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Sunday, November 19, 2017

“Revival: The Necessity of Grace” Eph 2: 8-10

If you had one message that you could give to the world what would it be? For John Wesley, after his Aldersgate Experience, the one message that he became deeply passionate about was this: God longs for everyone to come to know the love of the Savior and God’s grace is available to all who accept Christ. He was so passionate about the message of grace that he traveled over 250,000 miles by foot, horseback, and carriage in order to preach this message. In fact, he was so passionate about Paul’s presentation about grace in today’s scripture passage that he preached on these verses from Ephesians over forty times. 
What makes Paul’s message so compelling in Ephesians? I believe that it is his emphasis on the fact that grace is a gift. A gift from God. It is not something that can be earned or accomplished by our own means. It is was something that we could accomplish on our own then we wouldn’t need God - it would be our own medal of honor, not something that proclaims the very glory of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. 
We have lost something in our culture around gifts. I know that out of the Five Love Languages as described by Gary Chapman -  Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Physical Touch, Quality Time, Acts of Service - the way that I best express my love for folks is by giving gifts. A fellow gift giver once described it as thinking long and hard about the perfect gift to give someone so that you can watch their face light up when they realize that you thought just about them. 
But as much thought that I may put into giving the perfect gift to those whom I love, Jesus gave the best gift. The most perfect gift. When it became evident that we, as humans, were incapable of following through on the first covenant God made with us through the law, Jesus came to earth to show us how to live, before giving his very lift for us. He offered himself as a gift. Allowing us to have the opportunity to choose to have new life and salvation through Jesus Christ himself. 
For Wesley, there were at least three different types of grace in our lives, as he studied the New Testament and saw the Greek word for grace (which also means gift - char is) appearing over 148 times. 
First, there is Prevenient Grace - the grace that comes before. Wesley firmly believed that God is at work in our lives before we even know God, realize that we are in need of God, or know how to reach out to God. God loves us so much, that God laid the foundation for salvation, the foundation for us to accept this wonderful gift, before we even knew how wonderful it was. 
For a lot of folks Prevenient Grace is best noticed by the people in our lives who were sharing with us the love of Jesus before we even knew that we needed Jesus. The Vacation Bible School Directors. Sunday school Teachers. Mothers and Fathers of the church who shared with us countless Bible stories, taught us how to pray, and told us that yes, Jesus Loves each of us.
For those who came to know Jesus later in life, it may have been a co-worker who you noticed something was different about who kept inviting you to church, even if you didn’t know if you felt comfortable coming. Or the friend who kept telling you that they were praying for you and meant it.
Prevenient grace invites us into the space where we can encounter justifying grace where we accept Jesus into our lives as Lord and Savior and grow in trust of him. Trust him to save us. Trust him to redeem us. Trust him to give us victory over sin.
The thing about justifying grace is that we need to be able to accept or at least hold on to two fundamental truths of the Gospel message. First and foremost, Jesus saves. Jesus made a way for us on the cross. And Jesus selflessly gave his life for us on the cross, even though we are completely undeserving. But we also need to understand that we are sinful. That sin is missing the mark and we have done the time and time again, which is why we need Jesus to save us. To save us from our sinful selves and to save us from the mess that sin leaves in its wake. If we don’t think that Jesus can save or we aren’t aware of sin and why we need a Savior, we may not be ready yet to accept Jesus into our lives.
The Apostle Paul describes sin this way in his letter to the Romans: I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I keep doing the evil that I don’t want to do. Sin living in me does this. Sin ruins things, brothers and sisters, but Jesus can to set us free from the power of sin in our lives.
For a lot of folks justifying grace is that date and time when you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Or that moment when you see how Jesus has been working in your life all along. This type of grace looks different for each person.
The third type of grace is sanctifying grace. This is the grace where we grow closer to God. But we can try to resist growing with God. I often tell folks how many years you have been a Christian doesn’t always reflect how deep your relationship with God is, which can be really hard to hear. But there are some folks, once they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, who simply stop there. They think the fact that they have been saved is good enough. They come to worship on Sundays and may pray from time to time or read scripture occasionally, but they aren’t super interested in getting any closer to God than that.
Sanctifying grace can also be frustrating, but we notice it a lot more in others then we see it in ourselves. Every year at the conclusion of camp, I send my campers a manila envelope containing a cd of this years camp songs, pictures from the week, but also a note. Over the years, as I have had the same campers, I have been able to write them notes about where I see them growing with God. Sometimes we need other people to help us see the sanctifying grace in our own lives.
Wesley wanted believers to be positioned for this type of growth with God. So outside of the weekly larger meetings, he broke them down into smaller class meetings and bands, where they could study the word and pray for one another. In our modern language we may call these groups Bible studies or small groups. Further, these groups were encouraged to serve, in a variety of ways.
Just as Christ selflessly gave himself for us, so we are at our best, most living into the God image inside each of us, when we are serving others. This is simply how we were created to live. Sometimes I become deeply frustrated with the institutional church. When we aren’t serving. When we aren’t talking to folks about the good news of Jesus. But then I am brought back to a place where I remember that spiritual growth is a process, that begins with folks who are laying ground work even before we are ready to accept the gift of salvation. Brothers and sisters, may we be the folks laying the ground work. May we been the ones inviting people to come and accept the gift Jesus is trying to offer. May we be the people encouraging each other to grown. All for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Revival: A Crisis of Faith Romans 4: 3-5, 5: 1-2

11/12/17 Revival: A Crisis of Faith Romans 4: 3-5, 5: 1-2

As Christians we often live between two tensions. On one hand, we want to live holy lives that are pleasing to God, we want to do what is right. But on the other hand, we have to know that our faith life is about a lot more than what we can do to honor and please God - its about trusting God’s goodness and grace in our lives. Rev. Adam Hamilton, author of Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It puts it this way: [Our faith life is about] “Balancing the quest for holiness with the trust and confidence in God’s grace by which we are saved.” And perhaps we see no better example of that in the Apostle Paul.
Saul was known as being “zealous for the law”. It was his desire to keep the faith and keep it correctly/ well that lead him to persecute the Christians - holding folks coats as they stoned Stephen in the book of Acts and going as far as getting a letter signed to go into different provinces in order to round up the Christians - who he saw as breaking the Jewish faith and laws. But one day, along the road to Damasus, with that letter in hand, he had a profound experience with Jesus Christ, as he heard him crying out “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” before striking him temporarily blind. Through that experience he was changed by God’s grace and love and the community of faith that was expressed through Anaias who took him in and prayed for him. 
Saul prior to becoming Paul often gets portrayed as a bad guy, because from our Christian perspective he was persecuting those who believe in Jesus - and that is very true. But it is equally true that Saul deeply felt that he was doing the right thing. He thought he was protecting the faith and living into God’s will, even if it was misguided. 
I think Saul was seeking to live a holy life by protecting the Jewish faith. But the thing about trying to live a holy life, is that at times we forget about God’s grace. Which leads us, even now today, to think that we have to keep doing more and more to please God instead of resting in what God has done for us. 
Welsey also knew what it was like to be singularly focused on pursing a holy life. Wesley did amazing things for God: he fasted one to two days a week. He didn’t cut his hair so he could give that money to the poor. He received communion at least once a week, if not once a day. He woke up early to pray. He read his Bible. And he was doing all of it in order to please God. 
But as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans, using the example of Abraham, faith is about more than works. It is also about believing in God and trusting God fully. In fact, at the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” 
I think we can only live by faith, if we know the one we believe in and trust in the grace of God. When we try to be holy for the sake of pleasing God, what it often can turn into, when grace is absence, is the belief that we need to earn our place in Heaven. Or prove to God that we are good enough. Or seek the acceptance of God. In other words we try to earn God’s love. 
But the truth is that we can never be good enough. Or earn God’s love and forgiveness. And we are accepted because God says that we are through the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. The truth is God’s grace is a gift to us, freely given, and not earned. It isn’t based off of our goodness at all, but instead is all about the generosity of God. 
It looks a long time and a series of personal trials and failures for Wesley to come to really, truly trust the grace of God. After his time with the holiness club, Wesley went on to be a missionary in America. On his way to the colonies, his ship hit a literal storm. As the waves were crashing in, many of the passengers were becoming scared. But Wesley noticed a group of Christians, German Moravians, who remained calm even in the midst of the storm, singing the Psalms together. Then when Wesley arrived in America things did not go well at all in his ministry. He forced people to follow very strict rules - like attending a 5am prayer meeting in order to be able to receive communion - that made him quite unpopular. He also experienced heartache. And as a result he returned to England with his tail between his legs and head down. 
Often it is the storms in life that humble us enough to receive God’s grace. God doesn’t always cause the storms in our lives, but God can certainly be working in the midst of them. When I think of my own life, it was often when things did not go as planned, or well at all, that lead to a place where my faith grew stronger in God, as I learned to more fully place my life and hope and trust in the hands of God. 
There was a woman who has went on to glory from Grace who had a favorite scripture verse from Romans -Romans 8:28 - which says this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” Even the rocky moments in life. Even the storms. Even the raging seas can teach us to trust God, if only we humble ourselves to admit that we are not in control and have it all together on our own. 
Which is exactly what happened to Wesley during his Aldersgate Experience after returning from a failed missionary journey to America. It was during that moment, hearing the words of Martin Luther’s preface to Romans read, that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. In Wesley’s words: “I felt that I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Later on Wesley realized that he was a Christian before his experience at Aldersgate, but he grew in his faith that day as he took a step to trust God more fully. 
This past year at camp, after much prayer and discussion, the camp dean and I, along with the counselors, decided to take a step of faith. For the past several years, campers had been invited to share their testimonies on commitment night, but it had divulged more into a time of confessional about not so great things that had taken place in the campers lives, and sometimes they had a hard time connecting that part of their story to their faith in God. So instead, we invited three campers to share their testimony. The young man who shared from my group said something profound, that he didn’t feel like he had a testimony, because he didn’t have a big moment where he fell away from God, instead he just learned to follow God more every day. 
How many of us fear that we don’t have a testimony to share because we didn’t have an Aldersgate moment? A moment when our hearts are strangely warmed? The truth is we can have big and small encounters with Jesus over the course of our lives that change us little by little, helping us trust God more fully, that can be just as much on a revival for us as a big conversion moment. Neither is better than the other, because both draw us closer to God and change us. 
And sometimes the change that we need is from rules based faith to a personal relationship with Jesus. Sometimes the change is finding the balance in our lives between pursing holiness and trusting in God’s grace. Sometimes it is more fully coming to believe the truth of the Gospel that, according to Hamilton, “Out of his great love for us, God has taken the initiative to save and deliver us. Our lives are lived in grateful response.” Whatever it may be for us of us, let us pray, even here and now today, for a revival of our spirits that draws us closer to our loving God. Amen. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revival: A Longing for Holiness” 1 Peter 1: 13-16

Over the summer, while on vacation with dear friends, I found myself in a late night conversation about salvation. We had started talking about what I like the most about being a pastor, where my passion in ministry lies, and I said I was deeply touched when I had the opportunity to form relationships with people who do not yet know Jesus. Quietly, my friend shared that this was something that she struggled with, and told the story of someone she cares about who is in the dying process, but insists that she is a good person so she will make it to heaven. How do you respond to that, my friend asked.
I would venture a guess that many of us have heard a litany of things that we wished salvation was based off of over the years. Sometimes people claim a spot in heaven by saying that they are generally a good person, substituting kindness for religion. Inside and outside of the church, we have folks who claim that they aren’t as bad as someone else they know, so surely they will make it into heaven. And inside the church in particular, we find folks who think you can earn your way into heaven by reading the bible and praying. All the while, these wishes don’t speak of Jesus.
However, sometimes we can also swing to far to the other side of the discussion about salvation. One day I came home to a “gift” that a stranger had sent me through amazon.com. It was a book that essentially argued that the church talked too much about discipleship and not enough about salvation. On the surface an interesting concept. But as you dive in deeper to the underlying premise, it would seem that the book was arguing that as long as you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it didn’t quite matter how you lived your life, or if you were a disciple, because eternal salvation was the only thing that matters.
In between wishing and hoping to have salvation based on things outside of Jesus Christ and thinking once you are saved you can do whatever you want, we find today’s teaching in 1 Peter about holiness. On one hand Peter writes that we are set all of our hope and grace on Jesus Christ - I would classify this as accepting Jesus as your savior. But then he goes on to talk about about obedience and being holy - which I would call discipleship - following Jesus in a way that brings glory to God.
I’ve shared with Bible Study groups before that I actually find it much easier to talk with someone who does not yet know Jesus then someone who thinks that they are Christian and have it all together. Folks who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, but then think that gives them the license to behave however they wish. I especially find problematic the attitude of “its about me and Jesus and everyone else needs to get out of my way.” That, dear friends, is not an attitude that brings much honor and glory to God.
So how can we live for he glory of God? 1 Peter would instruct us, that after we have placed our hope firmly in the grace of Jesus Christ, we are called to be obedient. I often tell folks that everyone has faith in something, it is just a matter of what or who you have truly placed your faith in. The same is true of obedience. We are all obedient, or follow, something or someone. Peter is asking us to examine ourselves and make sure that our obedience is in Christ and not in our previous desires. Those desires that we let rule our lives before coming to know Jesus, or as he put it “the desires you formerly held in ignorance”. 
But bringing glory to God doesn’t just stop with the choice to be obedient to Christ. Peter then admonishes us to be holy in our conduct. I have found a lot of folks who will tell me that they understand the obedience thing, though they may struggle with the concept or practice of obedience, but being holy is something that alludes them. Something that they aren’t so sure about.
In the United Methodist Church we describe holiness as moving on to perfection, and honestly, the entire idea of being holy and perfect can become daunting. We conjure up images in our minds of holy people who never laugh. Never smile. Always scold others. For a long time I would think back to the Little House on the Prairie book series, where Laura describes how awful Sundays were in her childhood - where all she could do was sit and read the Bible. No talking. No laughing. No playing. 
But when we let these images around holiness take hold in our minds we miss what holiness is really about - its about doing everything for the Glory of God. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians - “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God”. Whatever you do for your vocation - do it for the glory of God. When you babysit your grandchildren - do it for the glory of God. When you go out to eat or cook dinner for your family - do it for the glory of God. When you do your laundry - do it for the glory of God. 
For the early Methodists they firmly latched onto this idea of moving on to perfection or holiness by doing everything for the glory of God, by encouraging one another to not necessarily subtract things from their daily lives, like the Little House on the Prairie books, but instead by adding spiritual practices to their lives. They began to spiritually mentor one another. They read the Christian classics about faith. They studies together about what was important in the spiritual life. They fasted and rose early in the morning for prayer. And they did this all while they were in college together, essentially forming one of the first campus ministries. 
After studying and mentoring, they added service to their lives together. They visited the prisoners, the sick, the poor, and the elderly. They worked with low income children. They gave alms to care for those in need. Rev. Adam Hamilton writes, “They were labeled ‘Methodists’ for their intentional and methodical approach in pursuing holiness.”
Friends, what about us? Are we also being intentional about our approach to holiness? Because the truth is, holiness isn’t something that just happens. It requires effort. Effort in how we think and talk about God. Effort in how we humbly and lovingly serve God by serving others. Hamilton continues, “For Wesley and his friends, holiness included a complete yielding of one’s life to God, a desire to become like Christ in heart and action, acts of compassion for others, and a resolution to live one’s life for God’s glory.”

Where are you at today with Jesus? Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? If not yet, then maybe today is your day to tell Jesus that you want him in your heart and life. Have you accepted Christ, but struggle with obedience? Then maybe today is your day to say to Christ that you want him in control of all of your life, not just in lip service, but in complete control. Have you told Christ that you will be obedient to him, but how want to yield your whole life to him, becoming like Christ in heart and action as you move towards holiness - then maybe today is your day to ask Christ to walk with you through your whole life as you intentionally try to bring Glory to God with you whole life. Holiness is a journey friends, that does not simply begin and end in the moment we accept Christ as our Savior, but instead beckons for our whole life, every single day. Amen. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

“Revival: Precursors to Revival” Rev 2: 1-5

When I say the word “Revival” what comes to your mind? For some folks at Grace it may have been the stories of the Revival pastor who set a goal of having 300 people in worship one Sunday, only to find that he was a few short - so he went out into the street to get folks to come in. For Ohio and Sanborn it may be memories of Revival Services - some that went on for a weekend, some that went on for week, where guest preachers came and proclaimed the word of God.
However, the root of the English word revival comes from the Latin word re-vivere, which translates to something like reinvigorate, restore to life, to become strong and healthy. And  certainly that may happen during a revival service with a guest preacher bringing the word of God in a profound way. And it may happen when new folks come to Jesus Christ, which is beautiful, exciting, and profound all mixed into one. But for the next few weeks I want to talk about the scope of revival, personal revival, revival in our churches, and yes revival that reaches beyond ourselves to bring new people to know and love Jesus. 
Today, I want to start with personal revival. The truth in our lives is that relationships change over time. They wax and wane. They go through seasons of passion and other seasons where we may not be quite as close as we would like. It happens in all relationships - friendships, marriages, parent-child. And yes, even our faith lives. 
Here’s the thing - in order to grow, we need to know two things - where we are and where we want to be. Waxing and waning in themselves aren’t a bad thing. We can’t always be on the highest of high with Jesus. But we need to be able to accurately evaluate how it is with our souls and be able to say if that is really where we want to be.
The Book of Revelations is interesting in that it is written to a group of seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) instead of one singular church. These were the churches that were at the center of Christendom. They were known for being vibrant and growing and faithful - and then something happened. Now the author has a message for them, to call them back to revival. 
Today’s scripture passage is directed at the church at Ephesus. Ephesus had a deep, spiritually rich history. It was one of the places that Paul put down his tent the longest, for two whole years. Mary the mother of Jesus lived there in her later years of life. But that richness was being lost. They were focusing on who they once were instead of who they truly were in that current day. So the author of Revelations has a difficult word for them - the charge that he has against them is that they lost their first love. They lost their passion.
The problem in Ephesus wasn’t that they were in a waning time. It was that they lost their love. Lost it. Abandoned it. Made the church about something other then what it was intended to be. 
The modern equivalent to the church in Ephesus would be a church that has a lot going on - a lot of activities, a full calendar. A church that is busy, but is not spiritual. I can hear the arguments now, but Pastor Michelle, what churches do is all for Jesus. And I agree that may be true in philosophy, but not always in practice. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the doing, that we fail to evaluate if we are really bearing fruit or not. If we are having a lot of spiritual activity without much spiritual growth.
This past year I was blessed to be one of nineteen young clergy from around the United States selected for the Lewis Fellowship program through Wesley Seminary. Throughout the year we met three times to learn from skilled teachers, each others, and at particular churches who are faithfully following God. At one of the churches in Washington DC in April I was really struck by the senior pastor and how she talked about her first church as the senior pastor. The church leadership wrote down everything the church did and intentionally prayed over it. They asked God if that activity was still bearing fruit and if it wasn’t, they celebrated what it once had been, blessed it and released it.
Friends, sometimes for revival in our personal lives and the lives of the church we need a little more blessing and releasing and a little less holding on. We can probably think of programs that were incredibly fruitful in the past, bringing folks to Jesus Christ, that just aren’t bearing the same fruit today. Its not because they weren’t good, its because the ways people connect with Jesus may just have changed. The wrappings may need to be changed, but the message remains the same.
Why do folks lose their first love? Why does the passion go away? Honestly, for a lot of Christians its burn out. We are focused on so many things that aren’t the most important thing that we become exhausted. We feel overwhelmed to the point where we lose interest and motivation. And when our motivation falls away, so can our allegiance and devotion to God. 
The tricky thing about being a busy Christian or a busy church or even in the midst of burnout is that we can look good from the outside, but it isn’t reflective of our heart on the inside. Rev. Adam Hamilton describes this phenomenon as “people going through the motions of Christianity but lacking the fruit of the Spirit”.
So how can we experience revival in our spiritual lives instead of burnout? How can we keep first things first? An example of renewing our love of Jesus Christ can be seen in the roots of early Methodism. Methodism actually began as a revival movement of the Church in Britain, but it quickly spread as folks began deeply connecting with Jesus in a way that was meaningful to them. 
At the heat of Methodism we think of folks like John Wesley, the founder of the revival movement, and Charles Wesley, who expressed faith through songs, many of which are still in our hymnals. But I want to lift up someone this morning who sometimes gets left out of the narrative of the revival movement - Susanna Wesley - mother of John and Charles and others. Susanna who taught her children scriptures in the home. Susanna who spent one hour a week with each of her children talking about their hopes, dreams, fears, and faith and asking them how it was going for them spiritually.
In fact, when Charles came to know Christ in college, he claimed that it was the prayers of Susanna that laid the foundation for his conversion. Friends, one of the precursors to revival are the prayers of our elders. Mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who are on their knees for the folks that we love. And staying there until folks come to know the Lord. We need folks of prayer and folks who will mentor our children, youth, and converts. 
A few months ago, as we were beginning to plan for the camping season, I met with the camp dean I work with who also is a school teacher. We were talking about bullying and how tough it is to be a youth today. Somehow we got around to how we can teach our young people hard lessons that go beyond math and reading, lessons around how to treat one another and how to make difficult decisions. And my camp dean laid it out. He said we need more mentors. Mentors who invest in our youth, not out of obligation, but out of concerns and love for them. In the church, such mentoring is rooted in prayer. It is hard to lose our first love when we are connected through a vibrant and persistent prayer life.
Friends, revival starts with us. And it starts with a difficult, personal question - how is it with your soul? Where are you in your faith life and where do you want to be? And how do the ways you invest your time pass on that faith to others? May we be a people of revival. Its our history and it propels us into our future. Amen. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Earn. Save. Give: Give All You Can” Proverbs 11: 25

There is something about giving that changes who we are. Changes us from the inside out. For the last several weeks we have been exploring practical biblical foundations around finances in the book of Proverbs coupled with the wisdom of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. We end today with probably the most transformative of the principles - giving. 
John Wesley was not the only church leader who had thoughts on Biblical stewardship. Martin Luther, father of the Lutheran church, said that during our walk with Christ we experience three different types of conversion. The first is conversion of the heart. Then conversion of the mind. But the last and perhaps most difficult is conversion of the purse. In order to truly give our whole lives to Jesus, we need to surrender our financial habits and practices to him as well. That is the root of the spiritual discipline of stewardship.
If we want to see an example of someone who had multiple conversions in scripture, we need to look no further for Zacchaeus. Known perhaps best from the children’s song that is written about the “wee little man is he” - Zacchaeus is known for a couple of things - he was short, and he climbed a tree to see Jesus. 
But there is so much for to Zacchaeus then that. If we look in the gospel of Luke, chapter 19 we find part of his story. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. We have some wonderful folks in our communities who serve as tax collectors today, a public position for the public good. Not so during time times of Jesus. Tax collectors collected what was owed to the Roman government, which was often well above what people could afford and still live, and they didn’t see the benefits of those monies at all. Then in addition to that you have the tax collector themselves who would tell people they owed even more money then the exhorbenet amount that was given to the Romans, so that they could keep that extra money for themselves, growing rich off of the backs of the poor. 
So tax collectors were not well liked and Zacchaeus was apparently a tax collector among tax collectors. We are told that he was chief tax collector (which let’s just be honest folks did not become for their sense of compassion) and that he was very rich. So he charged folks a lot. He had heard about this Jesus person coming to town and he wanted to see. Being short this was an obstacle so he set aside all of his pride and climbed a tree. He could see Jesus but he didn’t think Jesus could see him. But Jesus could see him and he stopped and told Zacchaeus that he, Jesus, was coming to his house that very day.
Zacchaeus was so touched by Jesus that he had his heart changed. And a heart change led to a mind change - it was no longer about how much money he could extort from other people. And that mind change led to a change of his purse, as he told Jesus that he was going to give away half of his possessions to the poor and pay back everyone he wronged four fold. Zacchaeus was deeply transformed by his interaction with Jesus Christ, where he felt loved and accepted.
Friends, true salvation doesn’t just change our hearts, it changes our lives, our very priorities. Being accepted and loved by the Savior makes us want to make sure others come to know that deep, transformative love in their own lives as well. In Jesus Christ we catch the vision that life is about so much more than what we have made it. Its about more than the things of the world. Its about the Kingdom of God that touches hearts and changes lives. 
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this - but we give towards the vision. I want you to stop and consider some of the charities and agencies that you support. Why do you do so? Is it because they have a compelling vision or perhaps have touched your life in a powerful way?
I give to a host of different organizations, but they all have a mission that I believe in. Places like the Young Clergy Women Project which advocates and supports clergy women under the age of 40 around the world, offering them a network where they can grow in the leadership. And the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which is often one of the first organizations on the ground when a disaster hits and one of the last to leave. They bring hope in the midst of life-changing situations. I believe in those visions. So I support them. 
For the church, our visions is to make disciples and represent the priorities of the Kingdom of God. We give to that vision because we believe in it. We give to that vision because we are a part of it. We give to that vision because our lives have been changed. We don’t give because we believe through giving we earn our salvation, we give out of a grateful response to the grace of God in our lives. 
But giving often requires sacrifice Zacchaeus sacrificed his pride when he climbed up in that tree. What we are willing to sacrifice for Jesus Christ? What are we willing to give towards the Kingdom of God? 
Friends, we don’t give out of obligation, we give out of gratitude and by giving our lives are further changed. We read in Proverbs that a generous person will be enriched. A generous person will be transformed further because they are reflecting the priorities of the Kingdom of God in this world. In other words, giving makes a difference in our lives.
One of the things that I particularly treasure about the United Methodist church is that we give together. Part of what comes in to our offering plate goes to shares of ministry, which supports mission and ministries around the world. It supports educating young folks to follow their call as well as African University. It helps bring health and wholeness to communities as well as teach tools to sustain that wholeness. The theme of these four years in the annual conference is Better Together - and our offering is truly better together. It reminds us of the impact that we can have together as a local church and beyond when our gifts are used to God’s honor and glory together.
But here’s the thing - when Wesley was talking about giving, he wasn’t talking about writing the occasional check to a church or a charity. He was talking about participating in the Kingdom of God, caring about what God cares about and living into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And we do that through stewardship. Stewardship isn’t just something that we do - its a lifetime journey with God. Its about changing our financial priorities. Its a spiritual discipline that changes us.

Friends, we are called to be good stewards of what God has given us. We are called to earn all we can. Save all we can. And yes, give all we can, knowing that all we hold is first God’s and is to be returned to God. Let us give to that which honors God. Let us bless God with our gifts for something bigger than ourselves! Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Earn. Save. Give: Save All You Can” Proverbs 13:11

Saving. I remember the first bank account that I ever had - it was a savings account with a passbook. You took your money to the bank with your little green passbook - you put the money in and it was saved to spend another day. 
But I also learned about saving in my kindergarten Sunday School class. When it was your birthday, you were given as many pennies as you were old to put into a beautiful piggy bank. I never knew what happened to those pennies, even as I continued the tradition years later as the assistant Sunday School teacher, but it taught us important lessons around money - specifically around saving money and that what you were given wasn’t yours to keep.
Unfortunately, we don’t talk about savings very much today in terms of money, and as little as we talk about it, we do it even less. America runs on a buy now, pay later philosophy. In fact, we tend to spend more than we earn on this credit-heavy strategy, which often leads to financial burden. This the opposite of what Wesley encouraged when he stated that after you earn all you can we are to save all we can.
The truth is saving is difficult. Its something we like the idea of, having something for the future, but its hard to put into practice. We are much better at spending than saving. But in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we find this beautiful passage where Jesus is instructing those around him to think about their treasure and think about where it is. Let’s take a moment - what comes to your mind when you think of the word treasure? For a lot of folks it money. Maybe even gold coins spilling out of an open chest. Or maybe it a heirloom that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Or the inheritance that you have received or are hoping to pass on to your kids and grandkids. Jesus tells us to not hoard that type of treasure here on earth, but instead to put our treasure in heaven. 
Okay, but that’s easier said then done. What does heavenly treasure look like? I believe its the fruit of how we are stewards of what God has blessed us with. Wesley said that “we are to be faithful stewards of our souls, our bodies, our speech, our hands and feet, our talent, our time, and our money.” That’s a lot of resources that God has trusted us with. How are we using our words to share the good news of Jesus? How are we using our hands and feet to serve others? What does our time say about where our priorities are? What can we do with our talents to proclaim the Kingdom of God? And how are we using our money to bless Gods name?
In the Gospel of Luke (chapter 12) we find a parable about a foolish man who has a large crop one year. So large that he doesn’t know what to do with it. After some thought he deiced that he was going to tear down his barns to build bigger ones for himself for his crop. When you read or hear the story you cannot help but be struck by how in control the man feels. This is his big crop. His big win. He thought that he was responsible for his own good fortune and therefore he could do with it whatever he pleases.
However, this is not what we believe as Christians. At the heart of Wesley’s Biblical understanding about money is the belief that none of it really belongs to us at all. Instead, we are called to be good stewards of what God has placed in our hands.
When I was in first grade there was a stuffed animal that was passed from one person to the next over the weekends during the school year. I’m sure there was a lesson to be learned about responsibility. But what I remembered is that even though you may have had a lot of stuffed animals of your own at home, there was something special about this one, because you were being trusted to care for it. 
Friends, we are being asked to care for a lot more then a stuffed animal. But in order to truly care for what has been entrusted to us, we need to get our mindset straight. What we earn from the job that God has given us the talents to perform is not first and foremost ours, but Gods. Everything we do with those earnings - from how we save to how we spend - should be done with God in mind. 
But how can we make that mental and spiritual shift around money? First, we need to take time to examine where our money is going. This is more than a list of the checks you write or the transactions that come out of your bank account, but actually seeing on paper, how you spend the money that is earned. 
Next, we need to come up with a plan. A plan to save and a plan to spend. I love the piece of scripture from Proverbs we shared together this morning - riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy. I cannot tell you how many people have told me what they would do if they hit the lottery or find the next get-rich quick scheme. We love the idea of getting rich as quick as possible. But Proverbs says thats not where our focus should be - because that type of wealth is temporary. Quickly received and quickly spent. Instead, we need to focus on what is lasting and have a plan to get there.
There is a wonderful story of Osceola McCarty. Osceola was born in 1908 and only finished her elementary education. After that she started ironing shirts for folks in the neighborhood and putting a little bit aside in a savings account. For 74 years she washed and ironed clothes. Then one day she presented $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to start a scholarship fund. She never was able to go to school, but she wanted that for others. Folks were shocked. They asked her how in the world she was able to save that much money and this was her response: “It wasn’t hard. I didn’t buy things that I didn’t need… the Lord helped me and he will help you too.”
One of my favorite novels is a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which takes place in the early 1900s. It tells the story of the Nolans, who are seeking a better life for themselves. One of the things that Mrs. Nolan is encouraged to do by her mother is to save money by nailing a tin can to the floor of her closet wherever they live. Only every time it seems like they are making progress, something comes up where they need to break into the can and start over again. Mrs. Nolan realized the struggle to live into the future with the present pressing in. 
Changing the future is what Mrs. Nolan wants so much for her children, but often the present caused her to lose sight of the future. Saving like Oscola this takes a farsighted view - choosing to say that how we use and save money now can have an impact on the future. Another way to frame saving is to ask the question, how will what I leave behind bear witness to my Christian faith?
Because that’s truly what this is all about, friends. When scripture talks about money, and especially when Jesus talks about money it is most often connected to the state of our soul. The place where we have the abundant life rooted in proclaiming the Kingdom of God with all we are and all we have. There is a lot of talk about the good life in society now - a good life that often comes from accumulating things. But think back to that passage from Matthew - where your treasure is your heart will be also. We need to stop letting our earthly treasures and temporal definition of the good life define us. Instead, Christ is calling us to seek out the abundant life - rooted in God’s love and proclaiming God’s truth and grace. Brothers and sisters, how can we save all we can so that the message of Jesus Christ is seen through us, even when we are gone from this earth, because we have been faithful stewards of all that which was entrusted to us. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Earn. Save. Give: Earn All You Can” Proverbs 10:4

We are now in the second week of our sermon series about how as Christians we relate to money. Last week we started looking at some pieces of John Wesley’s sermon “The Use of Money” in our current context and we will continue doing so today.
When we talk about a Christian approach to money we cannot help but talk about scripture. The problem with money, or any other topic, is that too often we talk about what we think scripture says about money without actually reading it, and as a result, we get all twisted inside. Or we take a scripture out of the context in which it was presented and turn it around to try to make it applicable to us.
When I was little, my brothers and I had a lovely couple who would baby sit us each week. They were like a third set of grandparents. When we arrived at their homes their were rituals and patterns to how we spent our time. One such ritual came after dinner but before our dad picked us up - we would put together puzzles. Only I wasn’t very good at puzzles. I was the type of kid that would try to bend a puzzle piece into submission instead of looking for where it actually fit into the picture. Far too often I think this is how we treat the beautiful gift of scripture. 
Scripture does not say that money is bad. It does not say that money is the root of evil. What it does say we need to stray from the love of money. Do you catch the difference? There is something distinctly different between loving money and using money. What might that look like in today’s world?
I think in order to have a right relationship to money, we need to have a right relationship with work. Why do we work? Most people would say that we work to get money. And on one hand that is certainly true, we need money to survive. But we also work in order to live into our God given call and passion. When we work simply for the sake of work, we sometimes let work replace our love for God. Slowly our need for more and more things, which can be called materialism, seeps into our heart until we let things replace God as well. Whenever we start to see money as something more than to provide for our needs and to do good for others, we run the risk of letting money become more than it is truly for. 
My dad and I recently had a discussion about how we misuse money and the scripture associated with it. He has taught Sunday School and Small Groups for years and is amazing at it. He was telling me how he responds when folks start to quote Jesus saying that we will always have the poor with us. He immediately has them flip to Deuteronomy 15 - which Jesus is quoting from. There we read Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” The Pharisees, disciples, and folks present would have known just from the few words he was quoting that he was telling them to give liberally. Give liberally for Jesus - because for the disciples he may not always be present. And for us we want to be the best reflection of him in the world we can be. 
Just like we often manipulate the words of Jesus, we also misunderstand and misuse today’s teaching from Proverbs. We hear - that a slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes the rich. We would be tempted to immediately blame the poor for poverty - especially systemic poverty - but that isn’t what Wesley wants us to see. Instead Wesley wants us to ask what is truly rich and truly poor. How does God want us to work in a way that makes us not just rich in terms of money, but rich in spirit. 
First, Wesley tells us: Gain All You can by Honest Industry. Use All Possible Diligence in Your Calling. The truth is not just pastor-folks are called friends. We all are called. We are called to live lives worthy of our calling. I have a sister in law I have no doubt her call in this life is to teaching. She has the patience of a saint and wants children to learn. I have another sister in law who is called to be an occupational therapist and rejoices with folks as they make progress towards healing and wholeness. That is a call. We don’t earn money for the sake of money, but the sake of the higher purpose that money is used for - living into our calling. We can have all the money in the world, friends, but if its just about the money and not about the call - have we lost something in the process? 
Two,  We are taught to: Gain all You can by common sense. Wesley says, “You should be continually learning, from the experience of others, or from your own experience… to do everything you have to do better today than you did yesterday”. All too often we don’t strive to do things better today than yesterday. In fact, we act downright foolish. We are foolish when we live today like the sum of our lives is what we own. What material things we acquire or want. We act foolish when we think the point of money is simply to have more money. We act foolish when we think that how we spend our money doesn’t matter. We act foolish when we think that our money has nothing to do with God. The truth is we are called to be wise stewards. To use our money to do good. The truth is money is a gift from God but we are absolutely responsible to God for how we use it. Do the ways we gain and spend money show common, God honoring, sense and a commitment to God and our neighbor?
Third, we are to Gain All you can without paying more for it than its worth. What does it gain for us, brothers and sisters, if we earn money but lose things that are dear to us in the process? A few years ago I got sick. Like really sick. After countless doctors appointments and medical tests I was diagnosed with a stress-related illness. As soon as I cut back on my work I began the process of becoming healthy again. Friends, God does not call us to work at the expense of our health. 
God also doesn’t call us to work to the point where we are always working. We need Sabbath. I’ve stated before that I grew up in a home where Sabbath couldn’t always be Sunday because of my mom’s job. But we still were intentional about a day of rest. We need a way of living that breaks the cycle of constantly being on the go and at the demand of others. We are called to work but also to have a time of rest for the sake of our soul. 

Friends, we are to earn all we can but in a way that preserves who God has created us to be.  Let us seek to live in a way that honors God.