November…it’s Stewardship Season at Crafton Heights. This year, instead of the traditional “Sermon on the Amount”, we are pursuing a church-wide time of reflection and study called Extravagant Generosity. This four week program includes small group reflections, individual devotions, and suggested sermon themes. This message was preached on November 25, 2012 and was anchored in these scriptures:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28, NIV)
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1, NIV)
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33, NIV)
I hope that when you saw the title for this message, you thought of the 2007 film of the same name, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Did you see that picture? It features two dissimilar characters, each of whom is dying of cancer, who set out on a quest to accomplish a number of life goals before their time on earth is finished. If you didn’t see that one, maybe you’re familiar with the 2002 film called A Walk to Remember, in which a young man becomes a better person as he helps his girlfriend fulfill her dying wishes.
Each of these films did pretty well at the box office – they were in the top five when they opened. They are good movies, but they are fundamentally flawed stories, at least for most of us. Most of us have, at some level, the foggy realization that the clock is ticking and that we are living on borrowed time. But most of us do not have some significant crisis that forces us to so prioritize our days and our energy with the kind of urgency that we see in The Bucket List or A Walk to Remember. If you knew that you were going to die in six weeks, would that affect the way that you spent your time today? Probably.
The question for us is this: how do we create a sense of urgency, or at least a sense of appropriate priorities, when we don’t know the script for the next six or twelve months? Without knowing exactly how much time is left, who do we want to be?
It’s a question of vision, isn’t it? For the last three weeks, each of us has received a card asking an important question. This week, you should have received one that invited you to name some of the things that you’d like to see happen here at the Crafton Heights church in the next twelve months. Did you think about what God is longing to bring forth in this place? What about in your own personal life? Is there any place where your vision for your personal life overlaps with your vision for the church? How can we fuel CHUP with what excites you? How can you get fed, motivated, or inspired by what happens here?
Our scripture this morning consists of three very brief passages. In Joel, we heard about a God whose spirit falls on all kinds of people. Isn’t that a sign of the church? That we are called to demonstrate God’s big dreams – whether we are young or old, rich or poor?
The passage from Colossians is a reminder to make sure that we are focused on God’s purposes in our lives – and the way that we do that is by continuing to put ourselves where God can get to us. I was thinking about this passage as I drove the PA Turnpike earlier this week. I was listening to the radio, but was frustrated when I drove through the tunnels and lost my program. Then it occurred to me that there are lots of times when I think that God’s been silent in my life, only to realize that I’ve been hiding out somewhere underground – focused on things that are not important, or that would draw me away from God’s best for my life – and when I’m able to crawl out from those things, I see that I’m in a much better position to get the message that God has for me.
The passage from Matthew is a familiar reminder to place God first in our lives – and when we do so, we can see how all our needs fall into place once the priorities are set.
With this in mind, then, I’d like to share a few thoughts as to my own vision for the Crafton Heights church in the year to come. I can’t stand here and tell you that we’re going to close the church if we don’t do this, or that I have some terrible disease and want to guilt you into something. Nope. All I can say is that I have a vision for this community. Simply put, that vision is that our congregation can be a place where people know Jesus.
As I state that vision, I need to confess that there has been some evolution in my own thinking over the past couple of decades regarding what it means to know Jesus.
Early in my life, I thought that it was important for folks to “know Jesus” because people who didn’t would end up rotting in hell for eternity. My faith in Jesus was essentially a “fire insurance” policy – I was not particularly interested in the eternal lake of fire (and still am not, by the way), and if praying the “sinner’s prayer” would get me out of that, well, then, I was all for it. In fact, there was a time when I even carried around little cards inviting people to “get out of Hell free” by knowing Jesus. I used to leave them with a tip at restaurants. I never, ever, had any notion that this profound act of generosity on my part ever induced anyone to go to church or believe in Jesus, but it made me feel holy. Then, someone gave me a real tip: instead of leaving a mini-sermon on the table, why not leave money so the underpaid waitress could feed her kids?
I don’t want to sell the importance of knowing Jesus as the Lord of your life short, but I do need to say that I came to understand that the point of the incarnation was not merely to save my bacon for eternity. There was something deeper.
At that stage, “knowing Jesus” became a matter of trying to learn more about Jesus. What was important to him? Who was he and what did he teach and why? As I think about Crafton Heights as a place where Jesus is known, there is a strong emphasis on this aspect of our discipleship. How can I say that I “know Jesus” unless I am willing to learn about the things that matter to him? Faithbuilders, Youth Group, and small group Bible studies are places where we can learn what the Bible says about things like justice, sin, life, and hope.
But knowing Jesus is more than an intellectual pursuit. Doesn’t it also mean that we’ve got to look for Christ in the world? Knowing Jesus is not only memorizing the beatitudes or knowing all the miracles in the Bible. It’s more than that – it’s not only learning the things that are important to Christ, but looking to participate in them in some great way. Here, we can do that through the a-MAIZE-ing Grace famine relief, or the food bank offering. Many of you have told me how you have found a deeper appreciation for who Christ is by pointing to his work in the world as you have participated in pro-life causes or walked for peace or sat with the dying. To be sure, “knowing Jesus” around here means pointing to Christ’s work in the world.
But the capstone of this process for me – so far, at least – is thinking that when I say that Crafton Heights Church is a place where Jesus is known is this: in your midst, the presence of Christ is revealed. In other words, I’ve come to understand that it is not the church’s job to point to what Christ is doing in the world. The church’s job is to be what Christ is doing in the world. We are not supposed to point to his body. We are his body. I had a couple of conversations with my nephew this past week about an actor in LA who roams the streets dressed as Jesus – now the subject of Aerosmith’s song “Street Jesus”. Ryan said, “How weird would that be – to be walking down the street and see Jesus?”
But by God’s grace, that’s what’s supposed to happen every day. The Tuesday morning craft group, or the Preschool, or the Open Door – each of these places are laboratories where someone can come in off the street and see you…but more than that, they can see Jesus. They can see what happens when someone is willing to risk being faithful with his or her life – even when you’re not going to die next Thursday or the world isn’t going to end on December 21.
My vision for our faith community in the next 12 months is simply this – that we might be a place and a people where Jesus is known. Not merely in an intellectual sense (although I hope we are growing in wisdom). Not merely in a programmatic sense (although I expect that we will be busy). But that we might be a people and a place where the life and heart of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is palpable and tangible.
Many of us have spent three weeks in a series of discussions that have led us to consider more deeply the ways in which we can align our behavior with God’s priorities. We’ve used those cards to which I alluded earlier. And now this week, we’ll be sending out our “estimate of giving” cards for 2013. Each of you will have an opportunity to give prayerful thought to planning the financial gifts you intend to make through this congregation in the year to come.
Why do we do this? Because the ways that we spend our money and our time provide us with the clearest reflection of the priorities that we have in life. In the movies I mentioned earlier, the characters all decided that they wanted to use their resources of time and money in specific ways because they knew that they would not last forever. You and I vote with our wallets and our calendars every day, and I’ve found that if I plan ahead, I do better at reflecting God’s wisdom and priorities.
One of the most important decisions I’ve made was the day in 1981 when I decided to sponsor a child through World Vision. I was a student, paying my way through college. I had a lot of bills, and I was anticipating a wedding. And this was going to cost me $17/month – about 10% of my income at the time.
But I signed up, and it made a fantastic impact on my life. I discovered that I could do it. I was able to be happy with less because I was more aware of the needs of others. That $17/month taught me as much as the education for which I was charged a lot more! The discipline of giving taught me to be content – and that’s made such a huge difference.
Joseph Heller, the author of the great American novel Catch-22 was at a dinner party with fellow author Kurt Vonnegut in the home of a billionaire financier. Vonnegut pointed out to him that their host made more money in a single day of hedge fund trading than Heller would ever earn in his writing. Heller replied, “Yes, but I have something that he will never have.” Vonnegut pressed and said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” Heller said simply, “The knowledge that I have enough.” Think about that the next time you read about a person being trampled to death at a shopping mall on Black Friday. Enough.
By the grace of God, I have enough. By the grace of God, I am blessed to give more than $17/month these days. In fact, God took that little seed and planted it so that this year, Sharon and I were able to make more than 20% of our income available for the Lord’s work. I’m not saying that to impress you. Heck, you know me. I’m not saying that to impress God. Heck, God doesn’t need my money to pay God’s bills. I’m saying that because in the space of a few short years – years when I was not dying of cancer or hurtling towards the apocalypse – I have learned that this is a way that I can align my life with God’s priorities. When you receive your Estimate of Giving card this week, my deep hope is that you will prayerfully consider how you can be God’s agent in this time and place – and how together, we can know Christ in the months that lie ahead – and that in our knowing Christ, that those around us will be blessed by the hope and joy that comes from Christ’s presence in the world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.