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.

Practicing Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

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