Around Every Corner

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This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

Rusty Leftovers

I want to start out this morning with a testimony… This is my experience and I hope and pray that my own story might somehow connect with yours and that the transformation in my own life might point to the way that God might also work in yours. 

This testimony however is about a topic that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable… but it is part of our daily lives.  This morning, I’m going to talk about money.

And my testimony is this: It took me three years of serving a congregation… three years of being a pastor… before I tithed to the church.

You might hold pastors up on a pedestal or think that as a pastor I do all of the things that people of faith are supposed to do like feed the hungry, pray every morning, read the bible cover to cover all the time, and give 10% of their money to the church.

But pastors are just like everyone else.  We are disciples, too.  We have struggles and successes.  We have places where we are explorers and beginners.  Only sometimes are we truly mature in every part of our faith. There is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God… even for pastors.

I often gave to the church… but for a long time, I made excuses about how much I should give.

When I was a teenager and had occasional part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate – whatever pocket change I might have had that day.  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. So I didn’t.

As a seminary student and an intern at a church, 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 a few bucks as well.

And then I was commissioned and sent to First UMC in Marengo.  I was sent to be their pastor and 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. 

Having a steady paycheck for the first time in my life, I should have immediately started tithing.  But I didn’t.  I held back.  I looked at my student loans and 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.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving.  I knew I was doing God’s ministry in other ways and so I didn’t worry about it.

But one day about three years into ministry, I was having a conversation with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things that we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation that I had never willingly yielded my money to God. 

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 bucks and dropped it in. 

Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. 

Never had I searched my heart to ask what I was willing to yield, what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life, for the sake of our Lord and our church.

 

This conversation was a conversion experience for me, and I really prayed about what God could do through the gifts that were placed in my hands and started giving more to the church on a regular basis…

The next year as we made our financial commitments, my heart led me to set aside a full 10% of my salary for the Kingdom of God.

In Marengo, the church struggled with finances and they didn’t have a lot of money to pay their pastor…. But I found that even… maybe especially… because I was giving, I had enough. 

I joyfully gave that money to God… and I have to tell you – I didn’t miss one cent.  I still don’t!

And maybe that’s because in the process I learned how to give to the church first.  I make sure that the gifts I have committed come out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. 

I learned how to give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket – instead of the leftovers from my own spending and desires.

In Leviticus, we hear instructions for this early agricultural society to leave the crops on the edges and on the corners for the needy in the midst.  The farmers were not supposed to harvest every last seed and kernel, but rather let them remain in the fields so that the poor could go through the fields and glean the leftovers for themselves. 

A portion of the harvest, of the economic benefit earned by the farmers, was to be let go of before it was even taken out of the fields.   It belongs to God… and God desires that it belongs to those who need it the most. 

Today, not all of us are physically out in the fields harvesting the grain… but we can think about setting aside a portion of our income… a portion of our take home pay… for God’s use before it ever makes it into our bank accounts.   

Instead of giving to God what is leftover after all of our other expenses… necessities and luxuries… we can leave that portion of our gifts in God’s hands first. 

 

A year or so after I had this discipleship conversion and grew in my generosity, Bishop Trimble asked me to lead Imagine No Malaria.

I had just learned how to give… but I was so excited about what God could do through the dollars and cents entrusted to our care…

Maybe that made me exactly the right person to help United Methodists across the state give over $2million to help fight malaria… often $5 and $10 at a time.  Millions of children are alive today because you helped purchase a net, and train a community health worker, and provide malaria medication. 

In Matthew, we are invited to stop hoarding the blessings of our lives, and instead set them free for the Kingdom of God: 

As The Message translation puts it: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

The old adage says, you can’t take it with you… and its true.  Our time here on earth is short and piling on pleasures and wants and desires doesn’t get us anything but a house full of stuff that someone else is going to have to sort through.

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

My family still has a cable subscription and a Netflix subscription… and an amazon prime subscription… and I know I still have some growth to do in my personal discipleship.  Because let me tell you – I am putting some of my treasure into those forms of entertainment and almost every night I end up sitting on the couch in front of the television. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says.

Television and new clothes and name-brand cereal… they don’t last.  They will all wear out without having made an ounce of difference in this world. 

What lasts is the kingdom of God.  What lasts is the word of God.  What lasts is the joy that I have found through letting go of my desires to ask what God needs from me.

 

This week, I had the amazing experience of traveling to Atlanta to attend the first meeting of the Global Ministries Board of Directors.  I was elected by the jurisdiction to serve as a Director for the next four years. 

One of the executive staff members is Dr. Olusimbo Ige who heads up our Global Health ministries.  Dr. Ige is trained as a community physician, which means she is not only a medical doctor, but also has background in community development, engineering, finance… she is trained to help make the entire community well. 

Dr. Ige shared that she could put her extensive skills to work in a hospital and make $500 – 600,000 a year… but when she sees the lives transformed in a village where babies are surviving birth and children stop dying from malaria… she knows that she is doing the work she is supposed to do.

Today, you will be asked to help contribute funds for UMCOR blankets and health, sewing, and school kits for Ingathering.

This past week, I heard countless stories of how those kits and blankets are being used across this world.  I heard about 5,000 girls in South Sudan who received school kits this year… about women in Armenia who are using sewing kits to learn a new skill and support themselves economically… pregnant moms in Liberia who had no prenatal or obstretic care… but because of the United Methodist Church… because of our gifts and resources… because we traveled to their remote village and brought life-saving interventions every single one of the 123 babies born this year lived. 

Where you put your treasure is where you end up, Jesus says…

And as United Methodists, we end up all over this world, doing amazing things for the Kingdom of God.  

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

You see, friends, God does not want your money, if God doesn’t have your heart.

God doesn’t have any use for your stuff, if you won’t let go of your soul.  

God doesn’t care about the things that you own… even if they could be used to help other people… unless you are willing to share with God your life. 

 

Our generosity is a deep part of our discipleship… of our relationship with and for God.

Grow in your love of God… grow in your love of neighbor… and let God grow your generosity for this world. 

Thankful Giving

In our gospel reading this morning, we meet Zacchaeus, that “wee-little man”, who was really a terrible, awful person.

As Carol Howard Merritt describes him: he was “a man who collected taxes from his own people and gave it to the Roman government. And if that wasn’t nasty enough, Zacchaeus skimmed money off the top. This despicable man stole from the poor to line his own pockets… he was like the broker who added hidden fees to our widowed mother’s mortgage so he could vacation in Barbados.”

And he wasn’t a tax collector in our modern sense. In this world, you could be stopped on the street by someone like Zacchaeus and duties could be assessed for anything in your possession. “A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, for the merchandise that it carried.” (Rev. Wilson) No one, except for the tax collector knew how many fees he was really taking, so he could send to Rome whatever he wanted and keep the rest for himself.

As a fellow pastor pointed out, when verse 2 of our reading says that Zacchaeus was wealthy, it was an indictment about just how corrupt he truly was.

I imagine that he must have been profoundly lonely.

You see, when you live your life as a taker, you don’t make too many friends.

He also lived in a precarious position between his own people and the Roman government. He had to take from his neighbors in order to keep the occupying force happy. But that doesn’t mean he was valued or welcomed by the Romans either.

Not only that, he was a ruler among the tax collectors… which meant he couldn’t even hang out with all of the other greedy, mean old tax collectors in Israel, because he was their boss.

As much as the lepers or the Samaritans, he was on the margins of society. He had all the money he could want, but he didn’t have relationships.

He was living the opposite life described by 1 Timothy… he had placed all of his hopes on his finances, and the treasures of faith, salvation, friendship, and hope were rotting away.

Until Jesus walks by.

Jesus, who knows how to see the lonely and the lost, caught a glimpse of this sad, despicable little man in a tree.

And Jesus invited himself over for dinner.

 

There is a sequence of events that happens here that can confuse how we understand the story.

  1. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus… he is seeking and searching for something new in life.
  2. Jesus sees Zacchaeus… and not only sees him, but knows him by name…. and probably knows every detail about his sordid little life.
  3. Jesus initiates the relationship with this person.
  4. Zacchaeus accepts and happily welcomes Jesus into his life.
  5. Zacchaeus commits to giving away half of his possessions and to repay anyone he has cheated… four times over!
  6. Jesus responds: Today salvation has come to your home, because I came to seek the lost.

 

If we aren’t paying close attention, we might think that it was Zacchaeus’s changed attitudes and his radical offering of wealth that brought salvation to his door.

We might start to think that unless we give, and give sacrificially, without abandon, that we can’t be saved.

But friends, this isn’t true.

The money you just put in the offering plate will not save your soul.

Your pledge card will not bring you salvation.

 

You see, before Zacchaeus ever offered to give a single penny back, Jesus found him.

And Jesus initiated the relationship, offered to come into his home, his life, his heart.

And Zacchaeus welcomed him in joyfully.

 

In our United Methodist understanding of grace, at that moment, Zacchaeus was saved.

At that moment, Zacchaeus accepted God’s acceptance of him.

At that moment, salvation came to his household.

It wasn’t because he gave everything to the poor.

 

I actually think the exchange that comes between Zacchaeus and Jesus after this moment drives home the point.

Zacchaeus stops along their walk and suddenly feels like he has to do something.

God’s grace has already entered his life and changed him and he isn’t sure he deserves it and he needs to respond in some way.

So he makes this radical and amazing offering of his own wealth to help others and he promises to make amends for past wrongs.

And what I think Jesus does in response is not praise Zacchaeus for his gifts, but remind him that he’s already saved.

Today salvation has come. You, too, are a son of Abraham. I came to seek the lost.

 

That might seem like a counter-productive message for Stewardship Sunday.

But I think it is important for us to understand that we can’t earn our salvation by our offering.

No, giving is our response to what God has already done for us.

It is the fruit of a life that has already been transformed by God’s grace.

It is a demonstration of gratitude for the gift that we could never possibly repay.

 

This morning, as I was driving in to church, I heard an interview with Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take.”

He said that “we all… receive unexpected and meaningful gifts – we want to pay it back, but there’s really nothing you can do to pay it back. So the next best thing is to pay it forward.”

 

Grant might be talking about human gifts, but it applies to divine ones as well.

We simply cannot do anything to repay God for the amazing, abundant, overflowing gift of salvation.

But we can pay it forward.

We can take what we have and we can bless others.

 

Our offerings, our giving, our pledges of time, talent, and treasure are one way we can say thank you to God and this church.

 

We are grateful for the Sunday School teacher who first taught us to sing “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”…. so we give to the church so other children might be blessed.

We are grateful to the Trustee who gave up their Saturday afternoon to install new lights in the bathroom… so we give to the church so that we can continue to provide a safe, welcoming space for others.

We were in the hospital and someone made us a prayer shawl… so we give thanks and we give to the church so that caring ministries might continue.

We lost our job and the people of the church prayed for us… so we give thanks and work to provide support to others.

Whether you have been a part of this church for a month or for ninety years, you are here today because someone somewhere along the line gave and made a difference in your life.

I want to invite you to turn to your neighbor right now and share who that person was who blessed you… who shared God’s love and grace and mercy with you… who do you give thanks for?

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Those people you just named, that grace of God you just pointed to… that’s why we give.

We give because we have been blessed.

We give because we have been saved.

 

John Wesley wasn’t giving his advice to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” to people who were still outside the life of faith.

He was speaking to people like you and me who had already experienced God’s grace.

And they were asking what they should do now.

How could they pay it forward?

How were they supposed to live as redeemed people?

 

If we have been forgiven, then we should forgive others.

If we have been healed, then we should help heal others.

If we have been blessed financially, then we should financially bless others.

 

I often wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after his dinner date with Jesus, because he isn’t mentioned again in the scriptures.

But we can imagine that he was no longer the same person.

His priorities were changed.

He let go of his old life and committed to something new.

He probably spent the rest of his life trying to say thank-you to God for seeking him out, a lost and despicable man, someone who didn’t deserve an ounce of grace or salvation.

 

The way we say thank-you for every gift of God is to use it, to share it, to pass it on to the world.

And that is why these pledge cards we have don’t only include our financial commitment to the church, but our commitment of time and talents and skills as well.

God has blessed you with something and today, you can say thank you to our Lord and Savior for every ounce of grace you have received, by making a commitment to share your gifts with the world.

 

*image: Artwork for Texas Baptists Vacation Bible School curriculum by Scott Byers

What God Has Sown

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In this past month, I have found new appreciation for the Apostle Paul.

You see, on top of being an apostle and a scholar, a writer and mentor; in addition to the work he did as a tanner to pay his own way through ministry; he was also a fundraiser.

I think that tiny detail skipped my attention for so many years, because I didn’t know what it meant to be a fundraiser. I wasn’t aware of the strategies and the prayer and the faith that goes into soliciting money from perfect strangers.

But I do now!

I have spent my entire life hearing that phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver” out of context… and you probably have, too.

While Paul has many other topics to cover in this letter to the people of Corinth, chapters 8 and 9 represent a sort of “stewardship letter” much like many of you received in the mail last week.

Corinth was a rich and powerful city in Greece. The ports had made them wealthy beyond measure. So it is natural that they had resources to spend and to invest and to, yes, even donate to the church.

Paul was encouraged by the apostles in Jerusalem to remember the poor and needy in the city (Galatians 2), and he wanted to honor those who had sent him out in ministry by sending back gifts that could support their work. Much like our apportionments today, the funds he was raising would be used for ministry in the other places the apostles had influence. And Paul knew Corinth would be the place where gifts could be abundant.

In his letter to them, Paul first of all talks about these poor people in Macedonia who have absolutely nothing but the love and grace of God, but somehow managed to pull together an incredible offering to send with Paul. He writes that though they were impoverished and struggling, they heard his plea for money to help the needy in Jerusalem.

From chapter 8: 3-4: “they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints.”

And Paul says, all the while, I was telling them about YOUR generosity, you people of Corinth. I was telling them about how much YOU had promised to do. They wanted to be a part of that… part of this incredible opportunity we have to care for the needs of others. They gave out of their poverty, and now it’s your turn.

Paul asks the Corinthians to carefully consider their obligations and to take note of where their resources are needed and then to give cheerfully and jubilantly out of their abundance to the Lord. He wants them to give only what they know they can. Paul didn’t want them to make a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. He wanted them to give freely, and not out of obligation. He wanted them to think long and hard about what they could give and then to do so generously.

I was in Paul’s shoes many times over my work with Imagine No Malaria. And I know what a fine line it was to walk between challenging people to give more than they thought they should and yet not more than they actually could.

On one occasion, a well-intentioned person filled out one of our pledge cards and sent it in with an extraordinary commitment to give over three years $5000. I added the donation to our totals and celebrated reaching a milestone! But then they called me a few weeks later when reality set in and told me, “I want to support this project so very much, I see how much good it is doing and I am so excited about being a part of it, but I simply can’t afford to do so at the level I told you I could.”

And you know what. That’s okay. I told that person we were so thankful for what they could share.   We were overjoyed that they felt called to give and worked to make the adjustments they needed.

In chapter 8 of his letter, Paul writes that he wants the Corinthians to give what they can afford. If they can make some adjustments to their life and want to make a sacrifice here and there – great. If they have great resources at their disposal, then by all means, they shouldn’t look upon this call and drop in a few dollars. They need to give what they can actually afford to give. The goal is not to make them suffer or create financial difficulties. The goal is to prayerfully ask what God has blessed them with that they can bless others with.

Not one of us should feel guilty about what we can afford to give. We shouldn’t feel pressured to end our support of other good things in order to give here. Every one of us should hear the call, look at the needs, and then joyfully respond from our resources… whatever they might be.

In the early eighteenth century, a scholar and pastor Matthew Henry wrote: “Money bestowed in charity, may to the carnal mind seem thrown away, but when given from proper principles, it is seed sown, from which a valuable increase may be expected.”

Paul asks the Corinthians to think of their gift as an investment. To sow whatever seeds they can so that the Kingdom of God might bear fruit in the world… and so they might personally experience the joy and grace and abundance that come to us when we freely give.

Our commitment to give financially to this church might not make a lot of sense to the larger world. But we do so because we have seen the good it can do.

In the United Methodist Church, we understand that our gifts not only provide this wonderful space for ministry in this neighborhood, but also help to support Women at the Well and help to build churches other parts of the world. Our gifts help our children to learn more about Jesus, but they also help educate communities about diseases like Ebola and Malaria so that every child has the chance to grow up and live an abundant life. Our gifts raise up leaders among our youth here in Des Moines, but they also are providing scholarships for new pastors in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Every dollar given to the church is an investment in the gospel. It is a seed planted. And in time, God will reveal how Faith Hall and our children and the women in Mitchellville and communities like the Bo District in Sierra Leone… how all of these investments and seeds will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

That is why we are here, after all.

We are here, in this place, for the Kingdom of God.

We are here to worship and to praise God… the source every breath and snowflake and every good thing.

In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses encourages the people to remember the long road they have been on… the road that was sustained every step of the way by the grace of God.

God was the one who rescued them from Egypt.

It was the Lord who led them through the desert.

It was God who fed them and gave them drink out of rocks and manna.

And he wants them to remember when they get to the promised land… when their lives settle down and they find good work and have food on the table every night… he wants them to never forget who it was that God them there.

Everything we are and everything we have is a gift. It is grace. It is a blessing.

We are here today because God spoke and light and life came into being.

We are here today because God wanted a relationship with us.

We are here today because God moved in the lives of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, James and John and Paul and the Corinthians.

We are here because of the faithful people who were led by God to turn a farmhouse into a church in 1925. We are here because the Holy Spirit moved and breathed life into this congregation.

Today, we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and love and power that moved through countless generations before us. All the resources and abilities we have are gifts from our Lord and Savior.

And like the Israelites, we should never forget that simple fact.

It is not our own strength that has produced our abundance. No, it is the strength of God that has brought us here.

And God has sown his power and blessing in our lives SO THAT we might bear fruit for the Kingdom.

You see… God made an investment, too. God planted gifts and resources into our lives. God has nurtured this church and helped us to grow so that we might in turn be a blessing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace.”

Grace for living.

Grace for giving.

Grace for working.

Grace for singing God’s praise.

God has made sure that you have what you need in order to serve him.

The Macedonians gave out of their poverty.

The Corinthians gave out of their wealth.

But each gave because they believed they were sowing seeds for the Kingdom of God. And each gave out of joy and thanksgiving for the abundance of what God has planted in their lives.

So today, as we make our commitments to the Lord, may we always remember where our abundance comes from.

May we commit without hesitation.

May we commit without guilt.

May we commit what we have and trust that as God has blessed us, so God will bless others. Amen.

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?

I Believe…

Nearly five years ago, I lead this “Enough” study with my very first congregation in Marengo. I remember vividly how I had planned out the whole series and had all of my notes ready to go for Sunday morning. I had sat down to start writing about the American dream and how our quest to have it all has taken so much away from our lives…. when an earthquake hit the island of Haiti.

And suddenly, it didn’t seem so hard to put things in perspective.

Every simple convenience and item in my home seemed like an overwhelming blessing when I began to think of the lives of missionaries and doctors and orphans and moms and dads who had just lost everything.

I had a friend whose parents were working at a hospital in Haiti at the time. Her parents were okay and her mom wrote to her in an email:

Hospital Ste. Croix is standing. John and I are fine. The administration building collapsed, and our apartment collapsed under the story above. We have nothing we brought with us to Haiti… Someone who was here gave me some shoes, and I found another pair of reading glasses that will work, so I have what I need.

Those lines just struck me.

“we have nothing we brought with us to Haiti… but someone gave me some shoes and I found a pair of reading glasses, so I have what I need.”

 

We may not experience earthquakes, but that doesn’t mean our lives are completely stable and worry free.

when the ground beneath your feet begins to shake…

When you lose your footing…

When everything seems to fall apart…

When that happens we start to ask questions about what is it that we really need and what are we going to rely upon.

Now, that may have been a more humorous look at this idea of instability but I think that each of us could probably find ourselves somewhere in that sketch.

We put all of our hope and faith and trust into the things of this world… our homes, our jobs, the stock market, and we don’t often pause to think about whether or not we are making the best decisions.

We over extend ourselves and work more hours to make more money so we can have more stuff.

Some statistics from Adam Hamilton’s “Enough” stuck out to me.

Did you know that the average American home went from 1660 square feet in 1973 to 2400 square feet in 2004?

Did you know that there is estimated to be around 2 billion – yes, billion with a b- 2 billion square feet of self-storage space in America? We have so much stuff that we don’t even know what to do with it or where we will put it.

And to get all of that space and all of the stuff to fill it, we have exploited our credit systems… and our credit systems have exploited us.

In the past twenty years, the average credit card debt in our country rose from $3,000 a person to $9,000 a person.

It’s like we have a gaping hole in our lives that we aren’t quite sure how to fill. So we try to fill it with money and possessions.

We try to build our lives upon these things and forget that the economic systems of this world are just shifting sands.

And so when the sands shift, when the rug gets pulled out from under us, we don’t have a firm footing. We have put all of our faith and trust into our things… instead of our God.

Adam Hamilton reminds us that the core of our most recent financial crisis is the extension and abuse of credit.

The very word credit comes from the Latin word credo, which means “I believe” or “I trust.”

By extending credit to us, our home mortgage companies and stores and the credit card companies believe and trust that we will pay them back for the money extended to us.

But too often, we have treated this credit as something that we believe and trust in… we believe it will always be there, that there is always more to borrow, that it is the answer to all of our problems.

We believe in our credit, more than we do our God. And as we do so, we find ourselves building on an insecure foundation that is moments away from collapse.

Jesus had some advice about things. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said that his words are not just helpful pieces of advice to get add inspiration to our day – they are what we are supposed to be building our lives upon.

Hear this scripture again, this time from the Message:

If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.

But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards. – Matthew 7: 25-29

Now, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about our actual homes. Floods and fires and earthquakes destroy homes all the time, no matter how strong we have built them.

He is talking about our ability to withstand the troubles of this world.

When disaster strikes…

When the stock market falls…

When a diagnosis shakes the foundations of your family…

When those things happen, and sometime they will to all of us… Is your life built on a belief in credit cards and mortgages and flat screen televisions?

Or is the core belief of your life… the one that everything else is built on… is that belief in the God who created you, who died for you, who gives you life?

When the earthquake comes and shakes our very foundations, will we have as much abundance in our life as the woman serving in Haiti whose only possessions are a borrowed pair of shoes and some reading glasses?

In our first reading this morning, this letter of advice to Timothy, Paul writes that wealth is here today and gone tomorrow, so we should:

go after God, who piles on the all the riches we could ever manage – to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. (1 Tim 6:17-19 MSG)

And he reminds Timothy, this from the Message translation:

A devout life does bring wealth, but it is the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.

If we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet… that’s enough.

 

Over the next month, we will be looking at that word, Enough.

We’ll ask what “enough” means in our life, what it means in our church, and how we can live our lives making sure that others have “enough” as well.

But today, I want us to remember that while we worry about having enough, the truth is that we are blessed beyond our wildest dreams.

It is just that we sometimes need a shift in perspective to see that. We need to weed out the seeds of life and fruitfulness from the gunk.

We might fret about keeping up with our neighbors, but we were created to love one another.

We get anxious about our stock portfolios, but we were meant to share with those in need.

We are constantly thinking about upgrading to the newest device or fashion accessory, but we were meant to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

My prayer is that this season of “Enough”, this time that we spend together exploring our spiritual and financial lives, will help re-orient us. My prayer is that it will transform our relationship with money so that we might see it not as a source of anxiety and stress in our lives, but as a resource that God has given us to do good in this world and to care for one another.

And the start of that transformation is to start with what we believe and who we entrust our lives to.

I want to invite you to turn with me to page 883 in your hymnals and recite with me one of the many creeds, or statements of belief that we affirm together as the people of God. Page 883.

Unimagineable…

I think in some ways, I’m still in shock. Or exhausted. or both.

At 2:45 on Monday afternoon, we announced that we had raised $2,009,907 for Imagine No Malaria as the Iowa Annual Conference. 

I had spent my lunch break sitting on the floor of the treasurer’s office counting the dollars that districts had raised by passing bags and hats and buckets that morning.  And as first one district exceeded a thousand dollars, and then another, and then pledges of a thousand dollars and more came rolling in, I knew we had done it.

I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I tried to casually stroll to the Diakanos area (our youth who serve as pages for conference).  I needed their help in updating our tally boards so we could reveal the new total to conference.

And even as we were recording that unbelievable number, the Iowa Foundation announced a $6,000 match of the afternoon’s donations.  They believed we still needed about $12,000 to go over the top and were willing to get us half way there.  And the East Central district announced over $1500 in pledges for our rider in the North Central Jurisdictional Ride for Change.  Even before we had made it official, our tally was inadequate. Our success was still growing. The gifts were unbelievable.  We couldn’t keep up with the outpouring of dollars and cents and checks and pledges. 

I strode up to the microphone… flipped on the yellow light… and imperceptibly shook as I shared the good news.

What that number represents to me is not simply money that was raised by folks in Iowa.  It represents all of the lives that will be saved because of the work of United Methodists.  It represents the churches that were transformed and started to think beyond their walls in this past year and a half.  It represents the youth who were given a voice and ran with a cause they knew was making a difference – whether it was with their feet on the pavement, on the ballfield, or by dyeing their hair.  It represents moms and dads in places I have never been like Sierra Leone and Angola and Nigeria who have hope their children will live.  It represents the effort of communities who have rallied together to educate one another and hold each other accountable. It is the pennies of children and the pocketbooks of millionaires.  It is diversity, and beauty, and joy, and sacrificial, and empowering, and far beyond anything I ever asked or imagined was possible.

I believed we could raise the money.

Don’t get me wrong.

I got involved in this whole wonderful mess in the first place because I knew that if every United Methodist in Iowa gave only $10, we would have raised nearly $1.8 million dollars.

It was weird for people to come up and congratulate me after the big announcement, because this was OUR success and not mine.  This was OUR effort and I simply had the honor of being the midwife.  The resources were there for this to be a successful campaign.  Of that, I had no doubt.

But I never imagined how it would transform the people of Iowa.  I have been blown away by the stories of individuals and communities which have been transformed by Imagine No Malaria in Africa.  And I never imagined how this whole experience would transform me.

Hopefully I’ll have time in the next few weeks to process some of what I have learned and some of how God has moved in my life. 

But for now, I simply say: God is Good.

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We're Afraid to Ask

We don’t like to talk about money.

Pastors hate to preach on it.

Finance committees only do it because they have to.

We keep our records quiet and avoid tough conversations about budgets.

And when the time comes for mission work or important projects, we pass around the white buckets and pray someone gets inspired to put more than their pocket change inside.

Why are we so afraid to ask for deep commitment, for generous gifts, for extravagant response?

 

Volunteers sort dairy tubs for the Terracycle/Imagine No Malaria drive.
Volunteers sort dairy tubs for the Terracycle/Imagine No Malaria drive.

1. We segregate finances from other types of gifts. 

We do not ask those who have the ability to make music to hide their gifts or keep their names hidden.  We are not afraid to praise the talents of that cook in the congregation who makes the most excellent peanut butter pie… and might even have been found once or twice on our knees begging them to make it for the next church supper. The person who gives their time to repair items around the church gets their name in the bulletin. We celebrate the gifts God has given us and the way that people have graciously given them for the Kingdom of God.

Except for when it comes to dollars and cents.

I’ve discovered that money is not some great evil.  It is not the powerful, ominous thing we make it out to be.  It is a resource, a gift, not unlike our voices or our hands or our creativity.

I may have shared this before, but Henri Houwen writes:

Fundraising is, first and foremost, a form of ministry.  it is a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission….

We are declaring, “We have a vision that is amazing and exciting.  We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you – your energy, your prayers, and your money – in this work to which God has called us.” (A Spirituality of Fundraising, p. 16-17)

We have segregated the almighty dollar into it’s own category, rather than understanding it as one of many ways that people are able to respond, embrace, and participate in the work of the kingdom.

Through Imagine No Malaria, I have seen people give their time, carefully crafting beautiful creations we are selling to help support our work.  Folks lend their voice to the effort through being ambassadors and telling the story of our work.  Kitchens are busy with those who are baking and preparing for mission dinners and pancake suppers. Runners have covered countless miles with their feet to build support across the state for our work.  And people have opened their pocketbooks in response… eager to participate in the life-saving work of Imagine No Malaria.

Those dollars are vitally important. Without the financial resources we are gathering, we cannot do the life-saving work that is needed on the continent of Africa.

ALL of these gifts are kingdom work – healing the sick and preaching the gospel for hundreds of thousands of people.  All of them are ways for people to respond to the vision and join in the mission of God.

 

2. We aren’t good at evangelism

Nouwen writes that through asking…. through inviting those individuals, families, and organizations to give… we are in reality doing the work of evangelism and conversion.

Whether we are asking for money or giving money we are drawn together by God, who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration. To be converted means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act… By giving people a spiritual vision, we want them to experience that they will in fact benefit by making their resources available to us. (p. 17, 19)

A young girl in Colorado experienced that transformation when she caught the vision and was invited to give.  As other students added their dollars and change to the bucket at Vacation Bible School, she emptied her bank account and took the money she was saving for a doll and clothes and things she wanted and donated it instead to help save lives. 

When we fail to ask… when we fail to share the vision and invite people to participate in God’s work… we are denying them the opportunity to experience that kind of transformation.

Maybe one of the reasons we are afraid to step out and talk with others about participating in this project or in others is because we are so lousy at doing evangelism in the first place.

A Barna study revealed that the average United Methodist will invite only one person to worship with them every 38 years.  We just are not in the habit of talking about what our church is doing and asking people to join us in the first place.  So why would we expect things to be any different when it comes to money?

This past week, I got a call from a church in Mason City that is doing some outside the box thinking and invited the local blood bank to become a partner in this effort.

Folks in Carson invited their whole community to participate in a basketball game and raised $4000.

When we carry this message, this vision, this transformative promise out into our communities – we just might be stunned at the response. God is good and the Holy Spirit is at work if we are willing to get outside of our walls and ask.

 

fundraising3. We are willing to settle for small gifts

One of my colleagues with Imagine No Malaria refused to accept a pledge from a church.  It was a large, thriving church with a passion for mission and the ability to participate in a big way.  When they turned in a goal of $1000, my friend sent it back to the pastor and said, “We need to meet.”  He refused to let them sell themselves short because they had the potential for transformative ministry through Imagine No Malaria.

Most people, including myself, would be pleased as punch to get a pledge at all and wouldn’t have the guts to do such a thing.  But why not?

The demands of the gospel are not small.  The invitation to discipleship demands that we take up our cross and follow.  And yet we allow people to get by with weak offerings: in either time, energy, or dollars.

I bet your church, right now, has five people in it who could and would be willing to invest themselves in this kingdom-work by giving $1000… either all at once, or as a pledge over the next year or three.  I bet your community or your county has two businesses or organizations that would be willing to donate $2500 a piece if they were told about how this work is transforming lives in Africa and creating opportunities for community development and economic empowerment.

Too often we operate from a mindset of scarcity and cherish tiny offerings, instead of realizing that God has already abundantly provided.