Something for Nothing: A Still Speaking Daily Devotional on Grace and Gratitude

stillspeakingJesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” – Luke 14:12

Every couple of weeks I have lunch with a good friend of mine. Early in our friendship we struck up a pattern of alternating who paid for lunch. So, about once a month I’d paid, and once a month she would take the check.

A few months ago we were both busy and we missed a few months worth of lunches. We were finally able to reschedule, but as I pulled up to the restaurant I realized I had no idea whose “turn” it was to pay for lunch. I tried to remember where we had gone and who had pulled out their wallet first, but I just couldn’t seem to place it.

My fear wasn’t that I would accidentally pay for a lunch I didn’t owe. My fear was that I wouldn’t pay my fair share.

Read the rest here:

Journey Through Advent – Day 9

598484_10151109140146787_1677567642_nMy wife and I were married three weeks ago, which means that we’ve spent a lot of time recently writing thank you notes. According to some etiquette experts, a newly married couple has up to one year to write them. According to my wife and my mother (far better authorities on the matter, by the way) that is completely false. We are aiming to get our notes out within a month of the wedding.

What has been interesting to me, though, is how dreaded this task appears to be by so many newly married couples. A quick search on wedding note etiquette found ways to order pre-printed cards, impersonal sample texts to hand copy onto a note, and more than a handful of couples trying to justify abandoning the tradition all together. And I get that some nights, twenty cards in, it can feel like a lot. But I also wonder if something greater is at work here. I wonder if sometimes the very task of saying “thank you” begins to feel, well, like a task? Gratitude becomes perfunctory, and a social nicety. It doesn’t hold the same joy and meaning that it could if we really meant it.

Sometimes our prayer life feels like that too. Giving thanks before a meal feels routine. Saying “thank you” to God when something incredible happens feels like an afterthought. And one thing I’ve noticed with church people is that when we gather together and are asked to lift up both prayer requests and thanksgivings, the thanksgivings are often outnumbered five to one.

This time of year the thank you notes we are thinking about have to do with the presents we are about to receive. But, maybe this is the exact season when our gratitude for God could be expressed all the more? In the beauty and wonder of Advent, I often feel as though we are drawn closer to God. The light surrounds us, and we feel that something big is about to happen. So, in this time of anticipation, and wonder, maybe it’s as good a time as any to say thank you? Not for what we will receive. Not for what is coming. But for the gift that we have now.

True, technically we may still have plenty of time, but there is a joy in saying “thank you” because you want to, and not because you have to, and the time is always right for that.

Black Friday, Gratitude, and Christ the King: Sermon for November 25, 2012

Copyright, UCC

Matthew 6:25-33
6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

I’m not a big Black Friday shopper. The few times in my life that I have shopped on Black Friday I’ve done so under duress, and I’ve never liked it much. People have swarmed into stores, fought over toys and TVs, and spent more money than they had trying to make this the best Christmas ever.

This year Black Friday started early. Wal Mart opened at 8pm on Thursday. Other stores opened at midnight. And once again crowds swarmed into stores. Last year a crowd walked over a man who was having a heart attack, ignoring him. This year, a man pulled a gun on another man who had cut in line.

All this to celebrate Christmas. Which is ironic in many ways, not least of which is that we are not in the Christmas season yet. In fact, we aren’t even in the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing for Christmas, yet. In the church year calendar, we are today celebrating the last Sunday of the year, a day called Christ the King Sunday. Today is the day where we proclaim as Christians that our allegiance is to nothing less than the power of Christ’s love. Christ is king, not Black Friday.

And at the same time, we who are Americans are celebrating another holiday: Thanksgiving. It’s a few days after the fact, but this weekend we are supposed to reflect on all that we have been given, and give God thanks for it. It’s supposed to be a celebration of our gratitude. Yes, we eat the bird and the potatoes and dressing and pie. We spend time with family and watch football. But more than anything else, we are called to look around at our lives and look at what is good, and to say to God, quite simply, thank you.

But in our cultural rewrite of Thanksgiving, gratitude is slowly being replaced by the desire for more, and the one day a year we set aside for giving thanks is literally losing time to the one day of the year when we bow down to the pressure to try to buy our Christmas joy.

Which is why texts like the one we read today are such a powerful reminder of what it means to claim Christ as your king. Jesus is telling the people not to worry. He’s telling them to not worry about food, or clothing, or anything else. He tells them to “consider the lillies of the field” and how beautiful they are. He says, if God clothes them like this, how much more will he give to you?

Instead of worrying about what you do not have, he tells them, instead do this: But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. In other words, don’t let your anxieties about what you don’t have consume your life. Instead, focus your mind on God, and creating God’s kingdom here on earth, and you will find true peace and never want for anything.

Put that in modern terms. Don’t worry about the store with the better sale. Don’t concern yourself with Black Friday ads and big screen TVs. Don’t join the crowds that trample one another on the quest for 20% discounts. Instead, consider what God has already given you, and have faith that God will provide what you need.

It’s pretty counter-cultural, isn’t it? While the world worries about finding the best deal, Christ calls us to give thanks for what we’ve been given for free. When the world asks us to crown retail king, Christ instead reminds us of the reign of God. When the world asks “how can we get more”, Christ tells us we will always have enough.

But that’s not always a popular sentiment, even if you don’t bring religion into it. In Massachusetts there was a fight between some of the big box stores and the state because the old blue laws there, dating back from colonial times, prohibit stores to open on Thanksgiving. That’s because there, in the home of the first Thanksgiving, the day was set aside as a day of worship and thanks. But some large national retailers don’t agree with that, and want lawmakers to change the laws to allow their stores to open early on Thursdays. Instead, this year, they had to settle for 1am on Friday. And they weren’t happy about it.

The irony is not lost on me that the whole point of Black Friday is to prepare for Christmas, the birth of Christ, the same Christ who speaks to us in today’s passage telling us to not worry about material things and to instead focus on helping to create God’s kingdom here on earth. I don’t think that’s done by rushing the doors of the mall when it opens, but more than that, I don’t think that’s done by cutting short the one day of the year we set aside for gratitude.

That’s too bad, because gratitude can change everything. People in early recovery from addiction who hit a hard point where they feel miserable about the world around them are often told by sponsors to make a “gratitude list”. They’re told to take a piece of paper, look around at their life, and list everything that they are grateful for. And usually the list starts pretty basically: I’m thankful I have enough to eat, that I can sleep in a warm bed, that I can make ends meet. But as the list goes on, more and more is added: I’m grateful for people who love me, for family who care about me, for a chance to make a difference with my life.

By the time most people are done, it’s hard to turn around and look at their life and feel anything but gratitude. More than that, it’s hard to feel gratitude and not realized that the good in our life is far greater than anything we have worked for. And what has been freely given to us is grace. And that grace comes from God.

In seminary we were taught that grace and gratitude always went together. We were taught that grace came from God and the only proper response to grace was to say “thank you”. Because of that, the measure of the Christian life is only this: how well you say thank you. And if you really feel that gratitude, if you really understand what God has done in your life, you will say thank you by passing on God’s grace to everyone you meet. It’s impossible to truly feel God’s grace and to not be so thankful that you don’t pass it on.

But if you’re here, you probably already know that. It has been a hard year for many people in our country. We are living in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Many are out of work, some have lost homes, others just can’t make ends meet. We are at war with others, and we are fighting one another.  One might think that it would be easy to look around and say, “The world is a mess. What is there to be thankful for?”

And yet, you’re here. And let’s be clear, you’re not here because you don’t have anything else to do. You could be home eating turkey sandwiches. You could be home with family and friends who have come to join you. You could be out hunting or skiing. And yet, you came to this church because you wanted to say thank you. And you wouldn’t be here saying “thank you” if you couldn’t look around and see grace.

I’ve heard gratitude lately in some of the most unexpected places. Yesterday I heard it from small business owners in Wilmington who thanked people for coming out and giving their business to their neighbors, instead of saving a few dollars by buying something of lesser quality down the road. I head it from Rich Werner who, despite all his daughter is facing right now, talks about how grateful he is to have so many friends and a community like ours. I’ve even heard it expressed at the end of life, when we’ve said goodbye to people we love simply by saying “thank you”. Being able to say thank you, even in the midst of our times of greatest fear, or anxiety, or worry, is a true testament to God’s grace in us.

It’s what Thanksgiving is really about. And it’s what declaring Christ as the king of your life is really about too.

Thanksgiving is not a church holiday, you know. It’s a national one. It’s not in the Bible or on any church calendar, but it’s in our hearts and so we gather. But the reality is that for people of faith, Thanksgiving Day doesn’t come once a year. Thanksgiving Day is every day because we are called to live in gratitude for what God has already given us.

Between this Thanksgiving and next, I give you this challenge: how many days will be Thanksgiving for you? You don’t need a turkey or pie or mashed potatoes. You don’t need football on the TV or even a church service. You just need eyes for seeing grace, and a heart for gratitude. And then all you have to do is find a way to say “thank you”. Do that, let Christ’s love and assurance reign in your heart, and you will being celebrating Thanksgiving all year. May it be so. Amen.

Beyond Thank You Notes – Sermon for October 28, 2012

“Jesus Healing the Blind”, by Nicolas Poussin, 1650

Mark 10:46-52
10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”

10:52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom is a big fan of thank you notes. Growing up she made sure that for Christmas, birthday, graduations, whatever the event we sent thank you notes for the gifts we received. Sometimes she would even give us a gift of thank you notes as a present. I think she was trying to give a little hint.

My dad’s mother, my grandmother, was even more into them. And she kept track. I’m pretty sure she had a thank you note scoreboard hidden somewhere in the house. And she would even engage in a mild form of public shame if you didn’t send one. Nothing huge, but something like a deep sigh and then, “I never did get a thank you note from them. As a kid I wrote thank you notes because my parents told me to, and because my grandmother, who I loved, scared me just a little, tiny bit.

Most of us learn how to say “thank you” at an early age. And that’s a very good thing. The world is better when we say “please” and “thank you” and when we acknowledge gifts that we are given. We write thank you notes. Maybe even when we aren’t feeling so grateful, the way we did for that package of socks that we got when we were 8. We do it because we were taught it was good manners, and if we are lucky we carry that skill with us when we are adults.

But if we are really lucky, something happens along the way. Something that changes the process of writing thank you notes from just a perfunctory thing we do when we get a gift, to a way to live a grateful life.

I wonder if the man in today’s story had ever heard of thank you notes? I don’t know that they were necessarily a thing back in Jesus’ day, and since most people didn’t write, I doubt that he had a mother who made them do them, or a grandmother who kept tabs on whether they came of not. But maybe he did have people in his life who taught him about being thankful. And maybe that’s why today’s story goes the way it goes.

Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, and a man named Bartimaeus, who is described as a “blind beggar” is sitting by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is the one passing by and he yells out, “Jesus…have mercy on me!”

The people all around him hush him and say be quiet, but he calls out again, “Jesus have mercy on me.” And Jesus stops, and calls him to him. The man springs up and comes to Jesus, and he asks Bartimaeus “what do you want?” And Bartimaeus says, “to be able to see again”. Jesus tells him, “go, your faith has made you well”.

Bartimaeus got back his sight, but there’s something about this story other than the fact that Jesus healed him that makes it stand out. Jesus heals a lot of people in Scripture, and each time it is miraculous. But we don’t always get to hear how the person who was healed responded.

This time we do. When Bartimaeus regained his sight, Jesus said “go…your faith has made you well.” Essentially, Jesus was releasing him to go back and live his life with his new gift of sight. But instead, Scripture tells us that “he followed Jesus on the way”. The healed man became a disciple.

Now, have you ever gotten a gift with strings attached? One that you knew came with expectations from the gift giver? Have you ever felt like accepting it was accepting a new obligation or commitment? What’s interesting to me here is that Jesus gives the man a huge gift, a gift of healing, and yet he doesn’t say “now you have to follow me”. He doesn’t list his expectations. Instead he essentially releases him. “Go”, he tells him. Not even an address to send a thank you note to. It’s grace at its purest form. A gift that comes unearned, and that expects no response.

But what Bartimaeus does is the proper response to grace: he shows his gratitude. And it’s not with a thank you note. It’s not even with a spoken thank you. It’s with his life. He leave the side of the road, and all he’s known, and he follows the man who healed him to wherever he is going next.

Sometimes we get gifts that are so incredible that the words we can put down on a piece of paper fail us. Sometimes we get gifts that are so big that we can only respond by living our lives as a sort of thanksgiving.

Today is the third sermon in a series we are doing on giving. Each week we are exploring another theme that has to do with how we give. The first week we looked at giving away the things that keep of from God. Last week we looked at serving as giving. And today we are looking at giving as gratitude.

In seminary our theology professors beat into our heads the central idea of Reformed theology, the theology that the UCC and the Presbyterian church and others were formed by, which is that we all receive grace from God, and that the only proper response to grace is gratitude.

And when the grace, the gift, we have received is as big as the one’s that God gives us, that only gift we have that is big enough and fitting enough to give back is our own lives. The only way we can ever respond to that grace, note I did not say pay that grace back, is to say thank you. Our gratitude becomes the way we give, and our life becomes our thank you note to God.

I talked at the beginning about thank you notes and how they sometimes seemed like a necessary burden, a sort of social nicety, as a child. But as I’ve gotten older, they’ve felt less burdensome, less of a perfunctory social nicety, and more meaningful. Less something I have to do, and more something I want to do.

I’ve been writing a lot of them recently because of the upcoming wedding. Some of our close friends held a shower for us down in Massachusetts, and it was a wonderful time being with our friends. Afterwards we wrote thank you notes to them all, and what I found as I was writing the notes was that I was feeling genuine gratitude for the people in my life, not the salad tongs or whatever else we had been given. Though I like the salad tongs. But more importantly, I love the people who gave them to us, and I love that they thought about us and shared some time with us and are a part of our life. That is the true gift for which I am grateful.

Sometimes I wish that I could sit down and write a thank you note to God that really expressed my gratitude for what God has given me, and for what the ways God has given me real healing when I need it the most. I wish I could find the right words for that. But the reality is that part of me knows that’s the easy way out. If I could just say “thank you” and be done, it would be sort of like if Bartimeaus had just gone his own way after Jesus healed him. I would have received the gift, but I wouldn’t really have responded to it. It would have changed my life, but it wouldn’t really have changed me.

Instead, we have an opportunity to respond to that grace. And if it’s really grace, we will find that we can do none other than to respond to it. We have the chance to live our lives as that thank you note that we can never write.

Now, God is not the grandmother with a gigantic thank you note scorecard in the sky. God is not telling everyone that the note never came. God gives grace freely, the same way Jesus did on that road, healing with no strings attached.

But for us, if we have received that grace, we will never feel quite right until we respond to it, and until we offer a thank you that is more than a perfunctory prayer mumbled over dinner, or a quick prayer of thanks. We will never feel quite whole, until we find real ways to express our gratitude.

So, what do you get the God who has everything? Well, really nothing. Nothing except for your love.

But what do you do for God’s people? That’s the question to ask. What is it you have in your life that you can give to the ones who need it the most. What is it that you can do for them that will also say thank you to God?

One of the things that 12 Step programs focus on, which is relevant to those of us who are Christians as well, is gratitude. They teach that gratitude has the power to transform lives and to focus our lives on what matters the most. One of my favorite sayings is, “that grateful heart never drinks”. And that’s true. When you are aware of how much grace you have received, and how much you have to be thankful for, the last thing you want to do is ruin that by choosing to destroy yourself. Instead 12 step members show gratitude by doing service, by helping newcomers out, by taking care of their group and their program.

We can learn a lot from them, because the same should be true for Christians. When we look around, truly, and see what has been given to us by grace, we are compelled to live a life of gratitude. Not one of us has been passed over by God’s grace, whether we know it or not, whether we think we ever needed it or not. We did. And we received it. And not forgetting that, not going off our own way and forgetting that man we met on the road one day who healed us, is the start of being grateful. That man Jesus healed got what he wanted. He could have gone off his own way after that, content that he got his piece of the pie. But he didn’t. He changed his life, and he decided to follow Jesus.

So what’s the next step for you? For us? What would it look like for you to live your life as a thank you to God? What would it look like to dig down deep and give to God by giving to others in your life? What would it look like if you made gratitude the central theme of your life? For most of us, I think it would change everything. Because a grateful heart never looks around and says “there is too little”. A grateful heart looks around and says, “there’s enough for me…and there’s enough for others too.” It may sound naive, but I think that’s the sort of perspective that could change the world. And even if it doesn’t change the world, maybe, just maybe, it will change you. Amen.

“Different Kind of Business, Different Kind of Owner” – Sermon for Sept. 18, 2011

Like many of you, I’ve had reason to talk to FEMA this past week. We were concerned about a few very minor things with the church building, and we wanted to be on the safe side, so we registered. One step in the registration was having to sit at that table, and call in to a call center somewhere to talk to an agent. When I got her on the phone, the conversation went something like this:

Her: Are you the business owner?
Me: No. I’m the pastor.
Her: Well, who owns the business?
Me: Well, we’re a church, so not a business, so no one owns us.
Her: (Increasingly confused.) I’m going to need a business owner’s name.

I was trying to be respectful of the fact that these people are working very hard to help us in a natural disaster, and are doing a good job. So, even though there were so many possible snappy responses about who owned the church, I just explained once again that there was no “owner” of the business. The matter was finally settled when it was accepted that while I was not the “owner”, I was the “responsible party”, and that was good enough.

The part of me that was seeing some humor in all of this, though, really wanted to answer her “owner” question with something like, “well, I guess that would be God. Or, you could put in Jesus Christ, which in the computer might look something like Christ, Jesus. And no, I don’t have his taxpayer ID number either.” In the end I decided not to subject her to either a theological commentary or my humor.

But, I was thinking about that encounter a little when I read this week’s Gospel passage. Jesus tells a parable about a business owner. He talks about the owner of a vineyard who hires workers for the day. In the early morning he goes out and finds people who will work and agrees to pay them a living wage. They go out to the fields and start to work.

Around nine he goes to the square and finds more people, and this time he says “I will pay you what is right”. They go out to the fields too. He does this again at noon, and then at three. And at five he goes out and finds people who haven’t been hired yet, and he hires them and sends them to the fields.

Now, when it comes time for everyone to be paid, he starts with the ones who came at 5pm. And they get a full day’s wages. Now, can you imagine being those folks who were hired at 9am? The people who were hired eight hours later got a full day’s wage. They must have been waiting thinking, “If they got paid for the full day, we are surely going to get even more!”

Except they don’t. They get the full day’s wage that they agreed on earlier in the day. And they grumble about how unfair it is. You get the same pay whether you worked one hour or nine, hard hours.

The owner of the vineyard answers, “I did you no wrong. I paid you for the day. Are you angry because I was generous and gave what was mine to give to the others? The last shall be first. And the first shall be last.”

If you’re like me, you read this parable and you feel a little uneasy. It doesn’t seem right that the ones who came at 5pm get paid as much as the ones at 9am. It’s not what we’re taught our whole lives. It’s not fair. That vineyard owner had it all wrong.

Except we know that just as in all Jesus’ parables the main character, the business owner, really represents God. And the workers in the vineyard, whether they came at daybreak or 5pm, really represent us. And we know that Jesus is trying to teach us all something about God, and one another.

We like to believe that we will be rewarded, that we can make sure everything will turn out okay, if we just work hard enough. It’s what we have heard since we were in grade school. If we worked hard enough, we could do anything we wanted. And so many of us burn ourselves out, run ourselves into the ground, in order to try to create the future we want.

Now, I don’t fault hard work. I often work long days, and have a hard time disconnecting when I should. I check email when I’m out with friends, I pick up the phone on my day off, I have an inability to shut off. I am, like many of you, a bit of a workaholic.

But, like many of you, I sometimes find that despite my best laid plans, despite my hard work, in the end things don’t always go exactly my way. And sometimes that feels really unfair. Especially when we see someone else get something that we feel like they haven’t earned.

I think I would have been grumbling right along with those early workers that day. What’s the sense of working hard if other people get what they don’t deserve?

And then I think about it more. And I remember that the vineyard owner is God. And I remember that none of us gets what we deserve. Instead, we get a whole lot better.

Throughout the history of our faith, there have been those who have said you can gain God’s love through work. Do the right things, pray the right way, make the right sacrifices, and you can find salvation. It has come up again and again in the course of Christian history.

And yet, that’s not the point of the Christian life. That’s not the point of God’s grace. We don’t do what we do as Christians to earn God’s love. We do what we do because we already have God’s grace, and we are so filled with gratitude for that grace that we can’t help but glorify God through our actions.

We don’t donate to the food pantry to get to heaven. We donate because our souls were hungry for God and we were fed. We don’t build a house with Habitat for Humanity because we fear eternal damnation. We build a house because in God’s kingdom there are many houses, and we are welcome in them all. We don’t hand out water to volunteers to earn God’s love. We hand out water because Christ himself has given us living water.

We do all these things not because we were the workers waiting at the vineyard at sunrise. We do these things because we were the ones God went out and found at 5pm, and we were chosen to go into the vineyards anyways. And we were not treated fairly. We were treated better than fairly. We were treated with grace.

The biggest relief in my life came when I realized I didn’t have to earn God’s love. The biggest relief came when I realized I already had it, that it was inside of me, and that nothing I could do would separate me from it. And that relief, that freedom from the fear of a God who I could never be good enough to be loved by, turned from relief to joy. And from that joy came gratitude.

I still work a lot. It’s a growing edge. But now I don’t do it to earn God’s love. I do it as a response to God’s love. I do it as a kind of paying forward of what has already been given to me. I do it because maybe, if I meet the right person on the right day, someone else will look through what I do, and see what God has done in me, and in you, and in all of us.

There is a phrase that many of us have heard: there but for the grace of God go I. That phrase used to upset me. I used to look at whatever unfortunate person was being pointed out and try to come up with some reason in my mind why what happened to them would never happen to me. That works for a while. Until it doesn’t. And then you find that you are the one who is in need of grace. It’s a humbling experience.

But, in many ways, it can also be a freeing one. It can be freeing to know that in the end, God’s grace is not dependent on us. It’s only dependent on a God who loved us first. You look around at your co-workers in the vineyard, and you realize that that grace is not yours to withhold. And that is often the most powerful example of God’s grace in you. When God’s grace is so great that in your joy you feel compelled to do things that share that grace with others, you know that love has won..

And when you really feel that grace for the first time, when you really believe it, you are free. You are free from fear. You are free from worry. You are free from the illusion that you are always in control. And you are free in another way too. You are free to serve. You are free to give. You are free to love. You are free to labor in a vineyard where all are paid not according to the work they do, but according to what God does. You’ll never find another business owner who will pay you like that.

Now if I could have just written that all in on the forms I had to fill out this week, maybe I could have answered that question I was asked. Who owns this business? Not me, and not you, and not any of us. This is God’s. And it’s not like any business we’ve ever seen before. Indeed, this is the best place we will ever work. Amen.

“You’re Still Here” – Sermon for May 22, 2011

John 14:1-14

14:1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

14:2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

14:3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

14:4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

14:7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

14:12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

14:13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14:14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

You may have heard that there were some folks who thought you wouldn’t be today. You have have heard that yesterday, May 21, was supposed to be the end of the world. A very small sect of Christian faith was trying to tell the world that yesterday at 6pm, local time, the rapture would happen.

And you’re all here! Which means either, one, the rapture didn’t happen, or, two, as a church we have a lot to worry about.

I think it’s the first.

Now the idea of the rapture is pretty new in Christianity. It has really only come about in the past few centuries, and it has never really been accepted by anything more than a vocal but very small minority of believers. They believe that there will come a day where believers are suddenly taken up into heaven while non-believers are left behind here on earth. They base their idea on one short, disputed verse in one of Paul’s letters. And they really, really believe it.

The group that was responsible for the idea that the world was going to end yesterday is based out of California. Their leader did some complicated but questionable mathematical computations and somehow decided that yesterday was the day. There could be no doubt. And so his followers spread the word on billboards, and the internet, and one on one on the streets.

They were positive he was right. So positive that I read an article about one family that had planned to spend down all of their savings so that yesterday they would be left with nothing. Another woman quit her job and went with her husband to tell people on the streets, even while her teenage kids didn’t believe a word of it.

I had a few people ask me this week, “Does your church really believe in this May 21st, end of the world thing?” And I responded that despite all the press this very small sect was being given, 99.99% of Christians did not believe the world was going to end yesterday.

But did you notice how much attention that .01% got? Did you notice how interested some people were by it?

It’s been a problem since Paul wrote his letters to the earliest churches. The early believers thought that Christ would come back in their lifetimes. Paul struggled to assure them that the fact Christ hadn’t come right back didn’t mean that they weren’t loved or saved or remembered.

Since then there have been thousands of different ideas about the end of the world. Hundreds of doomsdays. Hundreds of times that people have said that we are on the verge of an apocalypse. Hundreds of May 21st. And on those days, each time, true believers who stood and waited at the appointed hour only to find that nothing happened to them.

I thought about that family with the teenage kids yesterday. I read an article about them in the New York times. They had been spreading this message about the end of the world to everyone, but meanwhile, their kids had felt neglected. They talked about needing to take the SATs, worrying about how to pay for college now that their parents had spent down their college funds, and even just going to the high school parties that were taking place yesterday night.

One son talked about how it was hard for him to make plans for his future because he felt like his parents didn’t care about his future. They didn’t believe he had one.

It was easy to make jokes about the end of the world yesterday. There were plenty of them. I confess I may have made a few.

But really, at 6pm yesterday, I am aware that for a very small group of people, their worlds did come to an end. All that they truly believed was revealed to be false. All their work and sacrifice and misdirected energy became clear. All their worst fears were revealed. And they were lost.

We may be tempted to say that they got what they deserved. But really, they’re not so different from us. They’re just an extreme example of our worst tendencies to neglect the lives that God has already given us.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus talks a little about what comes after this life. He tells us that he is going before us and preparing a home for us in God’s house. He tells us that he will one day bring us there himself.

And even then, with him right there, the disciples wanted details. Thomas asked, “Where are you going and how can we know the way?” Philip said, “Show us God and then we will be satisfied.”

They had him in front of them, reassuring them, telling them it would be okay, and even then they couldn’t focus on what was in front of them. Even then, they were more worried about the next life than this one.

And every generation of Christians after them has done the same things. We have wanted to know the details of what happens next. We have wanted to know the exact date and place and time. We have wanted to prepare ourselves for the end of the world. And sometimes it has looked as extreme as the group that waited at 6pm yesterday, and other times it has looked a lot like everyday life.

It’s normal to wonder. It’s normal to want to have some assurance that God is bigger than our world. It’s normal to want to know that God’s love will save us all in the end.

But when we become so obsessed with the details that we forget to live the life that God  has given us here, the life that God has made good, we miss so much.

I’ve talked before about growing up in the South, and how that has forever affected my view of religion. Growing up I always heard the question, “Are you saved?” I was told over and over that if I was not, I would burn for all of eternity in a fiery hell. The summer I was 15, I thought about that a lot. So much so, that I got pretty depressed about it. I’d lie on the living room couch and watch the ceiling fan and think about it. Life, the way the Christians I knew presented it, seemed life was this awful test that no one could pass. I certainly wasn’t good enough to earn my way into heaven, and if I was going to everything else felt pointless.

I went back to school that fall and slowly the questions went away. But they were always there. It wasn’t until I got to seminary that I started to truly believe that this life was not meant to be a test, and that God wanted us not to live in fear, but to live in gratitude.

I learned in seminary what I should have learned from the Christians I had known my whole life. That in the end, we are sorted into the good and the bad. We are not saved or discarded. Instead, we are all loved by a God who sees our imperfections and gives us grace anyways. In fact, gives us grace because of it.

The measure of our life here on earth, no matter what God has in store for us next, no matter when Christ will return and change everything, is how we respond to the grace that we have already received. Do we live in fear, whether waiting for May 21st or lying on the couch thinking that we will never be good enough? Or do we meet that grace with gratitude? Do we turn our lives over to God and say “no matter what happens, I know I will be okay because your grace is so overpowering…so, please God, use me”?

We are at our best as Christians not when we are spreading fear. Not when we are worried about what comes next. Not when we are doing good works because we are afraid we might not be good enough for God’s love. We do our best work when we know that God’s grace has already taken ahold of us, and will never let us go. We do our best work when we are simply trying to say thank you for a gift so great that we can never really understand it.

It’s May 22nd. And the world has not ended. And neither has God’s grace, nor our gratitude. I don’t know the details about the end of the world, or the next life, or anything like that. But I do know this: God will be there. And if God is there, it will be good. Amen.

“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.