe I’m being cynical and faith IS a part of his life, but he hasn’t quite given up his old ways and he is trying to get the faith to fit into his life rather than allowing it to transform him.

Notice, nowhere did I talk about a community, or a group… faith for the sorcerer was all about himself and what he could use it for.

On the other hand, the eunuch wants to be included. They want to belong. They want to be a part of a community that understood.

Our text tells us that this African man was coming from Jerusalem. He had probably spent some time worshipping in the temple. Yet, as a eunuch, the fullness of worship would have been closed off to him. He would only have been allowed into the Court of the Gentiles.

Gary DeLashmutt writes that because of his social standing as a “sexually altered black man from a pagan country” doors were automatically closed for him. Time and time again, he had probably been turned away from opportunities.

In spite of his standing in the court of the queen of Ethiopia… in spite of his wealth… in spite of all the power he could and did possess, the eunuch knew that he could not buy a place in the family of God. He knew that there were countless barriers in his way, but all he wanted to do was to belong.

In spite of the threat of further rejection, the eunuch persists and when he and Philip come to that small oasis of water by the side of the road, he asks a heartbreaking question: “What would prevent me from being baptized?”

He wants to belong.

He wants to join in the fellowship.

And he found in Philip a person who, according to DeLashmutt, “understood that his standing with God was based not on his ethnic identity, moral record, religious heritage, etc.—but through Jesus’ death alone… He understood that Jesus loved this eunuch and was able to give him new life just as he did Philip.”

So Philip leads him down to the water and the eunuch is baptized.

Although our story says that he went on his way rejoicing, we do not know the end of his story. We don’t know where he goes or how his life and his faith continue in the story of God.
All we know is that he wanted to belong… and my experience is that when someone finds true welcome, they can’t help but pass it on.

In the stories of the sorcerer and the eunuch, we find a performer desiring a stage and a person seeking a home.

In their contrast, we are reminded that faith through the Holy Spirit is not about me or you, but about us.

Diedrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “It is not you that sings, it is the church that is singing, and you, as a member… may share in its song. Thus all singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the church”

That is what we do when we gather to worship. We join our singing to the song of the church. We join our lives to the body of Christ. We become part of something far bigger than ourselves.

Many of you are here because you have already found a spiritual home in this community of faith. But at some point in your life, perhaps you, like the eunuch, were searching for a place to belong and a song to sing…

Others gathered here this morning might still be looking for that sense of community.

One of our hopes in gathering out here on the front lawn this morning was to simply be present with our neighbors and to remind one another that we are not alone.

The Spirit of God is moving through our midst, uniting us, binding us together, and helping us to create a place where all might know God’s love.

It is not about you.

It is not about me.

It is about us.

So, let us not be sorcerers who want to control and possess the power of God, singing by ourselves – or even worse, letting someone else sing for us while we sit back and watch…
Instead, like the eunuch, let us humbly join our faith and our voices with those of others.

Let us celebrate the welcome and the community we have found and like Philip, and like the eunuch, let us not be afraid to share it with others.

Amen.

From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

From Everywhere to Everywhere

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My sermon from the Thanksgiving Ingathering on November 5

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Tell about opening worship – reading the names of the missionaries who have died.  Very white, anglo sounding names.

 

But that evening, I met missionaries who reminded me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

I also heard there will be an African who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea… although I didn’t get to meet him.

Mande Muyombo is from Katanga, DRC and is the executive Director of the new Global Ministries Connections.

As he wrote earlier this year:

“The theology of our regional structure is based on our sense of mission “from everywhere to everywhere”—while recognizing the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity. Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 

From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

What is interesting is how the Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody” like they really don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize.  It’s the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross… and the same word used twice as Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

There is a sense in which Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is taken to the council and he is placed in the middle of the people… (again, this can be translated as either a forceful or wilful act)… and I want you to imagine a light bulb going off above Paul’s head.

 

Because his language shifts.

 

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 

But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

 

We are about to enter the season of Advent… a time of dual purpose where we both remember the coming of Christ into this world as a child and look ahead to the second coming of Christ into our midst.

God seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation is as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

The only question is… why do we set it aside as the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.” (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

 

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

In my work so far with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, learn about customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

 

These kits we have collected today… they don’t always represent Western ways of doing things, but connect with the real lived needs of  women and children across this world who are eager to learn, seeking healthy births, and who need very concrete resources to maintain health.

Yet, as we go forward, we even must be willing to explore and Global Ministries is currently evaluating how kits like the ones we have collected today can be more contextually relevant… maybe even by purchasing and assembling the kit materials in the places where they are needed to boost their local economies.

 

In the song we share together – We’ve a Story to Hear from the Nations” we hear these lyrics:

 

There’s a message we need in each nation,

That God, Creator of all

Is living in Christ among us

And breathing new life and hope.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

Holy Patience

Patience is not a virtue that comes easily to us. We come with short fuses. We are personally invested in our work and our play and we want to see the results of our efforts.

But when things start to fall apart, instead of taking the long view – we begin to lose hope, we begin to get angry or jaded, and often we behave in ways that are far from holy.

 

Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first disciples of Jesus.

The time of his execution and resurrection must have been such a confusing, heartbreaking, joyful, frustrating rollercoaster of a time.

To be heading triumphantly into Jerusalem one minute… burying your leader the next… and then sticking your fingers through the holes in his risen body?

How would you even process?

I picture them in a kind of existential shock… going through the motions… not really sure what’s real and what’s not…

 

Maybe that’s why during those forty days that Jesus spends with the disciples after the resurrection we don’t have public appearances or healings or those great miracles.

No, He eats with them.

They fish.

He walks with them and teaches them.

Everything is on hold. Jesus simply ministers to their souls.

For forty days, we have no more than a handful of stories and they are all personal and intimate encounters.

 

I think the question must always be looming: what comes next?

A return to normalcy?

Revenge against the institutions that executed their leader?

A new movement? A revolution?

I can imagine the adrenaline running through their systems, the excitement that would fuel them to act and capitalize on the resurrection.

The question keeps coming:  Jesus… are you ready to kick the Romans out of Israel?  Are you going to return the nation to its glory?

They want their hearts desire and they want it NOW.

 

And Jesus keeps reminding them about the Kingdom of God and telling them to wait.

 

Be patient.  That is fruit of the spirit I find harder than most.  It is often translated as longsuffering. It is the gift of being able to endure in spite of the circumstances that have come against you. It is a hopeful fortitude that reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… that if we trust and wait, the outcome we are praying for will come to pass.

 

The hardest part about patience is that we don’t know how long we are going to have to wait.

 

The disciples keep asking:  Lord, are we there yet?   Jesus, is it time?

And for forty days, Jesus tells them to wait. To be patient.

“In God’s time…” Jesus replies.

 

Biblically speaking, the number 40 has far more significance as a symbol than a literal number.

For forty days and nights it rained on Noah and the ark.

For forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.

For forty days, Jesus was tempted at the start of his ministry.

Over and over, that number comes to us.

The number forty in the Bible symbolizes a time of testing, a time of trial.  It symbolizes the amount of time it takes us to be ready for whatever comes next.

It has nothing to do with the revolution of the earth around the sun and everything to do with the turning of our hearts towards God.

The ancient Greeks had two words to use to describe time:  first, Kairos – which meant the right time or an indeterminate amount of time in which something significant happens.

Chronos, on the other hand, describes sequential time and is where we get the word chronological.

The biblical flood.  The desert wandering. The time of testing of Nineveh.  All of these happen not in chronological time, but in Kairos time.  In God’s time.

In fact, every time I see the number “forty” in the scriptures, I am reminded to think about God’s time and not a literal figure.

 

And when you look at verse 6 and 7 of our scripture in the original Greek, this distinction is there, plain as day.

The disciples are asking about whether or not it is time (houtos ho chronos), but Jesus responds that it is not for them to know the times or seasons (chronos ē kairos) that God has set.

 

For forty days, Jesus ate with them, cooked them breakfast, walked with them…

For forty days… for the time it took to get them ready, to reorient them, to turn them in a new direction… Jesus was simply present.

“Be patient,” he said.

 

Barclay’s commentary says that patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.

Patience is seeking an opening, waiting for the anger to pass, and finding a way forward. Patience is remembering that this inconvenience, this obstacle, will not last forever.

If patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t… then Jesus is trying to shift the thinking of those disciples during these forty days.  He is trying to help them realize that the Kingdom of God is not about a military revolution against the Romans, but about a transformation of the world that is bigger that one nation.

 

Because, sometimes patience is coming to understand that your heart’s desire is not God’s desire and getting on board with God’s preferred future.

It takes time for that kind of shift in thinking.  They need to wait.  They need to practice patience.  They need to be slow with their anger and not let it consume them.

When we find ourselves in situations of great frustration and anger, I think patience is taking just a moment to breathe and to pray. Patience is asking for God to come into this situation and remind us of the things that are truly important in the moment, and to let that anger move out of the way, if necessary.

 

But patience is also putting one foot in front of the other and not being paralyzed in your waiting.    If we spend too much time looking into the past, we will never live into our new future.

And so in the midst of this time of patient waiting, Jesus and the disciples did very normal things.  They went fishing.  They spent time praying and talking and learning.

Making the most of our given situations is a very hard thing to do. We like to sit and stew and wish that things were different. And in doing so, we breed anger and resentment in our hearts.

Patience has to be active.  We will never change or improve or reach our desired outcome if we simply stop what we are doing.

We have to live into the future by doing the things now that will help us reach that desired outcome.  Patience sometimes means living as if that future were a reality today.

A few months ago, I shared with you the situation of Vano Kiboko.  He is the brother of one of our District Superintendents here in Iowa and he believed that his country and its leaders were on the wrong path.  And so he practiced that kind of active patience by publically speaking out against his government and he was imprisoned for his actions.

For 16 months, Vano has been in prisoned.

And he didn’t let anger or resentment fuel him.  He lived with a heart full of grace towards his guards and everyone he met.  He put one foot in front of the other and kept working towards God’s future. He practiced holy patience in the midst of a trying situation.

More than a thousand people were brought to Christ during his time in prison.  He wept with them, baptized them, shared God’s good news with them.

And on May 6, Vano Kiboko was released from prison.

 

We don’t always know what God has in store for us.  We can’t know the times or the seasons, the chronos and Kairos, of God’s plan.

 

But I think our Ascension scripture reminds us that God takes the long view in our lives, too.

The forty days after Easter were a gift to the disciples… time to reorient their lives and help them to be ready for what God had planned next.  Time to prepare their hearts for the power of the Holy Spirit that would come in Kairos time.

 

There are so many things that we are impatient for.  Justice.  Healing.  Peace.  “How long?” we cry out.

But maybe holy patience invites us to live into that future with our actions today.

Holy patience invites us to live with open hearts, always aware of God’s movement and prompting.

Holy patience invites us to be filled with grace, flexible, and willing to let God change us.

Holy patience is a gift… because it is Kairos time… God’s time… enough time to truly get us ready – heart and mind and soul – for the future God has planned.

Blessed are the Debonair

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This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

We celebrate the gift of this world… this earth that has been placed in our care.

And I’m sure you are wondering as you heard the scriptures for today and look at that sermon title… what in the world do these things have to do with creation care?

Well, as I prepared for our time of worship today, I spent some time in the works of Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler.

Rev. Sittler was born in 1904 and in his work began connecting Christian theology and environmental matters as early as the 1950s. He firmly believed that care for the earth and our environment is one of the central concerns of our faith.

He also loved to explore the ways various biblical translations impacted our understanding of what they mean. Robert Saler points to his fascination with a French translation of the Beatitudes – in particularly Matthew 5:5.

We know the verse today as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

However, “Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as ‘blessed are the debonair.’ “ (Saler)

Immediately, you probably have an image in your mind of what it means to be debonair. I know, for me, it was almost the opposite of meek.

Yet, as Sittler explains:

… “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything…

This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

I think about this in the context of our passage from Acts.

Peter has operated under a world view his entire life that divided the world into good and bad, clean and unclean, impure and pure. He was hooked on an understanding of the world that separated him and those like him from others.

There were some things, and some people, as a part of this creation that were outside his concern. Just as he traditionally wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, he couldn’t eat certain foods.

But then he has this vision… a vision that opened up his world as never before.

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

There are two things happening here.

Missionally, God is opening Peter and the disciples’ hearts to the possibility of ministry among the Gentiles. God is helping them come to a more sophisticated understanding of their mission that is no longer limited by the old delineations. The Holy Spirit sends Peter to a non-Jewish family who is converted on the spot.

But important for our conversation today, God is helping Peter to understand that all of creation was made by God and it is all a gift. Just as there is no distinction between clean and unclean people, there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals or birds. God has made it all and to God it all belongs… yet it is also being given to Peter, to the people, to us, as a gift… as an inheritance.

In his reflections on the beatitudes, Rev. Sittler considers those debonair who will inherit the earth:

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth…It says they shall inherit the earth.

…The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift.

Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place… Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

And Peter does have that sense of awe. The Message translation in particular captures the drama, the wonder of it all, by saying that Peter was fascinated and took it all in. That gentle debonair spirit took over.  He realized that the systems of division between clean and unclean he had lived with his entire life were stripped away.

Every little bit of this world was made by God and belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary guardianship and use. Like Adam and Eve were given creation in Genesis to care for, to steward, to use for their needs, so this world is gifted to Peter and to us.

Rev. Sittler describes a moment when he saw that debonair spirit in action:

I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became.

Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.”

They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

Why should we, as people of faith lift up creation care? Why would someone like Joseph Sittler claim that environmental concerns are one of the central issues of Christianity?

Precisely because it is one of the richest gifts and inheritances that God has given us.

As we state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings… we should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (Book of Discipline, ¶160)

And if we truly love God, if we truly love one another, if we truly love this gift of creation, then our love will lead us to use it wisely.

The greatest commandment, after all, is to love. And that love should fill every relationship and every engagement with the world.

And that love also leads us to periodically check ourselves and ask if we have taken this gift for granted. That love calls us to speak up when we see others abusing our common resources. That love demands that we teach our children and ourselves how to walk gently and carefully among this precious planet.

Blessed are the Debonair… for they shall inherit the earth.

We have been given this world as a gift, and we are to make sure future generations are able to inherit it as well.

 

References:

Robert Saler – “Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Easter 5”

Jospeh Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24

Defined by Generosity

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Our scriptures this morning show us what it means to be generous. They describe to us people and communities who went the extra mile, who dug a little bit deeper, who gave more than what was necessary or expected.

They gave more than what was necessary or expected.

To be completely honest, those words did not describe my life for a very long time. It took until I was about thirty years old before I ever thought about what it meant to be defined by generosity, before I thought about what it meant to be a generous giver.

When I was a teenager and had only part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate at church. It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution. No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially.

As a seminary student and low-paid church intern, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt. I gave my time to the church and occasionally I put a check in the offering plate.

And then I went to my first church. I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. This was the first time in my life I had a steady full time job.

 

Looking back, I should have immediately started at the very least tithing.

But I didn’t.

I held back.

I looked at my student loans and a bit of debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.

I gave to the church – but only a small portion. Maybe not even what was necessary or expected.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving. I was giving something, and I thought that was enough.

 

A few years back, I was in a teaching session led by a with guy named Ken Willard and he talked about how we make disciples in our church.

And he helped us to see that we almost never talk about discipleship. We talk about membership. This morning, we welcome new people into our church as members, but even in our preparation, we barely paint a picture of what it means to be a disciple. And when we don’t speak about discipleship in a concrete way, then you and I do not have clear standards to evaluate ourselves by.

 

And too often, that means that wherever you were on your journey of faith when you became a member of the church is where you have stayed. Not because of anything that YOU have done, but because we, as the church, have never helped one another to grow beyond that. We have not challenged one another to become disciples. We have not provided resources and tools to help one another deepen our faith.

 

If generosity is defined by what we give, in our time and money, beyond what is necessary or expected, then to be generous, we have to know what is expected!

 

But, truth be told, I didn’t know what was expected. I had never been taught about how my stewardship of my resources was part of my discipleship. Even as a pastor! I knew how to preach and pray and how to listen to my parishoners, but not once did any church leader or professor or pastor sit down and talk with me about how giving was an expression of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

Until three years ago, when I began talking with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation I had never willingly yielded my money to God. I had never thought about what God was asking me to give and then prayed about if I could do that.

There had been times when I had given out of guilt.

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few dollars and dropped them in. Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. Never had I asked what was expected of me. Never had I searched my heart for what was necessary and then what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life for the sake of our Lord and our church.

I knew that a tithe was 10% of our income, but I hadn’t ever sat down and really thought about what God wants from us; what God wanted from me.

Your “Enough” insert for this week… the one on the green slip of paper… is just a glimpse of the scriptures that talk about money.

1) Tithe = traditional “first fruits”. When the people of God gathered to worship, they brought the first fruits of their harvest to the temple. The first 10% of their grain or livestock they gave to the Lord. This was a gift out of gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and helped provide for the ministry of the temple itself.

One question that is raised, however, is if Christians are supposed to tithe. If we don’t follow the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures and we don’t make animal sacrifices any more, is this one of those things that was part of tradition and doesn’t apply to us?

I think we find in some ways, that Jesus relaxes these expectations on us.

2) Adjusted Title = where we render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s. One way of understanding this passage is that as citizens, we owe time and money to the rulers of our land. Everything that remains is God’s and we can offer a tithe of the resources we take home in our paycheck.

But as he often does, Jesus also takes those traditional expectations to give and challenges us to do even more.

3) Give Sacrificially = the widow’s offering from our scripture today. As Jesus sat in the temple and watched the people give, he saw a poor widow who put her last two copper coins into the coffers. She gave all that she had. She gave more than what was expected and necessary. And she is the one Jesus calls us to emulate. She was the one defined by generosity.

4) Giving what you have: At various times in our lives, our resources are limited so as to be non-existent. What is expected of us when we literally have no income? The fourth scripture listed describes a time when Peter and John are ministering and are asked to give to a person in need. They respond that they have no silver or gold, but they give of what they do have and are able to heal the person in need.

Even when it appears as if we have no financial resources, God has given us gifts of love and service and prayer and these, too, should be offered.

5) Non-Essential Tithe: Next week, when we celebrate what God has done in our lives and we offer up our commitment cards to God, we are going to be wrestling with the scripture associated with this form of tithing… God loves a cheerful giver.

And so this non-essential tithe invites you to prayerfully think about those obligations you have in your life, those places where you simply cannot sacrifice right now, those places and those bills that cause you stress and anxiety. This tithe sets you free to fulfill those essentials and then to joyfully give out of the remainder. To joyfully give out of your abundance.

 

There are countless other scriptures that describe our relationship with God and with money. But what I have learned in my own journey of stewardship is that taking the time to think about what you are going to give and why you are doing so are two of the most important things we can do. We need to prayerfully consider what is expected of each of us.

The people in the temple gave because they were supposed to. The amount they put in those coffers were minimal compared to what treasures they had stored up. And they probably gave the same amount, every year, at the same festival. It was a ritual. It was tradition. Nothing would change in their life based upon what they gave that day. They never thought about it.

When the widow, however, stood and gave her all, she had to think long and hard about that gift. Those two coins were everything she had left. Those coins represented food and shelter. They provided for her safety and security. Yet she gave them, freely, out of her gratitude for every breath of life she had ever recieved and every blessing that had been poured out. She thought about what she was doing.

I can’t tell you what to give.

I can tell you is what is necessary to keep the lights on and to provide the resources to do ministry here at Immanuel United Methodist Church. Each of our members should be recieving at home a giving guide that describes our current budget and it tells you very plainly what it takes to provide for our facilities and pay our staff and what resources we need to do ministry with children and youth and to support the missional work of our connectional church.

But even then, I know how much more we could do with greater resources for the Kingdom of God. I know that God is calling our church to do more in this world… to provide not just for our facility and our people but to give beyond ourselves in even bigger ways. God is calling us to be a church defined by generosity – out in the community and the world through love, service and prayer.

To think just about what is necessary to keep our church going isn’t big enough. What is necessary for this church, Immanuel United Methodist Church, to answer God’s call and move beyond these walls… to the children at Hillis Elementary and families served by CFUM, to flood ravaged neighborhoods and among people who are struck by illnesses like malaria. What is necessary to bring the Kingdom of God to our neighbors near and far?

 

When I actually sat down and prayed about what God was calling me to give, I began to joyfully give more. I began to increase what I put in the plate each week. In 2012, I began to give a full 10% of my income to the church.

And I decided to give that money to the church first… the money comes out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. I give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket and whatever I might happen to have with me that day… instead of what is leftover.

It is probably not a coincidence that the same year I began to give joyfully to the Lord I was called to help others do the same through Imagine No Malaria. When I surrendered my resources to God, I also opened myself up to the moving of the Holy Spirit and was able to hear how God wanted to use me and what I had learned for the Kingdom.

In our passage from Acts this morning, we witness the results of the Holy Spirit moving among the disciples and the people of God. Filled by the Spirit, Peter gives an extraordinary sermon and three thousand people are converted on the spot.

But what is really amazing is that they don’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer and then go back to live as it was. They don’t experience the mountain top moment of a retreat and life as usual sneaks in… No – they actually commit themselves to living out the fullness of what it means to be the people of God. Their entire lives change. They become the body of Christ. They become disciples.

I believe that if we want a picture of generosity we need to look no farther than this passage from Acts. Filled with the Holy Spirit, these three thousand plus people were living out their faith in the best possible way. We are shown here a glimpse of the Kingdom of God… this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be defined by generosity.

 

What does God want from your life? What does God want from this church?

And what would happen if we freely, joyfully, without hesitation, gave more than what was expected?

What could happen if we let the Holy Spirit loose in our lives?