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.

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.

Gratitude: A Matter of Life and Death

On November 23, we finished our series of messages dealing with the shape and structure of our worship service by considering how we can respond to God’s movement in our lives.  Yes, it’s November, so it must be “the sermon on the amount.”  Sort of.  Scriptures included passages from Exodus 35-36 (quoted below) and Matthew 6:19-24

Turns out this isn't in the Bible after all.  Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas...

Turns out this isn’t in the Bible after all. Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas…

Did you ever stop to think about all the stuff that Jesus never, ever said? Sometimes he gets blamed for these things, but he never actually said…

God helps those who help themselves

You are pathetic. I could never use a loser like you

I want you all to have really nice, shiny things. Go ahead, and treat yourselves!

If you only acted a little better, I wouldn’t have to send hurricane Katrina or Ebola or AIDS to wipe you out.

There’s another thing that Jesus never said that might be especially confusing because it sure sounds like something that people like me say that he said…

You ought to give your money to the church.

Nope, he never said that. As a matter of fact, Jesus never went to church even once in his earthly life, but that’s a whole ‘nother sermon. But this morning, you need to know that according to scripture, Jesus never once told anyone to fill out a pledge card and put it in the offering plate.

What he did say, unfortunately, was a lot more inconvenient. You heard it a few moments ago: “No one can serve both God and mammon.” What did he mean by that?

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

Well, “mammon” is one of those words that we only hear in church. As it turns out, it’s an Aramaic word that was apparently well-known enough that none of the folks who wrote the Greek New Testament seemed to think that it even needed to be translated. Just like all of you, even the non-Spanish speakers, know what I mean when I say “adios”, the first readers of the New Testament all knew that “mamon” referred to wealth of any kind. It’s pretty straightforward: “You can’t serve God and wealth.”

What Jesus does here is to indicate that each of us is held captive by something. The question is not, “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?” In this brief statement, Jesus acknowledges the core truth that something or someone has a hold on our hearts, and whoever or whatever that is will wind up controlling us. Each of us serves a master. Who’s yours?

There are a lot of “masters”, a lot of motivators on the prowl in our world. One of the most prevalent is fear. We wonder if there will be enough for us. We worry that they will come and take what is mine. Others of us spend a lot of time and energy serving a master called shame or regret. We spend large portions of each day remembering that great failure, and as we wallow in our guilt we keep saying (to God, to our kids, to ourselves), “Oh, don’t you worry…I’ll make this up to you. Somehow, I’m gonna make this right.” And some of us are owned by anger or power. “Nobody pushes me around. I’m the boss of me, and I do what I want, when I want…”

If you stop to think about it, each of us winds up shaping our lives around an unconscious commitment to the thing that drives us, owns us, or motivates us. We order our days in such a way as to avoid fear, triumph over shame, or maximize our power. Whatever motivates us, that thing owns us, and therefore receives our attention and our energy.

The theological way to name the thing that receives our attention and our energy is worship. Worship is simply acknowledging the hold that someone or something has on you, and the ways that that thing or person can make you behave.

We have talked for the last few weeks about how our worship of God, as made known by the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus, shapes who we are.

We show up here in worship, not because we thought it was a nice or polite thing to do, but because we believe that God has invited us, or called us to worship. We confess our sin, and in doing so we let go of what has bound us, we acknowledge where we have fallen short, and we accept the wholeness and forgiveness that God offers. And we experience the mystery that we call “the Word”, wherein we hold onto the truth that God is willing to reveal a part of God’s self to us, and in that revelation, we find out that the Story is for us.

Because we have been called toward the Word and been given a glimpse of the Word, we can respond to that Word in joy. We sing with energy and depth of spirit. We share in the sacraments of Communion or Baptism, not because we think God likes us better if we do those things, but because they are ways that we can participate in what God is already doing. We bring prayer – our words – to God, because God has spoken God’s Word to us! And we bring our offerings to God as well.

Ha! There it is. It’s November, and the preacher is going to get around to preaching about the almighty dollar.

Well, guilty as charged – sort of. But you need to hear me saying that we don’t give out of a sense of guilt, or shame, or pride, or duty. In fact, if those are the reasons why you give this morning, I’d just as soon have you hold onto your money, because maybe you need it more than we do.

When I was a kid, the messages I got about money from the church all seemed to revolve around the theme of “You know, this church doesn’t run itself. Everyone needs to do his part and kick in a little. Who do you think pays the light bills around this joint? We’re trying hard, and if you just give us a little more of your money, we’ll get by all right.”

Please. As if God needed me, or my money, or my voice. If those things we’ve been saying and singing about God all morning are even halfway true, God doesn’t need me for anything. I’m not dropping my money into the plate so that God can go ahead and splurge on something nice for himself that he couldn’t otherwise afford if I wasn’t here for him to count on!

I give because I need to give. I give because I am responding to what God has done in my life. The reason that our offering is near the end of the worship has nothing to do with how you rate the sermon or the music or the overall ambiance of this establishment. It’s all about responding, in gratitude, to the amazing things that God has done and is doing. And because I am grateful, I bring what I have to God in an act of worship.

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

My all-time favorite story of grateful giving is found in Exodus. Check this out. The people have been slaves in Egypt. For 400 years, they’ve been serving the Pharaoh, making his mud bricks, building his cities, living in squalor. And God sets them free, and sends them into the desert, on the way to their own place. They are someplace, and they are stuck, and God moves towards them, and God releases them and God directs them. And they say, “Wow! We want to worship!” And God says, “I’m good with that. Here’s how I want you to worship.” And God goes on to give the people the plans for some amazingly beautiful and costly worship structures.

And Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with ability to do every sort of work done by a craftsman or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer. Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whom the Lord has put ability and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.”

Great! There’s a plan! God’s tabernacle is going to get done. But how? I mean, where is all this stuff going to come from?

And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whose mind the Lord had put ability, every one whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work; and they received from Moses all the freewill offering which the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary.

Ohhhh, I get it! The people are so excited to be included in on what God is doing that they bring their own treasures to God’s house. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have enough extra stuff laying around that you could bring some of it to God for God to use?

They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the able men who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work which the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let neither man nor woman do anything more for the offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; for the stuff they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more. (Exodus 35:30 – 36:7)

Did you hear that? Moses had to send out a group text saying “STOP trying to give your gold and treasures to the people in worship. We have way too much stuff and it’s just getting in the way.”

Remember, who were these people? Escaped slaves. Do you think that they had a lot of extra gold and fabric and bronze laying around? Did they have 401(k) plans to cash in? Of course not. What do you think the net worth of the average escaped Egyptian slave was back then? These people had nothing…but they brought it to God because they were so overwhelmed with gratitude.

Can you even begin to imagine something like that today? What if the ushers had to, I don’t know, turn around and empty the plate a few times into a garbage can or something because it was so full it kept spilling? What if you got a letter from the Financial Secretary in August, saying, “Look, folks, we really appreciate all your good intentions and everything, but the fact of the matter is that our budget is fully funded for the entire year and we’re solid. If you’ve got more money you’d like to give away, maybe try the folks down at the Pittsburgh Project, or someone like Doctors Without Borders. But really, we’re good here…”

That’s hard to even imagine, isn’t it? But it could happen. I mean if a group of impoverished slaves could do that, what if we decided to respond to God’s grace in our lives according to our means? I give, not because God needs me to, or because I want you to like me more, or because the IRS gives me a tax break. I give simply because I am grateful. I’m grateful for a lot of amazingly wonderful theological truths, but let me break down for you this morning five things for which I am amazingly grateful.

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years...

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years…

I have a home. On any given night, 610,042 people in our country are homeless[1], and right now there are about 44 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war or some other disaster – they are crowded into refugee camps, sleeping on the ground, exposed to the elements.[2] And I have a home. That is amazing to me.

Artist's representation...

Artist’s representation…

Inside my home there is a huge box filled with food. More food than I could eat in a month, I’d say. I have never, ever in my life worried that I could not feed my family. 18,000 children died of hunger-related causes in the last twenty-four hours,[3] but somehow I have always had more than enough to eat. How can I not share?

kitchen-sink-base-cabinetAlmost a billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. I have these things all over my house. When I need fresh water, I just turn a knob and BOOM! There it is. Pure, clean, water. I have so much water in my house, do you know what I do with it? The typical American uses 24 gallons of pure, clean drinkable water flushing our pee down the drain. Crazy! Across the world, there are people who will walk miles to fill a bucket of river water to cook with, but the average American uses 90 gallons of water a day – ¼ of which goes to get rid of our waste.[4]

ShoeAnd look at these babies: I call them “shoes”. Not only do they keep my feet warm, but I am protected from sharp objects, parasites, filth, disease… And, get this: I have more than one pair! I have brown shoes and black shoes and boots and… I am loaded! How can I not be grateful?

You may be familiar with the internet meme indicating if you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food in the fridge, a bank account, and cash on hand, you’re wealthier than 92% of the humans alive today. And do you know what? That’s not even what makes me think I’m rich.

These people love me.

These people love me.

Get a load of this! I have people to love and who actually love me back. How can I not be grateful every second of every day?

Yes, Dave, I hear you, but let’s be honest. Your house is OK, but this neighborhood is a little sketchy. And I’ve seen what you eat. You could do better. And some of your clothes are older than many of the people in this room. You could do better, Dave.

Listen for it, people…

You deserve better, Dave. You’ve got some nice stuff…but why not freshen it up a little bit? Go ahead, Dave. Take more.

goldencalf2You see? That’s the God of Mammon coming back to try to exert his control. Hours after we profess to being soooooo grateful for what we already have, we’ll trample each other in the stores in our quest to pile up more, better, shinier stuff.

Look, I’m not going to try to talk you out of doing anything. If you think you need to get up at 4 a.m. on Black Friday in order to get out there and buy the latest doo-dad, well, who am I to tell you otherwise?

Cornucopia_SuppliesBut I’m not your friend, and I’m a lousy Pastor, if I don’t at least remind you that this isn’t The Hunger Games and that pile of loot you’re rushing for isn’t the cornucopia filled with things that are going to save your life. Stuff won’t save you. Mammon doesn’t love you. It only wants to own you. And at the end of the day, in fact, it will kill you.

So today, as we finish out the Christian year and turn the corner towards Advent, I dare you to be grateful.

I dare you to remember the fact that you were called into this world by a God who is crazy about you. That you have been forgiven. And that – this is truly amazing – you are a part of the story that God is writing across the pages of history. God has spoken a Word, and it includes you!

Do you see? In our service of worship, we say that God has called us, come to us, and invited us. How will we respond?

Look at what God has done.

Love God.

Celebrate your freedom by acting like and walking with God. Do not let fear, shame, regret, or power motivate you. Point to this truth with thanksgiving. Demonstrate it with thanks-living. In worship and gratitude, share what you have. It is, quite literally, the only way to live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/snapshot_of_homelessness

[2] http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/maps/mapping-displaced-people-around-the-world/?ar_a=1

[3] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-02-17-un-hunger_x.htm

[4]  http://magazine.good.is/articles/americans-flush-5-billion-down-the-toilet-every-year

Caring for Bodies that Nurture Spirits

The primary purpose of this leg of the Africa Mission 2013 is to encourage the relief and development work that the Synod of Blantyre has done implementing the “A-Maize-ing Grace” famine relief/avoidance program. As has been documented Previously, that went off very well.

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

On Tuesday 5 February, we had the opportunity to explore an offshoot of that project. When my old friend the Rev. Daniel Gunya, now Vice-Principal at the Zomba Theological College, heard about the famine relief program, he asked if there was some way that the students at ZTC might benefit. These young men and women have been sponsored by their home Synods to undertake the training necessary for them to be ordained into the ministry as Presbyterian or Anglican pastors. The college operates on a shoestring and he knew that these students, most of whom are far from their homes, would face significant challenges.

We contacted our friends at the World Mission Initiative and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and they responded enthusiastically. The seminary sponsored a special offering at their Christmas worship, and students and staff also participated through the WMI office. Those funds, when topped off by a contribution from the First U. P. Church of Crafton Heights, came to $2500.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

We arrived at the Theological College on Tuesday afternoon and met with the Administrative Team, several faculty members, and representatives of the student body and the Student Government Association. We learned that through purchasing in bulk and using a vehicle from the Synod, that money enabled the College to give each student and staff worker a whopping 75 kg (150 lbs.) of maize and 10 kg (20 lbs) each of rice and beans. Rev. Gunya said that would probably be enough to see most of those families through the middle or end of March! It was truly a gift to be able to witness God’s provision in this way.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

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What was equally thrilling to those of us from the PC(USA) was the interest that the faculty and administration had in our recent discussions of partnership between Blantyre Synod, Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. They asked a lot of questions about the training that our colleagues in South Sudan had received, and are eager to explore the possibilities of exchanging theological students. I felt blessed to be a part of the global church this day.

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And all day…rain. Lots and lots of rain. It made the drive back to Blantyre, shall we say, “interesting” (let’s just say that the fact that I had a four wheel drive vehicle made it fun, not frightening!). But everywhere you look, the gardens are green and growing. Thanks be to God for the promise of harvest!

Enough!

There is enough.

Isn’t that our story?

God planted humanity in a garden and said, “Take what you need…there is enough.”

God’s people wandering through the desert – a desert of sin, of sand, of isolation…but there was manna. And it was enough.

Elijah went to the widow in Zarephath, and told her to fix him a little something. “There’ll be enough,” he said. And there was.

Five thousand men and their families wanted to hear Jesus speak, but they were having a hard time doing so because of the rumbling in their bellies. And so The Lord took a little bread and a few fish, and passed it around, and there was enough. More than enough, actually.

Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, and said “You know, the folks back in Jerusalem are having a hard, hard time. Seems like there ought to be enough, somewhere. I just wish we could spread some of it over there.” And they did.

And there was.

Enough.

I saw it again, today.

I don’t suppose that anyone is going to write any books about it. It’s clearly not scripture-worthy. But oh, my. There was enough.

imageWe went to the village of Chifunga. You never heard of it, I’m sure. The bustling metropolis of Mwanza (sarcasm alert) is about thirty minutes to the west, and the city (truth) of Blantyre is about two hours to the east.

Chifunga, like much of Malawi, was plagued by drought last year. The subsistence farmers who live there are close to the margins. In a good year, they harvest enough in April to feed them for 12 months. 2012 was not a good year. In Chifunga, like much of Malawi, there was not enough.

The irony is that we the rains have been good. The corn (maize) is five or six feet high in some places. The cobs are forming. Bt they are not ripe. And many people in Chifunga have no food. Had no food. Until today, when there was enough.

Maize, beautiful maize.

Maize, beautiful maize.

We gathered outside the little church. A couple of hundred people, including a quartet of Traditional Authorities (chiefs), the local District Councilman, church leaders, members of the Blantyre Synod Health & Development Commission, and representatives from the Partnership team. Using a variety of measures, the BSHDC has identified 1300 families in the Mwanza region who are at risk for food insecurity (read, “they have eaten their last harvest 90 days before the next one will be ready”). And 128 of those people live within a 15-20 kilometer radius of Chifunga.

Thanks to the A-maize-ing grace project, 128 families received 50 kg. (100 lbs.) bags of maize today. In a month, they will get another bag. And in two months, they will receive a third bag.

Hunger knows no age limit...

Hunger knows no age limit…

Which means that they can let the promising crops ripen without trying to eat them too early. Which means that the will have the energy necessary to work in the fields to ensure that the crops come in. They have enough now…which means that there’s a good chance that they will have enough next year.

Heading for home, where there will be enough.

Heading for home, where there will be enough.

Enough.

Doesn’t that word sound wonderful?

Biblical?

Redemptive, even?

Thanks be to God, there is enough.

For more about the A-maize-ing grace project, The Malawi Partnership Home Page or My blog entry on that topic.

A Heart Condition

Lots of folk think that it’s Advent.  And it is.  But in Crafton Heights, it’s still Stewardship Season (or at least was until December 2).  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 December 2 and was based on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9; 22-24 and John 3:16-17.

HeartConditionHave you ever stopped to think about the power of singular events to disrupt or transform your life?  One day, everything is great.  The next day, you’ve got a broken arm and you can’t dress yourself.

A friend of mine was sick, and so I did what I often do when a friend is ailing: I visited.  We chatted. As the illness progress, I visited once a week, sometimes twice.

And then it became evident that my friend was not merely sick, but that she was dying.  And she was alone.  And before too long I was going to visit my friend four or five times a week, sometimes for four or five hours at a time.  Middle of the day or the middle of the night… It didn’t really seem to matter.  I just tried to be there when she needed me.

If you were to come to me after worship today and say, “Dave, I’ve got a favor to ask. And I’m afraid it’s a pretty big favor.  I am going to need you for 15 – 25 hours a week for the next couple of months”, well, I’d respond by telling you that I think you are nuts if you believe I’ve got that much time on my hands.  I’m a busy guy.

And yet – while my friend was dying – I did that.  And I wish I could have been there more.

You know how that is, I think.  By the grace of God, you know what it is to be generous with your time, or your energy, or your self, or your spirit as you gave those things to someone you loved.

During the summer that my friend died, there was not much fishing.  I can’t remember the television programs that I missed.  I would imagine that I went more than 3,000 miles between scheduled oil changes.

Do you know what?  It didn’t matter.  I was doing something more important with my time and my energy. I was spending it in love.  And I would do it again if you gave me half a chance.

The title of today’s message is “A Heart Condition”.  Almost always when we use those words, we intend them to convey some dire consequences.  “Did you hear?  Bob’s developed a heart condition.”

“Oh, no, what’s going on?”

“Well, the doctors haven’t said much, just that there’s a condition present.”

Well, folks, to be honest, we ALL have a heart condition, don’t we?  I mean some of us have hearts that are in great condition, and some have hearts that are in lousy condition.  But they are all in some condition or other, aren’t they?

Image by Stuart McMillen.  Used by permission of the artist.  http://www.stuartmcmillen.com

Image by Stuart McMillen. Used by permission of the artist. http://www. stuartmcmillen.com

I was talking about this with my friend Adam Simcox, who regularly rides his bike up Noblestown Road from the West End.  I commented on the cardiovascular workout that must be for him.  He does it several times a week.  If I were to go out there and try it, my heart would just explode, no questions asked.  You’d be scraping me off the pavement along with that landslide.

But Adam’s heart is conditioned for that trek.  He has the capacity for it, and I don’t.  Why?  Because he’s trained.  He’s practiced.  He’s exercised.

What is your heart condition?  What is the condition of your heart?  Note – I’m switching metaphors here.  Instead of wanting to know how much blood your aorta can handle, I want to know something about your heart’s capacity for love, or devotion, or sacrifice, or giving.  What kind of shape is your heart in when it comes to those things?

When I’m talking about my physical health, I could order an EKG, and that would give some indication as to the strength and timing of the electrical signals that operate my cardio system.  But what can I do to ascertain the capacity of my heart for love, devotion, or sacrifice?

One way to look at how I love is to consider how I give.  The gospel lesson for today tells us about the gift of God in Jesus Christ.  “For God so loved the world…that he gave his son.”  God valued the world enough to give the world the thing that was most precious to himself.

Or Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, helps them to administer a little heart exam on themselves. He makes a direct connect between their ability to give with their capacity to love.  People love, says Paul, and it somehow leaks out through their wallets.  People feel passionate about something or someone, and they can’t help but respond by trying to meet the needs that are present.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid to tell you that America’s got a heart condition.  And when I say that, I mean it in the negative sense.  There’s a real problem out there.

How do I know?  Well, take a look at the tests.  In 1933, the average American gave away about 3.3% of his or her income.  In 2011, that percentage dropped to 2.6%.[1]

Migrant MotherPeople who were living here two generations ago and who were not burdened by things like indoor plumbing or smart phones or reliable refrigerators or television or air conditioning or SUV’s or air travel…were more generous than we are today.  In case you’ve forgotten, 1933 was the heart of the “Great Depression”.  1933 is the time to which politicians always point and say, “We can’t let it get that bad again…”  And yet, our brothers and sisters eighty years ago found a way to give 27% more than we do.  Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we have found a way to give 27% less than they did.

And that, my friends, is a problem.  We are diminished when we lose our capacity to act on or in the love that we have received.  We are not as healthy, not as in shape, as we could be.

Fortunately, the scriptures also contain a therapy program for those of us who have developed heart trouble.  It’s generosity.  It’s deciding to love more today than I did yesterday.  To give more this week than I did last week.

I hope I’m not beating a dead horse here, but let me ask what I believe is an obvious question: why do we give?  Because we love.

Why did I visit my friend so often while she lay dying?  Because I loved her more than I loved my fishing, my gardening, or my television viewing.

Why should I make my income available for the Lord’s work?  Because I love God and the people of God more than I love whatever toys that money might purchase.

Those of us who have been reading Practicing Extravagant Generosity were struck by a line in Monday’s reading:

 Name one person you admire and respect because of all they keep for themselves.  Name someone you consider generous and spiritually mature who constantly complains about giving, or who always seeks to give the least amount required.  Largeness of spirit leads to an eagerness to give our utmost and highest. (p. 72)

As I apply that line of reasoning to my own life, it occurs to me as I look back on the first half of my life, it’s never occurred to me to think, “You know, I wish I’d have spent more time on Sudoku puzzles…I really wish I had put a lot more television shows on VHS back in the 80’s…My life would be a lot better if I had more stuff lying around the house.”  I just don’t think those things.  I don’t wish for that.

But there’s not a day that goes by wherein I don’t wish that I’d have done more for my dying friend…or for hungry Malawians…or for scared and lonely children.

hands of loveBecause I have a heart condition.  And I’m trying to grow.  To grow in my ability to love.  And to grow in my ability to give.

And today, because I love you, I want to invite you to join me in working on this heart condition that I think we share.  To join me in looking for ways to improve our heart health, and to enlarge our capacity to show and to share the love that we have received.

It’s not going to be easy for anyone.  And the truth is that it’s going to be plain miserable for you if you spend a lot of time and energy comparing yourself to me or to the person next to you.  You measuring yourself against someone else’s ability to be generous today might be like me comparing my ability to ride a bike up Noblestown Road with Simcox’s ability to do the same.  In all of our heart therapy, we have to start with where we are and work to grow to being where we need to be.

The question is not, “Can I be Dave or Adam or Bill Gates?”  The question is, “Am I being my best self?  How can I take one step towards growing in my ability to share the outrageous love of God with those around me?  What steps can I take to improve my heart health?”

Most of you should have gotten an “estimate of giving” card in the mail this week.  If you didn’t, you’ll see them on the tables in the back of the room.  Let me encourage you to find one and to fill it out.  To pray, and then to give.  To pray, and to grow.  To pray, and then to love.

I can promise you that you will not regret it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The Art of Loving

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 18, 2012 and was anchored in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and John 13:34-35.

Can you believe it?  The election – it’s over already!  I was just getting warmed up.  What a crying shame.  Don’t you miss it?  The civil exchange of big ideas? The genial discussion between those who favor different strategies to address the significant challenges facing our community, our nation, and our world?  How about those opportunities we’ve shared to learn from people who hold different viewpoints?  Or the wonderful chance to sit down for hope-filled and encouraging conversation with family and friends who voted for “the other guy”?  Come on, tell me you’re going to miss all of those things…

No?  Yeah, I thought I was reaching there.  Have you talked with anyone who was longing for more attack ads, bigger budgets for the PACs, and a longer campaign season?  It’s hard to believe that anyone would be missing those things, isn’t it?

Now, compare that to the things you said about CHUP last week when I asked you, “What do you love about our church?” The cards you returned are posted in the back of the room, but when I asked you in worship to name a few, you mentioned the welcome you’d received, or the grace or friendship that was extended to you. 

It’s important to point out, I think, that when I asked, “What do you love about our church?” nobody said, “We are all so like-minded and agree on everything!”  That’s because we don’t.  But somehow, we have managed to build here a place of safety and of love – we have a set of relationships that are not based on politics, theological interpretations, or other ideologies.  We are striving to know and love each other as God in Christ has known and loved us.  That’s what we see here, and that’s what we’ve heard in the readings from Scripture for today – that the core of the Gospel is a relationship.

Our first relationship is with God – the God who created us, loved us, and moved toward us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We know and are known by a God who has become one of us.  Isn’t that the truth?

But, as they say on your favorite commercial: “Wait, there’s more!”  God gave us to each other.  Isn’t that the heart of the Old Testament – that in spite of what you might have heard in some church somewhere, God did not choose to call an assortment of individuals who would each have merely “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ…” God called a people to himself.  God, who exists in the relationship that we call the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, relates to us as, well, us.  And he told us to love each other.

The Old Testament lesson for today is called the Shema Yisrael, and it is at the heart of the Torah – the first set of writings we have in the scriptures.  In it, we are called to love God, and in the verses that we heard today, we understand that we are to nurture that love for God in our families, amongst our children, and with our neighbors.

The New Testament lesson amplifies that call to love God and ties it directly with our ability to love one another.  As we look at the Shema Yisrael through the lens of Jesus, we see that our love for God becomes evident to others when we care for the people who are around us.  They will not know we are Christians by our bumper stickers or our wristbands or our reading lists or our political ideology.  They will know we are Christians by the way that we love.

And isn’t that a pain in the neck?  Because love is hard.  Love can be messy.

Not long ago a friend of mine, who happens to be a new father, sent me a note.  He said, “I just got vomited on.  It’s weird how that becomes normal.”  But Derrick is grateful for the chance to be puked on…because it means that he is close enough to his infant daughter that she was able to “baptize” him in that fashion.  Ask any parent, and they know the truth: love is messy.  But we love our children.  And we can love each other.

We can love each other if we are unwilling to confuse “love” with like-mindedness, or with mushy feelings, or with romance or sexuality. For our purposes, we understand “love” to mean a willingness to relate to each other with the conviction that the other’s interests and well-being are important.  Love means telling the truth to each other, and refusing to talk trash about each other.  Love means recognizing that we serve the same God, even when we believe different things about that God.

Most of you received another card in the mail this week, and I hope that you brought it with you.  It asked you to say something about someone in this congregation who has made a difference in your spiritual life.  Now, without naming names, I would like to invite a couple of you to please tell us what that person DID that made a difference in your spiritual life?

When I saw that card, I thought about the time that a former member of this church called me from another state and arranged for us to meet in order to hold me accountable to an important good.  I thought about someone who risked his own credibility because he believed in a crazy idea that I had and he got behind it publicly.

You see where I’m going with this, right? That when those people made such a difference in my life or in your life, they were, in fact, loving us.  They were acting with our best interests in their hearts and in their actions.

Do you know, beloved, how fortunate you are to have people who love you in and through their actions.  And do you know, beloved, that in our nation and in our church, that kind of love is in short supply right now?

It is so, so easy to speak of “them.”  Or, more often, of “those idiots”.  You know who I mean – those jerks who are fundamentalist or liberal or socialist or atheist or white or black or fanatics or conservative or Democrat or Buddhist. As if we could lump everything about that person into one viewpoint or trait that we find to be different or disturbing – and then treat that person as though the thing that we find different or disturbing is in fact the most important thing about him or her.

I have some friends who are in a church that is trying to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) right now.  That church, and several others, is profoundly upset with some of the decisions that the Presbyterian Church has made (or failed to make) over the years.  Good.  I am upset with a number of things that the church has done in the past two thousand years.  But that fact does not give me the right to go bashing people with whom I disagree, or lying about them, or spreading misinformation.

Nor, beloved, does it give me the right to look at the church that is leaving and say, “Good riddance.  Who needs you losers anyway?”

These friends, with whom I disagree and who have wounded me and the Body of Christ, do not deserve my scorn or my anger.  I owe them my love.

I thought about how hard it is to really love someone who is so “other” not long ago.  We had in our community an entire house of what appeared to be parentless children.  The street in front of that house was always a shambles.  My car was messed with more than once.  Things were stolen.  It was often loud, and the loudness was not usually the kinds of words that you hope your little children will learn and repeat.

And I will confess to you that I was thinking and, yes, praying, about those children.  And the thought that entered my mind and thus my prayer was this: “isn’t it time for this group of people to be evicted from my neighborhood and go ruin someone else’s day?”  I could not wait for this family to leave.

As I reflected on that prayer, I really had a hard time envisioning Jesus standing beside me saying, “I know, right?  These kids are such losers!  Get ‘em outta here, that’s what I say!  Good riddance to bad rubbish…”

I am ready to throw those kids…or that church…or my political opponents…under the bus, and Jesus seems to expect that I will love them instead.

Ouch.

How do you do that?  Where does that kind of love come from?

I have begun to use a phrase lately with which I am simply enamored.  I was telling someone about my wife, and I said “Sharon has an incredible generosity of spirit.”

Isn’t that true?  And don’t you like that phrase – “generosity of spirit”?  It seems to me that the love that Jesus expects his followers to share can only come from a spirit that has been blessed with generosity.  A spirit that doesn’t really care who gets the credit or the blame; a spirit that would rather work towards solutions than point fingers; that is open to learning new things each day and that is willing to believe the best about someone else.

If you are reading along in our devotional booklet Practicing Extravagant Generosity, perhaps you were as struck as I was by the author’s comment on Friday. In it, he describes how we are able to practice generosity of spirit and in our lives because we have been recipients of someone else’s generosity for as long as we’ve lived.

Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity.

We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship. (pp. 41–42)

Before I was a pastor, I worked with an organization that included among my duties raising my own salary through gifts from other people.  Each month, I wrote a letter to friends and family and asked them to contribute to my ministry and thereby enable me to pursue my favorite hobbies, such as making car payments, buying groceries, and the like.

Bill was an older man who faithfully gave $25 a month.  One morning I sought him out to say thanks, and before I could get a word out, he said, “David, Doris and I just want to say ‘thanks’ for the chance we have to support your ministry.  I always dreamed of doing something with kids, and I never got around to it.  I was always so busy.  But you have helped me to see that I can still do that – through you.  We pray for you every morning at breakfast, and are so grateful for the ways that you let us participate in what you are doing.”

This week, my friends, I want to simply remind you of your call to love God.  And to demonstrate that love for God in the way that you treat others.  Let me invite you to seek out those who have been generous in their love for you, and to thank them for that.  And finally, let me encourage you to share that same generous love with others that you will meet in the days to come.

Some of you know that I use a prayer book each day.  I was challenged and blessed by a brief prayer that was in the reading last week, and will close this message with that prayer now:

Lord, if we are to be afraid of anything, let it be the fear of not committing ourselves fully to you. Let us fear that the day will pass without our having lightened the load of another. Let us fear that someone will come looking for you and find only us. Amen.[1]


[1] Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Nov. 5