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.

Building on a Firm Foundation: Sermon for November 5, 2017

There’s a story about a woman whose life was going all wrong. She was in her late 20’s. Her short first marriage had just failed. She had a small child to care for. She was out of a job. She was relying on government benefits to survive, and feared that she would soon be homeless. And she was depressed; the kind of depression that makes you wonder whether life is really worth living.

She had always been scared to death of failing and now, that one thing she had always been terrified would happen had indeed happened. She was, in her own eyes and she believed in everyone else’s, a complete failure. To put it another way, she had hit rock bottom.

I’ll come back to her, but think for a minute about that phrase: rock bottom. When we use it we are often talking about the absolute nadir of our lives. You may have heard it said of someone who is going through some struggle that they just have to hit rock bottom on their own before they will get better. I believe that’s true.

I believe that because I’ve had my own rock bottom moments and so, probably, have many of you. These are the times when nothing has gone the way I’ve planned, or I’ve failed in some spectacular way, or something has happened that has felt so devastating that I haven’t been sure how to get back back up again. That’s rock bottom, and it hurts just as surely as falling on rock.

It’s hard not to think of “rock bottom” when we hear today’s Scripture. Jesus is telling a parable, a story, about two men: one wise, and one foolish, who are both building houses. One man gets everything he needs to build his house, but then he picks out where to put it, and he chooses to build it on sand. It’s fine for a little while but then the rains come, and the wind and floods, and the whole house is washed away.

The wise man does something different. He gets all of his materials, and he chooses to build his house on rock. So the rain and winds come, even the floods, but nothing is able to touch his house. It’s built on rock, and that means it is built to last.

If that story sounds familiar to you it’s probably because we all heard a similar story as kids. It’s the story of the three little pigs. One big builds with straw, one sticks, and the last bricks. When the big bad wolf comes around, the first two houses fall apart, the the brick house does not. Both stories have the same message: build well, build solidly, and you will withstand whatever comes next.

This is what we teach our kids. But this is what, so often, we forget as adults.

So what does any of this have to do with rock bottom? Well, as it turns out, we’re teaching your kids about rock bottom in Sunday school class today. All the parents are second-guessing their decision to come to church right now. But really, it’s okay. We’re teaching your kids the story of the house built on the rock, and we’re teaching them about where to build their spiritual homes, and by extension, where to build their whole lives.

Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about the value of making something solid your bedrock. This passage comes at the end of his sermon on the mount, when he was trying to teach the crowds what it meant to follow him, and to live a holy life. And he was trying to show them how our foundation matters.

If we have a sandy foundation, one that is always shifting on us, one that is not stable, then our spiritual lives are about as stable as a house of cards. And let’s be clear…there is a lot of sand out there. There are a lot of things that tell you they are important, but are not. At the end of the day, they are as worthless as quicksand. But if we have one that is as solid as rock, as steady as can possibly be, then even when the winds and rains and even the floods come, we will survive.

And here’s what’s important to remember: the winds and rains will come. Jesus did not say that the man who built on rock would have good weather. He was going to face all of the same storms. So will we. And yet, the man who built on the rock, he would make it through.

So here’s the tough question: how do we get that firm foundation?

I’d like to tell you that it’s easy. Just trust in God and do the right things, like what Jesus taught the crowd. I’d like to tell you that if you raise your kids that way they’ll build their houses on rocks, and they will never fall. But the world doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that all of us have to learn this the hard way. Each one of us is human, and that means that each one of us has a foundation that could use a little work. We build up our hopes and our dreams, and then a storm comes, and we find that our foundations were more sand than rock. That’s when we have to get out our hard hats, dig deep, and lay a new foundation, one that allows us to truly be embedded in the love and grace of God.

Sometimes we get a little warning, and we’re able to do some quick emergency repairs. But sometimes, the house comes crashing down, and we have to rebuild once again.

The woman at the beginning of this story, the one who had lost everything and hit rock bottom, she knew what that was like. And her story has come to inspire me. And so I want to tell you a little more about her.

The woman’s name is JK Rowling. She is arguably the most successful writer of the last 25 years. And she told this story in a commencement address that she gave to Harvard students several years ago. She told them about how she was by every measure an abysmal failure before the age of 30, and about how she had absolutely hit her rock bottom.

And then she something that I’ve come back to again and again. “Rock bottom,” Rowling said, “became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

At rock bottom she began to write a story about a young wizard named Harry Potter and his friends. She didn’t know what would happen with that story. She submitted it to publishers and it was rejected time after time. It ended up in the slush pile of a publishing house, a place manuscripts go to die, and an editor just happened to pick it up and decided to take a chance on it. And the rest is history.

I don’t tell you that story to say “go and write a bestseller”. I mean, if that’s your thing, go for it. I tell it because it shows an incredible truth: hitting rock bottom is not the worst thing that can happen. Indeed, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. Solid rock, no matter how we get there, is the only place from which we can hope to build something that will truly last.

Over the next three weeks, from now to thanksgiving, I’m going to be preaching on what it means to invest our lives well. During this same time we are conducting our stewardship campaign, so I’ll be talking about what it means to be good stewards, good investors, of our whole lives and all we have been given.

Each one of us has been given exactly one life to invest. Today we start this series by talking about the foundation we choose to build our lives upon. It could be that your spiritual life is rooted in the solid foundation of rock bottom. Or, it could be that you feel the sand shifting below your house as we speak. Here’s the good news. Even if that’s true, God’s love and grace are the rock upon which you can rebuild. And unlike any other kind of real estate, that love and grace know no limits…there’s plenty of land for all of us.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, I’ll close with this. I know this is true, because others have helped me to find a good foundation upon which to build my life. They’ve shown me where to set up my spiritual house, and they’ve taught me how to survive the winds and rains.

Maybe that’s true for you too. Maybe there has been someone who has been with you at rock bottom, and helped you to look around, and to find hope there. Maybe they’ve laid that solid foundation with you on that rock. God knows I have had those people. My guess is you have too.

The beauty of the Christian life is that we all get second chances at solid foundations. And the obligation of this life is that, once we have, it’s our job to help others to have the same. In large part, the measure of our lives will have nothing to do with how big we build our own houses, but in what we do to provide solid foundations to all we know, and especially to the next generation.

We do this, because God has worked through so many others in order to do it for us. And so, on this All Saints’ Sunday, let us speak the names of the ones who have gone before us, in the sure hope of God’s rock solid love…

 

The Gift of Our Lives: Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2016

Note: This is the third in a three-week series on stewardship. For the previous sermon please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/30/good-seeds-good-soil-sermon-for-october-30-2016/

Over the past three weeks I’ve been preaching a sermon series on stewardship. The first week we talked specifically about financial giving and this church. And last week we talked more broadly about the good seeds that God has given us to plant and how it’s our job to find good soil.

All through it I’ve been stressing the point that stewardship is about more than money. Instead, stewardship is about life, and it’s about taking every good thing you have been given, and being a good steward of it, which in 21st century terms just means being a good manager.

Stewardship is about recognizing what God gives us and then deciding to use it well. Our time, our talents, our treasure…no matter what we have, we make the choice.

Layout 1So, this is the last day of our stewardship season, which means it’s also Dedication Sunday. Today we are collecting pledge cards for next year, and after worship the stewardship committee will be tallying them up. Then they’ll go downstairs to coffee hour, ring a bell, and announce the total. It’s an important annual tradition for us.

But today is also an even more important day. It’s All Saints’ Sunday. For Protestants, All Saints’ is when we remember the people we have loved and lost. On All Saints’ we proclaim our hope in Christ’s love, and we talk about what is called the “Communion of Saints”. That’s a confusing phrase, but to simplify it, by Communion of Saints we just mean this: all who have lived and died in this faith, who we now believe to be gathered (or in community) with Christ and each other in the next life.

Because I’ll be out of town on our usual pledge Sunday, these two events had to fall on the same Sunday this year. That made me a little uneasy at first. Money is hard enough to talk about. Money and the memory of people we have loved is even harder. And I didn’t want anyone to think we had done this deliberately to try to emotionally manipulate anyone into giving more. This isn’t “your grandmother was a saint and she would given more than you”.

But as I thought about it, I really came to appreciate the beauty of talking about stewardship and talking about our whole lives. I’ll tell you why.

One of the traditional readings for All Saints’ is the Beatitudes, which you just heard. Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the merciful. In other words, blessed are people who, in reality, are nothing like me. I want to be all those things, but I stumble on a daily basis.

And on All Saints’ my flaws are front and center. Martin Luther said that we are all simultaneously both saint and sinner, but I can testify that my saint is far outweighed by my sinner. And this talk of saints…those are the holy people, the ones who seem to walk around with halos on their heads. That’s not me.

But our faith says something a little different. We believe that people are not saints in life, no matter how good they are. We are all imperfect. But we teach that when we die, we don’t become angels like Hallmark tells you. Instead, we become saints.

In fact, the biggest barrier between you and becoming a saint is not that you are imperfect…it’s that you are still alive.

There will come a day when we will all leave this life. We do not have to fear that day. We belong to a merciful God who has given us extraordinary grace. And on that day we will find that we have joined the great Communion of Saints.

And so, that means that we, you and I, are saints-in-training, whether we believe we are worthy of that title or not. We are not going to get it entirely right this side of the kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take our work of preparing for sainthood seriously.

Mary Luti, who some of you know from her writing, once said that the best way to learn to be a Christian was not by reading more theology. Instead, it was by studying other people. In particular, she said to study the people whose lives and faith you admire, and then do likewise.

So, who have been your saintly teachers? Who have been the people who have taught you just a little more about what it means to live a life of faith?

For me, one of them was a man named Sammy Clark. Sammy was my college chaplain, and some of you might remember that I flew to Georgia for his funeral when he died suddenly last spring. I met Sammy when I was a college freshman, and a new Christian, and he changed my life. He’s the one who set me on the path to ministry.

I was one of many who learned from him, and recently I wrote this about him in a daily devotional:

a4fb6569-cfd6-4d1f-9c2bcf530126d85a

Rev. Sammy Clark

“As a college chaplain Sammy loved, and was loved by, everyone. He advised a fraternity that was perennially about to get kicked off campus while at the same time affirming gay kids coming out long before it was culturally acceptable. He prayed with us on Wednesday nights in the chapel and then snuck out back to smoke the cigarettes that his Methodist ordination was supposed to ban.

Sammy was good, but he wasn’t perfect. He was a human being who messed up, just like all of us. And he wasn’t a saint in life. Had anyone suggested that he was, he would have broken out in a grin, shook his head, and laughed.

But Sammy is a saint now.”

Those of us who knew him are better for it. And so on this first All Saints’ Sunday without him, I give thanks for him. And I give thanks for the way he used his life.

Sammy taught me about being a good steward of the life I had been given. He taught me that we are called to give not just parts of our lives, but every bit of it, back to God.

Sammy had left an Ivy League PhD program in English to go to seminary. In the late ’50’s, instead of becoming an English professor, he went back home to south Georgia and worked for Civil Rights. But he still always loved poetry, and it’s a poem that reminds me about what he taught us about that kind of life.

Mary Oliver writes in “The Summer Day” these words:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So tell me…God has given you this life. This “one wild and precious life”. What is it you plan to do with it?

Whatever your answer is, that is stewardship. It’s that simple. And it’s that hard. Stewardship is nothing less than figuring out what you will choose to do with every moment, and every gift you’ve been given, in your “one wild and precious life”.

On this All Saints’, I give thanks for the saints in my life who have taught me with their lives about how to choose well. Amen?

Good Seeds. Good Soil: Sermon for October 30, 2016

Note: This is the second installment of a sermon series on stewardship. For last week’s please read: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/23/why-did-the-samaritan-cross-the-road-a-sermon-for-stewardship-kick-off-sunday/

I know nothing about gardening. Years ago when I was moving from Atlanta my mentor gave me a plant that she had kept alive in her office for years. It was a really beautiful Easter lily that I had watched bloom year after year, and she wanted me to have it.

And so, I took it, and I remember holding it and thinking, “you are beautiful…and I am going to kill you.”

I did. Not maliciously. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I watered it. I put it in a window where it got sunlight. But I was in graduate school and working and I was barely home, so I kept forgetting to water it, and one day I looked and it was clear that there was just no way life was coming back from the now-dusty soil.

My ancestors were farmers, and I’m sure they would probably be mortified to know I share their genes. And even now people give me plants and they say “oh, these are so easy to take care of…you’ll be fine” and I’m like “you have no idea what I’m capable of”.

So, when it comes to gardening, farming, or planting, I have very little real world experience and even less success. But it’s the language of seeds, and soil, and growing that Jesus often uses when he’s teaching his disciples.

That’s not surprising. He was speaking the language of his time. The people listening depended on the land for their food and survival, and they were more intimately connected to it than those of us who can just walk into the grocery store and fill our shopping carts.

And so he told them two stories that they would appreciate. The first was about a farmer who went out to plant. He took seeds and scattered them. Some of the seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it before it could even take root. And other seeds ended up in the rocks, but still managed to bloom. The only problem was that the soil was too rocky for the plants to get rooted, and so they withered and died. And other seed was thrown into the weeds, and so as soon as it grew the weeds choked it and it died.

But some seed…some…fell on good soil. This was rich, well-cultivated, nourishing soil. And it put down good roots, and it blossomed and thrived. In fact, Jesus said it grew to over 100 times its size.

So what’s the message? If you try to plant something that you want to grow and flourish, you have to put it in good soil. You don’t put the seed in with rocks, or weeds, or dusty roads…you save it for the good earth that will nourish it. That way it will thrive. Even I, in all of my gardening ineptitude, can understand that.

That’s the first part of the story. Later in the same teaching Jesus tells another story, also involving seeds. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”. Now, a mustard seed is a tiny little seed that you wouldn’t think much of. You wouldn’t think it could grow into anything. But when you plant it, it becomes a thriving plant. Jesus says it’s so big that even birds come and nest in it. It’s amazing that something so inconsequential could grow into something so mighty.

So, if the first story was about the power of good soil, this one is about the power of good seeds. And Jesus is telling us that if we have good soil, and we have good seeds, we can grow incredible things.

This is the second week of our stewardship sermon series and, like I told you last week, this isn’t about why you should give to the church. I made my case about that last week. But I wanted to preach this series because I believe stewardship is the greatest outward manifestation of our faith.

I’m not just talking about how we use our money there, though that’s part of it. Instead I’m talking about stewardship like I explained it last week, which is about how we use, how we manage, every good gift that has been given to us. That can be money, but it’s also about our time, our abilities, our presence, and more.

All of these things are limited. None of us is given an unlimited supply of money, or hours, or talents. And so every choice we make in life about how we use these precious resources is an act of stewardship. Every single choice.

To put it another way, God has given each of us packets of seeds that only we get to choose how we plant. And these seeds may not look like much on their own. Maybe they’re no bigger than mustard seeds. But when we choose to plant them in good, rich soil, they can grow into something incredible.

But, how do we decide where to plant? And what if we doubt that our seeds can really grow into something worth planting?

About a year ago Heidi and I decided to look at our giving in a deliberate way. We both feel incredibly grateful for certain people and places that have changed our lives in real ways through the years. And I believe gratitude is one of the most life-changing attitudes we can adopt. It can completely transform your life. And part of being grateful is learning to say thank you.

I wanted to say thank you to the places that had shaped me, particularly when I was younger. And so I decided that I would make small monthly gifts to my college, and my seminary. We also wanted to support other things we loved, like public radio, and Star Island, and so we set up monthly automatic giving for that.

Lastly, I wanted to show gratitude to that mentor I had in my twenties, ironically the same one who gave me that plant. Don’t worry…my thank you did not involve any living thing. Instead, I make a small monthly gift to the non-profit where she works, one whose work she believes in deeply.

Sometimes I look at my bank account, and I feel badly that I can’t give more. I look at those monthly gifts and I think “that really won’t buy them much…maybe some copier paper…maybe a book.” It’s easy to ask, “What’s the point?”

But then I remember the mustard seed, and how something so small can grow and flourish. And I think about how my seeds are just a few scattered with so many others. And I give thanks for all the planters who have found this good place, and chosen to commit what they have been given to the soil. Together we are growing something great.

On another note, I also look at what fields need more seeds, and which are already well-seeded. I’ll give you an example. I absolutely love my college. I am so grateful for what I learned there and who I am because of it. So I show that gratitude with my monthly gift. But here’s the catch…my college has a $6.6 billion endowment. It’s one of the largest in the country. I’m happy to give what I can, but I know they’re going to be okay no matter what.

My seminary, on the other hand, does not have a multi-billion dollar endowment. They do okay, but they depend on individual alums and others to give generously in a way that my college doesn’t. And so, though I value both schools equally, I feel like giving a little more to my seminary is the right thing to do. Both schools have good soil, but one is already heavily planted and the other needs good seeds. And so, I feel like I can make a real impact.

I’ve been talking about money here, but this is about more than just our financial gifts. This is also about where we plant the other seeds we’ve been given too. Where do we invest our time? Where do we put our talents to good use? Where do we plant our very hearts?

The places where we plant these things, these good seeds that we have been given, they say more about us than we know. The soil we choose to work in tells the world what we value, and who we are. And most of all, it says that we believe in the potential of every good thing that God has given to us, no matter how small, to grow into something incredible.

fullsizerender
About a week ago I was given a visible reminder of how true this can be. I was standing in the parsonage driveway, looking at the large chestnut trees that hang over it. Tootie Cole, who holds a lot of institutional memory of this place, happened just then to walk up. And she said to me “these are George Booth’s chestnut trees”.

George Booth was the pastor of this church from 1956-1967. And sometime in his tenure, 50 or 60 years ago now, he planted some small chestnut trees at the parsonage. Today they are tall, and strong, and every fall they drop their chestnuts onto the cars of the pastors who now serve here.

George Booth is gone now, but this church remains. And so do his trees, which still bear good fruit. He planted other good seeds here too. But that’s not just true of pastors. That’s true of every person who in the past 378 years has passed through the doors of this church, opened their hands to reveal the good seeds God has given to them, and then decided this was worthy soil in which to plant. What they sowed, we harvest. And what we sow will be enjoyed not just by us, but by generations untold.

That’s true for this good soil, and it’s true of every other place that your life touches. And so, look at the seeds that God has given to you. Give thanks for each one. And then, find places that are worthy of them, and, with hope and faith, plant your seeds and your heart in that good soil. Amen?

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?

Heart, Treasure, and Procrastination: Sermon for August 7, 2016

Luke 12:32-40
12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

12:33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

12:35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;

12:36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

12:37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

12:38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

12:39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.

12:40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

When I was in college I was a seriously epic procrastinator. If I had a paper due for a class, I wouldn’t even think of it until a few days beforehand. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t start it until the night before. Okay, honestly, sometimes I didn’t start it until the morning of.

It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s just that there were things that I cared about even more. Like hanging out with friends. And concerts. And parties. And, well, just about every other aspect of college life that didn’t revolve around the classroom.

This is not an academic plan that I would recommend to any of our youth, but I did well enough to get through college and on to seminary. And over the years I transformed from a first-rate procrastinator to someone who actually writes voluntarily. I think my 20 year old self would have a good laugh at that today.

I was thinking about my old habits of procrastination while reading today’s Scripture. Jesus is talking to his disciples and he tells them two things in particular that I want to look at today. First, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” and second, “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit”.

In other words, invest in what you love, and stop procrastinating about it.

I write these days not because anyone is telling me to do so, but because I feel this deep joy in writing. It feels like a place where I can use my gifts, and find my voice. And, unlike in college, I can pick my topics. I’m not writing about T. S. Eliot and some obscure stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” anymore.

Instead I’m writing about what it most important to me, and about what I feel like the world needs to hear. That’s how I got out of bed a couple of hours early when I was writing my book. That’s why I was willing to invest far more energy in writing it than I’ll ever get back in royalties. It wasn’t about the external rewards of a good grade or money. It was about something much more motivating than that.

Today I only write about things I feel some urgency about. I am, at my core, and introvert. But after a lifetime of keeping quiet about what mattered most to me, I decided about six years ago that I wasn’t going to do that anymore.

I knew I was a decent writer, but I had never used that gift much before. I always thought to myself “someday”. But if finally became clear that “someday” may never come unless I did something about it.

And so I started blogging and, though it scared me to death, I started putting things out into the world. I decided I couldn’t sit back and hope other people would do the right thing anymore. I had to start standing up and saying what was on my heart.

In other words, for me, writing is a way of putting my treasure, a skill that has been given to me, where my heart is, and it is a way of lighting my lamp and being ready.

Now, that’s just my journey. I share it as an example from my own life. But I share it because I think all of us wrestle with two things: putting our treasure where our heart is, and not procrastinating about it.
That first part, about our treasures, is a constant challenge for all of us. I’ve quoted before the Billy Graham line about how if you want to know what you really worship, you should just look at your checkbook. I’ve added my own amendment, which is that you should also look at your planner.

We all are given gifts by the grace of God. We are given time, we are given resources, we are given abilities. And we are also given the free will to choose how and where we will use them. We can choose to totally squander them. Or, we can put them to use in order to further what we believe in.

Jesus asks us to take our treasure, and invest it in the places it is needed the most. Don’t horde it up for yourself. Don’t hide it away out of fear. Don’t waste it. Instead, put it to work. Put your very heart in Christ’s mission in this world, because as Jesus tells us, that’s the only way to keep it safe. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

In other words, you cannot hold on to the things you love the most without destroying them and yourself in the process. They must be shared with the world.

This week on Star Island reminded me of the importance of that. Star Island is a very special place. Over the past hundred years generations of people have given of their time and talents and treasure to keep it going. I was keenly aware this week that I was benefitting from the generosity of people who had died long before I was born.

13920818_10101267949740398_3507104048652316349_n

The front lawn on Star Island.

I want Star Island to be there for the next generation too. And so every month a small amount of money comes out of my bank account and goes to support the island. The same is true for my college, my seminary, public radio, my mentor’s ministry, and a few other places. These are not big gifts. They might buy some copier paper or something. But, my heart is in all of these places, and so I want my treasure to be there also.

I know that’s true of so many of you too. You are generous people who look around, see places that are doing good in this world, and give of your time, talents, and treasure. For many of you, this church is one of those places. You know that for over 375 years others have put their treasures into this place, and so you now give yours. Not because you have to. But because your heart is here.

So, that’s the first part: aligning our treasure, our gifts of every kind, with what is most important to our heart. But here’s the second, trickier part: doing it now.

Jesus tells us to “be dressed for action and have our lamps lit”. He says we do not know the time when he will come back. And so, we must stay “alert” and “ready” because “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”.

Some read this text and believe this literally means Jesus is coming back at any time so look alive. That sounds pretty serious. But I think it’s much more serious than that.

Because I don’t think this is about Jesus popping back into the picture once and for all in order to settle all the scores. I think this is about the million little ways that Jesus pops into our everyday lives and we don’t even realize it. I think this is about how God shows up when we least expect it, and how we have to be ready to respond.

In other words, this is about urgency. It’s about the need for us to stop procrastinating, and start figuring out our priorities before we miss the incredible things that God is calling us to.

Procrastination when it comes to writing college papers isn’t such a huge issue. But when it comes to our lives, and aligning them with what really matters to us, it is a matter of whether we are truly living, or just surviving. And Christ invites us into life.

And so, I leave you with this challenge this week: take some time between this Sunday and next to think about the places, and people, and causes that have your heart. And then, ask if they also have your treasure. I don’t just mean financial treasure there. I mean your time, your talents, your passion, your love.

If they don’t, then this is your chance to fix that. This is your chance to take what God has given to you, and to use it to respond to God’s call. This is your chance to align your heart and your life, and to rely on God to make it work.

Step out in faith. Take a risk. Take your treasures from their hiding places, and put them to work for something you believe in. Not next year, not next week, not tomorrow. It’s time to give yourself permission to let your heart lead. Amen?

In Defense of the Building: A Case for Not Selling Your Church Property Just Yet

It seems like every week I hear someone in the wider church say, “You know, the church is more than the building.”

This is often said in a rather condescending tone, with the sense that the speaker is delivering some novel piece of wisdom. It’s often followed with a line like, “I mean, Jesus never had a building.” Or, “Think of all the ministry we could do if we just sold our buildings and gave the money away!”

I always want to say, “Do you honestly think most Christians don’t know that?”

True, we are often a little too fond of our buildings. We are willing to wage million-dollar capital campaigns to fix aging structures while at the same time letting the associate pastor go for lack of funds. Or, we treat them like our own homes, locking them up tightly, except for a few hours on a Sunday morning.

I have known of many churches like that. Churches that, frankly, do not deserve their buildings. Because if a church is using the building only for themselves, and if they have made it the modern equivalent of a golden calf, they really have little business calling themselves a church.

I know congregations hanging on with ten people in the pews on Sunday morning and another church just down the road. They pump their money into the building and wonder why no one ever comes.

You probably know of them too.

Please hear me; I am not talking about those churches. Those buildings could often see more ministry by being better used as housing for the homeless, offices for nonprofits, or meeting spaces for 12 Step groups.

But I’m worried that in our quest to rid ourselves of buildings, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to be in right relationship with our buildings. They should be tools, not false idols.

I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it.

While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional.

But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween.

I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.

I don’t believe that this is going against Jesus’ will for the church. However, I do believe Jesus was pretty clear about using the house of God for the wrong purposes.

When the moneylenders set up shop outside the doors of the Temple, Jesus cared enough about the Temple to flip those tables over. The Temple, in and of itself, was not a bad place. What was happening in and around the Temple was what desecrated it.

And so, I take caution from that story. I know that a building is only as useful to the people of God as what we are using it for. If it becomes a place where we fulfill only our own needs, or where we mistakenly focus our worship, it is an albatross around the neck of our faith. We would do well to rid ourselves of it and look seriously inward.

But if we live in right relationship with our buildings, we can use them as incredible tools for ministry. We can use our buildings as signs that we are rooted and planted in our communities, and that we are not going anywhere. We are committed to our neighborhood because we are built into the neighborhood’s own streets. And we exist not just in our towns but for our towns.

So look again at your church’s building. And now visualize all the ways it can be used.IMG_5845

Could that same room that holds coffee hour on Sundays host 12 Step meetings? Could the Sunday school rooms host after-school programs? Could the basement host free washing machines for those who can’t afford them? Could the sanctuary double as a space for free lectures? And could that big piece of land out back be made into a community garden for the food pantry?

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of everything we have been given. Sometimes, that may mean letting go of it. But other times it just takes looking at all we have been given in a new way, and being open to use these tools for good.

Afflicting the Comfortable: Another Take on Psalm 23 – Sermon for April 17, 2016

If someone were to say to you, quote a line from the Psalms, chances are good that the first answer that popped into your head would be something from Psalm 23. That’s not surprising. There are 150 Psalms, and yet this is the one we all seem to know. And often we can recite it, amazingly, in 16th century English, with “leadeth”, and “restoreth”, and “maketh” and all.

In six lines, the Psalm says something that seems to comfort us. It points to a God who is protective and giving. One who keeps us safe. One who leads us down the right path. And when I was a hospital chaplain, when I asked people if they would like to hear a particular passage from Scripture, nine times out of ten, they asked for this one.

When I talk to people about funerals, either their own, or that of someone they loved, they ask for this Psalm too. Because unlike perhaps any other piece of Scripture, Psalm 23 gives us comfort in the most difficult of times. The Psalm reminds us that our comfort comes from God. It comes from the God who allows us to say that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

So, to be honest with you, that’s why for a long time I could not stand this Psalm. After years of being a chaplain, I just sort of thought of it as the Psalm you read when someone was sick or dying, and I really only thought about it then.

I mean, really, nearly every time you hear this Psalm something bad is happening, right?

And that’s okay. I think in times of pain, in times when we are asking why, in times when nothing makes sense, the words we have relied on in our hardest times come back to us. Words like “the Lord is my shepherd”.

And that’s a gift. We need that assurance. We need to know that God is here with us, and that God will comfort us, and that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. We need to hear those words, because they are true. And they are true especially in our hardest times.

But, it would be a mistake to just think of this as the funeral Psalm, or the Psalm you read when times are hard.

When I was in college I heard a priest say once that the job of the preacher was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. That still resonates at some level. If you come to church and you are in pain, I do hope you find comfort in what is said here. But if you come to church and you are completely comfortable, and completely unmotivated to make this world better for others, then I hope you leave a little afflicted.

I’ve sometimes wondered if the same is true of the Psalms. I wonder if they too are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

picmonkey_image
Like I said, almost every time I plan a funeral, the reading of Psalm 23 is requested. But the fact Psalm 23 has been relegated mostly to funerals is a tragedy. Because this Psalm isn’t about death; it’s about living fearlessly and in abundance.

The shepherd of the Psalm, who is God, is described as someone who can lead us through the scariest of places, all the while casting aside our fear. And God fills our cups, not just until there is enough, but until they overflow with so much goodness that we can’t help but share it.

That’s a good word for those of us who are so comfortable we could use some affliction. And, to be clear, that’s most of us, at least some of the time. We all have moments when we can use a little comfort but, whether we admit it or not, we also have moments where our cup overflows with abundance.

And so when our cup is overflowing the question that remains is who do we then follow? Who will be our shepherd through life? Will it be the one who has filled our cups to overflowing? Or will it be something else? In other words, can we really say with all honestly and conviction that “the Lord is my shepherd”?

Before you answer that, know that there are many shepherds out there you can choose. You can choose the shepherd of fear, who tells you that you will never be enough. You can choose the shepherd of anger, who reacts to the world with rage. You can choose the shepherd of greed, who tells you that you need more. Or you can choose the shepherd of narcissism, who tells you that you are the only one who matters on the path.

And there are countless other shepherds as well, all vowing for your time and attention. And, even if we believe that we are independent of their influence, the reality is that we are all following some sort of shepherd in this life. And, too often, they are leading us down the wrong paths.

And so, when we proclaim instead that the Lord is our Shepherd, we are saying something extraordinary. We are saying that we are not going to get lost anymore. We are saying that even as God leads us through territory that is so foreign and vast that it feels like we are in the “valley of the shadow of death”,you also know that you are still with God, and there is nothing to fear.

God does not promise us that if we follow we will always have an easy journey. Psalm 23 isn’t a warm and fuzzy affirmation of an easy life. But God does say that even when we are on those new and unfamiliar roads God will be there with us, leading us through.

And so, I also want to say this. What is true for individuals is so often also true for churches.

I think churches could learn from Psalm 23. Because in a time when so many churches are drawing inward, afraid of an unknown future, and clinging to the “hope” of austerity measures, and “wait and see” fearfulness, the Psalm offers us a radical alternative. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith. And follow the one who can lead you through the darkest valleys and make them seem like they were well-lit sidewalks.

Some of you know that my first parish ministry call was to a two point charge in Vermont. One church was relatively healthy, but the other was not. For nearly 200 years it had been a thriving small town church, and the center of the town. But those days were long gone. By the time I got there, my work was to help the church to close its doors and merge with the other church in a graceful way.

At that time a good Sunday morning was one in which the attendance was in the double digits. As in, ten people. Counting the organist and me. And it was rarely a good Sunday morning.

I wanted to understand why this had happened, and so did a lot of research into the history, going back even before any of the people who were left, because the truth was that the few who were left had come after the damage had been done. And as I looked deeper, I found out that there had been a time when the church’s cup had indeed overflowed in every sense of the word. But decades before, instead of sharing that abundance and using it in creative ways, fear had ruled the day. The church had turned more and more inward, and more and more fearful about its own future.

It was like as this cup overflowed they were trying to put all of that abundance and grace back in so they could hang onto it. They kept trying to build a bigger cup, instead of using what they had been given. They were so afraid of a future when they would not have enough that instead of looking at all they had as a blessing and gift to share with others, they saw it as something to fearfully store up for themselves.

And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, decades later those fears came true. Just not in the ways they thought they would.

At the end of the church’s life they had a whole lot of money in the bank account, a nice building that was hardly ever open except on Sunday mornings, next to no one in the pews, and most importantly, no one in the community being served beyond the doors of the church.

That’s not our situation. At all. But it’s a constant reminder for me. I don’t believe anyone ever consciously chose or even wanted that future for that church. But somehow, over the course of decades, that’s where they wound up. And so, I promised myself that no matter where I pastored next, I would tell that story. Because it’s too easy to have the best of intentions, and to end up there.

And so, I always want to say to churches the same thing I want to say to individuals: don’t wait until your funeral to live out this Psalm. This should not be your deathbed prayer. This should be the proclamation you make as you rise every morning: the Lord is my shepherd…I shall not fear.

And so, whether on your own path or on this path we walk together, live out that kind of faith everyday. God has already given you more than you need. You have an abundance. You have enough. Don’t be afraid to use it. Live boldly, follow the Good Shepherd, and you, and we, will indeed live. 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?