Moses knew that once his people lost sight of God, the image of themselves would get bigger and bigger. He tells us, “Don’t exalt yourself and forget the Lord, your God.”
It’s so easy to forget that the gifts we have — money, success, family — are all gifts from God. And as we begin to separate our gifts from God, we begin to think that our blessings are due 100 percent to our hard work. We begin to congratulate ourselves. And that self-congratulations eventually becomes conviction. And that conviction eventually becomes ideology. And that ideology eventually becomes oppression. Those gifts we have taken, but not been acknowledged as from God, take us from the edge of the promised land back then into the middle of the national tragedy we are in now.
People in power have taken the gift given to them and used it to oppress others. If they acknowledged those gifts came from God, they would use their power for good — to help the poor, to stand for the oppressed. if we recognize our gifts come from God, we will use those gifts to help the oppressed, to right wrongs, to spread love.
The worship of God should rattle the rafters of the church and change this world.
Psalm 118:1:Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!
Johnny Appleseed Blessing
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me,
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need
The sun, and the rain, and the apple seed
The Lord’s been good to me.
Each night before dinner, our family sings this short blessing. Looking back, I cannot remember when we gave up “God our Father” for “Johnny Appleseed,” but it has become a favorite and a mainstay at our dining table. Sometimes, just for the fun, the boys like to sing the blessing in different styles and accents, and if everyone is in an especially good mood, we might even shout “Amen” at the end or sing it an extra time. It has become a habit and a happy ritual during the busyness of the evening hours. No matter what my day has been like or what is going in the world, this time with my family makes me stop and pause and give thanks.
This simple blessing serves as a daily reminder that we have all we need and that the Lord has been good to us. Not only is this something that I hope our boys carry with them in their own lives as they grow and eventually leave our table, but I hope that they will share the spirit of gratitude with everyone that they come in contact with.
Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the many gifts you have bestowed on me. Help me to be thankful for what I have and allow me to use the gifts you have given me for good purpose and in your name. Help me to give thanks each and every day and share your joy with others. Amen
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Nov. 9, 2014
For the last several years in the final weeks of the Christian year, we have turned our attention to stewardship, and what it means for us to give back to the God who has so generously given to us. Stewardship is more than a monetary issue, as important as that aspect is to our continued existence and vitality. Stewardship is really about what we do with what we have after we say we believe. And we have much to share. When we join the church we make some promises about how we will use what we have – more than promises, we make some vows. Right off hand, do you know the difference between a promise and a vow? Both are pledges of assurance that we will or will not do something. But a vow is a promise made not just with another human being but also with God.
In our vows of membership, we promise to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Two years ago, in November 2012, BF – before the fire – we focused on prayer because it is foundational to everything we do.
A year ago in November 2013, AF – after the fire – we focused on presence. We’d had lost our church buildings to a fire – we were in a temporary location three miles away. There was no better time for us to concentrate on our vow of presence than during that limbo time. Presence is always important, we can’t be absent and be the church, but presence is more important than ever perhaps, as we commit ourselves to God, to the church, to one another, and to the world in our journey of faith.
This year we are focusing on the third of our membership vows – the promise to support the church with our gifts. Before we can give, however, we have to recognize and give thanks for how much we have been given. We had that opportunity last Sunday when we remembered and celebrated the gifts we have received from the saints in our lives. We know we are all beholden to someone. None of us is self-made, without the influence of another. We are the people we are today because of someone or several ones who influenced us in a positive way. Joel shared with us about his parents and the loving direction he has received from them throughout his life.
Today we are going to consider love as the motivation for giving. Sharon has shared how love motivates her in her work and she gives her time and talent to school children. Love is the only true reason to give; there may be others that distract us – dreary obligation, peer pressure, the desire for a tax deduction! But it’s love that has the power not only to bless the receiver but also the giver of the gift as Paul explains the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians.
This passage from first Corinthians is perhaps one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. It is a great favorite at weddings, and maybe that’s where you’ve most often heard it. Maybe it was read at your own wedding. But interestingly, Paul wasn’t writing to a young couple just starting married life together. He was writing to a congregation he’d founded in Corinth, writing in response to their request that he intervene and help them with the fighting and bickering that was tearing them apart. They were a very unloving group of people, divided into factions, each one thinking itself better than the other.
They were divided over the importance of their various spiritual gifts, with one group maintaining that the gift of speaking in tongues was the most important of the gifts. And there was heated debate over whether or not an interpreter should be provided to translate ecstatic speech so that the rest of the congregation could understand. In the chapter immediately preceding today’s reading, Paul reminds them that spiritual gifts are not meant to separate them into special or privileged groups, but are meant for service to the common good. And if they use their gifts appropriately, they will find themselves to be a part of that mystical, living, dynamic entity that he calls “the body of Christ.” Within the body of Christ it makes no difference whether their gift is flashy and obvious like speaking in tongues, or quiet and subtle, like caring for the sick, or offering hospitality to strangers. It takes all the parts, all together to compose the Body of Christ, and each is an indispensable and unique contributing member of it.
Paul concludes by saying something quite interesting. As they strive for greater gifts, he says, “I will show you a more excellent way.” What could possibly be more excellent than what he has already described – a community of faith intent on sharing their abilities, their gifts, and their graces for the common good – all for one and one for all. What could be better than that?
The more excellent way is to do all of those things with love. Love must be the motivation behind the right use of gifts; love is what makes them important at all. One can speak in everyday language, the tongues of people, or one can speak in ecstatic speech – the tongues of angels – and can be eloquent, able to communicate ideas and possibilities with great effectiveness, but if love is not the motivator of the speech, more often than not, communication is used for personal advantage and can divide and isolate, rather than bring together and unite.We don’t have to look far to see that do we?
Although I may not be happy with the outcome of the midterm elections, I am happy that they are over because of the terrible divisive, biased, half-truths that passed for electioneering in the last several months. What if our elected officials had been able to see their opponents as equally loved children of God, not as bumbling idiots or evil adversaries hell bent on destroying the country. What if their goal was the common good and not simply their own desires to gain power or to be elected?
Paul says we can have all kinds of prophetic powers, and be full of knowledge and information, but without love that knowledge can be used as a tool or a weapon to gain advantage of another. It can destroy rather than promote loving relationships and understandings among us. Paul doesn’t say that the intellect is worthless, we are, after all, to love God with our minds, but without love, it can become cold, calculating, self-serving, and dangerous
He says we can have all faith – but like eloquence and knowledge – faith without love is dangerous. It is what led to the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is what led our forebears to burn people at the stake as witches, or to affirm slavery and to proclaim one race as superior to another. The Westboro Baptist Church calls it faith when they protest at various public events, proclaiming God’s hatred for the LGBTQ, and God’s judgment on the United States. But true faith is meant to draw us closer to God and to one another, and God is love. Only when we act out of love do we reflect God in us. Faith that results in violence towards another person or group of people, or leads to intolerance of diversity, or indifference to the poor, or that supports injustice is counterfeit faith because it lacks love. When his speech or his faith lack love, Paul says, he does not become a better person, but is diminished by it. In fact he says, in that action “I am nothing.”
The same is true of giving. If we give away everything we have, even if we sacrifice our very lives for the cause, but do not do it out of love, we gain nothing. He doesn’t say that the gifts are worthless, or that the gifts are nothing. Gifts can be used for good regardless of their source. All gifts to God and God’s people can bring about good. If you win money in the lottery, don’t be ashamed, don’t hesitate one minute, to tithe to your church! Your ill-gotten gain can be used for good purposes! But here’s the thing – unless a gift is given out of love and the motivation for the giving is to bless another person and not ourselves, then giver loses out and gains nothing from the transaction. There is no blessing for the giver in the gift.
So that should make us stop and think rather closely about our motivation for all of our giving. There are some misguided reasons for giving; I mentioned a few earlier . Guilt, fear, obligation, peer pressure, even the desire for a greater tax deduction! But all of these are rather grim, grudging motives for giving that don’t lead to feeling blessed – harassed maybe, but not blessed! You know in your heart when you give with love – there’s a lightness there, not a heaviness. There’s joy there, not resentment. There’s freedom, not obligation. It makes you feel good! Those of you who serve at Our Daily Bread tomorrow and give your time to that effort will feel good about it when you leave, as though you have been given a gift far greater than the food that you helped to give. That is the blessing that comes to the giver from giving with love.
Or think about how you feel on Christmas morning when you watch your family open the gifts you have lovingly selected for them. When you give a gift to someone, you are really giving a part of yourself in those gifts. The concrete package is a representation of you and your affection. When they see the gift they think of you and when they think of you they think of love. And that is exactly why Paul insists that love must be our primary motivation for giving. Because that’s what God did — love is God’s concrete expression the in gift of Christ. “God so loved the world, that God gave . . .” “[i]Giving is our opportunity to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us.”
Love then is more than a feeling, more than a thought; it is action; it is behavior. It changes and blesses the one who gives as much as the one who receives. For me personally, I give to my children and grandchildren because I love them. I give to various charities because I love God’s people and want to have a small part in making life better for someone. I give to this church because I love God and I love you and I love the work that is done in and through our efforts. When we think about it, we all know from our experiences that gifts given out of love bear a double blessing – they bless those who receive and they bless those who give. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to share our love through the gifts we give and to be blessed in the giving. It is the more excellent way. Amen.
[i] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 631.
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Feb. 2, 2014
These twelve verses that we call “The Beatitudes” form one of the most often read and best known passages from the New Testament. They are the first words of what has come to be called “The Sermon on the Mount” found in chapters 5-8 of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew says that Jesus had been teaching and preaching throughout Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” And great crowds were following him everywhere he went.
So he takes time to go aside, as he often does when the crowds are around him. He goes up the mountain – and when Jesus goes up the mountain – important things tend to happen! In this instance, it is time to have a talk with his disciples to explain what they signed up for when they left their nets, or their counting house, or other endeavors to follow him. The crowds may have come along too; they may be listening at a distance, but this is a talk for the disciples. And the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth is blessing for those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful and pure in heart, who are peacemakers, and who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Do those words remind you of anyone? Can you think of anyone who embodies those characteristics, who is pure in heart, merciful, seeking righteousness and peace, persecuted for it? It makes me think of Jesus.
I have come to understand that the Sermon on the Mount is not simply a lecture to others on how to live in harmony with God and one another; it is Jesus’ self-description, because throughout his life there was never a difference between what he said and what he did or who he was. His sermon, then, isn’t a list of requirements for others so much as the portrayal of his life and consequently the lives of those who gather around and follow him,[i] the lives of those who have heard him say “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and who want to live in and be a part of that kingdom. “Follow me” means do as I do; be as I am.
Sometimes we think of the Beatitudes, these initial blessings, as a statement of the terms and conditions under which we might be blessed. So that when we hear “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” we immediately ask ourselves, “Am I pure enough in spirit?” or think regretfully, “I should try to be more pure in spirit.” Or when we hear “blessed are the meek,” maybe we think “I can be pushy; I shouldn’t always try to have my own way,” and when we hear “blessed are the peacemakers,” perhaps we realize we should be more committed to peaceful ways and do something about our anger.
But Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that we have to go out and try to be poor in spirit, or meek, or mournful, or any of those things, so much as he is indicating that within the reality of God’s kingdom, we should expect to find such people among his followers.[ii]
In everyday life, our assumption is that those who are meek, mournful, or persecuted, are anything but blessed. In our culture we assume we are blessed when we succeed, are powerful, popular, and in control. We are blessed when we have enough money, recognition, safety, or satisfaction. We assume that being blessed is the result of our own striving, of our perseverance, our hard work. “Blessed” is when everything is going our way.
I was brought up on the old hymn, “count your blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done.” And invariably in singing that hymn or in sharing our blessings, I assumed we were referring to the fortunate, happy, good things that we have experienced in our lives, despite the hardships, as if blessing and hardship are two different things, and the former makes the latter bearable.
Maybe I am not the only one who’s missed out on the deeper meaning of the word “blessed” because It is used almost exclusively to describe feeling special, empowered in some way, favored, unique. [iii] And we are quick to say easily and joyfully, in regard to the favorable things in our lives, “I am so blessed,” or “we are so blessed.” But a quick glance through the Bible at some of the people who were called blessed, gives a more complex image. Take two – one from the Old Testament and one from the New. God called Abraham blessed to be a blessing. What does that mean? For starts, leaving home at the age of 75, trekking to literally only God knew where, encountering hardships and difficulties, family tensions, having your faith tested by being commanded to sacrifice your only child, for whom you’d waited it seemed like forever, and finally buying a piece of property, not to live with your family happily ever after, but to have a place to bury your wife. Blessed to be a blessing!
Or think about Mary, minding her own business, when an angel of the Lord says “Greetings, favored one!” And whose cousin exclaims “Blessed are you among women!” For Mary, “blessed” means unexpected pregnancy under unexplainable conditions, giving birth away from home, exile for a time in Egypt, watching her son grow up and not understanding what in the world he’s doing and fearing constantly for his life, and finally getting to stand at the foot of a cross and watch him die. Oh yes, blessed indeed.
So maybe a better question for us this morning instead of what does it mean to be blessed, is “what does it feel like when you know are blessed?”[iv] If we ask it that way, and then remember the lives of Jesus, his disciples, Abraham, Mary, Jesus and others who were similarly “blessed” by God, perhaps we can get a better idea of what’s involved.
To be blessed in the Jesus sense of the word is both assurance and challenge. It is to know that you are loved; to know that you are not alone, regardless of the circumstance, which at any given time might be quite difficult. It means knowing that you have worth, not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are. It is to know that God is with you wherever you go and whatever you experience, no matter how risky or trying. It is to know that that you are participating in something much greater than yourself with purposes much higher than your own, that you are a part of a community which does not retaliate, or hate, or act out of anger or pride or fear, because it is not in the nature of Jesus to do those things, and you are called to be like him.
Being blessed is to feel that you are actually capable of being more than you currently are, that you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. David Lose, author of a book on preaching that I’m currently reading, recalls that when he was in graduate school, one of his teachers would address him as Dr. Lose. When he protested that he shouldn’t be called “Dr” yet because he had not earned his degree, his teacher responded, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be.” [v]
The people Jesus names as blessed are certainly not the ones our culture would consider blessed. But in the kingdom of God, we are told the last is first and the first is last, and everything as we know it and evaluate it and esteem it, is turned upside down. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not offering us a recipe for success or the keys to happiness. But instead is witnessing that blessing is found in any circumstance when God shows up just when and where we might least expect God to be.[vi] In those unexpected places of brokenness, hardship, disappointment, grief, or despair we are ready then to receive the presence of God which is the real blessing, and to realize just how shallow and inadequate the cultural blessings of happiness, wealth, fame, or power actually are. When we find ourselves in poverty of spirit, or mourning or forsaking the way of violence for peace, we then are open to experience the power and presence of God – God’s blessing – often mediated to us through community, through one another. As our anthem proclaimed earlier, “Where love is, there is God.”
Perhaps true blessing is found in coming together as followers of Christ, as disciples, as a community of faith and as the family of God, seeing each other as made in God’s image and as God’s child, caring for each other in our most difficult moments, and sharing the healing of our own presence and the promise of God’s presence and love, and reminding one another that it is God who has created us and who calls us blessed. Then with that assurance of blessing, we can follow Jesus to go forth to become agents of God’s blessing for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.