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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Gifts

Luke 18:18-30

How do you know what someone really believes? Do you ask them? Do you find out how they think? Do you find out what they feel? How do you find out what someone really believes to be true and trustworthy in their life? How do you find out what a business believes? What a school believes? What a country believes? What a church believes?

The English word belief, said the late South Georgia preacher and New Testament scholar Clarence Jordan, “comes from the old Anglo-Saxon be, which means ‘by,’ and lief, which means ‘life.’ What one lives by is actually his belief or his by-life.”[1] Jesus had another way of putting this. He said that our lives were like trees, and that we would be known by the fruits, by the products of our lives. In other words, no matter what we say we believe or feel we believe or think we believe, the way we live our lives — the priorities we give for our time and our money and our attention — is the truest statement of what we believe. How well we talk the talk is irrelevant — what finally tells everyone who we are is how we walk the walk.

That, it seems to me, is the compelling difference between the lives of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. After her tragic death, much was made of Diana’s compassion for the poor, and her qualities as a mother. All that may be true. It is also true that the Princess spent the majority of her time not working with the poor but jet-setting with the extremely wealthy. She died not with her children but with her multi-millionaire playboy lover. Mother Theresa, on the other hand, was not known for her speeches or her appearance, but for a life spent with the poor and homeless and dying. Diana and Theresa verbally and emotionally shared many of the same causes, but their by-lives could hardly have been more different.

When the rich young man comes to Jesus, he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus immediately points him to God, the One who alone is truly good. If the man’s life were centered in God alone, he would not wonder about eternal life. But this is not where the man is, so Jesus points him to the commandments. Keep the commandments, Jesus says. While Jesus cites the commandments about adultery and stealing and killing, once again Jesus is really pointing the man to the central issue, which is the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. Incredibly, the man answers Jesus, “Been there, done that. I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a child. What else do you want me to do?”

It has long seemed to me that churches should be chapters of Sinners Anonymous. Like any Twelve-Step Group, when one of us gets up to speak, we should begin by saying, “Hello, I’m Brooke, I’m a sinner.” But instead of the Twelve-Step response – “Hello, Brooke!” – we should say, “In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.” I once asked the members of a church to turn to each other in the pew and say, “Hello, my name is (fill in the blank), and I’m a sinner,” and then respond with forgiveness. A woman named Marcie said she turned to the woman next to her and followed the instructions, and the woman responded, “You know, I really don’t sin.” Marcie grabbed her hand and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”

That’s just what the young man is saying to Jesus. "I live this perfect life — my belief system is impeccable. Now, why do I keep feeling as though something is missing?”

The real issue is not what we feel or think, but how we live our lives, Jesus is about to say. Elsewhere he had said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. . . You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money at the same time.” So, seeing that the man is very wealthy, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the money to the poor, find his treasure in heaven, and follow Jesus.” This is the real bottom line. What must the man do? He must live his life completely at God’s disposal. Now, what the young man wants is something to think or to feel. He wants a magic phrase that is the key to life. What he gets is not a thought or a feeling. He is told to live his life completely at God’s disposal. And, for him, that means the only way he can stop trusting his wealth is to get rid of it.

I learned a long time ago that if you really want to know what a church believes, you don’t look in The Book of Discipline or in back copies of sermons or in mission statements on the wall or what people say. If you really want to know what a church believes, look at how it spends its money. If it spends most of its money on fixing up an empty building, or in paying salaries, and spends little on ministry and mission, that is its real by-life. By the same token, if you want to know what a nation or a business or a school believes, look at how it spends its money. And, if you want to know what a person believes, don’t ask what they think or what they feel. Look at how they spend their money. That is the most accurate indicator of what we really think will bring us eternal life.

Money is the great conversational taboo in church and in life. We talk much more easily about sex and drugs and crime and shame than we do about money. Jesus, on the other hand, talks a lot about money, and how it is the most significant obstacle to eternal life. Being rich, Jesus tells his disciples, is not a sign of God’s favor, as they had supposed. Wealth is an obstacle to faith, because it is so easy to trust in our possessions to give us happiness and meaning and life.

When we join the Body of Christ, we give our whole selves to God’s service through the Church. We have talked the last two weeks about what it means to surrender our prayers and our physical presence. The third promise of membership is our placing our gifts, including our financial gifts, completely at God’s disposal. It is not that God wants his cut, and then we can do what we want with the rest. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God. How we spend every penny is a sign of our by-life. The kind of food we buy, the kind of amusements we enjoy, the kind of house we live in, the kind of clothes we wear, as well as the amount we give away to the needy are all signs of our by-life. In the early days of Methodism, Methodists were ridiculed by the world because they wore plain clothing, lived in simple houses, wore no jewelry, participated in no activities that did not glorify God. But they also cared for the poor and the imprisoned and the lonely and the lost. There was no question about what they believed, because of their by-lives.

Let’s get specific. The Biblical standard for giving was the tithe — ten percent. Now, it is true that was before income and state and local tax and health insurance and social security. But it’s still the standard. I know that it is possible to tithe, and still have enough money to waste, because I do both. For some of you, tithing would be impossible — you could not put food on the table and keep your house warm. For some of you, tithing is not enough: the ninety percent you have left is far more than is necessary for your needs. This week, I want each of you to figure out what percentage of your income you give to the church. I know about Scouts and Red Cross and the Rescue Squad and Habitat for Humanity. I give to those, too. If you give one percent to the church, can you give two? If you give four percent, can you give five? And if you tithe, God bless you — but what are you doing with the rest?

If every member of this congregation would give five percent – half a tithe -- of their income to the church, we wouldn’t need an extra financial campaign to pay off our new building. We wouldn’t need the Stewardship Campaign at all. And if every member of this congregation would put not five or ten but one hundred percent of their gifts at God’s complete disposal, then our by-life would transform this community in unbelievable ways to the glory of God.

What do we really believe? Whom do we really trust? The answer isn’t in what we think or what we feel. It’s really in how we spend our money.

[1] Jordan, Clarence, The Substance of Faith, ed. Dallas Lee, Association press, NY, 1962, pp. 42-43

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Service

Matthew 25: 14-30

I want to tell you a story about my family. It’s a good story, especially with Halloween coming up. My mother’s maiden name, believe it or not, was Carolyn Wilson — with one L. When she married my father, she became Carolyn Wilson Willson, and we lived on Wilson Avenue — one L — in Baltimore. She grew up on a farm in Dorchester County, Maryland, which is still owned by my aunt. The patented name of the farm is “Hackett’s Adventure,” named after Thomas Hackett, who was one of my ancestors. The northern border of the farm is a small stream called Puckum Branch, and the farm is more familiarly called “Puckum.”

My great-great grandfather was Benjamin Hackett, who lived at Puckum with his wife, Bethany, and his children. One day his daughter passed by the door to a room in the house, and, looking through the partially opened door, saw her father sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of money, counting it. She went to her mother, who came and watched silently with her.

Not long afterwards Benny became ill, and it was clear he would not survive the next day. As he lay on his deathbed, his loving wife and daughter asked him what he had done with all the money they had seen him counting. With his last breath, he laughed and said, “I’ll be sitting on top of the tallest tree in Puckum watching over that money.” Before long, he died, never telling anyone what had happened to the money. Now, here’s the Halloween part: Benny was buried in the family cemetery behind the barn. And rising from the center of his grave is a tall cedar tree.

Little boys used to play Pirate, and pretend they were searching for buried treasure. I had my own pirate game, in which I would find Benny's buried loot. Alas, no one in the family has ever found the money, so we continue to live not by Benny’s fortune, but by great-great-Aunt Hettie’s Law: There’s no sense in being poor and acting poor too.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is about the difference between using and burying treasure. A biblical talent is an enormous, nearly incalculable amount of money — roughly equal to fifteen years average wages. Let’s take my average wage, and multiply it by fifteen: it’s just under a million dollars. A rich man going on a journey divides his wealth among his servants, each according to their ability. He gives the first servant about five million dollars. He gives the second two million dollars. He gives the third “only” about a million dollars. The first two men invest the money. They put it to work. Thanks to compounded interest, a reduction in the capital gains tax, and a booming stock market in small cap funds, the result of this investment is that each doubles his original investment, with which the master is delighted when he returns.

The third and least able servant still has an enormous gift to manage. In fear of his master, whom, he says, “harvests where he does not plant and gathers where he does not winnow,” he buries the one talent, like Benny Hackett. The irony of the story is that if the master truly “harvests where he does not plant and gathers where he does not winnow,” then the master clearly expects the talents to be planted and invested and to grow. The third servant acts contrary to the character of the master by protecting the one talent and burying it for protection. It is the first two servants who in fact take the least risk with their master, because they follow his example. The third servant acts least like the master, and suffers for it, regardless of how safe the talent is.

The English word talent, which we define as a natural ability or aptitude, actually crept into our language from this story. The Greek word for talent is talenton. There was no other word for translators to use — no English equivalent for fifteen years wages.

Every single person ever born has received gifts from God that God expects to be used as part of the Body of Christ. Some of us have many gifts. Some of us have few. Some gifts are obvious, and some are hidden. But every single one of us, says Ephesians 4:12, has been given gifts for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all come to the fullness of Christ. The question is not whether we have gifts. The question is whether we’re going to put them to work, or whether we’re going to bury them on the farm until Jesus returns.

Now, let me provide some phrases for those of you who are looking around for shovels to bury your gifts.

I don’t have any gifts God can use. Then you are calling God a liar. And that is blasphemy. And so put yourself in the same place as the one talent servant — remember where he ended up.

I’m just not ready yet. As my favorite hymn, Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, says, if you wait until you’re ready, you will never come at all. The way to develop your gifts and get them ready is to use them. The third servant probably was waiting until he was ready, too.

I have no time. There is another parable about a rich fool who builds barns and houses for all his possessions, only to be told at the height of his power his life is being demanded of him. The man had confused time with eternity. You don’t have time to use your gifts for God? Then you’d better take a long hard look at what you are doing with your time, because you have an eternity to explain it.

I’ve done my part. It’s time to let someone else do something. If that’s true, then it’s not your talent you’re burying, it’s your life. Sorry, but no one gets to retire from the kingdom of God. No one gets to retire from being a disciple of Jesus Christ. This isn’t even a life-time commitment — it’s an eternal commitment. Besides, you’ve got an eternity to rest. Don’t stop now.

The parable makes clear that the master is coming to settle accounts with his servants. One day he will want to know what we have done with what he’s given us. Did we put it to work? Did we plant it and feed it and let it grow and feed people? Or did we preserve it carefully, burying it where no one could find it, harm it, or use it?

The irony of the parable is that the first and second servants aren’t risking their talents at all. They’re copying their master, who is always putting his gifts to work. It is the third servant who is taking a colossal gamble by failing to imitate his master and by burying his talent. When the master returns and finds the third servant unfaithful to the purpose of the talent, he casts him away into the outer darkness, where he will never have to worry again about being put to good use.

The biggest gamble of all is not to put our gifts to work in God’s service through his Body. And United Methodists, you know, never gamble.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Presence

Pentecost 20C, 2010 10/10/2010

1 Corinthians 12:14-27

On this second Sunday of October, the second Sunday of our Stewardship month, let’s look at the second promise we make when we become members of a United Methodist congregation. You’ll find those promises on page 38 of your Hymnal. Last week we talked about our promise to support the ministry of the congregation with our prayers. How did you do this week? Did you pray for our church? Did you pray for our leaders, our members, and our mission in the world? Did you pray about the Fall Festival – that you’d survive it? Did you pray that lots of people would come, that we’d have good weather, and that it would be a blast? See – prayer really works!

The second promise we make is to support the ministry of our congregation with our presence. That’s ce, not ts. That is we promise to show up. When we’re at home and not away, and when we’re well, we promise to show up. If you’re sick, we don’t want you here. And it’s good to get out of town now and then. But when you’re here and you’re well, we expect you to be here.

But why?

I sat in on a discussion about this with our youth a couple of Sundays ago. One of the issues we have when we talk about “church” is what we mean by that term. “Church” means a whole host of things – the building, Fall Festival, Sunday School, Bible Study, Youth Group, Choir, Vacation Bible School. It also means what we’re doing now. Except that what we’re doing right now is that part of church called “worship.” All worship is church, but not all church is worship.

Not once in the Bible does Jesus invite us to go to church. On the other hand, Jesus calls is to be his church – to be his Body of people in the world. The word “church” comes from the Greek word kyriakon, meaning “of the Lord,” as in kyriakon doma, “the Lord’s house.” It’s not a house of bricks and stone – it is the people who gather to agree in Christ’s name.

But, I heard someone say, can’t I be just as good a Christian by staying at home as by “going to church?” There’s that phrase again – “going to church” rather than “being the church.” You can’t be church by yourself. There is not a single instance in the Bible where a person encounters God and is not called into community. The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to unite God’s people into faithful community. Every depiction of heaven in the Bible is of vast community: of thousands of saints and countless angels gathered to praise God. That’s why the popular Christian song of a few years ago, I Can Only Imagine, bothers me: in the song, there’s no one in heaven except Jesus and the singer. That’s profoundly unbiblical: I expect to see apostles and prophets and saints and lovers of God, but also a whole lot of people I didn’t expect but who are there by the grace of God. I also firmly believe in the saying that all the dogs I’ve ever loved will meet me at the gates. Cats, I’m not so sure . . .

We use the word member, and we get it from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. Corinth was a church tearing itself apart because of infighting over spiritual gifts in the congregation: prophecy, healing, ecstatic tongues, interpretation of tongues, and other miracles. There were arguments, which persist two thousand years later, about which spiritual gifts are better, and which are required for salvation. Paul’s response to these arguments is to compare the church, God’s gathered people, to a human body. Just as our bodies have different parts with different functions – eyes, ears, mouth, hands, arms, feet, legs – not to mention parts we won’t mention but which Paul calls our “less honorable parts,” so God has given different gifts in the church to make up the whole Body of Christ. Yesterday was a wonderful example of the varied and interdependent parts of the Body of Christ. Not everyone made Brunswick Stew, not everyone baked, not everyone worked as cashiers, not everyone served lunch, not everyone made or sold candles, not everyone took out trash, not everyone directed traffic in the parking lot. Which of those gifts was the most important – aside from me making two rum cakes? What if a hundred of us decided to direct traffic, or all of us decided to collect money, or the whole church tended the fires under two stew pots? On the other hand, suppose Libby and Craig Smith decided to make and keep their candles at home, or Janet Brockwell decided she could better sort children’s clothes by playing golf, or Ralph Ishler decided he could make stew by going to a football game?

Paul uses the word member to mean a body part: a hand, leg, eye, or foot. That’s the original meaning of member: an integral part of a whole body, cooperating with other parts of the body to care for the whole body, not just itself. That is why, Paul says, the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ The foot cannot say, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the Body.’ We are connected to each other, and we depend on each other. Jesus says that if the vine becomes disconnected from the vine, it dies.

We live in a culture in which membership is not the prevailing understanding of the relationship of individuals to each other. Our culture teaches us that people are not primarily homo sapiens -- wise man, or homo religiosus – religious man, but that we are homo economus – economic man. The world teaches us that all of life can be divided into vendors and consumers. We are no longer members of our communities or our nation – we are consumers, unhappy because we’re paying too much and not getting what we want. We’re not members of our schools – we are consumers who aren’t getting what we want. We don’t belong to our workplaces – and our employers don’t treat us a family – our lives are ruled by laws of supply and demand, especially the vendor’s attempt to supply the cheapest possible goods for the highest possible price, and the consumer’s attempt to achieve exactly the opposite.

This is what people bring with them to church. I only attend worship – I’ll put money in the plate for that, but since I don’t go to Sunday School, I’m not going to help with that big new wing they built. Or, I don’t think worship is very exciting, so I’ll come to Bible Study but not worship. Or, I’ll be there on Sunday morning, but I’m not going to waste a beautiful fall Saturday stirring Brunswick stew or selling Kathleen Shultz’s coconut pies. There’s nothing in it for me.

Exactly. That’s the point. I’m going to ask you to do what I asked the youth to do two weeks ago: turn to the person on one side of you and say, It’s not about you. Now, turn to the person on the other side, and say, it’s not about you, either. This is about God. It’s not about you, or about me. It’s about God. For just one hour a week, could you come and tell God you think he’s wonderful, and listen to what he might want us to do together? Just one hour out of one hundred sixty-eight in a week, could you focus on somebody other than yourself, and something other than what you want? If you do, then maybe you could stretch it to two hours, or four, or ten, or twenty-four, or seventy-two. Do you think it might be a good thing if we learned to get over ourselves? Do you think it might be a good thing if we stopped being consumers, and started being members of something and someone bigger and better and more important than ourselves? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here, you know: getting over ourselves by putting Jesus first, others second, and ourselves a very distant third. We’re called to be interdependent members of the Body of Christ, not lonely, independent, voracious consumers.

An English priest went to the house of a man who had been separated from the church for a long time. The two of them sat down by the man’s fireplace, and talked about faith. Justifying himself, the man said, “Well, Father, I believe you can be just as good a Christian without going to church.” The priest said nothing, but after a moment, with the tip of his boot, pulled a coal away from the fire. As the red hot coal sat on the hearth, it cooled and turned black. After a few minutes the priest bent down, picked up the coal in his hand, examined it, and then threw it back in the fire. In a few minutes the coal was red hot again. There was a long silence before the wayward parishioner cleared his throat and said, “Father, I’ll see you at worship Sunday morning.”

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Standing On The Promises: Prayer

Matthew 21:18-22

This month I’d like us to consider, in five sermons, the promises we make when we become members of the United Methodist Church. Look, with me, at the service of baptismal covenant in your Hymnal, beginning on page 34. In baptism, the baptized or their parents or sponsors are asked about their faith: do you reject evil and repent of your sin; do you accept God’s power to resist evil; do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior. Then candidates are asked (line 6) if they will be faithful members of the Body of Christ and represent Christ in the world. Those answers, with baptism, make us members of the holy catholic universal church. On page 38, we become members of the United Methodist Church, promising to be loyal and to strengthen its ministries. Finally, at line 15, candidates are asked to do five things as a member of this congregation: to faithfully participate in its ministries with prayers, presence, gifts, and service. In 2008, General Conference added a fifth promise to that list: will you participate in the ministries of this congregation with your witness.

In the Fall of every year, we go through a process of deciding what our ministry will be for the coming calendar year. We nominate church leaders, we develop a budget, we evaluate what we’ve done the past year. It’s a time to measure ourselves. For the next five Sundays, I’d like us to look at what these five promises every one of us who’s a member of this congregation made. Today, what does it mean to faithfully participate in the ministries of this church with our prayers?

In the gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus is returning to Jerusalem from Bethany on Monday of Holy Week. He’s stressed by what he knows will happen to him, and he is hungry. He passes by a fig tree that is in leaf but has no fruit. “May no fruit ever come from you again,” he declares, and the tree instantly withers. When his disciples marvel at this event, Jesus tells them that if they have faith and pray, they will receive, no matter what obstacle — empty fig tree or mountain — confronts them.

This is a hard text. What has the fig tree done? In fact, it’s not even the season for figs – that would be in the summer, and this is the spring. Why does Jesus condemn the fig tree for not producing figs when it’s out of season?

It seems to me that Jesus is telling the disciples, and us, that fruitfulness for God is always in season. God doesn’t expect us just to be fruitful on Sundays, or when we’re distributing door hangers in Five Lakes, or at Bible studies. The real test of our faithfulness and fruitfulness is when we’re “out of season:” on vacation, at work, or school, or at play. Or maybe when we’re sick, or in the hospital. What kind of fruit do people see in you when you’re least expected to be producing fruit for God?

A vital prayer life makes us constantly fruitful: when we begin and end and saturate our days with prayer, it’s like living in a greenhouse of faith: we live in the light and warmth and rain of God without ceasing. That’s what the Bible means when it tells us to “pray without ceasing:” we bathe our days in conversation with God, so that everything we are and do is through the presence of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is why I began our conversation about The Promises of Membership with prayer. Prayer is absolutely the foundation for everything you and I do and are as disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus, more than anything else, was a man of prayer, and if we are going to follow Jesus, that is the absolutely best place to start. His conception in Mary’s womb begins with Mary’s prayer of praise to God. His last words on the cross are a prayer. He is constantly separating himself from the chaos around him to pray. He slips into conversation with his Heavenly Father as easily as you and I turn and talk to our best friend next to us. Jesus wraps every day and every action in a conversation with God. My Baptist preacher friend Charlie Barton says that sin is pretending God does not exist. That’s what it means when we say Jesus is without sin: there is never a moment in which Jesus pretends God does not exist.

I believe the healing of human beings, the healing of Christ’s church, the healing of this and any nation, and the healing of the cosmos can only happen when there is dedicated, deliberate, disciplined prayer. If you and I and all God’s people will commit ourselves to deep, daily, dedicated prayer, then we won’t have to worry about the economy and justice and politics and the environment and anything else. The mess we are in is because we do not pray. We do not surrender ourselves to the presence and the will of God. And anything I say about showing up and gifts and service and mission and anything else is a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal if you and I are not first and last and everything in between people of deeply committed prayer. So, as we begin this month of more deeply committing ourselves to the promises we made when we joined the church, will you join me in committing to deep, time-consuming, committed, prayer?

Now, how do we pray? In four ways:

Pray regularly. Create a regular meeting place and time with God. Of course we can pray to God anytime, anyplace. But if you create a special time and place for prayer every day, you will expect to meet God there. Expecting God, you will be more open to him. Like eating and exercising and working, it makes all the difference to have a disciplined pattern of prayer. Like they used to say on TV, same time, same place.

Pray in faith. Pray surrendering yourself to God. Trust that God will hear and respond. Faith, I like to say, is like swimming: you have to trust that the water will hold you up. Pray surrendering yourself to the fact that God loves you, hears you, and is answering you.

Pray with help. Surround your prayers with scripture, other holy readings, sacred pictures, music, and anything else that helps you be closer to God. If you will read some scripture before you pray, it will remind you of what God’s voice sounds like, so you’ll recognize it when he speaks.

Pray with listening. The telephone has a mouthpiece and an earphone. You can talk without ever being connected. It’s listening that proves we’re connected on the phone or in prayer. Listening to God is where we really become available to God.

Being available for God is what being a member of the church is all about. As we pray for our brothers and sisters in the church, as we pray for the ministry of the church, for the finances and the building and the work of the church, we are placing ourselves at God’s disposal.

Are you praying for this church? Are you praying for its members and its leaders? Are you praying for its mission and ministry? Are you praying for God to use you as God pleases? Are you praying to be fruitful for God, in season and out?

Well, you promised.