Saturday, November 24, 2018

Take Hold of Life

Busy weekend.  Wait.  No, it wasn’t.  Thanksgiving, time off, food and family and dozing in front of the TV while the NFL entertained us again.  Hardly busy.  Maybe we took a walk, or a turkey trot.  Maybe we indulged in some Black Friday kamikaze activities.  Maybe there were dishes to do or decorations to put up.  But busy?  No, not really.

True, but I meant here.  In this sacred worship space.  In this lurching our way through the liturgical year. This is busy space this weekend.  We’ve got Thanksgiving, first of all.  The one most evident before our eyes.  While it isn’t a religious holiday, it certainly has theological resonance, as we are all called to live a life of gratitude not just once a year but always.  It is central to who we are as God’s people.  We live in gratitude to God and to one another, recognizing that we are who we are and we have what we have because of others.  And we are thankful.

As if that wasn’t enough to build a worship experience around, it is also Christ the King Sunday.  Though New Year’s Eve and Day is still over a month away on our calendars, in this worship space it is around the corner.  Advent begins the Christian year.  And since next weekend is Advent, this is the last worship of the year.  And to declare who we are at the end of the year - even as we begin the year in anticipation of the One who comes again - we declare that this is Christ the King Sunday.  The day we pledge allegiance to Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of Lords. The last Sunday of the Christian Year is a 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 needs 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 came 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 wasn’t to be noticed, and yet noticed they were.  Yet not in an “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.

They were alive.  That’s what drew the ones on the outside, that’s what made the family appealing. They were alive.  The third dimension of our weekend is that it is the conclusion of our Stewardship emphasis.  And Paul has some advice for Timothy on how to talk about money.

1 Timothy 6:17-19  As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. 

Take hold of life, that’s Paul’s advice.  Take hold by giving away.  Cling tightly by letting go.  Which sounds like what Someone else said before him.  Take hold of life by taking hold of the family.  The new family, the children of God family.  Those in need, those reaching out.  Take hold of those who gather for worship and who devote themselves to the Word.  Take hold of life by giving it away, freely and joyfully.  Take hold.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Indescribable Gift

The Christmas ads have been running for some time now.  You’ve seen them.  You’ve heard them.  You’re already tired of them.  How does that happen?  How does something as exciting as Christmas - and take that on whatever level you want to take it: cultural, religious, theological, family, ritual and tradition, deep meaning and wondrous beauty, lump in the throat producing, tear in the eye provoking, whatever - but how does something as exciting as Christmas become boring?  Become tedious?  Become “not again!”?

I’ll tell you. Because all that stuff, all those ads aren’t really about Christmas.  They’re about gifts and about giving.  Which is good stuff!  Don’t get me wrong.  I love gifts.  Getting them, certainly (anyone who wants my list, I’ll give it to you!).  But mostly giving them.  I love finding, buying, procuring, making gifts to give to people I love.  I just do. And who could get tired of that?  The giving and receiving of gifts, signs of love and acceptance and being claimed and welcomed.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give gifts.  But for them to really do the task intended you have to spend a lot of love.

But, the question for this bible study is this: Have I ever given an indescribable gift?  Or received one?  Now, let’s define terms here.  There have been those occasions when the gift I have given my wife, for example, elicits a raised eyebrow or a puzzled demeanor; a sound of uncertainty or expression of incredulity.  As in “what in the world were you thinking?”  Let’s be clear, it wasn’t indescribable in the strictest sense.  Because this expression was quickly followed by a string of description.  Which, come to think about it, might have been more about the giver than the gift.  But still, hardly indescribable.

What is an indescribable gift?  Why bring it up?  Why set the bar so high that we can’t ever achieve it?  Because that is what it sounds like is going on.  Who in the world trades in indescribable gifts?  Well, Paul says God does.

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 point is this.  Trust Paul to get to the point.  And then trust him to circle around and around it, turn it into a series of metaphors and images, make allusions and then find likes and opposites, and finally throw up his hands and sing a song about it, a song that turns out to be a song of praise to God.  Because, you know, that’s how he deals with stuff.  Important stuff.  Faith centering stuff.  Like God and Faith and Law and Grace and Eternity and Obedience and Money.  Wait, what?  Money?  A Faith centering item?  Well, yes, Paul thought so.  And was quite serious about it.  He talks about giving in these verses.  (In case you aren’t from the Southport UMC Tribe, we are continuing our brief stewardship emphasis.)  He talks about giving abundantly, sacrificially, giving in a way that we notice it.  And he talks about our attitude while giving.  Give with willingness, give with joy, give - he even seems to imply - with laughter.  I know, a bit odd that Paul.  But still, it sounds exciting, it sounds powerful.  It sounds like something we just might want to be a part of.

Especially when he points out the receipts.  Yeah, this is not giving for nothing.  This is about investment and expecting a return.  “You will be enriched in every way.”  Well, we think, really?  In every way?  Surely he meant in good ways.  Surely he meant you will be enriched in every way that matters.  Some sort of proviso, some sort of escape clause.  Otherwise we fall into the hands of those guys who turn God into a divine slot machine, put a little in and bells and lights go off and we get a lot out.  And if the payoff didn’t come this time, put in a little bit more and then do an attitude check.  Payoff is coming.  Surely he didn’t mean that, we think.

And we’d be right.  He didn’t mean that.  But we don’t need to change the words to fit us better.  Instead we change ourselves to fit the words.  Which is always the case, by the way.  We want to shape God’s words to fit us where we are, but our real goal is to shape our lives to fit the Word.  We become givers, we become generous, we learn about sacrifice when God takes over our lives and we walk by the Word, we live by the Spirit, and then we know we are rich.  Because we have received all that our hearts desire.  All.  All that our hearts desire.  We are enriched.  What could be more than all?  All that our hearts desire?  What could that be?  That all, that gift?  That indescribable all?

I went back to Fort Wayne to do a funeral this past week.  It isn’t really our normal practice to return to a former church to perform a funeral.  So I made sure it was ok with the current pastor, and he gave his blessing.  The funeral was for Paul, a man who was my head usher for the whole ten years I was there.  Co-head for part of the time, sharing the responsibility always.  He was a man of faith, quiet, helpful, willing to step up and do what he could.  He loved his wife and family, especially the grandkids and great-grandkids.  They were a gift to him and he was a gift to them.  To his family, to his church and his community.  An indescribable gift.

At the beginning of the month, my siblings and I made our way to Paris, Tennessee, possibly for the last time.  Unless we choose to pass through on our way somewhere else, to stop at the little cemetery in a residential area where Mom and Dad lived for almost forty years.  Now they are remembered with a marble stone and a patch of grass and few bulbs we put in the ground to mark the space.  We visited with a few who spoke of them both, of all that Dad did for the little county seat town in west Tennessee.  He worked with the Scouts, boy and cub both, he lead the county Habitat for Humanity, worked with various churches and numerous individuals, mostly working with his hands, fixing, building, repairing.  He was a gift to that community.  Maybe more than he knew, certainly more than we, his children who lived so many miles away from him, knew.  An indescribable gift. 

We are all so blessed by people in our lives who are gifts beyond description.  When Paul concludes his message on giving, he says that no matter what is in our hearts to give, we’ve already been given more.  We can’t out give God.  Because God has given us so much, so many, resources, yes, but more than that love.  People who love us whether we are worthy of it or not.  People who challenge us, who stretch us, and who shape us sometimes against our will, into what we are yet becoming.  That’s the gift.  That’s what Paul is celebrating in our text for this week.  The family that we are becoming because of generosity, because of our willingness to give.  It’s not really about money, except as the sign that points back to the heart.  We sometimes give our hearts to Jesus, but until it gets to our wallets and our bank accounts, then there is still a part of our heart we’ve kept from Him.  But once it penetrates even into that realm of our lives, then we will know blessing.  Then we will be enriched in every way that matters, in every way that we care about.  Enriched by love, by relationships, by service and caring and giving and helping and healing.  Enriched by life.  The indescribable gift.

Whatever we decide in our heads and hearts and bank accounts to give we should give thanks for the ability to give, be proud to be able to give, but also humble enough to know whatever we intend to give it does not repay what has been given to us.  And to even describe what we’ve been given escapes us.  Our lives are full of indescribable gifts.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

All the Good You Can

We paid off a student loan!  It wasn’t a big loan and it wasn’t going to take long even at the usual rate, but we decided to go ahead and get rid of it.  We worked hard to give our kids the best gift we could think of, an education debt free.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal then you haven’t been in the higher education scene for some time.  Our parents gave us that gift a few years ago.  (Well, ok a heck of a long time ago) So we wanted to do that for them.  Passing on that blessing.  Given that some estimates put the current student loan debt nationally at one and half billion dollars and the average (average, mind you) debt per student at just under forty thousand dollars, this is a blessing indeed.  It wasn’t always easy making those payments - especially since both kids chose private colleges, thought they were given some scholarships.  So, we struggled to get the money together, hence the small loan we had to take out for one semester of Maddie’s schooling.  And we had help from La Donna’s parents who had the foresight to set up a trust that we were able to use.  So it was their generosity, both sets of parents, that taught us to want to be generous, that has now blessed our children and will no doubt go on to bless many others as they begin to make their way into the world.

That’s the effect of generosity.  It almost never affects only one.  It is rarely binary, almost always algebraic. Exponential?  One of those big math words anyway.  It expands, and more and more and more are blessed.  More and more and more receive from the gift of generosity.  But it’s not really a math equation.  It’s a faith item, a biblical principle.  It is the secret to life.  To living fully.  The abundant life that Jesus wants us all to have.  

It’s Stewardship time here at Southport UMC.  Everyone’s favorite time of year when we focus on money.  “All that church ever talks about is money!”  I’ve heard that accusation before.  “All they’re interested in is my money.”  I could argue against that idea.  I could point out the months of preaching where money doesn’t enter into the script anywhere.  But frankly, that’s not a positive on my part.  I don’t talk about money nearly as much as Jesus did.  I don’t keep trying to show you just how serious this subject really is.  I keep hoping you’ll pick it up by osmosis.  That you’ll arrive at the conclusion without me having to constantly point it out.  But Jesus knew you’d need more help than that.  So He kept talking about money.  About what you do with it.  About what it does to you.  He talked about it more than anything else, except the Kingdom of God.  And even there the subject lines get blurry.  Blurry because sometimes it sounds like the Kingdom of God is a long way off, and other times He makes it sound like it is all around us right now.  And how we choose to live now, what we choose to do with the things of this life indicate whether we are even aware of that Kingdom or oblivious to the promise that pulses around us.  He doesn’t care about our money, He cares about our souls, our lives.  And what we do with money, with resources, with gifts, with time, with life itself is a sign that we have ears to hear Him when He pleads with us to enter into His Kingdom, to enter into His rest.  To partake of His life.

So instead of budgets and pledges and tithing and maybe the guilt of doing or not doing our share, this year’s stewardship emphasis is about the secret of life.  The abundant life that Jesus offers.  The life of the Kingdom that is ours if we claim it by choosing how we will live.  The secret.  It’s not really a secret.  It has been there from the beginning.  Told to us in bits of wisdom in ancient texts we overlook because of the lack of drama, perhaps, or the overly simple obviousness of it all.  Yeah, yeah, we nod along with these secrets, this wisdom.  We know this.  But do we?  Do we know it deeply enough?  Do we know it as a life changing reality?  Do we know it as the secret to life?  Do we?  And the secret?  Generosity.  Give it away.  Pour it out.  That’s how to be full.  That’s how to have all we need.  Give it away.

Psalm 37:21  The wicked borrow, and do not pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep giving.  

Let’s take a look at some Old Testament Wisdom.  To find this secret being trumpeted loudly.  Psalm 37 is a wisdom psalm of a choice.  There is a choice in how we will live.  We find this choice presented in lots of places. Here it is a choice between righteousness and wickedness.  Well, when you put it like that... OK, set the words aside for a moment.  The choice is not just good and evil, the choice is self or others.  The choice is inward focus or an outward one.  Making room for God and God’s will in our lives or doing what seems right in our own heads and hearts.  It’s a choice we make all the time, every day, every moment.  Sometimes it is a conscious choice, most of the time we just go, following whatever nose is closest.  But Psalm 37 invites us to pay attention and make a choice.  And in the heart of the choice is this idea of generosity.  It is the hinge upon which the psalm rotates.  Give and keep giving.  That defines the Kingdom choice.  Keep giving.

Psalm 112:4-9 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.

Um, what?  Their horn?  Yeah, their horn.  The horn was the symbol for power.  Like a rhino with an impressive horn.  You respect that power and keep out of its way.  But this horn, this power is the power of giving, the power of generosity.  Here the horn is not the horn as a weapon, but the horn as a source of blessing.  The horn hollowed out and filled with the oil of anointing.  The generous are blessed to be a blessing, they pour out and are remembered by how they give to others.  And their generous spirit survives difficulties, setbacks. Their hearts are firm, says the psalmist.  The secret of living an abundant life is giving it away at every opportunity.  Not a secret.  Just hard to remember.  Especially in difficult times.

Prov. 11:24-25 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.

You can’t talk about Old Testament Wisdom and not look at Proverbs.  So, two quick looks.  First here is a thought in the middle of a whole bunch of statements about the good life.  The wise life.  And it is about how giving comes back.  And hoarding brings loss.  A paradox, it seems, and yet true.  We know this.  Because we are filled up when we can give, when we can help.  We are filled up even when we stumble, or fall short.  It is about living abundantly, which is different than living with lots of stuff.  

Proverbs 22:9 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.

We all want to be blessed.  We all want to feel the commendation of our God and our community, our family.  But again and again we are reminded that blessing is not about what we get, it is about what we give.  Are we sensing a theme here?  A common thread by which we can stitch ourselves into the tapestry of abundant living.  

Exodus 35:5-9 Take from among you an offering to the LORD; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the LORD's offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats' hair, 7 tanned rams' skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.

OK, not wisdom literature per se.  But this is the beginnings of the people of God.  Remember, this is Exodus, they are not settled, not at home, they are wandering in the wilderness, have years ahead of the them of who knows what, they sure don’t.  But a call goes out, a call to generosity.  A call to make worship beautiful by giving what is precious.  A call that can then be a way of defining a people, God’s people.  Let those of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering.  And give that you may be blessed to be a blessing.  It’s a secret everyone knows.