Party Tithe

On Sunday, November 26, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights concluded our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the practice commanded in Deuteronomy for the people to bring their offerings with great joy.  In addition, we listened to the very familiar story of the prodigal son… Our scriptures included Deuteronomy 14:22-27 and Luke 15:11-32
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.

 

Every time a group of people chooses to become “Covenant Members” at the church, whether it’s because of Confirmation Class or as a result of some other conversations, I always ask the same question: what is your favorite part of worship? When we assemble in God’s name, we do a lot of things – from the gathering hymn to the benediction, which is your favorite? This morning, let me invite you to give that some thought and simply turn to your neighbor and answer that question: what is one thing you look forward to when we come into this room for worship?

Did you say the candles at Christmas Eve? Or when we get to sing your favorite song? Or maybe when we get to stop singing your neighbor’s favorite song?

I can’t say that this is my absolute favorite, but one of the most special aspects of worship here at Crafton Heights is what I like to call “the dance of the meerkats”. It’s listed in your bulletin as “receiving our tithes and offerings”.

The church wherein I grew up had a team of twelve men, each of whom accepted responsibility to facilitate the collection for a given month. These men recruited, plotted, and sometimes planned their vacation time around the Sundays for which they’d be on duty as ushers.

The Crafton Heights U.P. Church of 30 years ago elected a single man as “Head Usher”, and it was the responsibility of that office bearer to make sure that there were four men who were appropriately prepared to come forward at the correct time and receive the morning offering.

But this morning, as on most Sunday mornings here at CHUP, I suspect that this will happen. The music will start playing, and then heads start popping up, like meerkats out of their burrows, as people seek to make eye contact in trying to assess whether or not they are needed for this important ministry. Through some sort of signals unknown to linguists, two, or three, or five or six of you will rise and walk toward the back of the room. The fifth person there generally pretends to be going to get a drink so that no one will think that he doesn’t know the signal.

Worship at our sister church, the Mbenjere CCAP in Malawi, Central Africa

At any rate, a crew is assembled and the offering is received. I am teasing, of course, but that’s because it reminds me that giving really is a joyful and blessed aspect of our life together. We tend to forget that in the United States some times, but when folks travel to Africa with me, they almost always react to the joy with which the people bring forward their gifts. Whether it’s in small churches in remote villages or large complexes in the middle of town, there is a sense of profound gratitude that marks the giving of the offering. People are excited because they are able to give.

Too often in the American church, we are taught that our giving is rooted in one of three beliefs: one, we give out of duty. We are consumers of religious services, and so we better pay up to cover our costs. That’s the thinking that lay behind the car ride wherein the young boy left church with his folks and said, “Wow, that was really good. I’m glad we came!” His father was less impressed, and commented that the sermon was a little long and the second hymn was off key. “Oh, come on, Dad!”, sighed the boy. “You gotta admit, it was pretty good for a dollar!”

The second stream of giving in many of our churches is from those who are so pleased with how things have been going for them lately that they’d like to offer the Man Upstairs a tip as a gesture of appreciation. Folks think, “I like my life, and God has done all right by me, so here you go, Big Guy – get yourself something nice on me…”

The other reason that I see folks being asked to give in the North American church is because giving is seen to be an investment strategy. The worship leader promises that if you give to God, then God will bless you. There’s a promise held out that seems to indicate if you give a little, you’ll get a little, but if you give a lot, you’ll be deeply enriched.

Firstfruits offering: illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company circa 1896

There are a number of models for giving set forth in scripture, but none are impersonal and very few are based primarily on appeals to either greed or duty. More often, as is the case in our reading from Deuteronomy, we see that giving is a response to what God has done in the world.

In the passage you heard, the people are commanded to set aside a tenth of their produce and take it all down to the church and live it up with the gathered community. If you live too far from church, or you have such a big harvest that this is impractical, then go ahead and sell your tenth and stop at a Sheetz or a Get-Go along the way. The party is to include everyone, and is to be centered in giving thanks to God for what God has done in the world.

Other parts of the Bible offer a rationale for giving that includes the expectation that people will take part in funding what needs to happen for the upkeep of the temple and the financial provision for the worship leaders, and many passages indicate the need to be attentive to God’s call to care for the poor. There are many, many places where the Bible talks about money – in fact, Jesus spoke more about our finances than he did about hell, or about sex, or even about love. The scripture is full of exhortation to give generously to the Lord’s work.

I’ve told you some of my story, and you’ve heard from Ed, Stacey, Karen, and – in a little while – Ron. Today, I’d like to affirm that giving out of gratitude is a fundamentally good thing that – as we learn to do it better and better – will bring us great joy. I’ve taken as my text for this a very well-known story of Jesus that we often call “the parable of the prodigal son”, or sometimes “the loving father”.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn c. 1661-1669

When we hear these familiar words, we usually focus on the profound vision of forgiveness that is offered here. A son essentially wishes his father dead, and then blows through his inheritance, and is finally restored by the father’s willingness to make things work. At the same time, there is a different son who is lost to the family as a result of a self-induced fog of pride, legalism, resentment, and self-righteousness.

This week, though, as we are thinking about gratitude all month long, I’d like to ask you to consider which character in the parable is the most grateful? I’ll suggest that it is, in fact, the father – a man so excited about the turn of events that he throws a heck of a party and brings in all the neighbors. There is music, feasting, joy, and laughter – the whole thing, to tell you the truth, is pretty Deuteronomic. It’s as if Luke 15 is a vision of Deuteronomy 13.

But you interrupt me and say, “Wait a second, Pastor! How can God be grateful? To whom would God be grateful? Is it even possible for God to be grateful?”

And, on the one hand, I’d say that you have a valid point, particularly if your vision of gratitude looks like a child who has received a gift from a relative and whose mother drags that child in front of that giver and commands, “Now, listen to me, child! Before you even think about using that gift, you’re going to say a proper thank you!” Nobody likes that kind of experience – not the giver, not the recipient, and not the one who feels obliged to make sure that the “thank you” gets said.

But what if gratitude is being glad for what is, or has been, or could be with an eye toward the one who made it possible? In the parable, the father is so happy about the restored relationship with his boy that he wants the world to witness it. In this context, we could even say that the father is, in some way, grateful to the son as well as to those who come forward to share in the joy. The father is supremely happy for how things are, or for who is there, or for what can happen as a result of these things…

Listen, I had some experience of this as a father – when some interaction between my daughter and myself allowed me to break out of the dull routine of my normal life and see myself as profoundly blessed… but I have to tell you that no matter how I experienced this a generation ago, I am simply killing it as a grandparent. I mean, there I am bounding one of those little girls on my knee and all of a sudden I’ll blurt out, “Oooooh, look! The baby spit up on me!” A blonde four year old will ask me a question, and I’ll say, “Do I want to go out in the rain and play in the mud? You betcha!”

One of the great gifts I have received at this season of my life is that of joy in shared activities, in sharing – in relationship. Listen – there is not a blessed thing that either one of my granddaughters can actually do for me in any practical sense. They cost me money, energy, sleep, fishing time, and more. And, of course, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

In the same way, the father in the parable is a paragon of joy and gratitude because he is glad for the chance to participate in relationship. Because he is so blessed in this fashion, he finds himself giving, and giving, and then giving some more. The whole shooting match is his – and yet he is the most grateful person at the party.

This week, we’re presenting our Intention of Giving cards as a part of our worship. In a few moments, the elaborate dance of the meerkats will begin and you’ll be invited to place one of those green cards in the plate. I want to remind you that we are doing all of this with the full awareness of the fact that there is a whole lot of 2018 that is outside of our control. We don’t know what will happen in our lives or in the lives of those whom we love. And yet in spite of that uncertainty, we will declare our intent – we will decide and proclaim – that so far as it depends on us, we want to live like the Father. We want to be like God.

We want to laugh with the people of God.

We want to rejoice in the possibility of relationships with each other, with God, and with God’s world. We want to be givers.

In the fall of 1983 a Dutch Catholic priest and theologian named Henri Nouwen had just finished what he called an exhausting trip through the United States wherein he spoke as often as he could urging Christians to do whatever was in their power to stop bloodshed in Central America. He later wrote,

I was dead tired, so much so that I could barely walk. I was anxious, lonely, restless, and very needy. During the trip I had felt like a strong fighter for justice and peace, able to face the dark world without fear. But after it was all over I felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry. As soon as the cheering or cursing crowds were gone, I experienced a devastating loneliness and could easily have surrendered myself to the seductive voices that promised emotional and physical rest.[1]

By chance, he happened to be invited to a meeting with a woman who had a copy of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. He stared at the poster for the entire meeting, and later made arrangements to visit the museum to see the original. He sat with the painting for four days, and as he did, he was overwhelmed with a sense of God’s call on his life. As he reflected on both this experience and the ways that it shaped him, he said,

In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.[2]

I am here to suggest that the father in the story that Jesus told, that Jesus himself, and that the One of whom Jesus spoke so often all point to a reality in which we experience gratitude as both an awareness of that we’ve received as well as a discipline to practice in our interactions with each other, those around us, and the Lord. As we think about who we are called to be these days, may we be those who are called “grateful”, “joyous”, “generous”. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 4.

[2] The Return of the Prodigal Son, Doubleday 1992, p. 85.

Practicing Gratitude

On Sunday, November 5, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began a month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith.  Because of a death in the family, I was unable to be there myself, but this sermon was read by my dear friend Karen.  I do not have an audio file to post.  The scriptures for the morning included Deuteronomy 16:13-17 and Colossians 1:15-20.

When I was a kid, my sister and brother and I had to wait on the top step of the home until both mom and dad were awake on Christmas morning. Dad had to be the first one downstairs, allegedly to check and make sure that Mr. Claus had safely come and gone (although I do remember the smell of coffee wafting up the steps on those mornings, too).

Once Dad gave the OK, we were allowed to go downstairs, but all of us had to walk right past the presents that were under the tree and make our way to the stockings. After everyone had unpacked their stockings, then the family moved to the kitchen for breakfast (and, as I recall, more coffee for the grown-ups). Usually, the orange at the “toe” of the stocking made up part of the holiday breakfast.

After breakfast, we kids were finally allowed to go in and investigate the gifts under the tree. Presents were opened, one by one, with each person taking a turn while the rest of the family watched.

Why did the Carvers “do” Christmas in this way? Well, for starters, it made the day last longer. Some years, there were not many gifts under the tree, and a deliberate pace stretched the celebration out. In addition, the practice of moving slowly through the gifts helped the family to remember that the things under the tree were not the most important part of the day.

Not surprisingly, those rules followed me from Wilmington DE to Pittsburgh and became a part of the practices that Sharon and I gave to Ariel. They were never written down, and often times not even discussed. They just were… things happened that way because that’s how they always happened.

You know that there is no “right” way to do Christmas, but that the ways that I was shown as a child shaped my view of Christmas, gifts, priorities, and led me to practices as an adult. The fruit of the practice of a deliberate and slow-paced Christmas was, for me, gratitude and appreciation for the gift of a family.

Every culture and every family has rules and practices and “a way that we do things here…” Like the Carver Christmas, they’re not often written – but they are all taught and learned.

In Leviticus chapter 23, the Israelites are getting ready to enter into the Promised Land and God says, “You want to be my people? I’ll tell you how to be my people. Remember these days and keep them holy.” And then God goes on to lay out seven Holy Days on which people are commanded to feast. Many of these days you know: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, The Feast of the Trumpets, Yom Kippur (or “The Day of Atonement”), and Sukkot. Why does God give the Jews these feasts? So that they remember the Passover, remember the flight from Egypt into the desert; remember the provision of God in the midst of their journey. God wants them to remember that they lived in tents in the desert and to remember that they are forgiven by His grace. Why does God give them the commandment to have these feast days? So that on the feast days, they will have the opportunity and responsibility to tell their children the stories and their children will learn who they are.

Deuteronomy 16 gives a little more information about one particular feast – the celebration of Sukkot – also called the Feast of the Ingathering, the Feast of Booths, or the Festival of the Tabernacle. For seven days, the people of God were called to move out of their homes into sukkah – meaning “booth” or “tabernacle” – a temporary structure where they were to dwell for seven days and nights. A sukkah was to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It could be of any size, so long as it is large enough for one to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. The roof must be left loose, not tied down, and the covering must be thin enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade.

Let me interrupt this description of the booths to ask, doesn’t this make Judaism sound like the coolest religion ever, especially for eight year olds? Seriously, what child hasn’t begged to sleep out in the yard – to have a camp out, in a tent, all night long? And here, God commands it – for a whole week! How cool is that?

The gift of Sukkot is designed to remind the Israelites, and to encourage them to teach their children and grandchildren, the practice of thankfulness. They are called to remember and re-enact, physically, the truth that we are all always utterly dependent on God. The flimsiness of these dwellings is a reminder that it is not the bricks of our homes that provide us shelter, but rather the grace and goodwill of God.

This idea of leaving something substantial and dwelling in something less substantial is heightened in the New Testament. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we read that “the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth.” (Young’s Literal Translation). Our reading this morning from Colossians tells us that in Jesus, the completeness and fullness of God was pleased to dwell – to tabernacle – in the person of Jesus. Somehow, in the fragility of the human form, the essence of the Divine moved out of eternity and entered into time. Just as the Jews were to move out of their substantial homes and into a fragile structure with a leaky roof, so too did the Son of God leave the majesty of heaven and enter into our reality.

And, of course, in other sections of the bible we read that the church – you and I – is called the body of Christ. Given that, it’s not too much of a stretch to put it together like this:

  • God is the source of all that is, and God provides, guides, leads, protects, and sustains the creation.
  • The Israelites are commanded to remember this core truth about God, and to teach it to their children by cultivating a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving.
  • That remembering and teaching includes the practice of dwelling or tabernacling.
  • God reminds us of that truth by coming to dwell, or tabernacle, with us in the person of Christ.
  • Christ sends the church to be his fragile, temporary dwelling in the world and commands us to model gratitude, share grace, and point to the generosity of God.
  • Because we, in fact, have been made for gratitude and thanksgiving.

Do you see how those lines are connected? It begins with God and ends with our thanksgiving.

How will we practice that kind of a lifestyle? How do we teach our children and this in our community the importance of being grateful and gracious? We can insist that they say “please” and “thank you”, of course. We can take part in meal time prayers. But I suspect that there needs to be more to it than that. The challenge that Dave will put before us all month long is to model a life of gratitude and thanksgiving for the way that God meets us in the midst of what we need.

It’s a little chilly to be camping out on the front lawn in Western PA right now, but what about adopting the simple practice of writing one thank-you note a day every day for the next four weeks? Some of you have participated in a social media exercise called “Thirty Days of Gratitude”, wherein each day you put up a post on Facebook or Instagram indicating that you are grateful for running water, or democracy, or toilet paper. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just not what we’re talking about this morning.

I’m suggesting that once a day for the next 28 days you write a personal note to someone else thanking that person for some way in which she or he has been a blessing to you. It needn’t be deep, but it should be personal. Write a note and tuck it inside your child’s lunchbox. Track down a former teacher. Think about the ways that someone at school or work has been helpful to you. Notice those things. And name them.

There are about 150 cards in baskets in the back of the sanctuary. They are there to help get you started. In fact, if you’re stumped, your first attempt could be to write a note to Pastor Dave saying “thanks for getting these cards for us to use this month…”

Each day, think about who you can thank. In your homes, or when you’re with friends, ask each other: “Did you write a note today? To whom? Why?” This will help us to develop a vocabulary of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday, and we’ll get to it soon enough this month. But if thanksgiving is only one day that is marked by overindulgence and eagerness to get out the door for the Black Friday sales, well, then, we’ve done it wrong.

Can we remember that we were created to dwell in gratitude? Can we tabernacle in Thanksgiving? Can we, as a community, be a living, breathing sukkah – a reminder of God’s care and presence in the world? A fragile dwelling, connected to something more substantial, perhaps, that points to the truth that all that we have, all that we are, and all that we ever will be comes from God?

Let us be grateful. And let us practice in such a way that will allow us to cultivate that attribute in our children – to the end that the world may see the grace and glory of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Help Yourself!

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 3 included Luke 1:46-55 and selected verses from Psalm 40.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below. Please note that because I’m an idiot with all things technological, there are approximately 20 seconds of silence before the recording starts.  Don’t get your hopes up, people.  I actually do preach a whole sermon here…

I have a friend – a preaching colleague of mine, actually – who stood up in front of a huge crowd and told an amazingly powerful story. He shared a narrative that was filled with emotion and drama, and was a perfect illustration for the scriptural point he was trying to make. It had its intended effect, and at the end of his message, people were crying, signing up for profound commitments, and more. It was a great story.

We were chatting afterward, and his son – who had been mentioned in the story – cleared his throat and said, “Um, dad? That story you ended with? Can I say something?”

“Of course!” was his father’s quick reply.

“Well, it was a good story, only… well, it didn’t happen that way.” And the son went on to recount the incident as he remembered it. When he was finished, his father looked at him and said, “Hmph. So, it didn’t happen the way I said it did, huh?” His son shook his head. The father paused for a moment and said. “Hmph. Well, it should have.”

I’m sure that all of you have forgotten things that have happened. How many of us remember things that didn’t happen? Who knows something that isn’t true?

I have a question for you, but I do not want you to raise your hands. It is a trick question. How many of you remember reading the Bible verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves?”

Now, how many of you know someone who believes that phrase is found in the Bible? Everyone needs to raise your hands now, because a recent survey indicated that an astounding 82% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.

And you might smile to yourself and say, “Well, of course, if we’re talking about all Americans here. Real believers know better. And you’re right. Only 81% of people who identify themselves as “born again Christians” think that’s a verse from the Bible.[1]

Four out of five people think that this phrase is scriptural! I’m here to tell you that you won’t find it in the Bible. If you look, you can find it in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Ben probably borrowed it from Aesop’s Fables, wherein we find something very similar.

But… but… it just sounds so true, doesn’t it? It sounds really Bible-ish. You might be looking at me and saying, “Seriously, Dave, I swear I read something like that in the Bible…”

And you’re close. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” That verse was used a couple of years ago by a member of Congress who was looking to cut food stamp benefits to hungry families. The context in Thessalonians, however, is more complex. There were people in that community who were so convinced of the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world that they had stopped participating in the responsibilities of daily life. They quit their jobs, they stopped caring for their gardens, and more. After all, if Jesus is coming back on Tuesday, why bother going to work today? Let’s just enjoy this moment!

In fact, the larger context of Paul’s letter is actually a rebuke to the people in Thessalonica to start acting more like Jesus would in terms of caring for each other and the world around them.

When someone says, “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s almost always from the perspective of one who is in a position of being able to help, but who chooses not to. You drive across the bridge and you see a panhandler. You turn on the news and are irritated by the fact that someone is using your tax dollars to pay for groceries or utilities. I find myself getting angry at those who are lazy, freeloading, good-for-nothings, and then I say, “After all, God helps those who help themselves…” It is a justification for me not to act, because in my refusal to help, I am being like God.

As such, then, “God helps those who help themselves” is a statement that is rooted in privilege. Think about all the aspects of your existence right now that are rooted in some sort of a privilege or advantage that you enjoy. Many of us are beneficiaries of what is called “white privilege”. Among other things, I can walk through a Family Dollar without being shadowed, or pull over with absolute confidence when I’m stopped by the police in any municipality in the USA. I enjoy “male” privilege, and I see this when I’m visiting in a hospital room and the Dr. speaks directly to me about the patient’s condition, rather than to the mother, wife, or daughter of the patient. I know that I am economically privileged, because if you told me this morning that the price of gasoline was going up a dollar a gallon because of hurricane Harvey, I’d still hop in the car and drive to visit my granddaughter this afternoon.

Can you read? Were you greeted by a friend today? Did you grow up in a community of faith? Did you wake up this morning in a residence that had both working electricity and running water? If any of those things are true, then you join me in having access to privileges that much, if not most, of the world can only dream about. If we start to think about those things as something we have “earned” or “deserved”, we run the risk of becoming blind to the many gifts that we have received.

Can we please realize how rooted in privilege the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is? It’s ludicrous.

Who looks at those people in Texas, hanging onto rooftops, seeking shelter anywhere they can find it, and shrugs, “Well, that stinks. They better get crack-a-lackin, because, you know, God helps those who help themselves…”?

Who walks past a woman using a walker at the Giant Eagle who is struggling to reach that can on the top shelf and thinks, “Well, if you just tried a little harder, lady…”?

Journalist George Monbiot points out the fallacy of this line of thinking by saying simply, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”[2]

When we say “God helps those who help themselves”, it sounds much like a disavowal of the other. “You – you’re in a jam? Hey, help yourself. Get a job. Be more like me.” That kind of language is insulating, divisive, and cancerous.

I’m suggesting that we redeem some of that same language, but we do so that it might be an invitation rather than a dismissal.

Every person in this room has been, I hope, in a situation where there is some bounty – a feast, a garden, a craft table, a clothes closet – where the opportunity is extended: “Do you see this? Help yourself! This is for you. Take what you need, or want, or can use…”

Do you see what I mean? They are the same words – but instead of help yourself coming across as a selfish statement of isolation or derision, it conveys an invitation to participate in a deeper, more generous relationship.

When we say “help yourself” in this way, we are in fact behaving more like God. The scriptures all point to the glorious truth that God, in fact, helps those who cannot help themselves.

The Psalmist testifies that he was in a pit, lower than low, when God reached out to help. It was slippery, and every single place he tried to find a foothold, he wound up sinking deeper and deeper… And then, by the grace of God, he found a place to stand! He gives witness to the truth that we are poor and needy, and God is the deliverer.

When Mary discovers the identity of the Christ child within her, her spirit soars as she belts out the song we have come to call “The Magnificat”. “God lifts up the humble! God fills the hungry with good things!”

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Every page of the Bible is filled with the affirmation that God does what God can do, but does not have to do. We learn over and over that it is in God’s nature to be giving, forgiving, filling, satisfying, and empowering to those who find themselves to be in need, or distress, or marginalized. The theological term for this attribute and behavior of God is “grace”.

Grace is God’s decision to meet us where we are and help us to get to where we need to be, or could be, or should be. In grace, God sets God’s self before us and says, “Help yourself. Dive in. This is who I am…”

And if that is true, then by implication we are called to be people who consider the generosity and graciousness of God in our lives and seek to share that with others. And that means that there are strategies that we can employ in our own lives.

When you are in charge of the buffet, what do you do? Don’t you set out what you hope will be more than enough of everything? You might reserve some of the things that you absolutely need for yourself, but by and large, you want to make sure that you’re offering what is needed and appreciated, right? You don’t offer the things that are likely to embarrass you – the burnt edges, the moldy fruit, or the sour milk. You offer as much as you can as well as you can.

What if we sought to do that, not just when it’s our turn to host the thanksgiving meal, but every day? In some ways, that might turn our discipleship – and our lives – upside down.

For instance, in the area of personal finance, we often come to church thinking, “Well, what can I afford to donate today? What is the amount I should give? I don’t want to cramp my style or be racked with guilt. What is the least I can do and still feel good about myself?”

What if we approached our lives from the other end: what do I need in order to be me, and how can I make the rest of it available for God’s purposes? When I was a 17 year old high school student, I committed myself to doing my best to tithe any income I received. When we got married, I said, “Honey, the first 10% belongs to God…” And we did that. But then we figured out that, actually, all 100% belongs to God. And we didn’t need 90% to live on. So for many years now, Sharon and I have been privileged to make more than 10% of our income available for the Lord’s work.

It’s the same when we come to think about the time that we have. You have been given an amazing gift of a life… how are you spending it? Are you looking for ways to share yourself freely and deeply as you seek to grow in your ability to serve and be in relationship with others? Or are you bored and restless? You know, I’ve done a lot of funerals, and I’ve sat with a lot of folks who were dying. No one has ever said to me, “You know what, Dave? I wish I’d have had the chance to watch more pre-season football…” Nobody’s ever said, “You know, my house was spotless while those kids were growing up, and they were proud of that, you betcha…” But so often, those are the things that seem so important in the moment. How do you anticipate investing the hours you’ve been given today, this week, and this year? Can you do so in ways that bring life and hope and joy?

Last week, when I introduced this series of messages, I said that phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “God helps those who help themselves” are half-true, or true-ish.

The reality is that this phrase is anchored in something that is eternally true. It’s just that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is, perhaps like this sermon, simply too long.

God helps.

That is true. It always has been, and always will be.

So this week, can we look at the world around us, and act like God? God helps, and so will we, to the extent that we are empowered and privileged to do so. Thanks be to God!   Amen.

[1] Statistics from the Barna Research Group, quoted at http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/

[2] “The Self-Attribution Fallacy”, http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/

Which Story Will You Choose?

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On November 13, 2016 we considered the place of gratitude and thanksgiving as appropriate responses to a climate of fear.  Our texts included I Samuel 23:1-12 (contained within the text of this message) as well as  I Samuel 22:6-23 as well as II Corinthians 9:6-11.  

 

In case you missed it, there was an election in the United States earlier this week. It was in all of the papers and some of the television networks even mentioned it.

I don’t know if you were glued to the returns or lost on Netflix on Tuesday evening, but I was fascinated by one thing. There were rows of desks full of people who were talking about what was happening, and then someone like George Stephanopoulos or Lester Holt would turn to a colleague and say, “Tell us about what’s happening in Wautaga County, North Carolina, Bill…”, or “Let’s take a quick look at Macomb County, Michigan.” And the analyst would throw a map of wautagathis obscure (to me, at any rate) county on the board and we’d be bombarded with information about how many left-handed, college-educated, men in that area played lawn tennis and changed their own oil. Well, maybe not exactly, but we’d hear demographics about these counties and we were told that these were “bellwether communities”. That is, these regions were supposed to be able to help the entire nation contextualize a larger question, or help us see how this particular group of “real Americans” address one of the issues of our day. The whole map seemed too daunting, but a glimpse into one of these towns helped us to process what was or wasn’t happening.

This morning, we’ll leave the election behind but I will invite you to visit another bellwether community. Let’s take a look at the citadel of Keilah, a small fortress in the lowlands of Judah. This community was on the fringes of the nation of Israel, at the base of the mountains that led upward to Jerusalem.

005-david-saul-caveDavid and his men – about six hundred of them – are pretty well-occupied with fleeing King Saul. The murderous and troubled monarch has just finished wiping out all the priests (and indeed the entire town) in Nob, and he is hot for David’s blood. David and his army, along with the one surviving priest, Abiathar, are holed up in the wilderness. All of a sudden, they get a distress call. Listen for the Word of the Lord in I Samuel:

When David was told, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors”

This is bad news. These are Israelites – children of God – who are being attacked by the Philistines, or “sea people”. This is a particularly vicious attack because they are targeting the threshing floors. That means the Philistines are not only bringing violence to the city, they are stealing the food that the community will need from now until the next harvest. This is already a problem, and if help doesn’t come soon, it’ll be a disaster.

David’s response is interesting. Remember, he has a priest with him now, and so he makes use of that resource:

… he inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.”

In previous stories about David, we’ve heard of his faith in God and his trust in God to protect him; now we overhear this conversation which reveals David to be a man who is totally at ease with God and reliant on God for direction. And it’s pretty plain to David – God says, “go!”

But David’s men are not so sure:

But David’s men said to him, “Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!”

They’re incredulous. “You’ve gotta be kidding us, Boss! Saul’s already trying to kill us – and now you want to antagonize the Philistines, too?”

David returns to the Lord and is reassured:

Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, “Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand.”  So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved the people of Keilah. (Now Abiathar son of Ahimelek had brought the ephod down with him when he fled to David at Keilah.)

This is good news on several fronts, isn’t it? David, even while he is running for his life from an irrational King Saul, does what real kings ought to do. He seeks the Lord; he puts himself on the line in service of those who are weak or vulnerable; and he defeats the enemy.

But that’s not to say that everything is honky-dory. Even though the Philistines are, at least for the moment, taken care of, Saul is still breathing murderous threats against David.

Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, “God has delivered him into my hands, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.” And Saul called up all his forces for battle, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men.

David and his men had been on the run in the wide-open desert. When they responded to the cry of the Keilahites, that placed them in a much more vulnerable, contained position. They are essentially sitting ducks in a small town that is surrounded by walls and gates. Once more, David turns to the Lord:

When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod.” David said, “Lord, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.”

And the Lord said, “He will.”

Yes, this is not necessarily good news for our hero. However, it gets worse in a hurry:

Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?”

And the Lord said, “They will.”

Even though David and his men had just come and saved their bacon (although I suppose that being Jewish, there wasn’t much actual bacon to be found), the Lord tells David that the inhabitants of Keilah will hand him over to Saul in a heartbeat.

Doesn’t that just take the frosting right off your flakes? Let that sink in a bit… David is minding his own business, trying to protect himself and his men in the desert. The town council sends out the Bat-signal and, at great risk to themselves, David and the boys show up in the nick of time and rescue the children, save the women, and preserve the harvest. The town is saved – yay!

And how does Keilah repay David? By throwing him under the bus…or the chariot…or the camel…or whatever. They’re preparing to turn him over to King Saul.

Fortunately, David is warned of this plan by God, and he gets out of town as quickly as he can and goes to hide in the wilderness near the town of Ziph. He’s not even unpacked there when the Council of that town sends a message to Saul that David and his men are there, ripe for the picking.

Seriously? Who does that? Obviously, people who are afraid. Saul, so far as anyone knows, is still the King. Saul runs the army. He’s the Commander in Chief. Saul could really hurt us – we don’t want to mess with Saul. I mean, don’t get me wrong – we really appreciate what David and the fellas did for us, but… let’s be real. We’ve got to think practically here.

The inhabitants of Keilah and Ziph probably feel at least some level of discomfort about what they’re doing to David, but the reality is that their fear of Saul was stronger than their gratitude to David. They had the opportunity here to choose their own story and to write themselves in their own narrative. What if they had said, “Yo, Saul… don’t bother. David is our guy. David saved us”?

We’ll never know, of course, because in this instance fear won the day. Fear and insecurity are powerful forces in our world.

So let me ask you: Is Keilah a bellwether? Is that little community an accurate predictor of what is or should be? Do you think that fear is stronger than gratitude?

And don’t tell me you don’t know anything about this kind of fear. This has been a long week for everyone in the USA. Some of us were paralyzed prior to Tuesday night, and others afterwards. Change is on the horizon, and it appears to be a significant change. You can feel the anxiety in the air in lots of places. Tension is everywhere. Families are arguing, friendships are being challenged, allegiances are being tested, and everywhere we go, uncertainty seems to raise its head.

And in the midst of that, you got a letter from the church saying that it’s time for us to think about our giving for 2017.

How in the world are we supposed to think clearly about that right now? The markets are all volatile and economies are unsteady. Is now the time we want to talk about money in the church?

Well, now is the time I’d like to talk with you about what kind of people you would like to be; or, to put it another way: now is the time for you to decide who you’re going to be – which story you will choose to write as you enter the next chapter of your life.

Keilah and Ziph had a choice: will we live into our fears, or will we respond to the anxiety in our lives with gratitude and hope?

As we turn the page toward Advent and Christmas and even 2017, which story will you choose? Will we allow fear and uncertainty to reign in us, or will we act like people who trust in the Lord of all creation, the maker of all that is, seen and unseen?

Things were pretty rocky when Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth and challenged them to be people of generosity in a time of famine. When the region around them was faced with uncertainty and lack of resources, he reminded them that kindness and encouragement and generosity are the things for which we are created. He invited them to live into a narrative that brought out those things in their character.

What’s going to happen?

I don’t know what happened to Keilah – the Bible doesn’t really say anything else about after David saved it and they thanked him by throwing him out. But David turned out all right, didn’t he?

I know that the Corinthians heeded Paul’s advice and the church of Jesus Christ went from being a loose affiliation of a couple of dozen scattered faith communities to being the visible expression of Christ around the world.

What’s going to happen in our homes? In our neighborhood and world in the year to come?

I don’t know the answer to any of that. I sure can’t control most of it.

But this is what I do know: on Tuesday evening I’ll be getting on a plane and flying to South America, where I’ll be preaching at the wedding of a young woman who was here for a year and changed for a lifetime because people in this community invested in her. While I’m in South America, I’ll be taking my granddaughter to visit a community of indigenous people in Chile so that she can learn something about appreciating a culture that is really different than the one in which she’s being raised.

On Christmas, I’ll be taking a group of amazing and courageous young adults to one of the hardest, most difficult places on the planet because they want to go there. They have sensed God’s call on their lives to grow in service and hope and love.

And sometime in between these trips, Sharon and I will fill out our “estimate of giving” card. I’m telling you now that in this time of uncertainty and fear, I’ll be doing my level best to write a larger number in there than I did last year.

In the year to come, I hope to learn how to be more generous with my time and resources and love. I want to give blood. To love my neighbors – the ones who are like me and the ones who are unlike me; the ones with whom I agree and the ones with whom I disagree. To look for birds. To pray for my country. To work to protect the environment. To treasure life – every life – all life.

In short, in 2017 I want to choose to be closer to God’s purposes of generosity and gratitude than I am now, and I’m going to use this little card as a tool to help me get there. I’m going to choose to enter into the story that has main characters named “Gratitude” and “Generosity”, and I will try to reject the ones named “Fear” and “Selfishness.”

I trust that I will not be alone. Thanks be to God, we are never alone. Amen.

Well, Hey, There… Handsome…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 31, we considered the implications of Jesus’ assumption that his followers will engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, as rooted in the portion of that message contained in Matthew 6:19-24.  The call to discipline was echoed in James 1:22-27.

 

FlirtYou’ve seen it a million times. A man. A woman. They eye each other from across the room. Is something happening? Could there be a spark? Some excitement?

Hair is flipped. Legs or arms are folded or not. Eyebrows are raised, and heads tilted.

Laughter and … “Oh, hello, there, handsome…” “Who, me? Handsome, well, I don’t really know about that…”

Conversation. Innuendo. Risk. Suggestion.

Flirting. I’ve been working with adolescents for almost 40 years. I usually recognize it when I see it.

On the one hand, there is a certain helpfulness and utility to flirting. Somehow, in order for the species to survive, we need to establish interest in one another. The ability to “catch someone’s eye” is useful in determining whether there is a possibility of a real relationship with another person.

But when the flirt goes on too long, it can become counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Signals are mixed. It can lead to harm – emotional, spiritual, and physical.

But we all know people who are really good at it, don’t we? People who seem to enjoy using a system of signals and actions that are designed to confuse, or toy with, or manipulate others. In fact, the two top definitions of “flirt” in Google’s dictionary are:

behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

 experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.

Again, most of us have flirted in relationships at some time in the past. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are, relationally. But sooner or later, most of us stop flirting and dive in.

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We are told of how he comes to adulthood in the shadow of his more prominent cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. He comes to engage his community and the world by launching a ministry of teaching and healing. In so doing, Jesus catches the world’s eye – and he caught the eye of those who would become his first followers. There’s a miracle over here, or a profound message over there, and the social media is buzzing… “Hey, check this guy out…”

And then we get to Matthew chapter five and begin to hear the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a definitive pronouncement that we are not called to be primarily those who flirt with either God or the world.

The Sermon contains, as we have heard, a description of living the Jesus way – as peacemakers, or those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, and so on. Living the Jesus way, apparently, means developing an awareness of the power that anger, lust, deceit, selfishness, or hatred can have in one’s life. The Sermon on the Mount, with its call to a life of integrity and intentionality, is not for the faint of heart. And I can picture Jesus eyeing his followers and saying, “Look, if you are here only because you liked the healings or the miracles, then you’d better keep walking, because the life of discipleship is intense. There is no room for flirting.”

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

And because the life to which Jesus calls his followers is so all-encompassing, he gives them three practices with which to engage their world and their Lord: generous giving, faithful prayer, and sincere fasting. These are behaviors, says Jesus, that will equip us to adopt this kind of lifestyle.

If we want to live lives that are reflective of God’s intentions for us as expressed in chapter 5, then we’ve got to be good at giving, praying, and fasting – because these are the disciplines that will mold us into faithful followers of Jesus.

We picked up this morning where we left off last week, in the middle of chapter 6. After giving his followers the mindset and behaviors that will allow us to live more like he does, he explores the danger of relying too much on what we have as we seek to define who we are. Material goods and money, he says, are to be used, rather than collected.

He takes an example from Middle Eastern culture. Judaism, Islam, and other traditions from that area all hold to some form of belief that if we look at the world around us or at each other with a malicious glare – what we might call today a “stink eye” – that we will wind up with harsh, judgmental, or miserly spirits. The opposite of an “evil eye” is the “simple eye” or the “single eye”, one that denotes an attitude of good will or kindness. If we have an eye that is trained in this fashion, Jesus says, we are more likely to be able to live by the light of God’s presence in the world.

Our reading for today concludes with the familiar passage in verse 24 about serving God and mammon. When Jesus uses this word, he was apparently using a word that, in his time, simply referred to money, although in the years after his death and resurrection, mammon came to represent a personification of the evil and idolatrous aspects of materialism and greed that seek to control us. Key to any understanding of this teaching of Jesus is his use of the word “serve”, as in the phrase, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” In choosing this vocabulary, Jesus is presuming the captivity of the human heart and spirit. Each of us will fall in line behind and serve something or someone. That is not in question. The question is, what will it be? Ourselves? Our own beaty or wisdom or fear or riches or worry? Our insecurities? Or God? We all live for something or someone, and we are all willing to direct our energies toward that thing or person. The question is not “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?”

If we allow ourselves to think that being a disciple is a part time hobby, then we miss the boat. God created us for, and expects from us, singularity of purpose and faithfulness.

In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to adopt patterns of behavior that will transform us into the kinds of people that God intends us to be. That exortation is echoed in the letter from James, who reminds us that it’s not enough to simply hear the Word, we’ve got to internalize it and practice it. The way that we exercise our ability to choose to serve God rather than mammon or some other idol is to engage in behaviors like giving, prayer, and fasting.

I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with someone who is unable to worship here, but who faithfully reads the sermons online each week. He said to me, “Dave, I think you had a good, strong message about fasting last week, but to be honest, I wish you would have gone a little harder. You didn’t leave me wanting to fast. I’m not sure it sounded all that attractive.”

Listen: I don’t really want you to be a person who just loves fasting, or is proud of the fact that you prayed an extra thirty seconds yesterday, or that you bought the homeless guy a sandwich. I mean, those are good things – but they’re not the point. The point is that I want you to be a person who is like Jesus. Fasting and praying and giving are all merely exercises that allow us to get to be that way – they are not ends in themselves. I am happy to teach you more about doing any of those things – but not because they are somehow super attractive to us.

I get piles of advertising material for youth and children’s curriculum and retreat centers and special events. I wish I had a nickel for every time I read the words “awesome” or “dynamic” or “intense” or “thrilling” in the context of advertisement for church youth events. I hate it.

Maybe you should come to the CHUP youth group some time. Those words are not always the fairest way to describe what we do or how we do it. Sometimes, youth group is boring. Sometimes, we play games that bomb. Often, we sing songs that are corny. There are lots of nights where youth group isn’t “awesome” or “thrilling”.

Even if you’ve never been to the CHUP youth group, you probably believe me when I say that, because, well, lots of you have been bored to tears in this very room. You’ve been irritated by other people’s children and frustrated at having to endure songs that you didn’t get to select. And don’t even get me started on how hard these pews are, how cold it is in February or how hot it is in July.

And yet, here you are. Why?

Because none of that is why you are here. As a kid, when your mom dies or your parents divorce or a classmate overdoses, you’re not looking for “awesome” or “intense” when you come to youth group. And when the rest of you get a call about your plant shutting down or have high hopes for your kids that are dashed or get that horrible call from the doctor’s office or have to come up with a framework to think about racism or ethnic violence, well, the songs that we sing here or the noise that those kids make suddenly look a lot less important than the destination of faithful living to which we are traveling together.

You know this: we are not here to be entertained (and that’s a good thing for you, Carver!).

We are here because we think that this is the best place to be molded, reminded, nagged, prompted, prodded, or encouraged into following Jesus a little longer or a little better.

And you know this: that sometimes following Jesus can look a lot like a slow, boring advance in righteousness.

And that’s OK.

Jesus is not here to flirt with us, and he doesn’t have much time for people who are merely looking to be coy with him. Jesus came in order to give all of himself for all of creation in the expectation that we would do the same for him, for each other, and for our neighbor.

We praise God for the times that the life of discipleship is “awesome”!

More importantly, we praise God for the process of discipleship that equips us to do hard things, to grow fruit in each season, and to hear and act on what we have heard. May our lives this week be an opportunity to exercise our faith in the hopes that we look and act a little more like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

The Secret Giver

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably almsgiving, as found in Matthew 6:1-4.   As we celebrated Epiphany in worship that day, we also considered the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.

BatmanTVseriesMy first foray into cultural or political activism came at the tender age of 8, when I wrote a letter to those mean people at ABC who had cancelled my favorite television series, Batman. My little brother and I savored each episode that had an odd mixture of campy humor, kitschy fight scenes, and not-so-subtle moral lessons about the importance of wearing seatbelts or drinking milk.

When Batman aired, there were two episodes a week. On Wednesday nights, the dynamic duo would be left in a very difficult situation, and on Thursdays, they’d find a way out of it (or at least they did until those knuckleheads at ABC did what the Joker and the Riddler couldn’t do – they stopped Batman…). One of the devices that the series used was a dramatic narrator who would intone phrases such as, “Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor”. There had been an interruption in the story, and now we were returning to the scene where we’d had some action previously.

SermonOnTheMountSo meanwhile, before Advent interrupted us, we were working our way through the most important ethical teaching in the history of words, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You may recall that Matthew 5 starts with the Beatitudes, which we considered to be the “ground rules” for life in the Christian community. The pronouncement of blessing upon the meek, the mourners, and the pure in heart is not an attempt to convince anyone to live that way – it’s simply a description of the kinds of fruit that faithful living produces.

From there we moved on to an examination of the Law and its demands in daily life. Perhaps you’ll recall the series of passages that all began by saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” As we looked at those, we noted that Jesus calls his followers to a “higher righteousness”. In Greek, the word is perisson – the “something more” that is expected of those who bear the mark of the Christ on our lives. And chapter 5 ends with Jesus’ command to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, a call to live lives of integrity and completeness – to follow Jesus wholeheartedly in every area of life.

Today we return, not to stately Wayne Manor, but to the Sermon on the Mount, and begin our reading of chapter six as we listen to Jesus’ description of what faithful living looks like in the religious arena. In particular, he holds up the spiritual practices of giving alms to the poor, prayer, and fasting. In what ways does this perisson – the “something more” affect the way that we engage in religious practice?

Jesus starts this section of the sermon by warning his followers to “beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…”, and that sounds reasonable enough until we remember that less than one page ago, Jesus said, “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Which is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to stand up tall and proud as we follow you? Or be secretive about it? Both. There’s not really a contradiction here – Jesus is simply warning us about different sins. There are some places where we are tempted to fear and cowardice as we follow the Lord, and in those instances, Jesus would have us follow him with courage and confidence, not worrying about what others might think of us. In other places, though, we are seduced by our own pride and vanity. In that case, Jesus says, remember that we follow him because it is right, and not because we want people to think how holy we are. John Stott suggests a good rule of thumb: when it comes to practicing our faith, we ought to display our faith when we are tempted by cowardice and hide our actions when we are convinced that everyone should know exactly what we’re doing.[1] In any and every case, the reason that we act is so that people can see God at work – not us.

As Jesus discusses the spiritual practices of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting, he uses a very important four-letter word. In Greek, it is otan. In English we say “when”. Followers of Jesus do not have the burden of deciding “if” or “whether” we are givers, prayers, or fasters. When you give, do it like this.

It’s important for us to hear that little word and to consider its importance. Too many times I have been in situations where someone – maybe me, maybe another person – has said, “Wow, I wish I could help, but I just can’t right now.” And surely there are times and places where we can’t help more, or in that place, too. But I am here to tell you that I have tried to walk in Jesus’ footsteps for more than four decades, and in all that time and in all the places I have been, I have never seen anyone who was so poor that they could not give something. I’ve seen people give money, and lots of it. I’ve seen people give eggs and bananas and chickens. I’ve seen people give time and energy and respect. The life of the disciple is one of giving and sharing, of offering and receiving. Jesus does not prescribe what his followers will give, but he surely assumes that they are givers.

In the next sentence, he returns to the theme of secrecy. When we give, he says, we are to be so attentive to both the needs that are in front of us as well as the God who calls us to join him in giving that we don’t bother telling the left hand what the right hand is doing. I would say that it’s important to plan our giving and to know what we have available and where and when is best to share it – but that we do so without a trace of self-consciousness or self-centeredness. Just as he warned against giving to impress other people, such as the hypocrites were doing, here Jesus cautions us against being overly impressed with ourselves or our own religious observances.

And when we get it right, Jesus says – when we are a people who give with humility and passion, with freedom and joy, focused on the Giver of all good gifts and those who can benefit from what has been entrusted to us – then we are rewarded.

As we read verse 4: “…and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you”, let me speak deliberately against the heresy known as “the prosperity gospel”. A whole lot of preachers have made big piles of money by telling their people that God’s intentions for us include material wealth, and the best and surest way to fatten up the old bank account is to send a “love offering” their way. In this line of thought, God sees the so-called righteous act of giving to the Lord’s work and God rewards that act with a monetary windfall.

One advocate of this theology was preaching in a crowded church. It was well known that this man was worth millions of dollars, and he had the suits and the cars to prove it. He stood before the congregation and he thundered, “I didn’t always have it this good, brothers and sisters. There was a time when I was down on my luck. In fact, I was down to a single $10 bill when I went to church, and I heard the Lord ask me for everything. I didn’t know where I was going to get my next meal, but I knew then that I had to give my all to Jesus. So when the ushers came around with the plate, I did it. I gave it all to the Lord, and I trusted him for tomorrow. That day, I put all the money I had into the offering plate, and look where that has brought me today!”

The church was quiet for a few moments until an elderly woman in the second row piped up: “Amen, brother. Go ahead now. I dare you to do it again!”

The “prosperity gospel” is a lie. I am here to tell you that God does reward those who give, but rarely financially. The reward of which Jesus speaks here is the sense of joy and satisfaction that one receives when one who has ached because of a need is privileged to see that need addressed.

IMG_6851Most of my friends have seen this photo before. If I get hit by a truck this afternoon, you can tell anyone that this is the single greatest photo I’ve ever taken in my life – because it documents the kind of reward of which Jesus speaks here in Matthew 6. Our friends in Malawi had faced an incredible famine, and we were in a position to help. People around Pittsburgh and across the country rallied, in large part behind this congregation, and I was privileged to be a part of the “launch” of a campaign wherein hungry families would receive monthly allotments of food until their gardens came in. This young mother has just received the food that will keep her and her child alive, and now she is walking back to her home to celebrate God’s provision.

Although we had spoken briefly, she is not looking at me – because I do not matter to her. She had a profound need. Through people like you, God addressed that need. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, watching and celebrating how God’s people are privileged to share in the love of God. As she became smaller and smaller in my sight, walking towards her home, I wept that God should include me in that great gift.

In a few moments we will celebrate our Epiphany Communion. We will remember the day when some un-named strangers showed up in the home of a poor family and showered them with gifts. When that baby had grown to be a man, his friends understood that the gifts that he received that day merely pointed to the supreme love that lay behind the Gift that he himself was – the Word becoming flesh and living among us. May we join the Magi in being people who are eager to share what we’ve received in ways that bring blessing to those around us, and may all our gifts point, not to ourselves, but to the one from whom we’ve received everything. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Intervarsity, 1978) p. 127.

I Wish You’d Have Been Here (Malawi Update #11)

I wish you could have been here today. It was wonder-filled.

I wish you had been here at Grace Bandawe Conference Center as the group of visitors from Pittsburgh and South Sudan streamed in through the late morning and early afternoon. With only a couple of exceptions, most of the team had been disbursed individually to a variety of homes and partner churches within the Synod of Blantyre. Some were in the big urban center of Blantyre or Limbe. Others went to smaller towns like Balaka, and still others found themselves in pretty remote areas. For five days, the team visited hospitals or prisons or schools, led worship, preached (for the first time in some cases), administered the sacraments, went on hikes, had long talks with host families, spent quiet afternoons “resting”, ate a lot of chicken, and who knows what else… and today, we reunited. If you’d have been here, you’d have heard the chatter and concern in their voices as they told stories and listened well to each other. I think you would have liked seeing that.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

Gregg Hartung sharing resources with his media colleagues at Blantyre Synod Radio.

I wish you would’ve been with us when we were able to tour the studios at Blantyre Synod Radio, and to see the progress that’s been made in only two short years. It was particularly gladdening to my heart to see Gregg Hartung of Presbyterian Media Mission pass along some episodes of his award-winning radio program “Passages”. Gregg was a real encourager to the team from Blantyre Synod several years ago when they first shared the idea of a radio station with us.

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years...

A moment to reflect on the countless thousands of chickens who have made the utmost sacrifice in the name of partnership over the years…

But mostly, I wish you’d have been here for the “Farewell Banquet” this evening. This event, held in the largest room at Grace Bandawe, offered at least 175 people the chance to enjoy the opportunity to reflect together on journeys in mission and ministry. I say “journeys” because while the focus of the evening was clearly on the 2015 team, there were echoes of many previous visits that are still bearing fruit in the lives of those who have been given the gift of travel.

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Deacon Gabe from USA and Elder Daniel from South Sudan

Had you been here this evening, you’d have heard things like this:

“I’m taking home much more than I brought with me from South Sudan. I came as a stranger and I was really welcomed and I became one of them, and was really at home. I have learned a lot.”

“Do you remember me? I came to America in 1994 and that really opened my eyes to the world. I have never been the same since then.”

“I wanted to introduce myself to you, Pastor. My wife came on the trip to USA in 2014, and I feel like I already know Pittsburgh because of how excited she was to be there and to learn at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. I already know you, from her; now I want you to know me.”

The Michiru Youth Choir.

The Michiru Youth Choir.

You’d have heard more, of course, including the amazingly outstanding fantastic and splendid Michiru Youth Choir. They sang everything from Siya Hamba to the Hallelujah Chorus to contemporary African choruses and so much else. Oh, how the sound echoed from those plaster walls! You’d have heard laughter – a lot of it – coming from my table where my friend Moyenda Kanjerwa and I got caught up. The clinking of cutlery and the popping of bottles of Cocopina and Cherry Plum…

A relationship is formalized.

A relationship is formalized.

You’d have seen Pastor John Hamilton and Pastor Joseph Maganga sign a covenant of partnership between the Bethany and Chiradzulu congregations. You’d have seen Malawian leaders try to hang on every word of our new partners from South Sudan, and offer ideas as to how to increase the impact of the trans-African nature of this partnership. You’d have seen people show up at the door ten minutes late and be disappointed because there was simply no room for them in this, the biggest room at Grace Bandawe.

I wish you’d have been here. Because I wrote this down and added a few photos, you know some of what happened. But you don’t really – you can’t, really – know what happened here. There was a resonance that was palpable and beautiful.

I wish you’d have been here.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners.  Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Presenting the gift from Pittsburgh Presbytery to our partners. Here I am pictured with Pastor Angelo from South Sudan.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

Vanessa rekindles a friendship that was initiated during the first hosting period.

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017.  Look and pray for great things!

A group of leaders from three nations met this afternoon to begin to dream about 2016 and 2017. Look and pray for great things!