Saturday, November 27, 2010


I’ve got mountains to climb today. No, not literally. This is Indiana, after all. Yet, it can feel as exhausting, as straining, as demanding as actually climbing up a mountain. And no, I’m not whining about pre-Christmas planning at the Weber house again this year. [Though I suspect that will come before too long! The planning at least. Probably the whining too. Just sayin’!]

But that’s not the mountain I’m talking about. It is the “post-Thanksgiving, Christmas on the horizon, trying to get us to stop long enough to think about Advent” mountain. That’s what’s in front of me today. And you too, come to think about it. We’re mountain climbing this weekend. And no, I’m not thinking about the burdens of decorating or list-making. I’m not talking about the invitations and the rehearsals. I’m not talking about the travel and the forced family fun and frolic. Not, I’m talking about climbing our Advent mountain.

Uh, right. Advent Mountain. Sure. You are probably thinking that this is another one of those recapturing of childhood things again. Remember when, I’m going to say, remember when December was the slowest month? Remember when every day seemed to last forever and that our most difficult task was making sure that the sun rose and the sun set as the days marched slowly toward Christmas? Remember what a struggle that was? Remember how it seemed like climbing a mountain?

Well, I could have done that, and do remember that. But that isn’t what I meant when I drew attention to the Advent mountain. I’m talking about another daily struggle. A more adult, more contemporary struggle. It is the struggle to listen to the deepest longings of your heart.

Statistics tell us that our Western culture, our American lifestyle has made us prone to heart trouble. (Hang with me here, this is a temporary metaphor shift - we’ll get back on track - or back to mountaineering in a moment.) As my kids are fond of saying, I’m not the kind of doctor who does anybody any good, so I’m straining a bit here. But it seems to me that our heart trouble is one of two kinds. On the one hand there is the hard heart, calcified by a bad diet of bitterness or self-protection; causing blockages of circulation of that which would give us life and breath and hope. On the other hand, there is the lazy heart, wrapped in layers of self indulgence in a world that tells us we shouldn’t deny ourselves any inclination or sensation. Heart trouble.

And because of a bad heart, we are likely to shy away from an exertion on the scale of mountaineering. The thought of such an ordeal fills us with such dread that we shy away, we occupy ourselves with the illusion that we are satisfied with things as they are. We succumb to the notion that we are helpless in the face of the Christmas machine that our culture has embraced so gleefully, forgetting that there is something deeper, something more profound here than the buying and selling of good cheer. We forget, or don’t allow ourselves the chance to consider that Advent is about the response to the hungering in our hearts.

Our hearts are filled up with so many things, we forget how hungry we are. We are pulled in so many directions, given so many substances or dreams to fill the emptiness, bombarded by so many solutions to problems and needs we didn’t even realize we had until we were told about them, measured by standards we didn’t claim to reach goals we didn’t set in a lifestyle that doesn’t really satisfy, impressing people we don’t even know let alone like well enough to shape our lives around. Yet we do. We succumb to the rat race, we buy into the American Dream as the merchandisers have defined it. And we don’t know why we aren’t satisfied by that, why are hearts aren’t at rest.

Then Advent comes around again and reminds us that it is time to climb a mountain. Think about it for a moment, please. Maybe the air will be clearer up there, maybe the view will be more encompassing. It might just be worth the climb. What have to got to lose? Except a calcified heart, or a sated but unsatisfied one.

But where do we find this mountain, you might be asking. You can’t punch it into the your GPS. You can’t do a Map Quest, it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps satellite view. For a journey such as this we need a guide. Someone who has been around, someone who has seen something of this world and yet can still claim a vision of the next without cynicism or despair. A grizzled old soul, like Isaiah. He loves Advent season, does old Isaiah. We trot him out every year and hope that maybe this time we will listen to him. Maybe this time we can catch sight of the star that he navigates by. Maybe this time we can locate ourselves on the map that he draws in the dust beneath his feet. If we can keep up, that is. So, what do you say, Isaiah? Want to try one more time to call us home?

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Quick, before the scepticism of our age grabs us again, claim the vision that Isaiah holds out for us. Take a moment and just dwell there, just hang - as our kids say - with the company on the mountain of the Lord’s house. The highest mountain, says Isaiah, will be established as the highest mountain. One day we will realize, he says, he hopes, that God’s way is the best way, God’s Word is our word, the word that speaks to us, the word that claims us, the word that soothes our hurting hearts. Let’s go and learn God’s way, the people say. There is so much to learn in the world. So many paths to follow, so many mountains to climb. When will we learn what God wants to teach us?

And what will we learn when we finally climb that highest of mountains? We will learn how to live in community. God’s way, God’s word will judge between nations, between people, God will arbitrate, not us, not our passions and our selfishness and our fears and our doubts. God will decide and will teach us how to live in community, how to live in relationship.

And once we’ve learned that, then we won’t need “peacemakers” that can destroy life, we won’t need weapons to destroy. So we will turn them into tools that bring life, instruments that feed. And we will forget that there was ever a time when we thought that the way to live was to kill.

It seems impossible in our terror filled age. Out of reach of empty hands and broken hearts. And to get there would take a monumental effort. Like climbing an mountain with bad heart. But maybe, just maybe, it is worth the risk. Ready to climb with me this Advent season?


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Things in Common

Families, eh? I know, the holiday season is upon us, but just barely. What right do I have to be moaning about families already? It’s not like we’ve had time to get on each other’s nerves. Though it is sometimes surprising just how quickly that can happen.

But that’s not my point with that opening comment. Seriously. It wasn’t a whiny, “families, eh?” It was a word of wonder. It was an exclamation of affirmation and acceptance. It was an acknowledgment of God’s plan for human community. “Really,” you are saying, “really? In those two words: “Families, eh?” All that was tucked away in there?” Yup. You’ll just have to trust me. It was a celebration of families.

But not my family, or yours for that matter. It was more our family. The family we are supposed to be. The family that Jesus called us to be a part of, the family that reflects the intimacy and the mutual support of the Trinity.

Sorry, had to get theological there, this weekend is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the Christian Year is an celebration of the head of the family, the authority and the power, the grace and the mercy that flows from the throne upon which sits the Lamb of God, the sacrificed one, the crucified one. But also the Risen one who serves as the great High Priest, the Judge of the living and the dead.

Whoa, sounds awesome - in the strictest sense of that word: inspiring awe, a portion of which is fear and trembling, but also an attraction that draws us nearer despite the recognition of that power. And here’s the amazing thing, the description of that connection, that community is family. “Wait,” you’re saying (and don’t you love how I supply all your lines in this “conversation”?), “you mean my family - the way we get along or don’t - is the model for how the kingdom community is supposed to be?” No, of course not. How silly! Actually, it is exactly the opposite. The model for how your family is supposed to function is the kingdom community.

Ooh, now that adds an interesting flavor to the next squabble in the family, doesn’t it? And is it possible to have a squabble anywhere but within a family? That’s one of those words only designed to describe familial relations, it seems to me. But what if instead of a squabble, instead of turf war, instead of a clash of wills, the family was the place where the kingdom values took precedence?

“OK, smart guy, what does that mean: kingdom values? What should this family look like, or act like?” Good question! Thanks for asking. Because now we can get to the passage for this week. I know you thought that we were still in the stewardship series, you thought that we were still talking about generosity. Where did all this family stuff come from? Well, from that other community reflecting the values of the kingdom - the church.

Acts 2:42-47 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I added a couple of verses to those we will read in church. But I wanted a little bigger picture for us to consider. What is the church supposed to be, who are we supposed to be? You say family, but what does that look like?

Here in these six verses in the second chapter of Acts we have a depiction of the church as it was designed to be. You have to look quick because it doesn’t last long. Succeeding chapters reflect the troubles that arose as they sought to live out what it meant to be a family in a difficult world. The values of that world crept in and things like racism and classism brought dissent and ill-feeling into the church. But for a brief moment, recorded here in this chapter we have a picture of what we are all longing for: the true family.

First of all this was a community that wanted to learn. It doesn’t say that they took time out to listen to the instructions or the wisdom, but that they “devoted themselves” to it. It wasn’t just another thing that they had to do it was a focus of energy and desire. It was a longing to know more, to grow deeper, to be honed as instruments of God. They were a learning community.

But they also loved each other. There was a devotion - just as strong as toward learning - to fellowship, to spending time together, to eating together. But more than that they took care of each other. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (vs.45) They didn’t consider their own needs were met until the meets of all the members of the community were met. They didn’t consider their possessions to be more important than the welfare of their family. It wasn’t that they were taking a vow of poverty, that they couldn’t own anything. Verse 46 says they broke bread at home (and some translations say from house to house) showing that home ownership hadn’t disappeared. But they elevating caring for people above accumulating riches. They were a caring community

And they were a people dedicated to worship. Worship at home and worship in community, corporate worship in the temple. They knew that the source of their goodness, the ability to act in loving ways comes not from their own inner resources, but by depending upon the resources of the Holy Spirit. They needed worship like they needed food and fellowship and learning. It was worship that shaped their hearts - their glad and generous hearts. It was worship that directed their service to those in need, opened their eyes to opportunities to give. It was worship that made them into the people that they were. They were a worshiping community.

And it was noticed. Their character stood out. Their sharing, their generosity was notable. Luke says they had the goodwill of all the people. But he is careful to note that the object of their notoriety was not that good will. They were directing their praise, their worship toward God. It was to be noticed, and yet noticed they were. Yet not in a “aren’t they cool”, kind of way. It was a tell me more, show me more, I want some of that kind of way. The Lord added to their number day be day. It wasn’t a church growth program, it wasn’t an evangelistic ministry, it was the church, the family being generous, being caring, being worshipful, being taught. That’s what drew them to the fellowship.

Families, eh? God chose them, whether the small one that shares your house or your name, or the large ones we call the church, God chose them to show the world what it means to live in the kingdom, to live in eternity. At our best, it is wonderful. And the Lord adds to our number day by day.

We are in this together, you know? That’s what holding all things in common means. It’s up to all of us. So, how are we doing?

Families, eh?


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Last Taboo

Professor Tom Long, who teaches preaching in Atlanta, told a story of a letter written to Dear Abby not too long ago. It was from a young woman who wrote: “Dear Abby, I think my boyfriend should share the cost of my birth control pills, but I don’t know him well enough to talk about money.”

In a society that will talk about anything at the drop of a hat, or some other article of clothing, we remain strangely silent about money. Next time you are standing with a group of friends sometime, in a lull in the conversation ask “So, how much money do you make?” And watch the eyebrows rise. And the silence descend. It’s too revealing, too personal. We can talk about any of a number of issues that used to be private and personal, but we don’t know you “well enough to talk about money.”

Which means that when the church begins to bring up the issue of money, people begin to squirm. Sometimes when people come from other churches they will want me to know why they left. "Because they were always asking for money," they would say in a disapproving manner, as though the pastor had been telling dirty jokes from the pulpit. The church has a reputation, mostly undeserved I feel, for always asking for money. Or worse - "they are only interested in my money!" That is why many clergy avoid the subject completely. They want everyone to know that it isn't all about money. That money is the least of their concerns. At least that is what they want everyone to believe.

Because they don't want to be lumped with those guys who are always asking for money. You know who I mean, those guys, those TV guys who keep the donation line phone numbers superimposed on the bottom of the screen all the time they are on. Which means that even when they aren't talking about money, they are talking about money. They make us all feel a little unclean. And little creeped out by the intimacy, talking about stuff that we wouldn’t talk about with our closest friends.

Their approach is a little bit different, however. They aren't just asking for your money. They are offering something in exchange. Give a little, they tell us, to get a lot. God has money just sitting around and it could be coming to you, if you pray right, if you donate right, if you send in a love gift, a faith gift, a seed gift.... on and on and on. It is amazing to me the many and various ways they have of convincing you that money given to them is not really lost, it will come back increased. God wants you to be rich. God want you to have more. That is different, more ok, because it isn’t really about money, per se. It is a transaction. It is buying and selling, giving and getting. And that fits.

On the one hand it works because it plays on our greed for more. We live in a consumer culture, so there needs to be bang for our buck, something for our investment. We can't just give away. We've got to see something in return. That's the unfortunate part - our sinful nature. Or is it? Aren’t we always about the transaction? Isn’t that what Paul is talking about getting good return for our investment?

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

"The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." What does that sound like? "You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity." Sound familiar? It isn't hard to see where the ideas come from. But as always our question must be, what did Paul mean when he wrote these words? We can't really tell what kind of enrichment Paul references here. It could be material, or it could be spiritual. Unless you look at verse 9, which is a quote from the Psalms and is a reference not to material goods, but to righteousness. Which means that the emphasis is on the abundance of the life of faith, or the abundance of the sacrifice of love. Righteousness is about relationship, about being faithful to a wider community. About generosity, sacrifice, surrender.

When we add in the words that Jesus speaks about the dangers of riches, it would be hard to take a materialistic interpretation from this passage. Jesus does say something similar to those words from Paul: "give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." Luke 6:38 Yet we are reluctant, given what else he does say about riches, to interpret this as meaning the receipt of more material goods.

When Jesus commends the widow for her donation of two copper coins he says "she gave more." (He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Mark 12:41-44) The only interpretation here is that Jesus has a different mathematical scale than we do. How could she have given more? Hers was minute compared to the others who gave. Jesus doesn't say she gave better, she gave more sacrificially, or she gave in a better spirit, or even she gave to a better effect. He said she gave more.

It doesn't add up. Unless we change the frame of reference. The transaction language makes sense in a world of commerce and consumerism. Giving to get more makes sense in the everyday world. But what if we switch to the Kingdom of God? There, according to Jesus more doesn't mean more as we understand it. More means something different. More means meaningful, perhaps. Or more means significance. More means closer to the values of the Kingdom, more means closer to living like Christ. More means less stuff and deeper relationships. More means less measuring and more living. She gave the more that we get when we give, which cannot be measured in the world's terms. And we lose something when we try to make it fit that mind set.

The taboo about money stems from the fact that in the world's terms our value is calculated in dollars and cents. But, the value that we are offered, the blessing, the good measure, the bounty that comes from faith in Christ, from generosity, has less to do with things and everything to do with life. One of the secrets to living a Christ-like life is to be able to give away so that you can hold onto what really matters.

So, we need to ask again. What will you give? To your church, to your Lord? What will you give away so that you can have all that God intends for you to have? It is time to dedicate ourselves to giving, to commit to giving. With cheerfulness, it is time to give.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Say That Again

This week begins our annual Stewardship Campaign here at Aldersgate. I can hear the cheers from here. There are those who argue that a church shouldn’t need a Stewardship Campaign. Because Stewardship is one of those things that we ought to talk about all the time. Giving should be foremost on our minds and hearts all year round. Which means that we wouldn’t need to stop every fall and remind folks that it takes money to run the church.

I prefer to talk, at least in worship, about our need to give. Followers of Christ know the joy of giving, are expressing their faith when they give just as much as when they read the bible or pray or serve or any other act we perform because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our sense of generosity is as much a part of our Christian witness as our compassion and our faithfulness. Which is why the theme for this campaign and our worship series is “All Good Gifts: Living a Life of Generosity.” And we will explore the roots of generosity and the joys of living generously these three weeks.

But I wanted to do something completely different in this space. All right, all you Monty Python fans, repeat with me: “And now for something completely different!” Thank you, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Seriously though, what I want to do is to talk about translation. I hear moaning. Be patient with me for a moment. I think it is important. We need reminders from time to time that the bible that we have is both the inspired Word of God and the product of many human minds and hands. That means that the work of understanding is an every changing one, a task we can never claim is completed.

Let me be clear, however, I’m not suggesting that the Word changes. God’s Word is eternal, true yesterday, today and tomorrow. But everything else does change! The world changes, language changes, we change.

In our own lives we bear witness to this shifting understanding. You studied the bible when you were young. Well, some did more than others. But I would suspect that how you heard those stories as a child are different than how you would hear them today. The Word is the same, but you are different and therefore hear and need to hear different things.

So, we are always engaged in the process of understanding, wrestling with a text to figure out just what the Word needs me to hear right now. It is an active process. We engage with the word. It isn’t a fixed understanding that we have to puzzle out. It is a fluid process. The Letter to the Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12 Surely your thoughts and intentions have changed from when you were a child. So the dynamic of hearing and understanding, or being understood by the Word is on-going.

Let’s take a look at the scripture that I chose to help us grasp the biblical concept of generosity. It is from Psalm 112.

Psalm 112:1-10 Praise the LORD! Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments. 2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. 4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. 5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. 6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. 7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD. 8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. 9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. 10 The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

It is well with those who deal generously ... A good “proverbial” statement from this “wisdom psalm.” Indeed it reads like many of the Proverbs. Such as “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” Proverbs 22:9 or “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. 25 A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.” Proverbs 11:24-25. These are wisdom sayings, which may be counter-intuitive to us (Give to get richer, hoard to become poorer), but are nonetheless a part of the wisdom of the Word.

All of which is worthy of our attention. I could stop there, or preach that and be satisfied. Present it as a good idea. Something to think about. But there is something more here, something deeper. And it only becomes visible when you take another look at this passage. This time I want us to use the lens that Eugene Peterson gave us when he presented his translation/paraphrase called The Message.

Hallelujah! Blessed man, blessed woman, who fear God, / Who cherish and relish his commandments,
/ Their children robust on the earth, / And the homes of the upright—how blessed! / Their houses brim with wealth / And a generosity that never runs dry. / Sunrise breaks through the darkness for good people— / God's grace and mercy and justice! / The good person is generous and lends lavishly; / No shuffling or stumbling around for this one, / But a sterling and solid and lasting reputation. / Unfazed by rumor and gossip, / Heart ready, trusting in God, / Spirit firm, unperturbed, / Ever blessed, relaxed among enemies, / They lavish gifts on the poor— / A generosity that goes on, and on, and on. / An honored life! A beautiful life! / Someone wicked takes one look and rages, / Blusters away but ends up speechless. / There's nothing to the dreams of the wicked. Nothing.

The New Revised Version uses the word “generosity” once. Peterson finds it three times. How can that be? Which one is right? Well, they both are. The NRSV says, in verse 3: Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. The Message says: Their houses brim with wealth / And a generosity that never runs dry.

Same word. Same thought. Righteousness, which is an attribute of God, is being faithful to relationships. It is pouring out, it is mutuality in love and life. In other words, it is generosity. We are called to live a life of righteousness. In our heads that means living by the rules, it means inflexibility, it means rigor and effort and denial and slavish obedience. But, what if instead we understood righteousness to mean the God-like tendency to give grace and mercy? What if we took Jesus at his word and were willing to forgive endlessly, and to give joyfully? Might we come closer to our goal of being like Christ?

In other words, it is not our generosity, but God’s that motivates us. It is not our grace, but God’s that fills us and comes out from us. It is not our righteousness, But God’s that directs us. That’s worth saying again. And again. And again.