Sermon: Your financial gift to the church is a ‘test of genuineness’ …

istock_000003781492mediumPaul launched the first Christian stewardship campaign. Writing to the Corinthians — a mostly well-off population that prided themselves on being educated and doing good work — Paul warns them that their tithes to church pale in comparison to the Macedonians, a population not nearly as wealthy. Paul said our financial gifts are a test of our genuineness.

Paul’s words are very relevant today. Giving — as a proportion of income — begins to drop off the wealthier one becomes. It’s the poorer, less educated “red states” that give more proportionally than the richer, more educated “blue states.” Meanwhile, it’s the wealthy, well-read liberal “elites” that are often at the forefront of calls for social change. But are we putting our money to the cause?

Sermon

The Word in Song: “Take My Life and Let it Be”

“The Privilege of Sharing”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Nov. 20, 2016

Sermon: How Wide is Wide?

“How Wide is Wide?”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1John 4:7-21 and Acts 8:26-40
May 3, 2015

Choir Anthem: “Your Love, O God, Has Called Us Here”

Sermon Audio

The New Testament begins with the four Gospels, designed to share the Good News that Jesus of Nazaareth is the Messiah of god. They are followed by the Book of Acts and the various epistles by Paul and others that are attempts to explain how faith in Jesus began with just a small group of frightened disciples huddled together in Jerusalem but then spread rapidly from one place to another, just as Jesus had told them it would on his last day with them. He had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.   Acts shares several stories of individual encounters that result in the spread of faith in unlikely places and to unlikely people. And in the letters we get a glimpse into various congregations that have particular problems understanding and living out what they have heard and now believe. Under the pressures of their daily lives, the groups are polarizing, with factions taking sides on various issues. So, the letters are mostly about problem solving. And the basis for solving the problems, as varied as they are from place to place, comes down to love for one another that reflects God’s love for them as revealed in Jesus.

Since this is a theme that runs through each of these writings, it shouldn’t be surprising that the same issues trouble us today. It’s one thing to love God; we can work up some enthusiasm for that and get pretty good at it. It’s another thing, however, to love other people. Linus, a character in the old “Peanuts” cartoon strip, summed it up beautifully when Lucy confronted him with his lack of love for mankind. “I LOVE mankind,” he replied; “it’s PEOPLE I can’t stand.”

Linus was on to something and he was honest about it. It is so much easier to “love” or accept or champion a concept, an abstraction, and idea, than it is to love or accept or support any one particular, individual, concrete example of it. The problems begin when the “ideal” meets the “real.” Consequently, as Peter Gomes has pointed out, the sad truth is often that our faith has developed only to the point of knowing how to hate, but not far enough to know how to love.[i]

But according to what we’ve read from 1John just now, loving God and loving neighbor or love the other, are inextricably bound up. We can’t love God unless we love our neighbor. It’s futile; it’s impossible; we are delusional, fooling ourselves, if we think we can, because Christianity is not so much a set of abstract beliefs, principles, or propositions that we give intellectual assent to as it is a relationship—an active, working relationship between us and God and us with each other and the world. Jesus didn’t ask his followers to think about him. He called them to follow him. We are to do as he did, to live in the world and relate to other people as he did. Jesus didn’t just talk about love in the abstract; he did love –with all kinds of people in many different circumstances.

And many of those circumstances involved people at the fringes of “polite” society, those outside the purity rules and the regulations of the law-abiding and pious. He healed many so-called “unclean” people whom the insiders shunned – the woman with hemorrhages whom he calls “daughter,” Bartimaeus, the blind man, the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, the Roman centurion’s servant. Others he teaches, like the Samaritan woman at the well. And to others he offers eternal life, most notably the penitent thief on the cross beside him. Jesus’ love wasn’t kept for high ideals or lofty goals. His love didn’t hide behind the law: he touches the leper; he eats with the tax collector.

Jesus shows us that faith is not about separating ourselves from humanity in an upward ascent toward God, but it is the “joyful acknowledgement” that as we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the heart of God. To love as Jesus did, is not to love in the abstract. Other people do not get in the way, keeping us from finding God; they are the way to God.[ii] Thus, as God’s love was made incarnate in Jesus, so we too are to incarnate that love in our individual relationships with other people.

Because of the uniqueness of each relationship, the Bible doesn’t give us seven easy steps to love. We are just told to use Jesus as our model, and then in each of our particular relationships and situations we are called to love the Jesus way. Sometimes that’s easier than other times because none of us is perfect, all of us are “human becomings,” still a bit needy perhaps, or rude, or stubborn, imperfect in some way. But that does not diminish our responsibility to be loving. Eugene Peterson writes that “Every act of love requires creative and personal giving, responding and serving appropriate to – context specific to – both the person doing the loving and the person being loved.”[iii]

Our reading from Acts that Katie shared earlier gives us one example of what that kind of creative, context- specific love looks like. There is a significant exchange between two men who could not have been any more different. The first is Philip, one of the deacons appointed by the Jerusalem congregation to care for the poor and hungry among them. Later he went from Jerusalem into Samaria, where he shared the good news of Jesus with the people with great success. From there he was led by the Holy Spirit to go to Gaza. As a Jew, he knew the law and traditions, and was familiar with scripture. Philip is an “insider.”

The second is his complete opposite. He is a Gentile, a foreigner, of a different race, rich and influential in his country, highly educated, and he is a eunuch, and as such he was barred from the Temple by scripture, law, and tradition. His gender differences and inability to fit into proper categories made him “profane by nature;”[iv] he simply did not fit; he is an outsider. But that had not stopped him from going to Jerusalem to worship, and seeking God, and now on his way home he was reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. He reads a passage he does not understand just as Philip comes upon him on the road.

Now you might think they would pass each other without any kind of acknowledgement and conversation; they were so very different. But Philip hears familiar words from scripture; he asks – and who knows with what kind of attitude – “Do you know what you’re reading?” and the man answers honestly that he could use some help. So Philip teaches him that the suffering servant described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.

This comes as great good news to one who had thought there was no possibility he could ever be included among the faithful. And so with great excitement he asks, “What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?” Well, nothing, of course, except what the Law says – no foreigners, no Gentiles, no black men, no eunuchs are to be included within God’s exclusive people. But what does Philip do? He does what Jesus would do – he baptizes the man; he touches the untouchable, he accepts the unacceptable.

Now most of the time when this story is told, a lot of emphasis is given to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch and his baptism. But this is Philip’s story too. And as such, it is our story too. We are more like Philip than the man from Ethiopia. Philip had to weigh everything he knew from tradition and the law, as do we, and then decide whether he would follow the letter of the law, or do something new, something that Jesus would have done, something that spoke to the heart of the law rather than the letter.

Philip had to decide if the Word of God is only for a select few. He had to decide if the Love of God was only meant for a handful. He had to decide how wide is God’s love and mercy. He decided to respond positively, not in spite of the man’s differences, but because the differences didn’t matter. The man’s excitement, curiosity, and love for God were what counted. So Philip sets aside the narrow confines of the law, and throws open the wide doors of God’s mercy and love.

Later Peter would do the same thing with the gentile Roman centurion Cornelius, concluding “Truly God shows no partiality.”

The love of God is wide and ours must be also. How wide is wide? As wide as necessary to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peter Gomes, The Good Life, 304.

[ii] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 26.

[iii] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005, 327.

[iv] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” April 30, 2012

Sermon: The Misunderstood Master

“The Misunderstood Master”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Nov. 16, 2014
Matthew 25:14-30, 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19

My favorite definition of stewardship is that stewardship is what we do with what we have after we say I believe. The parable we have heard this morning is about stewardship, about what three servants do with what they have after they’ve accepted a command from their master, after they’ve pledged their service to their master. It is told near the end of Matthew’s gospel and is the last of three in which Jesus answers the disciples’ questions about his return – when will it be, and what will be the sign. In response, he warns them to be prepared and to be watchful because the day will be unexpected and those who are found unprepared will be left out. The first parable is about the unfortunate fate of a steward who was derelict in his duties and faced terrible consequences. The second is about ten bridesmaids, five of whom had filled their lamps with oil and were ready for the bridegroom’s delayed arrival, and five who unfortunately had no oil for their lamps; it was too late to buy any, and consequently they were shut out of the wedding banquet.

In the last parable, the master, going on a long journey, entrusts three of his servants with a large amount of money. One receives 5 talents, one receives two, and the last receives only one, but “only” is a relative word here, since even one talent was more than most people would earn in a lifetime. The master gives no instructions and the servants ask no questions. However, the first two immediately go about investing the money entrusted to them, and gaining a 100% return on their efforts. But the third is a more cautious fellow, and he buries his single talent in the ground.

When the master returns, he rewards the two who have doubled their talents during his absence and promises them a life of continued joy in his service. The third servant who played it safe, risked nothing, and simply preserved unchanged the talent given to him, is punished. The talent is taken away from him and he is cast out of his master’s employ and protection.

It is easy to assume then that the message of this parable, from the servant’s viewpoint, is that we should take what God has given us and make the most of it. We identify with the servants, and so it is all about us, isn’t it?   But what if we don’t just look at the servants and what they did or did not produce. Perhaps this story is not just about us and our use of our varying assets and abilities. What if we looked instead at the master.

Isn’t it strange how one person could perceived so differently by three people so close to him and so trusted by him as to be left with a fortune to administer in his absence. Perhaps this story is meant to tell us something about the master whom we are called to serve and the ways in which we understand and misunderstand him. Maybe this is Jesus’ story – maybe this is God’s story – as well as ours.

If that is the case, then the first two servants are apparently unafraid of failure and confident in the trust place in them. Without hesitation, they invest their holdings, risking much, but gaining much more. They felt empowered by the master’s trust. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But the third servant is more cautious, more hesitant. And so he follows the law of the day which said “whoever immediately buries property entrusted to him is no longer liable because he has taken the safest course conceivable.”[i] He follows the letter of the law. He does his duty; he meets his obligation; no more, no less. Nothing was gained, but nothing was lost either. Maybe he expected to be praised for his caution.

Why was he so careful? Why did he so scrupulously follow the law? Well, why are most people cautious and careful and risk avoidant? Usually because of fear. This servant was afraid of failure. He was afraid to make a mistake. He was afraid of what the master would do to him if he were to fail in his responsibilities. So he did his duty, not because he was thrilled and honored to have been given such an opportunity to represent his master, but because he was afraid of him. Unlike the other two, he did not see his master as gracious, generous, and trusting, but thought him to be hard hearted and harsh, and exploiter, reaping where he had not sown. The master may have trusted him, but that trust was not returned. Out of fear then, of making a mistake, he is frozen, paralyzed. He assumes the worst and tries to protect himself instead of accepting confidently the opportunity he has been given..  What if he had invested the money and lost it? We don’t know what the master might have done. He might have said “at least you tried; you made an effort. I’m going to give you another chance because I know you can do it.”

We have to ask then, is the master offended on his return because his money hasn’t been doubled as with the first two servants, or is he offended because his servant thought so poorly of him, thought him hardhearted and cruel. There is nothing in the narrative to indicate beforehand that the master is so ruthless. And so perhaps with righteous indignation rather than vindictiveness he questions, “if you thought I was so greedy, then why didn’t you at least invest this money with bankers so that there would be a little interest earned in my absence?” The servant has no answer for that and so his talent is taken and he is dismissed to a life of poverty and distress.

Matthew places this story during the last week of Jesus’ life. Shortly he will be arrested and crucified, “not as a substitute or a surrogate to be punished in our place, but rather as a testimony” to God’s love for us and the world.[ii]  But before that happens, he stops to tell this story about a master who called in his servants and trusts them with his possessions. He is not harsh, reaping where he has not sown, as the servant believes. Indeed, he is the extravagant sower. If you remember that earlier parable, sowing seed everywhere, sowing much, much more than he will ever harvest. He is the one who has given everything and held nothing back, so it’s no wonder then that there is anger, frustration and disappointment with the one who refuses to risk anything.

This servant’s story tells us we cannot be a disciple of Jesus Christ out of fear of him. If we imagine God primarily as the enforcer of rules, keeping score, checking to see who’s naughty or nice, then we will get hung up, just as the third servant did, in playing it safe, trying to stay out of trouble because we don’t trust God to be loving and grace filled. But if we believe God to be a God of love, and Christ to be the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, then we can experience that love in our own lives and step out in faith to share this love with others.

Too often what you see is what you get. The first two servants saw a master who trusted them with everything and who had confidence in their ability to do good things, to make more of what they had. They returned that trust and confidence by taking responsibility to actively cultivate what they’d been entrusted with. And in return, they received blessing and the opportunity for even greater participation in the work of the master. The statement at the end of our reading says “those who have much will receive more, and they will have much more than they need.” I don’t think this is an affirmation of the prosperity gospel because it’s not about material wealth.   But we all know, don’t we, it is simply the truth that the more you give the more you will receive – not of wealth but of joy! “Enter into the joy of your master,” the servants are told. As we noted last week, there is real joy in giving our time, our talent, and our treasure; there is joy in trusting God to provide and risking it all in God’s service because of faith in God’s steadfast love.

But the opposite is true as well, if we live in fear of losing what we, if we protect ourselves rather than helping others, if we play it safe, giving in to our fears and burying our treasure in the backyard, then it is equally true, “as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.” Last week I was talking with a friend about her father. They don’t have a very good relationship. He has never been a giving person, not of his time, his love, or his resources. That has not kept him from demanding all that of others for himself. It’s always been about him. Now at the end of his life, he has very little – children who are bound to him only by obligation not love, no friends – the few he had are gone – and now even his money, the thing he’d cared more about than anything or anyone else is just about gone.

This parable asks us what should be our appropriate response to all that God has given us. What should we do with all we have now that we’ve said we believe? If we were to calculate the value of all the we’ve been given, it would be incomprehensibly large, just as 5 talents, or 2 talents, or even one talent was in the minds of Jesus’ listeners. As Julie read earlier from 1st Timothy, “God piles on all the riches we could ever manage or imagine” to empower us to “do good, to be rich at helping others and to be extravagantly generous.” (From The Message)

Today’s parable suggests, these gifts which we treasure should not be hoarded or hidden away unused. They are really not ours to stockpile or monopolize. God is the giver and the master of all gifts and treasure, the one for whom we invest our time, our talents, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

Next week we will formally offer our pledge to God for our financial faithfulness in 2015. It is a covenant between God and us. It is one way of measuring our desire to respond to what God has already done and is doing for us, the God who risked God’s very self in the person of Jesus—and Jesus gave everything he had. And if God risked everything in Jesus, it seems likely that God expects more than a cautious, fearful and half-hearted response from us.

Oconee Street has always been a church that has given thanks for God’s love and care and accepted the invitation enthusiastically to go and to do in Jesus’ name. And especially in this last year and a half, we have been reminded again and experienced firsthand in so many ways the sustaining, supporting, and encouraging presence of God among us giving us what we need. So I don’t think God has to worry about us. We know for sure all that we have been given, and maybe if you’re like me, you are looking forward to claiming with joy the opportunity to give back to the God who has so blessed and guided us. Because we know, don’t we, that it is only by giving all that we have and all that we are that we gain the life that truly is life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then The Parable, 1989, 227.

[ii] David Lose, “How Do You Imagine God,” . . .In The Meantime.com, Nov. 10, 2014.

Sermon: “Double Blessing”

“Double Blessing”
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.