Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Fear vs. Joy” Matthew 25: 14-30

We’ve reaching the conclusion of our sermon series on being a good steward for God. For some of us this has been an uncomfortable sermon series, for others it has opened up eyes to a new world of possibilities - Kingdom possibilities. 
As we conclude today, I want you to think back on a question that has been posed throughout the course of this series - what keeps you from giving? What keeps you from giving your very best to God - be it time, money, or talents? While it may not exactly how we would phrase it - fear is what blocks our hearts from God. We are afraid to do the wrong thing, or that what we decide will have consequences we are unprepared for. 
The truth is that we all have fears - and we all need to decide what role fear will play in our lives. Will we let fear dictate the course of our lives, or will we intentionally live for something bigger than our fears? Will we take a step of faith, or will we try to ignore that which makes us fearful?
Today’s parable speaks to some of these questions. Jesus presents three examples of folks who were given the opportunity to work for the master, even when the master wasn’t present. They were given an amount of money that reflected their skill and faithfulness in the past. Two of the stewards invested what they were given and came back with a 100 percent return. They weren’t fearful to try their very best for the master or worried what could happen or what if things went wrong. They simply had the master’s best interest in their hearts.
But the other steward, buried his money, returning it to the master, exactly as it was, albeit a bit dirtier, saying that his fear of the master and screwing up had lead him simply to bury the money. And what was the masters’s reaction? One that brought even more fear -taking the money from the steward and shaming him. 
We all have fears in our lives, but we need to decide how our fears stack up against the fear of not giving our very best to God. In the words of Pastor Andy Stanley, “Fear is not so much something to be avoided as something to be leveraged.” Stanley realizes that we cannot get rid of our fears completely, or ignore them and hope they go away, because they won’t. Instead, we need to analyze our fears to find out exactly what we are trying to avoid, what we are hiding from, what is behind them. 
Do you have any fears around money? If so, where did they come from? Watching your parents struggle when you were little? Making a bad investment? The effects of the recession? The question is not if we have fears, because we all do, but if we are letting them drive our lives. Fear can either lead us to act wisely - realizing this world is temporal, thus investing in the work of the Kingdom (like two of the stewards in the parable), or it can lead us to hoard our money, forsaking being generous for God (like the last steward). 
Ultimately this entire sermon series, entire topic boils down to one very large question - do you want to be more financially secure or more invested in Kingdom work? This isn’t a question that deserves a knee jerk reaction. Its one that must be bathed in prayer and brought before God. Because ultimately its asking us where our heart is at and what are we going to do about it. Is our heart to preserve our legacy or Gods? Is it our desire to take risks for the Kingdom or play it safe? As we turn to scripture, especially today’s parable, we find the Word telling us that in the Kingdom of God it is better not to play it safe - but that may not be where you are right at this moment. I encourage you to take time to write honestly reflect on where you are in your relationship to money and how that reflects your relationship with God. Take time to write down your fears and hand them over to God, asking that God does not let your fear block the work of the Kingdom. 
For it is not until we have acknowledged our fears and have them met by the grace of God that we can be freed for the joy of giving. There are some of us here today who struggle to give because we are blocked by our fears - wanting to save up money for the what ifs of the future, or just trying to make it through the day with the mess our finances are in. There are others that give because scripture commands them to, and this is a good start. But they don’t feel the joy in giving yet. The joy of the first two stewards in the parable that went back to their master and were elated to return both what they had originally been given and their profits for the sake of the master. 
Do you experience such joy in giving? Or do you feel that it is more of a duty? For those of you who do possess that joy - do you know the moment that you realized it happened? Or did it happen so gradually that you didn’t even notice?  
As Christians our ultimate goal isn’t just to invest in the Kingdom of God because God says to do so - rather it is to allow God to transform our hearts so that we discover the deep and real joy of giving for the Kingdom of God. The joy of working past our fears to discover the richness of God’s blessings. Do you think the first two stewards in today’s parables didn’t have fears and their own what if questions? My guess is that they did, but they didn’t allow their fears to dictate their behavior. They instead worked hard in order to bless their masters name. Are we willing to invest like this for the Kingdom of God today? Or are we simply burying what we have, trying to preserve it for the future instead of taking risks?
If you are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God today, I would invite you to present to God the card that you were given last week. You don’t need to put it in the offering plate or bring it forward. In fact, I want you to take it home and put it some place where you will see it. If God has laid on your heart a number that you just can’t conceive, a number that scares you, pray to God about what the next step is? Making a budget? Using the credit card less? Limiting your style of living? Pray and then take that step of faith.
Brothers and sisters, the truth is that we can never save enough to be content. And we can never spend enough to make us happy. When money holds us in the grip of fear, we cannot fully live for the purposes of the Kingdom. Money itself is neither good or bad, but when money controls our actions, we have a problem. We’ve created money into a score card of sorts - an indicator of our worth - instead of our belovedness as a child of God. 

Today’s parable is speaking directly to how money can affect our relationship with God. My question for you this day is which steward do you recognize yourself in? Are you in the place in your relationship with God that you want to be? Because we only have two choices, friends, to save for our personal future or to give for the future of the Kingdom of God. My hope and prayer is that you have invited God into your finances through this sermon series, and now can begin the hard work of setting aside your fears of the temporal to find the joy of the eternal. Amen. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The New Deal with Sowing Matthew 6:24

For the last few weeks we have been talking about viewing stewardship in a new way - as our opportunity to decide how we want to partner with God in the sowing of the Kingdom message. Today we will get into the nuts and bolts of what that could look like, if we so choose.
There are very few people who go through life without some concern about finances along the way. Even those who have many financial resources still hit bumps in the road. The question we need to ask ourselves is if we are going to invite God into our finances at all time or only ask for God’s help when things do not go as planned.
At the church across the street from my parents house there is a sign that reads “Do you check the foundation before or after the storm?” The answer should be before, but many of us live our lives where we only check the foundation - if we are building our live on God’s love, presence, and word - when things go wrong. It is not uncommon for folks to claim that they will be more dedicated to God or more faithful in their church attendance or giving, if God would only bring them out of a horrible situation. Sadly, that is not a solid foundation and many return to old habits when life is made aright. 
How we treat finances is part of the foundation in our growing relationship with God. As the gospel of Matthew reminded us this morning - we cannot serve two masters - both God and wealth. Yet we seem to have bought into this cultural idea, that we can love both God and money. That its okay to keep God out of our financial decisions and situations. 
Because Matthew is talking about slaves relationships to masters, the image that is conjured up is that of stewardship. Slaves were stewards of their masters household, representing the needs and values of the master when he was away. It was not the slaves household to make their own decisions with - instead they were to make decision that reflected their master’s wishes, even in their absence. Pastor Andy Stanley states, “When we no longer enjoy managing our money, we shift our strategy and start focusing on how to persuade God to come to our rescue”. In other words, we don’t even see ourselves as managing what God has gifted us with. Instead we see it as ours to do with what we wish, until we make a wrong decision or something unexpected happens - then and only then - do we want God to intervene. 
The question is what keep us from asking God into every aspect of our lives, including our finances, before things go wrong? It is as if we fear that asking God into this private part of our life will result in a change - and it probably will. We fear not knowing what God may lead us to do, so we become irrational, trying to keep God out of this particular part of our lives. Or we make decisions about whether to trust God with issues around money or not based off of feeling. Here’s the thing - many of us wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, just because we had a good feeling, or buy a stock because it feels right. Our theology around finances should not and cannot be dictated by our emotions.  In fact, its often hard to be generous when our emotions come in to play, especially when we are overwhelmed with concerns. Instead, we are asked to take a step of faith and put our emotions aside in order to put our finances to work for God’s interest. It needs to be a decision, not a feeling. For it is only after that we take this step of faith that we can begin to trust God in all areas of our lives and have our perspective about giving change.
So what does giving look like for God’s Kingdom? And what does God’s word have to say about how much to give or when or why. If we look back to the scripture we reflected upon last week from 2 Corinthians 9 (verse 7), Paul tells the Church to give what you have decided in your heart to give. Paul doesn’t make it about net vs. Gross income or a percentage or even a set amount. Instead he tells them to give from their heart. To intentionally think and pray about how much they are to give. 
However, that’s a bit hard for us to wrap our human minds around. Many of us feel like we need more leading, more prompting, a bit more of a plan then to give from the heart. So Pastor Stanley purposes the three ‘P’s of giving.
First, Priority Giving. The first check you write out of every pay check should be to the local church. Why the first? Because according to Stanley, “Whatever you place first with take precedence over everything that comes later”. This is what Jesus is trying to remind us of in this mornings scripture. The reason we cannot serve two masters, either intentionally or unintentionally, is because something will always have to win out and take priority in the end. If we choose the one we will hate the other. 
We all have priorities in our lives - with our time and schedules, with our money. With just about every aspect of our lives. If we make giving to God a priority then we are declaring that we trust God and everything else will be taken care of. If we wait to give what is left over, we are equally saying that we need to wait and see what we can give to God. Both stances reflect what we think about God and money, if we sit down and truly consider it. 
The second ‘P’ is percentage giving. Percentages help us remember that we are the stewards in today’s gospel message, not the masters. It also helps us keep perspective about the sowing. Part of the hiccup with percentage giving is that too many of us are living beyond our means. It is as if God hands us a dollar and we try to give God the dollar back, but God tells us that all that is desired is ten cents. We should be grateful, first and foremost for recognizing what a gift God has given us, what a responsibility God has entrusted us with. To have given us 90 percent of our resources to choose what to do with. However, some of us have a hard time even giving the ten percent back, because it seems like too much when we look at our check books instead of too little when we consider all that God has done in our lives. But even with the 90 percent, we are to make wise decisions that reflect God’s will as the master, not our sole desire as the steward.
The third ‘P’ is progressive giving. This means that we progressively increase the percentage of our giving over the years. As we grow more in love with God and align our will more towards that of Kingdom purposes, we should want to give more. We should intentionally choose to give more. Now I realize that this is scary. To think about giving even more than 10 percent. But what would it look like to prayerfully make the decision to increase your giving by one percent every two years? Trusting that God will use that for amazing things in the lives of those who need to hear the Gospel message? Or maybe you pray and find that you are to increase two percent every ten years. That is between you and God. The point is that we want to give more to God as we recognize more clearly what God has done for us. 
There is also a fourth ‘P’. Prompted giving. This is very frightening if we are making financial decisions off of feelings. Sometimes God will ask us to stretch out in faith and give more. This doesn’t mean we stop giving the first three ‘P’s to the local church - its not either/ or, its both/ and. Which often won’t make sense when we are looking strictly at the numbers, but is often when God is inviting us into the biggest opportunities for the Kingdom.

Over the next week I want to invite you to prayerfully consider which ‘P’ you need to start out with. Consider what God is leading you to give to the church in the coming year. Not to keep the lights on, but to expand the Kingdom. Not because we feel like we have to, but because we make the decision to do so. Then next week you will be invited to write this amount down as as covenant between you and God. No one else will see it. It is simply a reminder for each of us, to trust God, in all realms of our lives, including finances, for the sake of the message of Jesus, as we declare that he is our master, not money. Amen. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

2 Cor 9: 6-11 “Trading Places”

The old adage says “You reap what you sow”, but did you realize that was a Biblical concept well before it was a cultural phrase? In today’s scripture lesson the Apostle Paul is speaking to the Church in Corinth about sowing and reaping for the bounty of the Kingdom. 
Whether we realize it or not, we are all investing in something. Investing in daily living. Retirement. Our family’s future. And what we invest in is determined by what lens we we view the world from. Aren’t sure what your lens is: what is the first thing you think of when I say the word “money”? Spending? Saving? On what? For whom? 
The lens we see the world through colors our perspective. As Christians, is the lens we view all else through God? Do we trust God with our money? Do we trust God enough with the harvest to invest in the sowing? Do we focus more on our basic needs or on expanding the Kingdom of God? 
Paul is telling the Church that each of us needs to decide what exactly we are going to invest in - what exactly we want to be a part of. It has to be a willful decision, not one that we make only when we have to or half-heartedly. Paul is essentially asking the people in Corinth, and us today, what we are going to sow - God’s word, or something else?
A little background - Paul is writing this section of 2nd Corinthians as a thank you to the people in the Corinth Church for investing in another Church he ministered to, people they would never meet in this life time. Its an odd way to say thank you for your generosity isn’t it - or is it? Paul is trying to affirm the choice the Church has made to sow generously so that other’s may come to know the message of Christ. 
Now I can hear the argument forming - but Pastor Michelle - the people in Corinth didn’t have the same financial obligations as we have today. You are right -they didn’t have the same bills - the auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance, and utility bills - but they were heavily taxed - more then we can even imagine today, and made a lot less, having a lot more children to feed. The vast majority, over eighty percent, of folks during the New Testament Era would have been considered poor by their own standards, let alone ours. In order for the Church in Corinth to give to Paul for the sake of the gospel message in this magnitude they had to be generous and make sacrifices.
Have you ever noticed when your generosity becomes limited? Is it at certain times of the year? Or when certain bills arrive in the mail? Our generosity is most quickly limited by our desire for surplus above sowing. When we want to make sure every I is dotted and every t is crossed for the future. But here’s the thing, the future is beyond our control. We don’t know what the future holds - when the next stock market crash will come or when we will receive a pink slip. That’s why being generous for the sake of the Kingdom is a risk, an act of trust. When we give sacrificially we say that we believe God’s Kingdom is worth investing in. We are proclaiming that while we may not know what the future holds, we want to give abundantly. And we are willing to sacrifice the mirage of being in control that accumulating wealth and saving for a rainy day can bring in order for more people to come to know the One who is in Control.
So Paul is thanking the Corinthians for their generosity so people could come to believe in another city. He is trying to use this moment to teach them that God used them to meet the needs of another group of people, and that God will meet their needs as well. It is God’s desire to meet the needs of God’s people - but the first step is trust.
Paul begins this portion of his thank you by pointing out that whoever sows sparingly will reap the same, and whoever sows bountifully will reap beyond measure. In other words, whoever sows generously will reap generously. But reap what, exactly? When we give, we receive something back in return for giving. Sometimes it is a peace in our spirits. Other times it is seeing lives being transformed. And yet other times it is a growth in our personal trust of God. We get something back, not because we deserve it, but because God is a God of bounty and blessing.
A word of caution, this passage has been used by a plethora of preachers to say that when you give, you get back even more and become materially rich. Note that is not what Paul is saying. Paul is speaking more of receiving God’s rich spiritual blessings. We should never give because of what we expect, or demand to get back, in return, even if it is as simple as a thank you. We give as an act of faith of who God is. Paul is trying to tell that Church not to fear that they are going to lose what every they are giving way, but instead see it as an investment for God that will effect both others and them. In the words of Pastor Andy Stanley, Paul is trying to say “The farmer doesn’t lose seed in the end. He gains a crop”.
Paul goes on to tell the church that God loves a cheerful giver. A person in this parish once told me that it is fun to give money away. Its fun to spread the word of God through our generosity. And once we begin giving, we don’t stop. Sometimes we give simply because it makes us feel good, cheerful. But I think its also so much more than that - we need to think about why we feel good when we give money away. As Christians we feel good because we recognize that we are giving to something bigger than ourselves. Recognize that God is up to something in the world. Recognize that God is inviting us to be part of the Kingdom work before us. The reality is God is going to do God’s will with or without out - but God is inviting us to be a part of it and to see the bounty of God! 
Paul is proclaiming that God wants us to share abundantly in and for every good work! God wants to use us to distribute for the sake of the Kingdom to the very ends of the earth. The apostle even says that God will supply seed to the sower (that is the giver) in order to increase the harvest. Once again, this verse and accompanying concept has been abused by preachers in the past to mean that God wants to give you everything that you want. But that isn’t what Paul is trying to say. Instead he is pointing out that if people are faithful in putting the Kingdom of God first in their lives, including in their finances and giving, that God will provide what you need, which is not the same as everything you want. God is going to to give the giver or sower what they need to keep sowing, because God wants to see us continue to be good stewards. 

At some point you need to just go for it. You need to just give in order to be a steward of what God has blessed you with, however meager you may think that is. At some point you need to take the leap and invite God to be a part of your finances whether they are good or bad. It was true in Paul’s time and its true in our time, often money is the very last door we open to God in faith. Are you willing to take a risk? Are you willing to open that door? Are you willing to sow for the harvest of the Kingdom of God, giving God control? Amen. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

“The Growing Ambition” Matthew 6: 19-21

Pastor Andy Stanley tells the story of Milton Scott in his book Fields of Gold. In all appearances, Mr. Scott was an average man, who died at the age of 106. He worked from the time he was 25 until he was 102 in a textile mill. He lived his entire working life in the same house, driving a simple car. He owned only four suits and four pairs of shoes. By all appearances, Mr. Scott was living a less than middle class ideal life. But what people didn’t know was that he was a fearless giver. As his income grew over the years, he kept his life style the same. Appearances or being noticeable were not among his priorities. Funding the work of ministry was his priority. He helped widows and orphans. He smuggled thousands of Bibles into Russia before the iron curtain fell. He didn’t save money for a rainy day or worry about tomorrow. He didn’t ask the “what if” questions about money we talked about last week. He was simply wrapped up in the joy of giving for the Kingdom of God. By the end of his life it was conservatively estimated that he gave away 70-80 percent of what he earned for the work of God.
Where would you say that Milton Scott’s treasure was? In the gospel of Matthew this morning Jesus is teaching his followers about money and possessions - asking them where their treasure is stored - on earth or in heaven. Telling them that where their treasure is, that’s where their heart is. 
My guess is that the Milton Scott story made some of us uncomfortable. We cannot even fathom parting with that much money for the work of God. For others of us we simply dismiss the story by citing how this man had more money to give so of course he gave more away. But the story of Milton Scott isn’t about the specific details. Or how much money he made. The story of Milton Scott challenges us past where we may be comfortable with questions like: how much am I willing to give to the work of the Kingdom of God? Is advancing the Kingdom of God my priority no matter what the cost? 
Or in the words of Pastor Stanley, “What if God called you to give beyond your comfort level?” Where is our treasure? Where is our heart?
I think the fact that this passage of scripture is found in scripture points to the fact that the tug of war between generosity and self-preservation is age old. Part of us wants to save money “just in case” and buy things for ourselves because “we deserve it”. We get caught up in questions of what if: what if the harvest isn’t good this year? What if I get a pay cut? What if my bills increase? What if the stock market crashes? So we focus on self-preservation, letting the fear of the “what if?” block our generosity. Let me be clear - I am not telling us to be irresponsible with our money - going into debt for the Kingdom of God. Instead, I’m asking us to examine our lifestyle, live below our means, and look past the “what ifs” for the sake of the Kingdom. 
Stanley admonishes that “as believers we have the responsibility to leverage our wealth for kingdom purposes”. In other words our giving to the work of the Kingdom tells where our heart is. Tells where our treasure is stored. Church folk feel pretty okay when the pastor brings up working for the Kingdom of God. They feel comfortable with the idea of growing in their relationship with Jesus Christ. However, resistance comes when talking about putting our money where our mouth, and our heart is, for God. Its as if money is where we hit our limit with trusting God. We don’t quite trust God financially. And as a result we don’t sow for the eternal harvest with our money - it just seems like a little too much to ask. But in the words of Stanley “Sowing in faith results in an eternal crop. Cowering in field yields empty fields”
I’m not trying to make you feel nervous, uncomfortable, or angry. But I can understand why those emotions may be present because of this sermon series. Instead, I’m asking you if you trust God financially? If your check book reveals your heart chasing after God? If you are trying to grow in your stewardship? Because its not until we start to ask these questions that we can find freedom. Its not until we start examining our hearts that we can truly seek the Kingdom of God first. 
Here’s the thing - every person in this room, including myself, has a threshold when it comes to giving. Just as everyone in that crowd gathered around Jesus as he taught about where our treasure is, so our heart is, had a threshold for what they would give. Thresholds are natural for humans. They are the dollar amount or percentage of money that we feel comfortable giving. When we step out in faith beyond our threshold, thats when we become uncomfortable. But the question is are we willing to step out in faith, beyond our threshold? Are we willing to surrender control of our money to God? Or are we going to let our fear be in control? Stanley shares his own threshold moment to which he responded, “God I’m not 100 percent comfortable with giving this money but I’m too uncomfortable not to give it”.
In the church there are typically two types of people who give in the offering plate throughout the year. The first are those who give out of what is left over - after all of the bills are paid and they see what is left over. The second type of giver takes a risk and gives off of the top. One way is not better then another, but the order in which we write our checks speaks of our priorities. Speaks of what makes us more comfortable - giving up front or giving what’s left over?
Do we become more uncomfortable with not giving then we are with giving an amount that scares us? Are we more focused on sowing for the kingdom or taking care of ourselves in potential situations in the future?
If God has given us all that we have, including the money we get from our vocation, and the offering plate belongs to God, why are we still fearful? If all of our treasures belong to God, why do we invest so much time and money into protecting them? And do we offer the same level of care and money into the work of God among us?

United Methodist consultant Cliff Christopher points out “Stewardship is a journey that is grounded in gratitude, revealed in prayers, and lived in faith.” We are not going to let go of our fear around finances tomorrow. It comes one little step at a time. One percentage more in our giving each year. God is inviting us to a lifestyle of generosity vs. Fear, but the choice is ours as to what we will choose. Money and our attitude towards possessions speak directly to what we choose. So I ask you - wheres your treasure this day - on earth or in heaven? And where would you like them to be even if it is beyond our comfort level? Amen. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fields of Gold: Dust in the Wind Matthew 6:25-34

I get it. Talking about stewardship of our time, talents, and resources makes us uncomfortable. We like to claim that money and church just don’t mix - and that’s where I stop understanding. Stop getting it. Because Jesus talks about money and wealth a lot. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but there is no shortage in either testament in addressing money. And if Jesus talked about it, so do we.
I grew up in a tithing family. I remember watching my dad write out his tithe check  every Sunday before I could even really know what a check was for. The story goes that around the age of six I came out to my dad while he was writing his tithe check and asked for an envelope. Dad gave it to me, and I disappeared into my room, returning with my name printed in large letters on the front in crayon. I handed it to my parents and my dad asked me what it was. I told him it was my money for church, just like his - and when he opened up the envelope he found $1.00 - a treasure for someone that age. I have tithed and given to the church ever since.
Now maybe its easier to give when we are children. We aren’t all wrapped up in the fear of what is to come. But I also think that children understand the wisdom of today’s gospel lesson in a way that we forget when we grow up. When we are children who are well cared for, we don’t worry where our next meal is going to come from or if we will have clothes to wear. We simply trust that we will be provided for. Trust our parents. Trust our grandparents. Trust those who are our caregivers. But then we grow up and think that we need to make it all on our own - we start to fret over not just having food and clothing, but having the best. We start to fear that we will not have enough instead of trusting God to provide. We start to sum up our lives not by God’s grace but by what we have accumulated. We start to worry that God doesn’t know what we need or that God won’t come through for us. We fear that if we give to the church, give back to the work of the Kingdom of God, that our quality of life will diminish. We start to wonder if we will need that money for something else. As we write out the check, we hesitate, wondering if we are saving enough for future, unknown needs. 
As we grow up we lose confidence in the belief that we will be provided for and that brothers and sisters, takes all of the joy out of giving. I remember the joy of giving as a child - whether it was giving to the church every week or wrapping up one of my favorite books to give to my cousin on her birthday. I remember the joy of celebrating my birthday, not because of what I would receive, but because then I got to put a special offering in the birthday Sunday School bank for missions. What happened to that joy? The joy of simply giving unto God because we have been provided for beyond our wildest imaginations?
Life. The drain and worry of living. The worry about things that we cannot control. The worry that Jesus is talking about in this passage. In his book Fields of Gold, Pastor Andy Stanley tells the story of one man, Jeremiah Clay’s, worry. Maybe you can identify with it...
Jeremiah was a farmer during the Great Depression and was lured west by promises of fields being ripe for the harvest. So he packed up his family and headed out to a new life - only to find out those fields were more like a dust bowl. From year to year he didn’t know if there would be enough water for his crops, or if they would be flooded out, or blown away. Each month, for five trying years, he could spend an entire salary on seed - seed that he didn’t know would take or not. Jeremiah was now finding the courage to replant hard to summon. He hadn’t made a profit in five years. He found himself worrying each day about the next storm that may come and blow away his investment. He wondered if he should even bother planting another bag of seed.
When we start to worry about things that we cannot control - we let our anxiety drive us to be irrational. We stop seeking the most important thing, the Kingdom of God, and become fixated on the immediate, and on us and on our own needs. But that fear is mis-placed, brothers and sisters. If God intends for us to sow our financial resources for the Kingdom of God, shouldn’t we more aptly fear under sowing for the Kingdom? Shouldn’t it bring us to our knees that we may be spending our lives worrying about food and clothing and only sowing a few handfuls of our finances for God as a result?
The truth is that the Christian Church doesn’t like to hear stewardship sermons because it makes us face our fears about money. Our fear of not having enough. Our fear of owning up to the fact that we are watering down our giving. In the Untied States only one-third to one-half of church go-ers give in the offering plate. Give anything. And out of that percentage only three to five percent actually give God ten percent or more. In the United Methodist Church it is even worse. We are among the lowest of all denominations in giving. And for those that do give, they often give only one percent or less of their yearly income. 
We get anxious when we start to talk about stewardship or pass the offering plate. We start to hear only what we want to hear or let our anxiety and fear lead to anger, instead of allowing God to speak into our hearts. But there is good news, brothers and sisters - fear and faith often go hand in hand. We become fearful when we trust God to do something grand amongst us, but when we trust and take that step of faith, we get to see who God is and why we can stand on the promises of God. 
Our finances allow us to proclaim what we believe - and make us come face to face with the questions of if we really believe that God will provide and if we trust God enough to faithfully give? When we give to God, boldly, we get to see Jesus Christ at work. Its not about keeping the doors of this particular church open or continuing the mission and message of this denomination, though I believe that both of those things are good and pleasing to God. At the end of the day its about trusting that we are sowing for the Kingdom of God - here and now and in the future. Its about setting aside our fear, and having a conversion about our wallets, in order to proclaim the Kingdom message. 
I know that doesn’t make the message about finances any easier to hear. Too many of us feel that we are drowning in our debt and are caught on the hamster wheel of worry. When we talk about money we need to confess those spending habits that we have that keep us away from God, keep us in debt, and render us ineffective for the Kingdom. And after confession we need to repent and turn around in a way that fully releases all of our resources - time, money, and talents - for God’s purposes, instead of only looking to and trusting God when we personally are in need.

That is a hard message to swallow. To cease worrying is a challenge unto itself. To cease worrying about money and the future - that seems insurmountable. And yet, this conversation also gives us a chance to dive into the heart of the question - what do finances reveal about our commitment to God? Are we striving and seeking after the Kingdom of God, first, foremost, and forever? Or are we worrying about what tomorrow may hold. Amen. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Christians Believe about Salvation Psalm 96: 1-6

Up to this point in our sermon series on what Christians believe, it could be said that Christians across the board believe the same statements of faith about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church. However, today’s topic, the final in this particular sermon series is a bit trickier. Salvation is a hot topic in the church - how do you get saved. When were you saved. Do you need say certain things. Can you only be saved once. Has God chosen some people to be saved and others to perished. The list goes on and on.
Salvation is also confusing because we cannot address it apart from sin. God created humans to be in relationship with Him and with each other, but we screwed that up. Royally. We have strayed from the love of God in so many ways - and every possible way that we can sin is equally in the eyes of God; there are not some sins that are “worse” then others. Sin also always has consequences, both in the present and the eternal. And yet, we are also hesitant to admit or confess our sins, because we don’t want to acknowledge that we have screwed up. 
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Enter Jesus. Who seeks to reconcile the lost world to God through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. Salvation is accepting this gift, this sacrifice, for one’s self. However, believing is not enough, for salvation should transform us into new people serving God in new way in community. 
We need to be communities of faith that remind us that our human story involves creation, sin, grace, and the law. To be reminded that we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  In “Our Doctrinal Heritage” for United Methodist it states, “as sinful creatures we have broken covenant, become estranged from God, wounded ourselves and one another, and wreaked havoc throughout the natural order. We stand in need of redemption.” We need community to remind us that genuine salvation comes from God and that we have a responsibility to respond to that salvation. For John Wesley believed that humanity had a responsibility in being made in the image of God and a responsibility in responding to God’s grace. 
At its core that is what salvation is, responding to God’s grace. We cannot earn salvation. In fact, salvation belongs to God. Today’s psalm reminds us that we are to bless God for the majesty of salvation, telling that story each and every day. Telling of the marvelous work God has done among his people. It is by God’s power and grace alone that we can be redeemed. Christians believe that before we knew God that God has gone before us to prepare a path to the Divine. This grace stirs in us the desire to repent, which in traditional evangelical doctrines means turning around or going a new direction. It should be noted that “because prevenient grace from God moves us to repent, this repentance is not our good works, but God’s gracious activity in us.” Repentance involves the realization that we cannot save ourselves as we experience sorrow for our sin. As a result of this realization repentance leads us to seek God’s help and restoration
Wesley preached a two-fold legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance was a conviction for sin, but evangelical repentance was a change of heart that led to a life of holiness. He believed that change in mind and behavior were inextricably linked, thus a change of heart and mind would be most noticeable by changed behaviors and actions. This change of heart and mind came from an “awakening of the sinner to one’s need for God, one’s own guilt, and one’s inability to solve it on one’s own.” 
United Methodists do not believe that repentance is a one-time event. Rather, repentance is ongoing as we become more self-aware and seek to grow in holiness of heart and life. One of my favorite quotes from John Wesley comes after his life transforming experience with God when someone asks him if he is saved. His response: “I am being saved”. Salvation, like repentance, is not a one time event, but rather a process where we grow more in love with God. The journey to salvation starts with repentance, and as God convicts us of our sins, we turn in the other direction, moving closer to the heart of God. 
When I think about Wesley’s statement two friends come to mind. Both attended a Bible study I was a part of. Both claimed to come to know Christ at the same time - however, one only changed his behaviors for a few weeks, before giving up. The other still attends to his faith. What was the difference between the two? The first thought salvation was a one time event that cleared him to act however he desired in the future, While the other lived into Wesley’s statement - seeing his faith as a process.
In recent months the conversation has emerged in different studies in the parish about whether you need an event that you can point to in order to be truly saved. While some people have such life changing events, others grow up in the church and transition from infancy in faith to maturity without a large landmark to point to. Both are equally valid paths of salvation - one is not better that the other.
However, Wesley believed that the fruit of our salvation, whether a gradual process or a life defining moment, should be seen in how we treat others, especially the poor, the sick, and the hungry. For the early Methodists it was not enough to save souls, for they believed we needed to seek to redeem society, which God deeply cares about, as well. We cannot earn salvation through good works, but good works should flow from our repentance, in order to reveal to others the One who has changed our lives.
As Christians we believe that individuals and the world is in need of salvation - delivered from the death we are due for our sins. Christ gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, which we will celebrate today around the communion table, in order to reunite humanity with God. However, there is no one right way to accept Christ’s sacrificial death for one’s self. Instead, as Christians we are in the process that continues throughout our lives and will be complete when we stand before Christ in judgment. 

The question really is are we going to accept God’s gracious gift of love in our lives and how are we going to live in a way that reflects this love? Will we be freed from the bondage of sin or will we dismiss salvation and be held captive? Will we live into our salvation in a way that draws others to God or will we make it all about us? What fruit have we bore through accepting the sacrifice of Christ? Hard questions that reflect an even harder topic - but questions we must ponder for our sake and the sake of our world. Amen. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Eph 4:1-16 “Who are We as the Church?”

Kenneth Carder in his book Living Our Belief writes this powerful statement: “Without a memory of what the church is called to be, the church becomes what the people want it to be.” Let me repeat that: “Without a memory of what the church is called to be, the church becomes what the people want it to be.”
While folks may claim that we need to know more about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, few would wonder think we need to discuss what it means to be the Church - who we are as the Body of Christ. Yet, as Carder points out we need to remember what it means to be the Church - remember the purpose and mission God has for us, so we do not become just another organization.
We talk about Church a lot, but how many people actually know what the Church is supposed to be? Let me ask you a question, if the Church is the tool that God uses to transform the world, how would our neighborhood be different if this church wasn’t present? Would our community even notice? Another way to phrase this question would be to ask why we need this specific Church? Adam Hamilton often speaks about the vital questions that we need to be able to answer as people of the Christian Faith. Two include - why do we need the Church universal and why do we need this specific church?
We need the Church universal because it is the way God has chosen to fulfill the mission of Christ in the World. In fact, the Church is called to be the very sign of God’s presence to the World. But sometimes we forget that. We forget that the Church, both universal and local, isn’t about us. It isn’t about what style of worship we like. Or how we prefer to spend our money. Or even about what we do or do not get out of Sunday worship. Because the Church belongs to God, not us. Its about making the mission of God visible in the world by being the light in a very dark world. 
But as a denomination the United Methodist Church takes the mission of the Church Universal one step further. We are a missional church. Which means, we exist chiefly for people who do not yet know God. We exist to do good for all people - to reach out and be an alternative community to neighbor and stranger alike. We exist to serve people in the world in order to further the mission of Christ. 
I want you to think of something this church does - anything. Do you have something in your mind? Great. Now how does that thing, be it an activity or a place we donate money to or a study we participate in, whatever it may be, serve people who do not yet know Christ or grow people who know Christ into deeper disciples. In other words how does it fulfill the mission of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the World? Or even more locally, how does it fulfill the mission of this parish to share the power of Christ? If you can’t answer that question, we may have a problem. If you can answer that question, do you think your neighbor next to you could answer it about the same thing and give the same answer? If not, we are not on the same page with the mission and vision of God’s Kingdom that we are working towards as this local church. And that stings a little. 
In this morning’s scripture lesson we hear that the Church is the body of Christ, knitted together under the leadership of the Lord. Carder writes, “the Church is our very identify, not an organization we belong to in accordance with our preferences or connivence.” Sometimes the Church looses its way and losses it memory about who we are and whose we are. When we make it about petty things its evident that we have forgotten who we belong to.  Just whose Lordship we are under. Just who we exist for. 
But even when we remember whose we are, we may still forget what we are supposed to be doing. Paul tells the followers in Ephesus that they are to live a life worthy of their calling. Here’s the thing about calling - we all have one - we just sometimes choose to ignore it. While pastors may have a very specific calling to lead the church, everyone who calls them-self Christian are called to some time of servanthood and ministry by way of their baptism. Its just that the calling varies. But in this scripture passage we are told that we all have gifts - its just that the gifting and calls vary. 
Have you ever taken time to pray about why you are part of this local body of Christ? Because you aren’t here by accident. You are here, because Christ gives us every gifting we need in each local body to thrive, THRIVE, for the Kingdom of God. Not just get by. Not just meet the budget. But to make a difference in transforming the world.
Whenever I start to talk about the church universal, I get passionate. Because the Church universal is both visible and invisible. Is here in this place and around the globe. Its any place where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are administered, and there is a presence of people of faith. Not just people but people of faith. People who faithfully want to be the Church. Want to be about something bigger than themselves. Want to be about the mission and work of God. Want to be about reaching new people about Jesus Christ - and move past want to action. In fact, people of faith live a life of holy, active expectancy, meaning that we are aware that God is using us to work in the world for something so much bigger than we could ever grasp.
Then when I start to talk about how local churches are living into that mission, that vision of being the Church of Jesus Christ I get really excited, and often really loud. While there are many places and organizations that do good in this world, the church is the only one that exists to transform lives both here in the present and in the life to come. Amen! That’s why we reach out beyond our walls - not make more members, but to make more disciples. To connect more people to the person and message and power of Christ! 
But the Church universal and the local church can also break my heart when we put the wrong things first. My dad was telling me when they were up to visit a few weeks ago that he teaches his Sunday School class that its not about them - there may be months when they do not get anything and thats when people sometimes give up and stop coming. But they need to be present because their neighbor may be in a fruitful season spiritually and their presence is a part of that. It breaks my heart when we forget that. When we make it all about us. When we make it about what we want instead of about the heart of God.

There is an older contemporary worship song entitled the Heart of Worship that contains powerful lyrics that I often pray for the Church universal, may we make it “all about You Jesus. I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, but its all about You.” May we remember that we exist because of Jesus Christ. And that our mission isn’t about us, or what we get out of being the Church, but is all about furthering the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our Leader, Head, and Lord. Amen.