Is He Talking to ME?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

Where to Next?

God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the church around the world in observing the Epiphany of Our Lord in our worship January 7 (a day late, perhaps, but the attendance was better than it would have been on Saturday…).   The readings for the day included Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi as well as Isaiah 60:1-6.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below…

Let me start off by affirming that I like – no, I love – babies. I’ll hold babies. I’ll change babies. I’ll coo and ooh and ahh over babies. Some of my favorite people are babies. Heck, I was a baby. I like babies.

Having said that, I need to confess how deeply I hate baby showers. That whole process is painful to me… playing cute games…watching people unwrap gifts which are either profoundly practical, yet dull (ooooh, a dozen diapers!), or wildly entertaining but not necessarily helpful (like the baby poop alarm that slides into the diaper). I don’t like watching people pretend that they don’t already have four other Bumpo seats while they are unwrapping the one I got for them. So, yeah, I’m not a fan of the Baby Shower.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1500)

But imagine if you could have been a fly on the wall the day that the Magi came to visit the Holy Family. Can you imagine reading Mary and Joseph’s faces as they unwrap the presents that came in that day?

“Hmmmm… what could it be? Oh, look, Joseph! It’s gold! What a nice gift – I’m sure that will come in handy in the days ahead…” So far, so good.

“OK, Mary, what’s in that one? Frankincense? Um, thanks. I’m sure that, you know, when he’s older, he’ll really like burning this and smelling the, you know, good smell. When it’s on fire. So, we’ll just hold onto it for him for the next decade or so…”

And finally, “Ooooh, golly! Myrrh! What young family wouldn’t be thrilled to get the gift of embalming fluid at a time like this! Thank you so much…”

Frankincense and myrrh. Two of the least practical baby gifts in the history of baby gifts.

And yet, the Magi not only gave them to Jesus, but this is one of only two stories that Matthew chooses to tell us about Jesus’ infancy and childhood. Why would that be so? Why did they give those gifts, and why do we need to know about them?

Willie Sutton was a notorious bank robber in the middle of the last century. According to legend, one reporter asked him, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” His answer was simply, “Because that’s where they keep the money.”

Why did the Magi leave gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Because that’s what they had. OK, but why did they have it?

Well, for starters, they had that stuff with them that day because they’d been intentional. They had brought it from home, hoping to meet a king, hoping for a chance to honor that king, and hoping for the opportunity to present gifts signifying wealth and power to that king.

More to my point, I would emphasize that they still had the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That is to say, they had it on the day that they met Jesus because they didn’t give it to anyone else along the way. Which is, when you stop to think about it, fairly remarkable. They’d come to Israel seeking a king. And they’d already met a king – his name was Herod. When they showed up in the country where they thought that the king would be, they did what you or I might do – they looked in the palace for the king. And yet when the got to that palace, and they met that king, they chose NOT to give Herod the gold, frankincense, or myrrh. They might have left a few other trinkets or hospitality gifts, but they opted not to leave the “real” gift with him.

Journey of the Magi, James Tissot (c. 1894)

And we might say, “OK, they gave the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they happened to have them on hand, but presumably they had a lot of other things on hand, too.” In all probability they had camels and servants and scrolls and granola bars and license plate bingo games (ok, I’m not sure about those last two; I’m just inferring from when my family takes long trips…). When they got to the house and they saw that the king was only a baby, why did they follow through on their plan to offer those things to Jesus?

On the one hand, we could say that gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts that symbolized honor and worship. That’s why they left home; that’s what they came to do; and that’s what they did. The visit wasn’t so much about providing the new king with tools that would equip him for his reign as it was about making a statement as to what they thought of him and his role in the world.

And on the other hand, we could say that they really had no idea what they were doing in presenting those gifts to the child. The author of Matthew used this event, in a broad way, to symbolize the fact that in the years ahead, Jesus would be rejected by those who ought to have known better and at the same time his message would find widespread acceptance by those who for centuries had stood on the outside looking in. There’s no way that the Magi could have known the impact that their visit would have so many years after it occurred.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I will point out that there are, to my knowledge, no near-eastern mystics, astrologers, or potentates in the room this morning. And I will go out on a limb and predict that when it’s time to receive the morning offering, the plates will come back up front with some cash and a few checks inside, but there will be no bullion, no incense, and no embalming fluid in this morning’s collection.

[3]And yet, each of you is from somewhere, and you are someone, and you have something…which means that every person in this room faces some level of choice which is not altogether different from that with which the Magi dealt so many years ago. Each one of us left home on Monday carrying the promise of 168 hours in this week. Every single person in this room can choose to invest energy into relationships and the lives of other people. We all have some level of opportunity connected with our financial situation. I understand that nobody has unbridled control over every aspect of their lives, but I am here to suggest that how you decide to allocate those resources over which you do have control says a great deal about yourself and your value system.

I suspect that for the first wise men, and for us, the temptation might be to look at those items of value we’ve received – our treasure, our time, our skills – and be tempted to simply leave them at home. We don’t want to use them, we aren’t interested in giving them away, so why bother carting them around?

Then again, we could all simply hand that stuff over to whoever passes for Herod in our own lives. We could show up at the place that symbolizes power and majesty and fame and offer the best that we carry there.

But I am here to say that offering my self – time and energy and finances – in the service of Christ has been a source of deep blessing for me.

And I’m also here to say that some of the things that you and I have done in our lives that have had the deepest and longest-lasting impact on ourselves, our neighbors, and our world have been done in sheer ignorance of their impact. We had no idea that the little thing we did affected someone so profoundly. We couldn’t see it coming any more than the Magi saw themselves as agents of God’s working in and through different cultures in the world. We had a nudge, we felt a little prompting, and so we gave, or we served, or we acted like a friend to someone… and the world changed a little bit.

And all of that leads me to my absolute favorite aspect of the whole story from Matthew: the last phrase in this morning’s narrative. In the midst of all the details about the visit of the Magi, the author makes sure that we know that these travelers “…returned to their country by another route.”

Three Wise Men Watercolor 4, Niall Drew (2014) Used by permission. For more, see http://nialldrew.com

Now that could mean simply that they chose an alternate route home. They went by boat over the Sea of Galilee, or they took route 80 instead of the turnpike. It certainly means that they decided not to go back to Herod and fill him in on their visit to Bethlehem. While both of those things could be true, I choose to add my own interpretation as well: that these mystics returned to their point of departure having been changed by the travel they’d shared.

That is the power of a pilgrimage. They went on a trip, and the things that they saw, and did, and heard affected them to the core of their being. Coming up against the power of Herod, the act of giving gifts to the Holy Family, and their encounter with the Christ child all led them to redefine themselves in such a way as to ensure that none of the days that followed were as they might have been otherwise.

You know this. You’ve been on a pilgrimage, I suspect. I’m certain that when I use this word, some of you reflect immediately on that time when you had a huge, once-in-a-lifetime trip. It was a mission trip to somewhere far away, or you visited the Holy Land or the Vatican, and you knew, even as you were preparing for the journey, that it would be powerful. You hoped for it. You planned for it. And it changed you.

And others, I hope, will think a little deeper. You’ll remember the day that the pastor called you to go and visit the hospital, but the day that you got there, the patient asked you to help her die. You were invited to a Youth Group retreat, and while you were there, something just clicked. You asked a friend have a coffee or a beer with you, and you wound up hearing for the first time the story of his failed marriage. In other words, there have been times when you didn’t know something was going to happen, but you found that you were changed anyway. You thought you were doing something that required a few steps or a couple of minutes but discovered that you were in the midst of a journey that affected you in a profound way. You didn’t know it then, but you can point to it now.

That is the essence of a pilgrimage – whether you’re an astronomer 2000 years ago or a soccer mom today, a pilgrimage is accepting the invitation to a journey that results in change. My call for today, and the invitation I put forward this morning, is for each of us to consider 2018 as a year of pilgrimage. As you consider the year that lies ahead, can you ask yourself, “What next?”

Everybody in this room stands at the door right before you walk out of the house, and you say, “OK, do I have my wallet? My keys? My phone?” Let me encourage you to adopt this as more than a pragmatic ritual. Think about what you have when you answer the phone, or leave the house, or open your email. Think about how you steward the resources at your disposal, and what you think of as “yours” as opposed to what you think of as something to share.

Look for ways to engage with others in the pilgrimage that is worship, and ask for God to change you in and through that worship experience so that you, no less than the wise men of old, might be changed for having encountered the Christ – and that therefore you, too, can go home by another way.

The opportunity for such an encounter stands before you this day. Thanks be to God for the privilege of saying “yes”.  Amen.

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.

Reckless Gratitude

On Sunday, November 19, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights continued in our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the witness of the unnamed woman who poured her oil, her love, and her gratitude out on Jesus – and wondered what difference thanksgiving makes in our own lives.  Our scriptures included Luke 7:36-50 and James 2:14-17.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.

 

Sometime near the end of January each year, the President of the United States stands before the members of the Senate and House of Representatives and delivers the “State of the Union” address. This speech fulfills the mandate of Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution, and it gives the President a chance to make lay out his (or, presumably someday, her) legislative agenda for the upcoming year.

If you’ve ever watched the State of the Union, you’ll note that no matter who is President, there’s one thing that always happens: the President crowds the balcony with specific individuals who will help tell the President’s story. When the President talks about the need for a defense budget, he’ll point up to a war hero or perhaps the child of a fallen soldier; when it comes to the economy, the President will mention the business tycoon, and so on. And as the crowd is assembling, the press will all take note of the people in the balcony and try to answer the questions, “Who is he?” or “What is she doing here?”

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Philippe de Champaigne, c.1656

What is SHE doing here? That had to be a question on the minds of a lot of folks the day that Simon hosted Jesus for lunch. The up-and-coming young religious teacher had just preached a whale of a sermon and now he’s been asked to dinner at the home of one of the town’s leading citizens. As the wine is being poured, people can’t help but notice who is standing there by Jesus’ feet. I mean, we all know who she is… she’s a woman with a reputation.

It’s awkward, to be sure, but maybe we can just photoshop her out of the pictures of the event. I mean, it’s a little embarrassing, but, hey, Jesus is from out of town. Maybe he doesn’t know who she is or what she’s done…

How did she get in? Well, that’s a silly question, really. It’s her business to be discreet, after all. She knows who to ask, which doors to try… Face it – she’s been around. And there she is, large as life, right by Jesus’ feet.

Yeah, but what is she DOING there?

Omigosh – she’s weeping. I mean, she is just bawling her eyes out. She’s fallen down at his feet and between her tears and her hands, she’s just about wiped his feet clean.

And now she’s letting her hair down – a gesture of humility and vulnerability – it may even be considered a scandal in some parts of the ancient Near East – but she is letting that hair down and mopping up her tears with it. And now she’s broken that alabaster jar and the whole place smells like, well, like her. She’s smearing that ointment – the most expensive thing she owns, in all likelihood – all over Jesus’ feet.

The folks who are there just can’t believe it. For most of them, it’s like a train wreck. They realize that they should at least pretend not to notice what’s going on, but they just can’t take their eyes away.

Finally, Simon, the host, has had enough. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat and he clears his throat. He’s all but shouting, “Why is Jesus putting me in this situation? Come on, Jesus, you’re embarrassing me. You’re embarrassing yourself.

Seeing that all the eyes in the room are on him, waiting for him to defend himself, Jesus tells a story illustrating how a great forgiveness leads to a great love. Jesus then points to the woman – and Simon must be thinking, “Ah, finally. Now we’re getting somewhere!”. Jesus says, “Do you see her?” And everyone in the room mouths, “Do I see her? Come on, Jesus, who can take their eyes off of her?”

The Anointing of Christ, Julia Stankova (2009). Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.juliastankova.com/home.html

And then Jesus goes on to narrate how she has done everything that his host has failed to do. It’s a bit of a stretch, perhaps, for Jesus to assign meaning to her actions, but they’ve all seen what she has done. Now, Jesus tells them why she has done these things: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.” The word that Jesus uses there is important.   Apheōntai – the word is in what we call the perfect tense. That is to say, “her sins have been forgiven” – there is an ongoing result (she has great love) as a result of a completed action (her sin has been forgiven).

I would suggest that Jesus’ use of the perfect tense indicates that her sin had been forgiven before she ever showed up at the party – she was not coming to the dinner in order to beg for forgiveness, or to somehow insinuate herself into the Divine grace; rather, she was there to publicly express her gratitude for that which Jesus had already done.

Think about that for a moment. Every eye in the room – every respectable, church-going, holier-than-thou eye in the room, had seen her come in and act so shamelessly – so recklessly. And why was she there? Because she was grateful. She was overcome with Thanksgiving.

And Jesus, quicker than anyone, points out a contrast between this woman and his host. And there are so many contrasts, indeed.

Simon is a collector… he wants to be seen with Jesus, he wants to collect favors from those he’s invited to be present, and so on. And the woman is emptying out – her eyes, her heart, her bottle of perfume.

Simon is a man of words. He offers a narrative, first to himself, and then to invite Jesus. On the other hand, the one who has experienced such great forgiveness doesn’t say a single thing.

Simon is reclining, almost frozen by his horror of his dinner being interrupted by this… this… woman – afraid of what people might say and how it might reflect on him. The woman, however, is in motion nonstop as she caresses his feet first with her tears and hands and then with her hair and later with the ointment.

He has a name and a title: Simon the Pharisee. She has nothing but her shame and anonymity.

He is working hard to design a future for himself wherein everyone recognizes him for his holiness and sincerity. She is coming out of a past which she knows to be bankrupt.

And, of course, the fundamental difference for our purposes this morning is that this unnamed, silent, scorned woman is behaving in a way that speaks volumes about the fact that she is deeply and profoundly grateful, while the host of the meal puffs himself out and hopes that everyone notices the quality of the spread that he’s pulled together for this crowd.

Our theme for the month is gratitude, and today I would like to consider ways in which gratitude can be a motivating factor in our lives. It’s easy to see here, for instance, that this woman was so overcome with the realization of what Jesus had done in her life that she was driven to give her all to him, no matter what. Because he had given himself so completely to her, she was able to respond with little regard to the scorn or the raised eyebrows of anyone else in the room.

And, what do you know, this week is Thanksgiving here in the United States. What role does gratitude play in your life? Are you thankful?

Oh, you bet I am, Pastor. In fact, on Thanksgiving Day, at our home, we go around the table and all take turns before we eat saying one thing for which we’re thankful…

You know I’m grateful! One of the time-honored ways we celebrate being grateful in our home is by getting up before the crack of dawn on the day after Thanksgiving so that we can go out and buy more stuff, cheap. It’s my favorite holiday…

Yeah, well, that’s not really the kind of thankfulness I’m going for here. Are you aware of what you’ve received, what’s been done on your behalf, where you stand in the world, and the scope of blessing that surrounds you?

Are you grateful?

For what?

Who knows that you are grateful?

How do they know?

Is your gratitude leaking out into the rest of your life? Would you, and would others, say that it is apparent?

I am reminded of the time when a guest speaker – a local business leader – stood in front of the congregation to talk about living a life of gratitude after hearing this scripture reading. He was a millionaire many times over, but he talked about how his life had been shaped by an event in that church many years previous. A missionary had stood up and read the story from Luke and challenged the people to follow the example of the woman at the feast and give all that they were and all that they had to the Lord. Then, it was time for the offering.

The plate came to the young man and he realized that he had only a single dollar in his wallet. “I knew right then that I was at a crossroads,” the man said. “It was all or nothing. I was either going to give everything I had to the Lord, or nothing at all. Well, I gave the dollar – everything I owned – to God, and God blessed that decision, and I’m sure that’s why I am where I am today.”

Well, as you can imagine, there was a hush in the room. The crowd looked at him with admiration as this millionaire made his way back to his seat. And right before the next hymn started, one little old lady leaned over to him and whispered just loudly enough for the entire congregation to hear, “I dare you to do it again.”[1]

That’s reckless gratitude, isn’t it? Giving everything to God? What would that even look like?

A couple of weeks ago I dared you all to start an experiment. I asked you to write one thank-you note each day. My hope was that you would stop your working and playing and acquiring and fussing and complaining and serving and the hundred ways that you “should” on yourself each day to simply be mindful of the fact that you have received many blessings – some large, some small. My hope was that we could put a pause on all of our doing and concentrate on being for a few moments each day.

I’m not going to ask who has taken me up on that challenge because I’m not sure I’m prepared to handle that level of disappointment on a Sunday morning. But I will remind you that even though I issued the challenge two weeks ago, there’s no reason why you can’t start today.

Listen: in the past two weeks I’ve buried two thirty-three year olds. Thirty-three year olds! We huddled holding cups of coffee saying things like, “I remember when she was so small” or “what’s his son going to do now?” We talked about life and vitality and energy and walked away, sighing, “Well, you never know…”

And me? For crying out loud, old fossil that I am, I’m still here. Today, I didn’t wake up dead. Neither did you. We got one more day!

Why? What are you going to do with it? What will you do with the life you’ve been given, regardless of the number of days?

The reason I wanted to ask you to write those thank you notes – before Ben and Anya died – is because I think that if we do it right, our entire lives are supposed to be thank you notes.

One of the kindest and most generous people that God ever put on this earth is a young lady who sits in the back of this room most Sundays and works the computer during worship. I have the privilege of getting to hang out with her every now and then, and here’s something you might not know about her: my wife has little stickers on her phone, in her computer, and taped to the inside of our medicine cabinet at home – and they all say something like, “Be a blessing” (sorry, honey, if that means you’ve got to change your passwords now…). She has modeled for me – for decades – the practice of thanks-living.

You will never be able to give anything meaningfully until you figure out how to be grateful for what you’ve received. My hope and prayer for each of us this day is that each one of us might rise from the benediction determined to be a blessing in the world around us as our lives become shaped by reckless gratitude. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] William R. Phillippe, A Stewardship Scrapbook (Lousville: Geneva Press 1999) p. 78

Starting Small

On Sunday, November 12, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights continued in our month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith. This week we considered the stories of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38) can inform our lives of gratitude and generosity.  Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio of this message.

I’d like to talk about your intentions. According to Wikipedia, an intention is “is a mental state that represents a commitment to carrying out an action or actions in the future.”

Of what use are intentions?

You’ve probably heard it said that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Whether we’re talking about New Year’s resolutions, turning over a new leaf, or kicking some old habits, our intentions are often met with skepticism.

American business leader Brad Smith once said, “Good intentions often get muddled with very complex execution. The last time the government tried to make taxes easier, it created a 1040 EZ form with a 52-page help booklet.” Screenwriter Sonya Levein scoffed, “Good intentions are not enough. They’ve never put an onion in the soup yet.”

And while you’d think that you could find a little more receptivity at church, it doesn’t always happen. Televangelist Joyce Meyer said, “Good intentions never change anything. They only become a deeper and deeper rut.” And Britain’s “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher noted, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”

Apparently, “good intentions” are doing about as well in the public eye these days as are “thoughts and prayers”. They are dismissed as meaningless and maybe even harmful.

And yet this morning, I’d like to speak in favor of good intentions. I know, intentions are never enough – but without intent, we run the risk of sinking into despair, frustration, irrelevance, and uselessness.

The High Priest and Hannah, James Tissot (19th c.)

In fact, our scriptures for today tell us the stories of two women who had, at least initially, nothing to offer except their good intentions – their “thoughts and prayers”, if you will. And today, we remember them as paragons of faithful living. I would argue that it was their intentions that set them on the road toward following through with the actions that would eventually bear fruit in the world.

Let’s consider the story of Hannah. Here’s a woman who is, apparently, the living embodiment of the “there are no atheists in foxholes” mentality. She’s an outcast in her village and at a difficult place in her marriage because of her inability to conceive a child. She drags herself to the Temple and throws herself into a prayer – in fact she is so demonstrative in her plea that the clergy on duty that morning suppose that she is drunk. “Lord, if you give me a son, I’ll give him right back to you – I promise. I’ll raise him to serve you. I just need to have a baby, Lord.”

While you didn’t read all of her story, I’m here to tell you that everyone in this room has whispered a prayer like Hannah’s at some point in your life. “Lord, if I can only get an ‘A’ on this test…” “All I need, God, is one date with her – and then…” “Father, I’m asking for a healing – and if I get it, then I promise that…”

Uh-huh. Let’s see what happens, Dave…

Except that in Hannah’s case, she actually follows through on her prayer. She is able to conceive and she gives birth to a son. When he gets to be three or four years old, she takes him to the Temple, where she leaves him in the care of the high priest.

(I should note that while there may appear to be some biblical precedent for this practice, we are not advertising for such at this point and would, in fact, request that all children that were brought to worship today be taken home by their parents. Thank you.)

In her later years, Hannah goes on to have 3 more sons and 2 daughters – yet she chose to make good on her vow when all she had was the young boy named “God has heard” – Samuel. When she brings her son to the Temple to leave him with the old priest, Eli, she bursts into song celebrating a God who not only has the power to transform the world, but is apparently willing to intervene in it as well. She sings of a God who has heard her, and she replies by fulfilling her intentions, and Samuel rises to deliver Israel from threats both inside and outside the nation. Hannah goes on to live a life that is apparently steeped in faith. The story begins with a desolate woman crying out in her emptiness and ends with a family reunion and a nation entering a new expression of God’s presence.

Simeon and Anna in the Temple, Jan van’t Hoff, 21st c. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.atelierjanvanthoff.nl

Similarly, the reading from the New Testament features a woman in the Temple. This time, however, it’s a woman who, by first century standards, is ancient – well into 80s if not older. Like Hannah, Anna was present to the Lord – although we do not know the nature of her prayers. Did she have children? Did she pray for them? We don’t know. All we can be sure of is that she was apparently alone in the world at this point of her life. She would not have mattered much to anyone then or now, except for the fact that she is the only woman in the New Testament to be called a “prophet”. She has the distinction of joining in the small group of people who announce the good intentions of God as revealed in the infant Jesus.

Both women point to a central truth of life and scripture: we are designed to be creatures of gratitude. We express our thanksgiving through intentioned, disciplined giving, even when there is apparently not that much to give. Hannah and Anna stand in the presence of God and offer what they have – even if at first it does not appear like much…

For me, this sense of gratitude has been rooted in the practice of giving. Specifically, I have tried to make a percentage of my income available for the Lord’s work. I’m glad that I learned that early in my life, because I’ve discovered that it’s really easy to put this into practice when you don’t have much to offer to begin with.

Some time ago a high school student asked me how I decided how much to give when it came time for the offering at church. I told her that everyone had their own thought, but that one practice that has been held up by the church for years is that of the tithe: bringing 10% of one’s income and offering it to the Lord. She held out $30 she’d just received from a babysitting gig and said, “So wait… let me get this right… I have $30 here, and you’re suggesting that I only put $3 of it in the plate?” I nodded, and she said, “Wow! What a deal! I get to keep $27?” I said, “Sure. Just remember that when you’re sitting on top of $3000 or $30,000. You don’t believe me now, but it’ll be harder later.”

Each person who is a “Covenant Member” of the congregation, as well as many other people, should have received a letter containing a green Intention of Giving card. Observant members will have turned the card over and discovered a chart on the back that helps break down this concept of percentage giving. You can find your weekly income and see what a gift of 4%, or 7%, or 10% might be. There are no commands – just some help for those of us who are mathematically challenged.

Sometimes when we talk about percentage giving, we get sidetracked with questions that, while important, are not really the heart of the matter. I’m asked, “am I supposed to use my gross salary or my take home pay?” Other disciples find themselves in a position where there is not a lot of income, but rather some fixed assets like retirement savings. How do you give 10% of nothing?

Last week, with Karen’s help, I challenged the people of this congregation to demonstrate gratitude by writing at least one thank you note each day for the month of November. I hope that you’re making progress in that discipline. If you’d like, you can take a few more cards from the back of the room.

Today, I’d like to invite you to prayerfully consider declaring your intentions to live and practice gratitude by returning to God some portion of that which has been entrusted to you.

Of course, this challenge has real-life ramifications. Choosing to give something to the Lord’s work means that you’ll have less available for other purposes. For Hannah, it meant that she risked becoming childless again – who knew if she would be able to conceive any subsequent children? For Anna, her presence in the Temple – the gifts of her time and energy – meant that she was not able to be in other places. You and I, as we consider the implications of this little green card, will have to be aware that there are consequences that will show up in our spending at Amazon.com, or in the size of the loan we try to take out for the next car or home we purchase.

Perhaps you are new to this idea. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to start small and look for ways to increase. When Sharon and I got married, I talked with her about my hopes to return 10% of our income to the Lord. I was paid the princely sum of $7500 for my first year of work in youth ministry, and we tried to give back $750 of that. Today, I’m happy to tell you that we are in a position to return more than the 10%. We can do that because we’ve practiced and we’ve learned how to do it better, and we’ve discovered that we actually like giving money to the church. If you would like to hear more of my giving journey, I’d be happy to share that with you.

Here’s the goal: can we learn to be like the women in scripture? Here’s Hannah, a young mother who has just given the most significant gift of her entire life. Over there is Anna, who might be 84 or she might be 105, depending on how we translate that verse, who is utterly dependent on those around her for her daily sustenance and yet is somehow able to find her way to the Temple for worship and praise each day. And each of these women burst into song and praise the goodness of God as they present themselves and their gifts.

The hope is that you and I can somehow cultivate an attitude of gratitude that leads to a life that is filled with thanksgiving, joy and singing as we grow to discover that our intentions match God’s intentions, and that our “hopes and prayers” have hands and feet that result in real action that brings real change to the world around us.

Consider the opportunities that are before you this morning, beloved. Establish and declare your intentions. And respond by giving some of what you have, and all of who you are, to the Lord with joy.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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.