In God We Trust

Mark 12.38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. Last week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives.

Today we’re moving on to the subject of money. 

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

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The church was in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. Every Sunday they bickered in the hallways and in the narthex fighting about who they could hit up for more money this year, about how much they would need to raise in order to buy new candlestick holders for the altar, and about whether the pastor should know who gives and how much.

Finally they called for a formal meeting on a Sunday evening and after 3 hours of more shouting, disagreeing, and even some belittling, they ended only to have the frustrations spill out into the parking lot as everyone was preparing to leave.

However, sitting outside the front doors of the church was a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup hoping for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing inside and out the parking lot.

After some time has passed, the man stood up from his spot and he meandered over to one of the older women with her hand placed perfectly on her hips, he reached out for her hand, dumped the few dollars and space change he had received, and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”

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Money! Everyone’s favorite subject in church! In ranks up their with politics and sexuality! I can tell that you all have just been on the edge of your pews all morning waiting to hear what I have to say like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning.

Money! The American Dream! So many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us this dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deeper bank accounts. We hope to pursue more than we have, to gain more than we have, and to save more than we have.

And, importantly, most of us tend to measure our success based on the number in our bank accounts.

But, and this is a big but, for a lot of us the American Dream feels like the American Nightmare.

For as much hope as we might have for a day in the future when all of our finances will be taken care of, there’s plenty in the present to worry us. There was a study recently that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances – more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are worried about job security, and 52% report lying away at night thinking about their bank accounts.

That might not sound all that surprising to any of us here, because honestly, who among us hasn’t worried about money?

How about this then – in 1990 the average credit card debt in America was $3,000 and today it is well over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, student loans, or medical debt.

For many of us The American Dream has become The American Nightmare when it comes to money and finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few us us save money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Over and over again.

Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite. 

“Watch out for those scribes and priests – you know, the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in public, the preachers who like to gets the seats of privilege. They are the type of people who prey on the widows and the poor and for the sake of appearances will fill their prayers with big and long words. Watch out for them.”

Then Jesus immediately gathered the crowd around the treasury and they watched as people filed in line to drop of their donations. Many rich people proudly walked ahead to make the donation as public as possible, but then a poor widow shuffled over and put two small coins in the treasury, two coins that amounted to a penny. 

Jesus pulled his disciples close and said, “That poor widow put in more than all the rest who are contributing to the treasury. The rest of them gave out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”

In life, few of us have any use for hypocrites. Those people who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate – like politicians making great sums of money while complaining that it’s not enough to live on – like pastors urging their congregations to make financial commitments while they themselves offer nothing.

Today we’re obviously talking about money, and the text makes it quite difficult to make a case for giving it to church. 

Because we can take the story of the widow at face value – she truly sacrifices. She is the example upon which Jesus makes a theological claim. But let us not forget that her gift is considered far greater than greater sums of money not because of the amount but because of her generosity.

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And that’s why we have to sit with something rather uncomfortable before we jump to the simplicity of money, which of course is no simple thing. It is good and right for us to rest in the tension of the text read for us today because this is about more than just encouraging extravagant generosity – it is an indictment, plain and simple, against any institution (including our own) that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the leaders can continue to live lives of wealth, comfort, and power.

We might leave church today feeling guilty about the money we give (or don’t give), we might feel apathetic about what our contributions can really do for our church or for our community. But perhaps the most appropriate feeling might be outrage; outrage toward any system that appropriates the property of the poor and near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.

Ask any pastor and they’ll tell you the best givers in the church are almost always the poorest. It’s those on limited and fixed incomes who are usually the first to tithe, but the wealthy and elite, those with gifts to share, have a harder time with it.

Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear, or maybe you won’t, that there are more than 950 billionaires in the world and yet the percentage of giving among the majority of the billionaires does not rise above the single digits.

By the time Jesus encountered this scene by the treasury, the whole religious apparatus was perverted. The operators lived privileged lives, and the poor, widowed, orphaned, and marginalized were no longer protected.

And today, sadly, some things haven’t changed.

I was out of the office for two days this week between clergy meetings and hospital visits, and when I checked the church voicemail on Thursday morning we had over twenty messages, twenty messages in two days, from people in our immediate community who needed financial help – a rent payment, a overdue electricity bill, grocery money.

And I wish, I wish, that we could give money to every single person who called. I wish that my days were primarily filled with making sure that people could stay in their homes, that those homes could keep the lights on, and that the refrigerators were well stocked. 

But we can only use what we are given.

And so, from this story of Jesus and the widow, from the reflections on the church’s, and any institution’s, temptations to prey on the weak, it’s quite difficult and problematic for someone like me, part of the religious elite, standing in my long robe, to build a case for why the church is worthy of the gifts of its givers.

The church is only worthy when we use the gifts as Jesus commands.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship.

This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.

For a long time there’s been an 80-10-10 focus on finances in which you spend 80% of your money on what you need to live, you save 10% for the future and unanticipated emergencies, and 10% is given away. So the challenge is to sit down with your finances and start thinking about what it would take to break it all down into something close to the 80-10-10 model.

But, of course, tithing is really hard. It simply may not be possible for you to give 10% away. However, it is helpful to think about your generosity in terms of a total value instead of an occasional offering. As in, what does 2% look like for you? Or even 5%?

And you can leave it right there, a relatively simple thought experiment, or you can take it one step farther and take a good look at whatever debt you might have and make a plan to repay it. If you are anywhere near the average $9,000 in credit card debt, and you only make the minimum payment every month, it will take something like 200 years before it will all go away. So look at what is owed, and make a budgetary plan to star chipping away at it so than it no longer grips your around your soul like a shackle, so that you never wander over to the offering plate and have to give away your entire life at the value of a penny. 

And, if you want serious extra credit, you can bring back a commitment card next week (found in your bulletin). It is something to prayerfully consider and fill out, a commitment of giving to the church so that no widow in our community will be forced to give away her very life at the expense of her life being ignored.

A lot of us have a warped understanding of what faithful giving looks like. We think that if we give, then God will give more back to us. But that is not how it works. We do not give to God in order to get something in return. 

Do you think the widow at the treasury believed that if she just kept giving everything that she would one day wake up with an overflowing bank account? 

We give to God simply because God has given to us. We believe that when we give it blesses not us, but others. And then, of course, it is in the blessing of others that we are blessed.

The church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me. 

But we believe in having transparency in our finances and we are committed to serving those in need. 

We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others. 

And we believe that by returning to God what belongs to God, we take steps toward making the kingdom incarnate on earth. Amen. 

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Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

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A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Devotional – Psalm 63.3

Devotional:

Psalm 63.3

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
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When we saw the article in the newspaper we knew we had to do something; the local Valley Mission was in desperate need of items for young children and babies. They were thankful for all of the food and adult clothing they had received over the years, but what they really needed were diapers, toys for toddlers, and an assortment of other items.

Two couples at St. John’s are currently pregnant and we decided to harness the excited energy the church is feeling about new life and channel it into blessing the children at the mission. For weeks we have talked about the items needed during worship, we have sent out email reminders, and it has been an integral part of our prayers. Yesterday was the conclusion of the “baby shower” drive and we encouraged everyone to bring their items into the social hall and enjoy some food and fellowship as we prayed over the items before dropping them off.

Honestly, when we make pleas like this from the pulpit, they can often fall flat. It’s not that the congregation is unwilling to bless others; it just falls in among the many needs the community faces. When we hear about how much someone needs something on a weekly basis, it is very easy to just assume that someone else will take care of it.

Therefore, when I entered the social hall after worship yesterday and saw the tremendous amount of items donated I was shocked: Diapers were falling off the tables, crayons and coloring books were stacked on the floor, baby clothes were neatly arranged, in addition to all the other things that were brought in. It was a holy moment seeing all of the material that had been generously donated to bless others.

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When we can connect a need with something tangible, (when we see pregnant women in the sanctuary and imagine how badly other people might need baby supplies) it encourages a profound generosity within us. When we can remember how badly we needed those types of items for our children, it encourages us to do more than usual. When we can truly proclaim that God’s steadfast love has changed our lives, it encourages us to use our lips and our lives to change others.

God’s steadfast love is revealed in the people around us. Whenever we need something and a friend steps up to help out, that is God’s love in action. But God’s steadfast love is also revealed in scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. This week, as we continue on the way that leads to life, let us look for ways to act like Jesus so that others may experience God’s steadfast love through us.

The Story (Chapter 2) – Sermon on Romans 12.1-8

Romans 12.1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorted, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to begin serving his very first church. He had taken all the appropriate classes in school, learned from the right professors, and had been prayed over by the bishop. With eager anticipation he had packed his bags and headed out to begin his first appointment to John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia. The young man was so anxious and filled with joy that he could hardly contain himself when he arrived that first day, so before he unpacked any of his belongings, he drove by the new church.

He got in the car and went to the listed address, but he saw no church. When he turned around he drove to the address again and realized why he had missed it the first time; there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the ground with roots exposed and the sign (plus the building) were mostly covered by its long branches. The young pastor sat in his car looking at the tree and he couldn’t believe a church would let something so ugly block the beauty of the building.

Before he knew it, he had gone back to the parsonage to unpack his chainsaw, and promptly cut down the tree that was blocking the church. With sweat on his brow, he took a step back and admired his work: the sign and building were now completely visible from the road, and he thought that perhaps a few extra people might be in church on Sunday morning.

A few days later, as the young pastor sat in the study of the parsonage preparing his first sermon, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you’re being reappointed.

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. John Wesley himself had planted that tree more than 200 years ago while he was in that community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who started a revolution, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

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Stories are remarkably important. They contain and convey everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and remember the important elements of life.

Today, we live in a world of competing narratives. Every television station, and every website, are vying for out allegiance and attention. We are consistently bombarded with information attempting to tell us who we are, what we need, and where we are going.

We live during a time when more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live during a time when people spend more time arguing about where they can see the best fireworks on the Fourth of July than they worry about children in their community who have no food to eat. We live during a time when we would rather store up our treasures on earth, than give our gifts to the church.

Right now the world is telling us what is important, and our ears have a difficult time discerning between the world, and the Lord.

The apostle Paul wrote about the world to the church in Rome and convicted their hearts: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the people who try to define you and limit your abilities. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Read your bibles. Pray your prayers. Listen to the wisdom of the past. Open your eyes to the beauty of the future. Do not think you are better than anyone else, but give God thanks for placing you within your community.

We are all different and this is worth celebrating! God’s has blessed each of us with unique gifts worthy of use for the kingdom. Some are made for teaching, or preaching, others have the gift of prayer and presence, others have been blessed with financial resources, and still yet others have been given the gift of patience in discernment. Whatever your gift, use it for the kingdom so that we might bear fruit in the world.

Do not conform to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. When we gather together for worship we are retelling God’s great story so that our lives can be transformed. When we are in this place we reject conformity to the world’s expectations. When we proclaim the Word of God, our minds are being renewed again and again.

A few weekends ago thousands of Methodists throughout Virginia gathered together in Roanoke to discern God’s will for our denomination. We prayed over pertinent matters and voted accordingly, we honored those who had gone on to glory over the last year, and we ordained new pastors for the work of ministry. Annual Conference is a time of celebration, but it also a time of facts.

According to the ways of the world, the church is floundering. People are no longer regularly attending worship, tithing is starting to disappear, and many church buildings are being closed each year. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are largely absent from worship.

At Annual Conference this year we discussed a number of statistics affecting the church, but one really stood out to me:

The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years.

The world tells us that we are nearly defeated. That we’ve got to start pulling out all the stops to get people into our buildings. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people sitting in the pews. We need to cut down the trees that are blocking the church building from the street. We need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future.

I say thanks be to God that we don’t have to conform to the ways of the world but get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! While others might shrink and wail in fear regarding those types of statistics, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would our church start to look if we began creating our own vitality through a life-giving invitation to discover the Lord in community? What would it take to embrace the trees and traditions of church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

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For those of you with remarkably gifted memories, you will no doubt have noticed that everything we have done in worship today, from the opening greeting to the selection of hymns, from the scripture reading to the words of this sermon, is an almost exact replica of what we did two years ago during my first Sunday at St. John’s.

It brings me nothing but joy to look out from this pulpit and to see how much we have changed in our short time together. Our worship attendance has grown. Our weekly offering has grown. Our commitment to spiritual disciplines has grown. Our willingness to sacrifice for God’s kingdom has grown. Our faith and trust in the Lord has grown. St. John’s, through its prayers and practices, has begun to positively affect those kinds of statistics that frighten the world.

But we can do more.

We can do more because the words of worship today are just as relevant as they were two years ago. With a continued commitment to prayer our church can grow in its vitality. With a consistent connection to the Word our church can grow in its faith. With a calm composure compared to the world our church can grow in effectiveness.

When we retell the story we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We don’t have worship just to catch up with our friends from the community, checking in on the events of life. Church isn’t just about making sure that we give one hour a week to God. Church is about transformation in our lives and in the lives of others.

When was the last time we invited someone to church? Has it been 38 years? And, as someone put it this week, if we don’t have anyone to invite to church, we are not spending time with the right people.

When was the last time we prayed about the money we give to church? Have we grown content with the same offering each week, or do we really recognize how much God has given to us, and how much more we can give back to God?

When was last time we felt transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we so consumed by the ways of the world that we no longer trust the Lord?

The stories of scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, help to shape the way we live. They are more than just facts and histories, they are the living Word of God’s actions with God’s people. The stories speak greater truths than any news program or TV bulletin, they convey more than any tweet could ever contain, and they provide transformation for the disciples of Jesus Christ.

If we neglect to embrace the stories for the power they contain, then we are cutting down the great trees of tradition in our midst.

As we embark on our third year together I have some goals for our church, both personal and communal:

1) We grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer. This does not mean that we have to start every morning with our hands twisted together and our heads bowed low, but that at least once a day we take a moment to thank God for our blessings. We can do it before a meal, or in our cars on our way to work. How we pray is not as important as praying in the first place. So, we grow in faithfulness by giving time everyday to God in prayer.

2) We grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God. This does not mean that we need to start knocking on doors and trying to convince people to come to St. John’s, but that we open our eyes to what God has done for us and embrace a culture of sharing that kind of love with others. We can do it by inviting our friends to try worship out with us on Sunday morning, or talking with them about what God has shared with us through this place. So, we grow in attendance by inviting people to discover the love of God.

3) We grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord. This does not mean that we need to start a capital campaign or initiate a pledge drive, but that we see our lives as gifts and give back so that others can be blessed as well. We can do it by giving more when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning, or by offering some of our God given talents for the betterment of this church in the kingdom. So, we grow in stability by offering our gifts and talents to the Lord.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. We are told that we don’t have enough time to pray every day, we are reminded of the discomfort that comes with trying to invite others to worship, and we are bombarded with the fear about giving money and gifts back to God. But I’m not worried about any of that, and I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not in the ways of the world, but my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ.

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands, comforting, nurturing, and sustaining us in all we do.

We can believe in the future of our church, we can share the story of the Lord, we can pray with every fiber of our being, we can invite others to experience God’s love, and we can give with glad and generous hearts because our faith is in almighty God!

The Lord is reminding us today, and everyday, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Amen.