Auditing Our Hearts : Stewardship Sermon for November 12, 2017

There’s a story about a small Mennonite church that I recently heard Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian writer, tell. Mennonites are relate to the Amish, but are usually more comfortable with modern-day innovations like cars and electricity. They share some core beliefs, though, like a commitment to non-violence. They also share a belief that once you are baptized as an adult, and a church member, you are expected to tithe.

Tithing is often understood as giving ten percent of your income to the church. That’s certainly true in Mennonite communities. And Gladwell’s story was about two farmers that were church members. And one farmer looked at the other’s land and business and house, and then he looked at the church giving records, which were open to everyone, by the way, and he didn’t think things added up.

And so, he went to the other farmer and he said, “You know Sam…I don’t think you’re actually giving ten percent of your income to the church.” The other man said, “I am, Jake.” And Jake said, “Yeah, Sam…I’m not sure I believe that’s true. So, I’m going to need to take a look at your finances.”

And here’s the crazy part: Sam lets him do it. Jake looks at all his business transactions and home records, and he finds that Sam is indeed tithing. And here’s the even more absurd part: at the end, there’s no ill will between Sam and Jake. Why? Because this is actually a pretty common practice. If you are a church member this is what you sign up for in the Mennonite tradition.

So, you all brought your financial records to church today, right?

I’m kidding. But next Sunday is indeed pledge Sunday. You received, or should have received, a mailing from the church. In it we included letters from Rebekah, your stewardship chair, and from me, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions about giving and a narrative budget.

We also included your pledge card. And we are asking each household to prayerfully consider how you might be able to financially support the church in 2018 and then write their pledge on that card and turn it in next Sunday. We do this not because we will then hold you to that number, and hector you for payment, but because we are trying to set a responsible and realistic budget for 2018, and it helps to know how people hope to support us in the coming year.

We got one of those cards at our house too, and as we are figuring out how we are getting ready to fill it out, I’ve found myself drawn to the story we read this week. Jesus and his disciples are at the Temple and they are watching people bring their gifts to the Temple’s treasury. Supporting the Temple was an important part of religious life, and some people would make a real show out of giving their gifts. They would show their generosity and importance by giving as publicly as possible.

But in the midst of this came a woman who was a poor widow. She had very, very little. And as she came up to the coffers, she was only able to give two small copper coins that weren’t worth much at all. The wealthy people, and even the not-so-wealthy ones, were probably watching this and scoffing. What good were a few pennies going to do the Temple? But Jesus had another take.

Jesus tells his disciples that the widow has given more than all the wealthy people combined. The reason why? She had next to nothing, and so she gave a gift that was extremely generous given her circumstances. The wealthy folks? They had almost everything, and the gifts they gave, even as big as they were, meant very little to them.

I’m drawn to that story as I am making decisions about giving for next year not because we have little, but because we have much. Our household is certainly not a wealthy one, at least in the American meaning of that word. We still have to be careful about spending, and we still send a significant portion of our money off each month to pay our student loans. But, at the end of the day, we are pretty fortunate.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes, like when a pledge card comes in the mail, it feels a lot easier to claim that there isn’t enough to go around, and that we are being quite generous enough, thank you. In fact, it’s pretty easy to tell myself that we are very generous people, supporting not only the church, but also other places we care about, like our alma maters or non-profits.

But then a few years ago, I started to do what that one Mennonite farmer did to the other. Only, I did it to myself. I pulled out my tax returns and I looked at what we had made. And then I pulled out our records on giving, and I looked at how much we had donated. And I was surprised. I didn’t think we were at ten percent quite yet, but I thought we must be close. But the numbers didn’t lie. We weren’t anywhere near ten percent. We weren’t even at five.

Unlike the Mennonites, we don’t talk about giving much in the church. We’re afraid of looking money-hungry or scaring people off. Truth be told, my college asks for my money a whole lot more than my church does. And, though I love my college, they have an over $6 billion endowment. While I’m glad to give, I’m not kidding myself that my small yearly donation is keeping them afloat.

But church is different, not just because we don’t have a $6 billion endowment, but because this is more than just a donation. The church is not an outside institution for which I have an affinity, no matter how great. The church is a group of people, you and me, who are trying to make sure that this community will exist to praise God, teach the faith, and serve others.

Giving to the church is about more than a tax-deductible charitable donation. It’s an act of discipleship. It’s about saying that this is your community of faith, and that you are willing to invest what you have been given back into it.

Since my discovery of my own true giving habits a few years back, we have been trying to be more deliberate about being generous in my household. Each year we try to increase the percentage of what we give away. And what we have found is that this is not just a financial decision; this is a spiritual one. And it’s about a whole lot more than ten percent.

The reality is that the idea of the ten percent tithe sort of evolved over time. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you really have to give ten percent. You could give less. You could also give more, by the way. I find percentages useful because it helps me to judge what I’m giving based on my income level in a certain year, but you might have some other way that works for you, and that’s fine.

But what has become important to me is the idea that not just ten percent of what I have belongs to God, but that one hundred percent does. Deciding how I use my resources, including money, has become a spiritual decision. What I spend, what I save, what I give all have spiritual component for me. I try to be a good steward, a good manager, of everything I’ve been given.

And here’s where I remember that story of the widow, who came to the Temple with her two copper coins, and I wonder about what her own spiritual decisions around having enough, and giving enough, were like. She had every excuse to keep those coins. Some might even say that should should have kept them. Maybe her giving even seems a little reckless for a woman with so little.

But here’s what I think happened: I think that she made a spiritual decision about whether or not she had enough. And I think she thought she did, and so she decided that she could give a little away. And in that giving, I think she found joy.

Her gift was greater than any other gift given that day. Not because it was a large one, but because it was an extravagant one. She gave more extravagantly from her limited resources than those who were able to give without much thought from their own wealth. In the end, she was the most generous, and she was the one who truly understood what it was to have “enough”.

Giving is at its heart about making a spiritual decision about whether or not you have enough. The more I’ve been willing to be honest about what I have, the more clearly I’ve been able to understand that I have more than enough. The more I have understood this simple fact, the more I have been able to give. And the unexpected blessing in that is that in that giving Heidi and I have a sense of greater simplicity and purpose, and of greater joy. And even still, I know that our gifts are nowhere near as generous as the poor widow’s.

I’ll close with this, as I do every year. I do not know who gives to the church, or what they give. I do not wish to know. I hear from pastor friends that this is a rarity these days. You are supposed to “know your donors” so that you can cultivate them. But you are not donors. You are the church. And I trust that each one of you is giving as you are able, and in accordance with what you have been given. No one will be asking you to open up your financial books here at the church.

But this year, as you make a decision about what you can pledge to give, I ask you to let the story of the widow’s extravagant generosity be your guide. And I ask you to remember the story of those two farmers, and to sit down with yourself, open up your own books, and ask whether what you see before you represents your spiritual commitments. And then, make your pledge. Whether it is two copper coins, or something more, make this spiritual commitment with a joyful heart.

Why Did the Samaritan Cross the Road? A sermon for Stewardship Kick-off Sunday

About a month ago I was listening to an NPR pledge drive. And Ira Glass, one of the hosts, took it in a unique direction. He was asking people to call in, not to pledge themselves, but to essentially tell on someone they knew who listened to public radio but who had never pledged.

This one woman called in and turned in her husband. She said he listened to public radio all the time. He loved all sorts of different shows. But there was just one problem; he had never actually given a dime to the station.

So, the poor guy. This is bad enough. But Glass takes it one step further. He calls him, and gives him a good-natured hard time about never giving. And the husband was actually incredibly good-natured about it too, and by the end he not only agreed to pledge, but was quite generous, saying that he was making up for lost time.

So, if about now you’re worried that this will be our new stewardship program here at church…let me ease your mind. There will be no turning your spouse in. There will be no phone calls, radio broadcast or otherwise. Giving to church should never be a shame-based affair, even when lighthearted.

But I did laugh, because when you’re asking people to give, it’s tempting to try just about anything.

You probably already know we are in the middle of our annual church stewardship campaign because you received your pledge packet at home. And every year around this time I preach a sermon about stewardship and why supporting this church is important. And every year I try to make it interesting, so, I’m always looking for good ideas.

Ira Glass’ method is out, so we’re going to have to settle for a sermon.

So, first, what is this word “stewardship”? It’s kind of archaic sounding. It sounds extra “churchy” and serious. Like, this is something that you need to do or God will be like a really mad Ira Glass, calling you up and demanding more.

But the truth is nothing like that. The word stewardship itself comes from the idea of “stewards”. These were people who were appointed to look over and manage prominent people’s property or money, like a king or a lord.

It applies to the Christian practice of giving because, at the root of it, Christians believe that all we have comes not from ourselves, but from God. And because we ourselves belong to God, we believe that all we have also belongs to God.

A friend of mine, Quinn Caldwell, is fond of taking up the offering at his church by saying this: “I’m not saying you’re a thief, but the money in your wallet isn’t yours.” In other words, what we have is not ultimately our own. It belongs to God too. But how we use it, that is our choice. And that is stewardship.

This morning we begin a three week sermon series on stewardship. This isn’t a three week series on why you should give to the church. I’ll only be talking about that aspect today. But this is an exploration of what it means to be a good steward, or good manager, of all that God has entrusted to your care, like money, time, abilities, and more.

We are using the Biblical texts that the UCC picked out for this year’s stewardship inserts. You have one in your bulletin today. And the overarching theme of their campaign this year come from the story of the Good Samaritan which we read today.

Layout 1I love the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s one of my favorites. But when we got the sample material for this fall, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why this was a stewardship text.

And so here we are wrestling with this story where a man is robbed and is left for dead on the side of the road. And as he lays there, people from his own community walk by. Religious leaders. Powerful men. They all stay on the other side of the road, avoiding him.

But one man doesn’t. He’s a Samaritan, a member of a group that was usually looked down upon. But he crosses the road, and bandages the man’s wounds. And then he takes him to the inn, and he gives the innkeeper money and says “take care of this man…I’ll be back to pay whatever it costs”.

Jesus tells this story to his disciples and asks, “Who was a true neighbor to this man?” They answer, “The one who took care of him”. And Jesus says very simply, “Go and do likewise.”

It’s a beautiful story, one at the very heart of our faith. But what does this have to do with stewardship?

I wrestled with that until one of you, unknowingly, gave me the answer in our Wednesday book group recently. You were talking about an experiment where seminarians, students preparing to be ministers, were asked to quickly write a sermon about the Good Samaritan. After they did so they were then sent to another building to preach it.

There was a catch. Some were given adequate time to write and get to the other building. But others were given short periods of time, so the scientists knew they’d be stressed out and hurrying.

What the seminarians didn’t know was that along the route from the first building to the second, they had an actor play a man in distress. He would ask the seminarians to help him. Keep in mind, these were people who had just read and written a sermon on the Good Samaritan.

What do you think happened? It’s not so surprising. The ones who had plenty of time stopped to help the man, the way the Good Samaritan did. But the ones who were rushed? They walked on past.

I don’t think that the second group was filled with bad people who wished ill on the man. Rather, I think something like this happened. I think they knew the man needed help, but they were counting on someone else, someone with more time, to do the helping.

And here’s where the Good Samaritan story makes sense for stewardship. When we are pressed for time, when we are pressed for money, when we have so much going on, we want to give, but we think and hope that the next guy will do it.

That’s human. I’ve done that. We all have. Even the guy that Ira Glass called on the phone. He said he had always just counted on other people to pledge, saying to himself that he would do it some day when he had more time, or more money. He had good intentions, but he never quite got there.

I think that’s true in churches, too. We have good intentions, but we depend on others to do the giving. And, they will. We have generous people in our midst. And we might think that the little we could give wouldn’t make much of difference.

But here’s the question: What if we all gave anyway?

I titled this sermon, “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” The answer is, in fact, “to get to the other side.” But why did he want to get there? And I think the answer to that is because he knew he could make a difference.

And so, in the context of stewardship, what if we all crossed the road?

If you’ve ever tried lifting something heavy by yourself, and then tried lifting the same thing with others, you know that many hands make light work. The work of upholding this congregation and our ministries is heavy. A lot of good people hold it up. But can you imagine if we all lent a hand? How much higher could we be lifted?

And so how do we cross that road? And what keeps us from crossing it?

I think the biggest thing is our fear of not having enough. That’s acutely true around money. It’s not about our desire. We want to do the right thing just as much as those seminarians who were rushed for time probably did.

But when we are afraid of not having enough, our stress becomes very real. A few years ago the American Psychological Association did a study and found that 64% of Americans said that money is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress. Additionally 31% of partnered people said it was a significant stressor in their relationship.

I’ll give you another statistic. I would wager that just about 100% of clergy would say that the stewardship sermon is a “very significant” source of stress for them.

I’ve told you before that stewardship season feels a little like the NPR pledge drive. And I don’t have Ira Glass to make calls for me. But the reality is this is about more than paying the bills. This is about more than money. And this is about more than even this church.

This is about investing in a life that is congruent with our faith. Billy Graham, as I’ve told you before, once said that if you want to see what you really worship, look at your check book. Update that today, and log on to your bank account, check your credit card statements.

How we spend our money is an act of our faith. And that’s why I’m crossing the road to have this conversation with you. Because this is about more than giving. Because overcoming the fear act holds us back, and aligning our values with our resources is all about faithful living.

I would be remiss to not ask you now to think about how you will cross the road to support this place that we all love. I’m not asking you to stress you out or shame you. There will be no Ira Glass phone calls. And who gives what is a closely guarded confidence at this church; not even I know, nor do I want to.

But I am inviting you to take a risk, and to cross the road. And if you already have crossed that road, I’m asking you to go a little farther. I’m asking you to be one of the hands that works together to lift us up so that we can thrive.

We have amazing things happening right now at church. We have a Christian growth program that continues to be strong, and grow. In Allan and David we have tremendous commitment and talent. We have monthly dinners for younger families, and weekly church school for elementary kids and youth groups for middle and high schoolers.

We have a mission and action committee that never rests, giving generously of their time, and also of our funds. We have Kim, our choir director, and voices that help us weekly to praise God. We have worship that gathers in an increasing number of friends and neighbors every week. We have a well-maintained historic building that houses not just us, but community events like blood drives and AA meetings, lectures and open houses. We have people like Mary, Jim, Faith, and Sharon who help this church keep running. And we have been blessed with so much more.

And all of these things are free to all who wish to enjoy them. Like public radio, they are just there for those who need them. The bill is not in your mailbox. But like public radio, this doesn’t just happen, and it doesn’t just happen for free. The responsibility falls on the gathered body of the church. They happen because we work together as a community to lift them this church up.

And so, don’t give just to pay the bills. You should never give to a church just to pay its bills. Instead, give because you believe good is happening here. Give because you see a bright future. Give because you are ready to cross the road. And give because God has made it possible for you to do so.

This week as you ponder how you will give, I leave you with this question: Why did the Samaritan cross the road? And why, and how, will you? Amen?

Thoughts, Prayers, and the Widow’s Mite: Sermon for November 15, 2015

12249738_10153171783211787_8883653876062982129_nPeople sometimes joke with pastors that we only work on Sunday mornings. Like we preach for an hour each week and then go golfing every other day. To be honest, even I think it’s funny.

But the reality, of course, is different. During the week, along with all the other things ministry entails, we get ready for Sunday morning. And by midweek the service is starting to be prepared in the office. Sermon titles, hymns, prayers, and more are chosen. And by early on Friday a stack of bulletins is ready to go for Sunday morning.

That’s what happened this week. Today is pledge dedication Sunday, when we ask you to bring your pledge cards for 2016 in, and when we dedicate them for next year. It’s the official end of our stewardship campaign. And as you can see in the bulletin, today’s sermon was entitled “Budgeting for Gratitude”. I was preparing a sermon that was about generosity, and how giving is a way of expressing our thanks for all that we have been given.

And I was sitting down on the couch on Friday night, about to write that sermon, when it became clear that something really terrible was happening in Paris. And so for the rest of the night, we watched the news, and prayed for those who were still in danger, and hurt for a beautiful city. And the next morning, like many of you, we asked “Is this what our world is now? Is the world always going to feel this unsafe?”

And then, I thought about this morning. And it just felt wrong to be talking about our stewardship season here when terror is holding so many captive around the world. And I wondered if I should change the text this morning from the story that we just read, to something new.

But, in the end, I didn’t, and it wasn’t just because the bulletins were already printed. This morning the deacon read what’s commonly called the story of the widow’s mite, a mite being a very small amount. And that was what this woman put in the treasury: two small copper coins that didn’t really amount to very much.

Jesus was watching as she did this because all of the people would all come and put their money in the temple’s treasury, and anyone could watch. And so, for some it could be a bit of a production. You could get noticed for your large gifts. And some people, particularly some of the religious officials, made a show of their giving and their piety. And so they also got the place of honor at dinners and events, and they always commanded respect, even if they did not treat others well.

But this widow who is barely scraping by comes into the square, with her two little coins. And she puts them in the treasury. And Jesus says to his disciples, “that woman has just given more than all the others put together”. Because the others had given what was just extra to them. They didn’t even feel it. But she had invested greatly from the little that she had.

The implications for stewardship season are clear there. It’s why churches don’t name their biggest donors. Because this is not a contest to see who can give more. There are no tiered giving societies here. No Pastor’s Circle or, if you really give a lot, Jesus’ Circle. And it’s why I don’t know, and do not want to know, who gives what. That’s because each of us has to figure out what faithful giving looks like given what we have. For some that might be $1 a week, for others that might be a $1000. And those gifts, though vastly different financially, are worth the same to God if they truly come from the right place.

To me, the right place is from our gratitude, and from our hope and courage. Are we giving for recognition? Or are we giving that others may be seen and loved and lifted up? Are we giving to say “thank you” for what we’ve already received, or are we giving to say “I’m important, and you should thank me.” Are we giving from an abundance so big that we don’t even notice the gift is gone? Or are we giving from faith, and are we feeling it just a little when we put our pledge in the plate?

Are we giving like the scribes? Or are we giving like the widow?

These are all the questions that guide my giving. But about right now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with Paris?

To me that all comes back to Jesus line about giving from abundance, versus giving when times are tight. Because I think that same thing could be said about love, and about loving when it is easy for you to do so, and loving when it is tremendously, tremendously difficult.

It is easy to sit here across the ocean, and to say “our thoughts and prayers are with Paris”. And they are. And they will continue to be in the coming days. And then one day, far too soon, something else is going to happen in this world filled with violence. And our thoughts and prayers will be with the next place.

I’m not saying that we are being insincere. But I am saying that for those of us who are not directly affected by the things that happened, it’s not that difficult to say “my thoughts and prayers” are with you. It’s one reason why when people say “we are Paris” I hesitate a little. Because we may love Paris, and stand by Paris, but we are not suffering the way they are. We are not Paris.

And so, it’s okay to say you are praying for Paris. It’s fine to change your Facebook profile picture to the French flag. It’s normal to feel sad and afraid. But in a sense we are giving all of that from our abundance, as people who are relatively untouched.

But looking at Paris on Friday night, I was amazed at some of the ways Parisians, people who like the widow had so little emotionally to give in that moment, opened up and found generous hearts. In one example, Parisians on social media started posting and tweeting that if anyone was stranded and needed a place to stay, they would open their homes to them. And I thought, “how extraordinary…because if there were ever a time for Parisians to fear the stranger it is right now” and yet are choosing to live in abundance instead.

That is what it means to give, and to act, like the faithful widow in the world. To hold nothing back out of fear, but to choose to invest all of yourself, even your heart, in the work that is yet to be done. Because saying “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” without actually intending to do anything is a little like the scribe who has all the money in the world making a sizable deposit in the treasury. It looks good, but you don’t really feel it.

And that is what it should mean when we say a place, or a person, or anything is in our “thoughts and prayers”. It’s not just about thinking about those things for a moment. It’s not saying a quick prayer to God the way we might send an email or something, getting it off our desk and onto God’s. It’s about joining ourselves with the cause, and choosing to invest in it with our lives. Especially when we feel like we have nothing to give.

And that’s because prayer is more than words. Prayer is not something that is over the moment we say “amen”. Amen means “truly” after all. As in “I truly mean this God”. And so, in a profound way, I think that when we say “amen” that means we are just getting started with the praying.

And so, if your thoughts and prayers are with Paris, how will you truly mean that? Will you work for peace in this world? Will you live in hope, and not in the fear that the terrorists hope that we will embrace? Will you stand up in the coming days to the Islamophobia that we will doubtlessly hear all around us?

And I want to say something specifically about that. Because those refugees in Europe who are now being looked at with suspicion came there because ISIS was doing these same things in the places they are fleeing. And ISIS is as much a Muslim organization as the Klan was a Christian one. They weren’t burning those crosses because they wanted to destroy them. They burned them as symbols of their faith. Thank God we Christians are not judged by them. So let’s make sure our Muslim neighbors aren’t judged by the actions of those who would sully their faith.

In all these ways and more, how will you pray for Paris? And how will you pray for all the other places where terror reigns? For Beruit. For Iraq. For Syria. For those places in our own country.

I’m of the mind that terror wins when it forces us to live in fear. It wins when we are no longer generous people, but instead live with closed and suspicious hearts. And it wins when a night of horror halfway around the globe can dampen the basic faith in humanity of people here.

And so I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker phrase, that despite its brevity actually has a lot of truth in it: think globally, act locally. We are not in Paris. But we are here. And we can choose this day, and each day, how we will live in the world. And we can choose how we will give of ourselves in every part of our lives.

We can choose love. We can choose understanding. We can choose generosity. And we can choose to invest all of us in the people and things that we believe in.

But more simply, we can choose to live like scribes, with closed hearts, and actions that cost us nothing. Or we can choose to live like the faithful widow, who believed God would bless even those two small coins she put in the plate. We can choose to live with our fears in charge. Or we can can choose to love with our hearts wide open. The choice is ours. And the prayer that is our lives starts now. Amen?

The Gifts of Exiles: Stewardship Sermon for 2015

Jeremiah 29

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Once a year, every October, I preach a sermon that feels like the church equivalent of a NPR pledge drive.

If you listen to public radio you probably know what I mean by that. During pledge drives the programs get cut short and instead people ask you to give money so that the station will stay on the air, and in return you get a mug or a tote bag.

It’s no one’s favorite time of the year, and yet, it has to be done. But if enough people give quickly enough, you even get to go back to your regularly scheduled program ahead of time.

I joked that that was how I was going to do my sermon this morning. I’d pass out pledge cards and when we hit our goal I’d stop preaching and you all would get tote bags.

We didn’t go that route. And that’s for the best because what I am talking about is not an interruption from our regularly scheduled program…it is our regularly scheduled program. And that’s because stewardship, the wise and prudent use of what God has given us, is not a distraction from the spiritual life. It is at the heart of the spiritual life.

That’s because stewardship is not about paying the bills or meeting the bottom line on a budget, though, we’d like to do that. It’s about gratitude. And it’s about hope, and investing in that hope.

Last year I told you stewardship was like planting seeds. If you plant generously, you will reap generously. And you all planted generously. We not only met our pledge goal, we surpassed it. And in the past year this church has been able to do new things that have changed lives.

And so here we are again this year, with a new budget and new dreams. And a little while back we received our stewardship materials from the United Church of Christ’s national offices, and the theme for this year sounded fitting: Trust in the promise. It was drawn off of this Scripture passage from Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…to give you a future with hope.”

Sounds good. Who doesn’t want to trust in hope?

But then I read a little of the surrounding passage and I realized that these words come from a less than hopeful time. They’re from a letter sent by the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish people who had been exiled from their homes, and were living in Babylon. And he’s telling them, you are going to be in exile a long time. Long enough that you need to put down some roots. Build houses. Start families. Love where you’re at.

And, I confess, that changes the passage a little for me. Because it’s no longer “everything is going to be great”. Now it’s “you’re not going home anytime soon”.

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me to open my checkbook.

But then I thought about it some more. And I thought about what it means to live in exile, and about how maybe we all know a little something about that.

Because the reality is that I think we’ve all felt that way sometimes. We’ve all felt cast out of our homes, our comfortable places, and into a world that sometimes doesn’t make sense. We’ve been cast out of “the way things used to be” and into a world that is changing more rapidly than perhaps any time in its history. And we’ve been cast into a new place, one where we sometimes long for what we used to know.

And yet, someone is telling us to get used to it. And to plant ourselves in it. And to trust in a promise, a future with hope.

That’s hard to hear when you are an exile. That’s hard to hear when the world is confusing, when you are anxious, or when you don’t know how things will end. And that’s hard to hear when you are being asked to give.

Because, really, if we want to make sure people give, I should be getting up here and saying “everything you love is going to remain exactly the way you like it”. I should be saying, “whatever your favorite thing is about church, give generously and that will never change”. Or, “give today, and you will never feel like an exile again.”

But I’m not. Because I can’t promise that. Because that’s not church.

The reality is that church changes. Every church does. Churches change, or they die. And so we make room for new generations. We invest in their futures. We open their doors wider. And we learn to live in a new time, and a new reality. Even in exile. And because generations of people who have passed through these doors have done that, right here in Exeter, you and I are here today.

And that’s remarkable. Because I want to tell you a secret about those people who built this church: they were exiles too.

I mean that in the metaphorical sense. They were people of changing times who learned to trust in a future that God was building for them. But I also mean that some of them were literally exiles.

Rev. John Wheelwright

Rev. John Wheelwright

The man who founded this church in 1638, the Rev. John Wheelwright, was an exile from, of all places, Massachusetts. (Actually, maybe that resonates.) He had made some enemies in Boston, among the ruling clergy of the time. Why? Because he preached too much about grace. And they ran him out of the colony and here to New Hampshire, to a rugged frontier, where he planted this church and the town of Exeter.

But he is not the only exile in our church family tree. I want to tell you a story about three Scottish young men who found their way to Exeter in the 1650-60’s. They did not come willingly. They had left their homes in Scotland as soldiers, and they had been captured in battle during the English Civil War. And people were so afraid they would rise up again that they sent scores of them off to the new world, where they could never be a threat. Teenagers, sent away from all they knew, never to see it again.

They became indentured servants. And by different routes three of them ended up here in Exeter. They went to work for a man named Nicholas Lissen, who had three daughters. And one by one, they married those daughters. And along the way Lissen, and his three Scottish sons-in-law, John Bean, Henry Magoon, and Alexander Gordon, helped to build this church into what it is today. And even now, if you look around you see those names around this church, on old pew charts and in the cemetery. And you see how three men in exile helped shape us into who we are today, over 300 years later.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how they were taken from the family and life they’d always known, sent halfway around the world, and how they still managed to find a future with hope? Can you imagine what it must have taken for them to find the love of God in a new place? And can you imagine how, when they had every right to be afraid and bitter and dejected, they instead became invested, and they instead turned their exile into hope?

We still get calls from the descendants of those three men fairly regularly. People call the church and say, “I’ve traced my family tree back to Exeter, and there was this Scottish prisoner of war there in the 1600’s…do you know anything about them?”

And I say, “yes I do”. I know, for instance, that the Beans went on to found a little company in Maine called LL Bean. But, for me, the best story is about the Gordons. Because one of those men, Alexander Gordon, now has a ninth great-grandchild who a little over a year ago you happened to call as your pastor.

ClergyTartanCrossI didn’t know that when I was called here. I learned about Alexander shortly after. And that’s one of the reasons I wear a tartan stole so often in the pulpit. It’s in honor of a young man who was taken from the life he knew, brought to a place where he trusted in hope, and who built something that endures even still today. It’s in honor of an exile, who trusted in the promise.

If he could invest in this church, then I can too. If he could find a home here, than so can we all. Because we are more than exiles. We are ones to whom a great promise has been given, and we are planting the seeds now that will feed not just us, but our children, and grandchildren, and generations to come. With every commitment, with every pledge, with every act of good stewardship, we are saying that this is our home, and that we trust God has a future of hope for us.

And God does have a future of hope. We have seen God working in our midst in this past year, and I know God will work with us still. I know God has great plans for the Congregational Church in Exeter, and I know that something amazing is happening here.

And so, I ask you to consider the decision you have to make. Consider how you will use some of what God has given you to invest in this hope, and trust in this promise. Consider how you can give to this church, this home of hopeful exiles. Because all of us are working our way towards a home we have never seen before, one in which we live with God and with one another in peace and joy. We are going home together, and we are rejoicing on the way.

And like I did last year, I’m going to tell you a few things I think you should know. First, I give too. Like you I sit down with my family and I figure out what I can give to the church. It’s important to share that because I want you to know that this is not about paying bills or meeting a bottom line, though those things are important. This is about saying “thank you” for this amazing place, and saying I want it to be around long after I am gone.

I also want you to know that I do not know who gives, or who gives what. I have told our church leaders not to tell me. What you give is your spiritual decision, made between you and God. I hope you give as you are able, and I hope you give with generous hearts. In fact, I simply assume that you all do. And if you don’t, that’s okay. But, please know this, there is hardly anything better than giving joyfully to a place you love. Not because you have to, not because we need to meet some bottom line, but because your love of this place, and your hope, compels you.

Finally, I’ll close with this. Last weekend you may remember that I was in Canada, as our denomination joined with the United Church of Canada in full communion. But before we did we had dinner with our Canadian counterparts, and we exchanged lapel pins from our churches.

And I was sitting across from a gentleman from the First Nations. And he gave me not just his lapel pin, but also this four directions pin symbolizing his heritage. And he told me, “We’ve done so much more in this church to address what happened in the past. And now it’s your church too. And it’s your work too.” And he put the pin on my lapel.

That’s what church does. It pins its hopes on Christ, but also on the people of Jesus Christ. And it calls us to do the work together. The hopes of this church have literally been pinned upon you. You are now marked by the promise. It’s your work too. But the good news is that it is joyful work that you are being called to today. And so search your hearts, search your souls, and find your hope. And then, together, may we exiles choose to build our home on this rock. Amen?

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

I’m a bit of a history buff and so when I first moved to Exeter this summer I bought some books on the history of the town. One book I bought was put out by the historical society and it featured these two or three page snippets of Exeter history. And one story in particular caught my eye.

It was about the end of official tax support for churches, and in particular the loss of town funds to support this church. You see, New Hampshire, like most former colonies, had an “established church”. And in New England that was normally the Congregational Church. And if you lived in Exeter, a portion of your town taxes would go to support this church.

That worked here for the better part of 200 years. But by 1819, there was more than one church in town. This church had split into two parishes, there were now Baptists, and there was a fledgling Universalist church. And in Exeter, as in other places, people who worshipped elsewhere didn’t think it was fair that they should have to pay to support this church.

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That may seem like a no-brainer to us now, but it was quite a scandal at the time. People believed that doing away with public financial support for the church would lead to the destruction of the church, and even the end of morality itself. In the end, though, people decided that only the people who went to a church should support that church. And this church, like Congregational churches across New England, stopped being the official town church.

So what does that have to do with today’s Scripture from Genesis? The one in which God calls Abram, who later gets the name Abraham, out of the home he has always known and to a new place he’s never seen before? God tells Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

That line, “blessed to be a blessing” might sound familiar to you right now, and if it does it’s probably because of this. That line is the Bible verse that United Church of Christ parishes have been using this fall for our stewardship campaigns. So you have seen it on the stewardship letter you received back in October, and it’s right there on your pledge cards.

And I think it was a good choice for those of us who are thinking about giving. I think it’s one to remember, and not just at stewardship time. Because, honestly, I think that’s being blessed to be a blessing is what the Christian life is all about.

But, when someone describes the way in which they are “blessed”, does it ever give you pause? Sometimes I hear people talk about how God has blessed them with a big house or a nice car or some material thing and it just makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad, but I just don’t think of God like that. To me that trivializes God, and makes God sound like some sort of divine Oprah handing out cars and iPads to ecstatic crowds.

And God is bigger than that. And not only is God bigger than that, but I think God expects bigger things from us too. And sometimes the way we talk about our blessings just doesn’t reflect that. And here’s why: being blessed is not about winning. None of us is blessed just to be blessed. That’s not the end goal here. Instead, being blessed is about God saying “here’s a tool…now use it to help others.”

In short, we are not blessed for our own comfort or satisfaction or glory. We are blessed so that we can serve others and glorify God. And because of that, all the things we don’t use in order to serve others and glorify God? Those aren’t blessings. Those are just trophies. And in the end, honestly they aren’t worth that much.

So, what does it mean to live a life of blessing? First, I think it means to live a life of giving, and not just taking. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to receive. We have all received grace upon grace from God and from others, whether we acknowledge it or not. But being a blessing means that you can’t stop there.

Because when we receive a blessing of any kind, whether it’s love or health or understanding or resources or anything else, we are receiving grace. It is not earned. It is given freely by a God who loves us. And we have a choice. First, we can take it and use it only for our own good. In other words, we can collect the trophy. Or, we can decide to say thank you to God by turning it into a blessing for others.

I’ve always found that the second is the one that not only brings blessings to others, but blessings back to me. Because, honestly, trophies aren’t good for much other than gathering dust. The joy and light that comes from blessing others is much, much better.

So, what does that look like? Recently I read a story that really spoke to me. It was about a man named Howard Lutnick. Lutnick is the chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, and so obviously a man of means. And so when he recently made a donation to Haverford College, in the amount of $25 million dollars, it was impressive. But, at first glance, you might not know that it is also a story about being blessed to be a blessing.

When Howard Lutnick was a high school student his mother died. And then, a week after arriving on campus as a Haverford freshman, his father died suddenly too. His sister attended another college and when she went to the administration to tell them she was now suddenly parentless they told her to become a waitress to pay her tuition. But Haverford acted differently.

When his father died, the president of the university called him and just said this: “Howard, your four years here are free”. As he tells it, he had been on campus a week. The school didn’t know who he was or who he would become. They just decided to bless him. And so years later, he turned that blessing into a blessing for others.

Now, you and I, we might not have the salary of the chairman of a large company, and perhaps we cannot afford to make $25 million endowments. (And if you can, I’d love to talk to you after church, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of blessings others in equally significant ways.

First, we have to first look at the people and places that God has used to bless us. Who has been a blessing in your life? A parent? A teacher? A church? A friend? A school? A choir that sings every Sunday? Next, what would you say to those people and places if you could? And finally, what do you think they would want you to do with the blessings you have received through them?

I think about those people in my life who have been a blessing. I think of my college chaplain. I think of my parents. I think of professors who stayed after class to help me. I think of mentors who showed me which way to go. I think of churches I have known along the way. And I truly believe that God worked through all of them to bless me. And the only way I can fail them, and the only way I can fail God, is by choosing not to pass those blessings on to others. I can choose to live my life in a way that makes me a conduit of God’s grace. Or I can choose to turn off the switch, and barricade myself alone with all my trophies.

In the end, that choice is what stewardship is all about. Because stewardship is not just about money. Stewardship is about our whole lives. It’s about how we choose to live. It’s about gratitude and the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given. It’s about choosing to let our light shine, instead of hiding our light under a bushel.

That’s a choice we are constantly making with our lives. We choose whether or not to be good stewards of our time, our talents, our treasure. But it’s more than that. We choose whether or not we will use God’s blessings so that we can in turn be a blessing. We have that choice. But we just have to dare to take it.

When Abram was standing there that day with God talking to him, do you think he hesitated? God was giving him a pretty big promise there: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. But, God was also asking a lot of Abram. He wanted Abram to take a risk and step out in faith. Perhaps we could understand it if Abram had never set out on his journey. But then again, if he hadn’t, where would we be? And how would the story of our faith have been changed if Abram hadn’t chosen to be a blessing?

I was thinking about how God calls us into uncertainty sometimes, and about how that’s when God asks for us to show up in big ways. I was thinking about that while reading that story of this church and how people stopped paying taxes to support us. And I was thinking about how people thought back then that this church would come crashing to the ground, and that would be the end of faith as we knew it.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, in1819 the tax payments stopped, but the Spirit didn’t. Instead, despite all the fear, not only did church attendance go up, but giving did too. And so, almost 200 years laters, you and I, improbably, are sitting here in the same building and still stepping out in faith. The author of the book I read wrote a telling line. She writes, “it turns out New Hampshire folks were never opposed to religion…we just didn’t take kindly to being told what to do with our money. Some things never change.”

And so, I will heed that caution, and I will never tell you what to do with your money, or with any of the other blessings you have received in your life. But I will say this. You have an opportunity do use your life and every blessing in it to do something extraordinary. You have a chance to be a blessing.

Because being blessed does not mean you have won. Being blessed means you are up at bat, and you get to choose whether or not to take a swing. You are the college kid who was blessed for no rational reason when the world dealt him a tough blow. You are a churchgoer in 1819’s Exeter who doesn’t know how the church will remain standing. You are Abram talking to God. And you are here, standing on the threshold of the next part of the journey. And your blessings are yours to do with as you wish. May you use them well, and may the world be blessed. Amen.

You Reap What You Sow: Sermon for October 26, 2014 (Stewardship Kick-off)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

6 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!

So, today is stewardship kick-off Sunday in the church, which means this is the Sunday each year where I preach about why we would like you to give to support our ministries here. Which means that this is the Sunday where I feel like I am one of those people on the NPR pledge drive, and I’m interrupting the things people really want to listen to and instead asking them for money.

I listen to NPR a lot, and I don’t particularly like pledge season. And yet here I am doing the same thing. Except I don’t even have anything to offer you. No tote bags. No fleece vest with our logo on it. No weather alert radio. Not even a chance to win an iPad.

So, you can see why I don’t look forward to this much. In fact, I’ve long told people that the stewardship kick-off sermon is my least favorite sermon of the year. No one likes to ask for money. And no pastor, at least no pastor worth their salt, likes getting up into the pulpit to do it. It feels too much like a televangelist; too greedy.

And yet, it is unfortunately necessary. And that’s why today, even though maybe none of us look forward to it, we are gathered here as a community, and we are gathered around Scripture, and we are talking about stewardship and giving.

1012068_10152318961546787_4013347830413628686_nAt first glance, today’s Scripture lesson might not sound like it has much to do with that. It’s not about money, or time, or talents at all. It’s about seeds and sowing and reaping. Or, to translate that for those of us who aren’t very good at gardening or farming, it’s about planting and harvesting.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth and he summarizes what he’s telling them by saying, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” In other words, he is saying “you reap what you sow”.

I don’t know about you, but that always sounded a little negative to me. It sounds like a threat or a warning, the kind we might get as kids from stern adults. “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t study you’re going to fail.” Or, “you reap what you sow, so if you don’t floss you’ll have cavities.”

Now, all of those things are true, but they aren’t exactly inspiring. It’s more like “do this or else this will happen”. In terms of motivating us to want to do something it ranks right up there with its close cousin, “you made your bed and now you have to lie in it”. And when you apply it to giving, it sounds a lot like some stewardship sermons I’ve heard. Ones where the message could be summarized by this: “You reap what you sow, so if you don’t give to this church, we will not meet our bottom line and someday we will have to close our doors.”

I’ve heard that sermon before. Verbatim. And, I’m here to tell you that it has never inspired people to give more. To tell you the truth, I think it does the opposite. Because if I happened to be a church member sitting out there in the pews and people told me that the only way to save a church was to open my checkbook so we could meet some bottom line on a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t feel particularly inspired to give to that church.

And to be perfectly honest, I hope you wouldn’t be either. And here’s why. A church that is just trying to meet a bottom line on a budget spreadsheet does not deserve your money. A church that exists only to fulfill its own needs and that worries only about maintaining the status quo and its own survival? That church doesn’t deserve anything.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. I would say that giving to a church like that is not only not helpful, but it’s actually bad stewardship. Because of all the places doing good work that you could give to that are out there, giving to one that’s just focused on self-preservation runs counter to building up the kingdom of God and doing Christ’s work in the world. Seriously, do not feel compelled to give to a church that cares only for its own survival because that is not a church. That’s just a clubhouse that is making the rest of us churches look bad.

But, if you want to do something else, if you want to be a part of something more than that, then keep listening. Because I think Paul is right. I think we do reap what we sow. But I don’t hear that as a threat. I hear that as a challenge. And I hear that as hope.

Because this is what I believe about giving. I don’t believe people feel inspired to give because they want to help meet a bottom line. And I don’t think people give because they want to sustain the status quo. I believe people give because they see what could be, and they believe that it is possible.

Paul was writing this letter about planting seeds to a church. And, of course, it wasn’t really about literal seeds and harvests. It was about asking the people of this church to support a new ministry in Jerusalem. And Paul knew that he was asking them to step out in faith and to imagine something that they couldn’t see yet. He wasn’t saying, “hey, look we are already doing this and we need help meeting the budget”. He was saying, “I believe God is calling us to do something new, and I’m asking you give not because you have to, but because you believe in it.”

In other words, this letter is Paul’s stewardship sermon. He is telling the people that something great is possible, but he needs them to help him plant the seeds. And the harvest, the tangible results that will come in a later season, will depend on this: what they are willing to plant now.

You reap what you sow. If you plant a few seeds, you might end up with something to harvest down the line. But if you plant an abundance seeds of hope in the soil of a place that is seeking to serve God in new and bold ways? That’s how you end up with a bountiful harvest. But you can’t get to that harvest by holding back.

And so that’s the question we each have to ask ourselves as members of this church community: What sort of harvest would I like to see? And what am I willing to plant in order to help us get there?

Here’s the harvest I envision. A year from now, and five years, and ten years, and many more, I dream of a church that is growing. I dream of pews that continue to fill a little more each week. I dream of our already great children’s program growing and bringing more kids into our church. I dream of vibrant youth ministry with middle and high schoolers. I dream of adult Christian education opportunities out at RiverWoods and here in our vestry. I dream of joyful Sunday worship and meaningful spiritual growth. I dream of all the ways this church can serve our community here in Exeter, and God’s people around the work.

And I know all these things are possible. First, I know they are possible because with God all things are possible. But I also know they are possible because in the short time I have been here with you, I have see how many of you share that vision. And I have seen the hope that so many of you have for this church.

This is a strong and healthy church, but we are not done with our journey. We have so much potential for growth, so much potential for going deeper, so much potential for service. And in an era when too many churches are living in a scarcity mindset, slashing ministries, and fearfully squirreling away every spare resource they can find, we are instead deciding to live in hope and invest in a future where we know God is waiting for us. And we are heading towards what could well be our most abundant harvests.

But first, we have to plant.

At the beginning of this sermon I told you about how this is my least favorite sermon of the year. I want to amend that. A sermon that asked you for money would be my least favorite of the year. But this sermon is not about asking you for money. Not really. Because this sermon is asking you for something much more valuable. This sermon is asking for your hope. And this sermon is asking you to invest in that hope, and to help plant the seeds we need to plant in order to make our hopes realities.

The reality is that it is up to you and me. UCC churches do not receive funding from the greater denomination like some of sisters and brothers in other churches do. Instead, we sustain ourselves. And so, we each, myself included, receive a pledge card. And we each are called to prayerfully consider what we are going to plant.

I know this is not easy. My family and I are making the same decisions about giving to this church that you are making, and come Stewardship Sunday on November 16th we will be putting our pledge card in the plate too. And I get it. I know what it’s like to pay the bills, and the student loans, and put some in savings, and take care of everything else. And I know what it’s like to voluntarily add something to the list. I know it’s often not easy.

And, it shouldn’t be. Because when we invest in our hopes, that is never an easy leap of faith. When we decide to take that step and plant those seeds, we are stepping out in faith. And for each of us that looks different.

It feels important for me to tell you that I do not know who gives and who does not. I have no idea who the biggest givers are in this church, and I don’t want to know. I also don’t know who is giving an amount that means little to their bottom line, and who is giving an amount that feels big to their modest budget. I don’t know, because that does not impact how I serve each of you as your pastor.

But, I am praying for you as you make this decision. Not because I hope that you will write down a big number. Really, I don’t care much about that. But because I pray you are a person of hope, and I hope that you feel hopeful about our future together. I’m praying that you will find spiritual meaning in your decision to give, and that you will plant those seeds in this good soil. I’m praying that you will sow in faith, and that we will harvest in joy.

We reap what we sow. It’s true. And that is good news. Because I truly believe that we are about to plant something amazing together. Amen?

What the Saints We Knew Taught Us – Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2012

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Candles lit in memory of loved ones at West Dover Congregational Church.

Mark 12:28-34
12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;

12:30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;

12:33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Being a saint is hard work. I’m not speaking from experience here, but rather from observation. This is what I’ve learned: You have to be perfect. You can’t make mistakes. You can’t have a bad day when you lose your temper, or get frustrated at your neighbor. You have to give away everything you own. You have to spend every night cooking in a soup kitchen, or reading to people in hospital beds, or toiling away at a second job so you can give every penny you make to the poor. You also can never enjoy yourself. If you find happiness even for a moment, you’re probably sinning, and you should immediately confess to God and go do some more volunteer work. Also, you need to pray. A lot. Like ten hours straight each day. Minimum.

And if you do all this, maybe, just maybe, after you die (and you will likely die a torturous, slow, martyr’s death) you will be immortalized with a stone statue or a stained glass window in a church somewhere. And you will be called “Saint So-and-so”. But, really, you shouldn’t even hope for that, because hoping to be a saint is probably a sin too.

When you think about saints, maybe you think about something similar. Perfect people who lead lives of exemplary holiness. People who lead often joyless lives, and have horrific deaths. People who we look at as being extraordinary. People we can never be. Most of us, we believe, are not cut out for sainthood.

But maybe that conventional definition, that idea of the holy, untouchable saint, isn’t what being a saint is really all about? Maybe there’s an everyday sainthood that we might know more about than we think? And maybe today, on All Saint’s Sunday, it’s the perfect time to think about those everyday saints whom we have known.

The Scripture passage today tells the story of a man who came to Jesus asking what the greatest commandment, the greatest rule for life, was. And Jesus gives him an answer that tells us a lot about what true sainthood looks like: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

The man answers him, “you’re right, teacher. And, you know what, doing what you just said matters more than all the burnt offerings and temple sacrifices and everyday rituals we’ve been taught to do.” Now, you have to remember, that was blasphemy. The man was rejecting the common religious knowledge of the time. So Jesus was faced with a choice about how to respond to the man. And yet, he doesn’t tell him he was wrong. He tells them this: you are not far from the kingdom of God. In other words, you’re getting it right. You understand what true faith looks like.

It’s a good reminder for those of us who want to know what true sainthood looks like. Being a saint isn’t about religious rituals or leading joyless lives. Instead, being a saint is about living a life of joy. A life in which you love God with all that is in you, heart and soul, mind and strength. And then loving your neighbor with that same kind of love. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about loving perfectly. It’s not about following the letter of the law. It’s about believing in the spirit of the law. Believing in the law of loving God and loving others. And it’s about acting out that belief in all you do.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day where we remember all of the saints who have come before us. And from the outset, we might think it’s a day where we are supposed to look to the example of all the saints we’ve heard about: St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Paul. Maybe we’ll even acknowledge some soon-to-be venerated saints like Mother Teresa.

But that’s not the real meaning of All Saints day. Because sainthood is not about some list somewhere of the most extraordinary people ever. Sainthood is about the everyday people who have used their lives to love God, and to love others. In our religious tradition, All Saints day is about all of those we have loved, and lost, who loved us and who by their love taught us to love God.

You’ve known some saints. Maybe they were parents, or grandparents. Maybe they were teachers, or coaches. Maybe they were neighbors or friends. Maybe they were spouses, or children. You loved them, and you learned from them. You learned by example about loving God and loving your neighbor. And you miss them. That’s what today is about.

It’s no coincidence that today, All Saints’ Sunday, is also our fourth Sunday in our sermon series on giving. Because today we are asking who in our taught us how to give. Who showed us what it meant to love by giving? Who was always there when we needed them? Who was generous with their love and their time and their compassion? Who rose to the occasion when you needed them the most, and gave selflessly of all they had? My guess is that if all of us take a minute to think about who the saints of our lives really were, we will think of the most generous people, in every sense of that word, that we have ever known.

We are continuously blessed by the generosity of others. Both people we have loved in our own lives, and people who loved God, and loved us, even though they knew they would never meet us.

This church is an example of that. This building was built in 1858 by people none of us ever met. 150 years ago they gave of the little that they had to build this meeting house for our community. If you look at these pews, you’ll see small plaques with names engraved on them. Those are the names of people who bought these pews as a way of sponsoring the building of the church. They bought the glass in these windows too. You can see the way the glass waves a little, because glass does that over 150 years. That glass was their offering to their neighbors, and to you. You can look at this communion table which sat in the Wilmington church for decades, perhaps over a century, and you can see their care for their house of worship. It’s a legacy we now remember here as well.

But not all of the gifts to this church came 150 years ago. People who are still members of this congregation made the decision decades ago to add a back room to the church. They lifted the church up and added a basement. They put heat in the church because the old stove that used to sit right up here threw out so much smoke that, one member from decades ago told me, you couldn’t see the pastor when he preached.

This is what the saints of this church and the Wilmington Church did for us. They gave us these gifts because they wanted a community of faith to prosper here. And I’m not just talking about the building. The building is just one physical example. What they did spiritually, what they did to build this church up into a community of believers, is far more important. They loved God, and they loved their neighbor. Even their neighbor they would never live to meet.

It’s an incredible testament to what it means to be a saint. And it’s only one very small corner of the world. Because if I asked you to tell me about the saints in your life, you would tell me equally incredible stories of people who gave freely, and who changed your life. And the really extraordinary thing is, one day, if we are lucky, people will share the same sorts of stories about us. Because the choices we make today, the love and generosity we exhibit to the world, can touch not just those who surround us now, but those who will remain long after we are gone. We are not yet saints. But one day, we, like all others who leave this world for God’s, will be. And maybe people will be remembering us on some All Saints’ Sunday. But for now, we remember others.

This morning I set up some tea light candles around the communion table, and around the communion table that we brought up from the Wilmington Church. In just a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to remember, by lighting a candle, the saints in your own life. We will then have this physical reminder of them when we celebrate communion today. Communion is a time when we are connected not just to one another, but to God, and to the saints of all times and places. Today we remember that more than ever. May the candles be a physical reminder that the saints are still with us, and that we have not forgotten them, and that death is not the final word.

Now I’ll invite you, as you’re so moved, to come forward and light a candle, or two, for those you have loved and lost who were saints to you…

“What We Share” – Sermon for May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;

2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

2:46 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,

2:47 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 sometimes get asked how I choose what I’m going to preach about on Sundays. Sometimes folks think I pick a topic first and then select the appropriate Scripture. But that’s not what actually happens. Instead, I let the Scripture pick my topic. I preach using the lectionary, the calendar of readings I’ve told you about before which most mainline churches follow. Each week I’m given an Old Testament, Psalter, Gospel and Epistle reading.

On most Sunday mornings I preach to you from the Gospels. The parables of and stories about Jesus are usually a little more interesting, and more fun to preach about. But today I’m preaching from Acts. The book of Acts is the story of the earliest church and the way they lived together in the first years. This is a sort of “next chapter” of the Gospel stories. This is how this band of believers began to become something greater than just themselves

This morning’s reading from Acts talks about how they sustained themselves in the earliest days: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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, 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 really resisted preaching about this passage this morning. I hate preaching about money and about how you should be using the things you have. I make it a point not to know who gives what to this congregation. I don’t want to. And I make it a point not to harangue you to put more in the collection plate. Some weeks you just can’t, and there is absolutely no shame in that. I don’t tell you to give. It makes me feel like a televangelist. And so I say, in the end, don’t listen to any preacher who tells you what you should do with your money.

But as much as that is true, I remember something one of my seminary professors used to say. If you are scared to preach on a particular text, if it makes you uncomfortable, it means you probably need to preach on it.

The Bible says more about the correct treatment of money than it says about a lot of other things. More than it says about heaven. Far more than it says about sex. More than a vast majority of topics. In the end, the stewardship of money, which is how you use it, seemed to matter a lot to the people who wrote the Bible.

The interesting thing is not that they are saying “turn over all your money” to the church. If I said that, I hope you all would walk out the sanctuary doors and find a new pastor. Instead, we are told in this passage about what the earliest believers did. We are told about how they as a community survived in the hardest of times.
They took what they had, and they shared it with one another, and they shared it with those who needed it outside of the church, and they gave thanks for all that they had been given. In a very radical way, they cast their lots in with one another so that they could do ministry to those who needed it most.

There is a church in Washington, DC that takes up an unusual offering on Sunday mornings. They still have a collection plate, but people don’t just put something in. They tell the people that come to worship that if they are in real need, they are free to take something out.

You might think that would make the church and easy target. You could come and just sit on the back row and take everything out when it gets to you. But that’s not what happens. Rarely does anyone take more than they need. And usually, those who you might thing have nothing to give, give something instead of taking.

I’m not suggesting we start that here. But I do think there’s something to be learned there. The people give fearlessly. They give because others need. They give because they receive. They give because they believe something good is happening at that church and they know that they have to be the ones who ensure that it’s there for the people who need it the most. And they give without fear.

It’s hard to give without fear. Especially in this economy. I know how hard it is out there right now.I know there is a lot of anxiety.I know that the impulse is not to give now more than ever, but to try to keep as much as possible for ourself in case of emergency. My friends at non-profits tell me that they are having a particularly hard time making ends meet. People aren’t giving the way they used to even as more people are losing services that they depended upon. They are struggling to do more with less and often turning people away. In the end, the need is becoming greater and greater.

And I think about how the way we give is sometimes so different that was in this earliest church. I think about how when things were so bad for them, far worse than they are for those of us nowadays, they reached in a little deeper and gave to one another and the ones they didn’t even know.

And you know what happened? They didn’t go into the red. They didn’t lose everything. They didn’t die.

Instead they lived. Scripture tells us: the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They grew.

Yesterday I was helping a friend move. We were nearing the end and she cleaned out her refrigerator. She threw out the products that were opened or about to expire, or already expired. I went and took them out to the dumpster and came back from more trash. When I went back there was a woman, probably in her 80’s, digging through the dumpster and pulling out the expired food. She spoke only Russian, but I could tell what was happening. This was the only way she would eat. I gave her some money, something I rarely do, and I went upstairs to try to get her some more food. When I came back she was gone. But soon another elderly couple appeared in her place doing the same thing.

I remember how that morning I had been looking at my bank account and getting frustrated that I wasn’t able to afford a minor want. It made me feel pretty ashamed that I was so worried about that, than about the woman downstairs who would dig through bags of trash to eat.

And I thought about how that was my work, because I was a Christian. And about how it was the work of the churches. And I thought about that neighborhood. So many churches. Churches I knew. Churches that held on to everything they had out of fear. Churches that thought they couldn’t help her because their membership was dwindling and so were the reserves. Churches that, unless something drastic happens, will be dead in twenty years.

And I read this passage. And I read those lines about what happened. About how they gave, not until it hurt, but until it felt good. And how they grew. The church as we have known it for centuries would never have existed without that first church making the decision to be fearless with what they had, and with the love that Christ gave them.

And so, that is my challenge to you today. How will we cast aside our fears and be fearless in Christ? How will we be owned not by the demons of “do we have enough” but by the love of Christ? How will we show the world outside these doors that grace is real, and that we can be God’s agents of it?

This morning the Psalm was Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” If we really believe that, if we really believe it when we recite it, then we have to believe that it’s true when it comes to stewardship. And we have to believe that in the end we are all here because someone in the church showed us grace of one kind or another. And in the end, it is not our fear, but our joy and our hope and our generosity that help us grow. Amen.