Empty Cups

Proverbs 11.25

A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives water will get water.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. I would be attending my first seminary class the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on what would become my theological journey.

So I looked up United Methodist Churches on google and went to the one that was closest to my apartment. 

I meandered through the open front doors, collected a copy of the bulletin from a distracted usher, and walked into the sanctuary hoping to find an empty pew. It was only a few minutes before the top of the hour and I was perplexed to discover an entirely empty sanctuary.

No preacher.

No choir.

There wasn’t even a wayward acolyte wandering down the aisle.

I only stood for a moment before the aforementioned usher walked up behind me and said, “Son, you must be new here. We’re having worship this morning down in the fellowship hall.”

So I turned my back to the beautiful stained glass windows and the exposed organ pipes and descended into the dark and dismal basement.

After navigating a few frightening corridors and passing long-forgotten Sunday schools rooms, I heard a scattering of voices and followed them until I entered the space for holy worship. The room was sparse with only a handful of folding chairs set-up in a haphazard semi-circle around a podium and a make-shift altar. 

By the time I grabbed an empty chair the preacher was standing behind the improvised pulpit encouraging us to stand and sing our opening hymn, which we did.

“Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.”

The next forty five minutes the collection of Christians in the basement listened to the preacher go on and on about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to the Lord what was first given to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we continue to worship in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

When the service was over, I made for a quick exit out of the basement when the preacher grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced himself all the while apologizing that I had to hear all of that on my first Sunday at the church. He said, “I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.” I’m sure I made some sort of positive comment hoping to make him feel a little bit better when a tiny older woman walked up and triumphantly declared, “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church nearly every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

maxresdefault

Today, we live in a world surrounded by a culture that is constantly encouraging us to live beyond our means. Our collective credit card, medical, and student loan debts are the highest they have ever been with no slow down in sight. And I think the reason why so many of us buy a whole bunch of things we don’t need, is that in the back of our heads we hope that the things we buy will be with us forever – which isn’t possible.

In some way, shape, or form, we all go out hoping that the things we purchase will make our lives better now and forever, and even though it never really works we keep doing it anyway!

When confronted by the strange spending habits of the early Methodists, John Wesley put it this way: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

We’ve been talking this month about Wesley’s teaching regarding money: Gain all you can – Save all you can – Give all you can. And for a lot of us the first two sound really nice. Wouldn’t things in our lives be better if we could just bring in a little more money? Wouldn’t the future feel a little more secure if we were able to increase our portfolios accordingly? 

But then we come to the third and final aspect and we’re not sure how we feel about it. Why give away that which we have worked so hard to earn and to save?

If all we do is gain and we can and save all we can and stop there, then it would all be for nothing. We may as throw our money into the fire. Not to use it faithfully and prayerfully is effectively to throw it away. 

It may sound strange to our compulsively capitalist ears, but giving away all we can is what makes intelligible the calls to gain and to save.

There is a story from the Bible that we, for some reason, love to throw into VBS curricula  and it is easily summarized in a short song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.”

The song and the ways we often tell the story make Zacchaeus out to be this smaller than life character who just wanted a little vision of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation regarding money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zacchaeus was. He was a tax collector, a man who stole from his fellow Israelites whatever he wanted and kept a fair portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor and stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus. And Jesus picks this little good-for-nothing-horrible-excuse-for-a-man out from the tree and says, “Hey, lets eat.”

And in a way that could only happen in the gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even stranger proclamation. “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four times over.” And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks life! Lets have a party!”

It’s a strange story, and one that we often water down its strangeness. Zaccheaus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God. He has swindled good people out of their good money, and then Jesus rewards him with salvation? I mean seriously, what in the world?

But that’s kind of the whole thing. 

Salvation, the end all be all, is the way God transforms every area of our lives so that we become a part of God’s work in the world. Salvation changes everything by changing our hearts and the orientation of every part of our lives, including how we use our money. Salvation sets us free from the bondage to our own narrow self-interests and opens us up to the movements of the Spirit in the world.

Many of us today want a version of Christianity that doesn’t want anything from us. Like another notch in the long list of commodified aspects of life, we show up and leave with thoughts about what we got out of it, without ever daring to wonder what God got out of us. Which is strange. Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, put it this way: “There are three conversions necessary in the Christian life – a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind, and a conversion of the wallet.”

collection-plate-money-hands

Oh how we wish it were only the first two!

When Zaccheaus was met with the radical nature of God’s grace in the person of Jesus, he experienced a profound conversion – he was no longer the person who climbed up in the tree. His heart was converted in the realization that the Son of God could make something of his nothing. His mind was converted over a dinner table conversation about what really had value in this life. And his wallet was converted when he saw what he had and make the decision to give it away. 

But let us pause for a moment to get something crystal clear – Zaccheaus did not earn his salvation by giving all he gave with his newfound generosity. His generosity was simply a response to the extravagant generosity of God. 

God cares not at all how much money we put in the offering plate or how much money we send to our favorite charity or how much money we make every two weeks or how much money we have saved away for a rainy day. God cares only that we see and know and taste and touch the wondrous gift already given to us in Jesus. What happens next is a matter of faith.

And, lest the call to faithful giving and the witness of the theology of generosity isn’t enough, neuroscientists have proven over and over again that our brains get a happiness boost, we release endorphins, when we give and help other people. Doing good is a good deal for us.

We can give all we want if it makes us feel better, but ultimately as Christians we give because God first gave. The little jolt of happiness is just an awesome byproduct along the way. 

During the earliest days of Methodist, John Wesley desired to lead the people in his care to a healthier, more productive, and more deeply Christ-centered life. He did so by offering practical wisdom about the relationship between money and finances. The end goal of all of this stuff isn’t to make sure the church has more money, though that wouldn’t hurt, the whole thing is about becoming more like Jesus in every part of our lives but particularly in the way we handle our finances. 

In terms of faithful giving whether its to the church or to community projects or any other numbers of places, most of us follow a trajectory. We start off as tossers – we toss our gifts (however big they may be) into the offering plate or the salvation army bucket without giving much thought to what we are doing and we don’t necessarily even feel it when we do it.

Then, at some point, we might enter into the realm of what we might call tryers. Tryers are those among us who have a plan of moving from where they are to where they believe God would like them to be in terms of giving. Going from not giving at all, or even tossing, straight to tithing is a remarkably difficult venture. Our own current financial situations or debts make it very difficult to jump right into the deep end of the pool.

And then there are the tithers – those among us who see their 10% given to God as the baseline of a disciple’s stewardship. Many tithers can’t imagine a life without tithing because it has become completely connected with their way of being. Giving 10% back to God is a practice rooted in scripture, a call to return the first fruits back to the Lord. But tithing is not a duty nor is it an obligation – it is simply a gift given out of sheer gratitude for what God has given.

For me, the journey toward tithing was not one that happened over night and is still one that I struggle with and our family struggles with. I constantly have thoughts about other things I could be doing with the money I give to the church, I think about gifts I could buy for my son, or the dates I could take my wife on, or the frivolous material items I could buy for myself. I do this in my mind because I too fall prey to the insipid temptations of the world around me. I, just like anyone else, want to keep up with the Joneses. I, just like anyone else, want what I wear and what I drive to communicate something about my worth. 

And all of that stuff can’t hold a match to the fire that is God’s grace. 

It has been an act of faith to continually give back to God and it has been an act of trust. Regardless of the amount, whether we’re tossers, tryers, or tithers, putting something in the plate is a profound form of trust. It’s saying, with our wallets, that we believe God can do something incredible with what we give and we get to be part of it all.

Because, at the end of day, we give all we can because God gives all God can. God gives us more than we deserve and more than we realize. God gives us God’s Son every time we gather at the table as a reminder that God is in control. Our cups, whether we respond with generous hearts or not, will never really be empty because God will never stop giving. Ever. Amen. 

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?

collection-plate-money-hands

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.

Why We Do What We Do: Give – Sermon on Luke 12.22-34

Luke 12.22-34

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father know that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.

church

The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we give.

I was in my final year of seminary when my friend asked me to preach at his church. He had labored for the past few years as a full time student and full time pastor at the same time and needed someone to fill-in. He had received tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that’s where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

When Lindsey and I arrived at the tiny United Methodist Church in the middle of nowhere North Carolina, I was a little nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met, but I figured God would show up even if my sermon fell flat. The sanctuary was tiny, with white walls and bright 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 that I was worried we had arrived at the wrong church.

However, the lay leader was waiting by the door and greeted us as if we were first-time visitors, only to later realize that I was supposed to be the pastor for the day. He quickly led me into the sanctuary, gave me a quick and grand tour, and then informed me that he was the head usher, liturgist, organist, and treasurer.

From what I remember the service went well, though most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by my academic deconstruction of a prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thankfully gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed the entire service. I like to think that she loved my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a chance to actually look around at the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit of the hymns for the day, the offering brought in last week, 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.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why they felt the need to display their 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.

page44_picture0_1338615554

Talking about giving, and in particular financial giving is about as awkward as it gets in the church. Money, in general, is one of the taboo subjects of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we are curious. We avoid asking for financial help because it means admitting too much vulnerability. But then if we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (or the church) we have the double whammy of things we’re not supposed to talk about.

After all, money and religion are personal and private subjects aren’t they? What I do with my money and what I do with my faith should be of no concern to anyone else other than myself…

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 their 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 then conversion.

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 teenager and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

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 here to St. John’s. Now that I had a steady income, Lindsey and I decided to start tithing to the church, and honestly it was really hard. We are a young married couple with debt to the federal government for paying for my seminary education, and we are going to have a baby in April. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder than I thought. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could be spending on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving.

blog.the.offering

My conversion toward giving did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I gave, the longer the habit continued, the easier it became, and my perspective started to change.

Instead of imagining what I could’ve have done with the money I gave to church, I started to tangibly witness and experience what the money I gave was doing for the church and the kingdom.

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. We are not called to give to St. John’s out of guilt, but out of generosity.

As John Wesley once said: “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.

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 ask or imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world. If we act generously, we are helping God build the kingdom here on earth.

However, we should not be expected to give, or feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say “give give give” prevents us from developing strong relationship with the people and programs we serve. So here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts:

At St. John’s we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months ahead, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s love in the world. This means that we have to 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 through this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At St. John’s 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 the faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, but one of the most profound things we offer is weekly Chapel Time to our Preschoolers. Not only do we help to provide a wonderful facility for them to learn and grow, but we also welcome them into this sanctuary every week to learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The Preschoolers discover how much God loves them, and they take those stories home to the families and subsequently teach them about God’s love.

And at St. John’s 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. For the first time in a long time we have paid our Apportionments in full to benefit the greater church, and the world. Some of that money goes to pay for clergy healthcare, some of it goes to domestic and international benevolences funds, and a number of other places. Moreover, we are able to provide a tremendous amount of financial resources to SACRA (Staunton-Augusta Church Relief Association) who then distribute the money to acute needs in the local community.

thumb

We give from our blessings to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, the preschoolers who gather to be nurtured and educated, or the countless people in the local and global community who need our help. We give out of generosity, because so much has been given to us.

However I don’t want to make it sound as if giving is the easiest thing in the world, because it does require sacrifice. Living a spiritual life of generosity requires a change of heart, a conversion. It might happen in a moment, or throughout a lifetime of faith, but when the transformation occurs, we become people of generosity.

We all have blessings to offer. Some of us have been blessed by God with incredibly lucrative careers and vocations, God has clothed us with more splendor than Solomon and all his temples, and we can give back to God through our financial giving. Some of us have been blessed by God with powerful relationship skills, God has given us personalities that bring out the best in others, and we can give back to God through our willingness to serve others. And God has blessed all of us with the gift of time, which is the most precious thing we can ever offer to the church and others.

Are we grateful for what God has done for us through this place? Do we appreciate all the blessings we have receiving throughout our lives? Do we want to bless others as we have been blessed?

We give because we have a common yearning for God’s kingdom to reign on earth, and when we give we join a new communion with the people of God. We give because it is the way by which we live out our love toward the church and our brothers and sisters in faith. We give because God first gave to us.

Where our treasure is, there are hearts will be also. Amen

Think of the Children! – Sermon on Psalm 78.1-8

Psalm 78.1-8

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open in my mouth a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should se this hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.

kids-in-church

I love when scripture is straight-forward. With the amount of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that remain ambiguous, it is remarkably refreshing to encounter a text that is so simple with its claims and expectations.

Listen up! Open your ears to what I’m about to say regarding the mighty acts of God. I will remember for us the forgotten sayings from the past, we will not hide them from the children, we will share with them all the wonders of God. The Lord commanded our ancestors to teach our children, so that they would indeed teach their children, so that none of us would forget what God has done. Above all, let us not fall back into the rhythms of our distant ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, nor was their spirit faithful to God.

What follows our reading from this morning is a record of history in song. The psalmist sets up his challenge: to remember the mighty acts of God for the future generations; and then declares the history of God with God’s creation. The tradition, the narrative, is so strong that the psalmist will not depart from it, since his purpose is to instruct rather than to entertain. That old old story has become so important to him, that he will tell it to the best of his ability for the sake of God’s people.

As I read the words to Psalm 78 this week, I couldn’t help but wonder about what we are teaching our children. If our desire to instruct the future generations regarding the mighty deeds of God is as strong as this Psalm claims, then how are we living that out today in our faith and in our church?

3rnvk6

On Tuesday morning, with the words from scripture percolating in my heart and soul, I made my way down to the Preschool to welcome our children into the building. I’ll admit that opening the door for our students is one of the things that I look forward to most during the week. The children are always so excited about entering the classrooms for the activities and learning that will enrich them. Whereas many parents have to drag their high-school students out of bed, banging pots and pans, even dumping water on them to wake them up, the Preschool students see school as something worth celebrating and waking up for!

It brings me so much joy to see their smiling faces every morning, to hear them shout “Pastor Taylor!” and run over to give me a hug as if they thought that they had lost me forever, to see them walking with their parents or guardians hand in hand hopeful for the day ahead. When I look at them in the morning I can’t help but think about the future generations of the church, and our community. In the basement of our building, we have the privilege of shaping, molding, and nurturing those who will one day take care of us.

Anyway, when the children arrived on Tuesday morning they came in with their normal excitement and made their way to their respective classes. I usually try to sneak back down around snack time for the selfish purpose of receiving some carrots with ranch dressing, or pretzel sticks, and I often ask each of the children what they had been learning about that morning.

“Pastor Taylor, I learned about the letter “G.” Goofy, Girl, Grass, and Grapes!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that spiders have eight legs and make a web to catch their food!”

“Pastor Taylor, I learned that we stole the land away from the Indians and forced them to move across the country!”

On Tuesday morning, every one of those children looked at me when I walked in, and shouted, “Pastor Taylor, we learned how to vote!” The teachers had set up a voting booth in the yellow room, and each child had the opportunity to vote on their snack for the day: Pringles Chips, or Oreo Cookies (obviously Oreos were victorious). Every child had the opportunity to go behind the curtain, place their vote in secrecy, and then received an “I Voted!” sticker.

10629408_721542274588756_4548535686040301173_o

Downstairs in the basement we work on educating the future generation on the important things: Letters, Shapes, and Numbers; Animals, Plants, and Weather; Hygiene, Responsibility, and even Civic Duty. However, sometimes we get so caught up in the education of our youth, that we lose sight of what God has called us to do. Because right now I know that every child from our Preschool can tell you why we vote, and how we vote, but I know that only a few of them can tell you who Jesus is, and what he came to do. What does it say about our culture when more people now recognize the McDonald’s Golden Arches than they recognize the cross of Jesus Christ? What does it say that we train our children regarding voting procedures, but we do not teach them how to pray?

I have very fond memories of growing up in church. I loved the change in the liturgical seasons, and the different colors around the altar. I loved getting invited up to the front of the church once a month to receive communion. I loved getting to hear the choir sing with passion on a regular basis. I loved church because it was fun.

Yet, I can’t really remember what I learned. I know that when I was much younger, we, the kids, were only allowed to stay in the sanctuary until the “children’s sermon” and then we were escorted out of the sanctuary to the classrooms to work on arts and crafts as if whatever was happening in worship was for adult audiences only; Aldersgate UMC Rated PG-13

I remember learning about the big stories, the ones that everyone knows: Noah and the Ark, David and Goliath, Jesus and his disciples. But there are so many things about church that I never learned. 

My grandmother remembers her mother placing a coin in her hand every Sunday so that she would place it in the offering plate. From a young age she was habituated into the practice of giving back to God out of the abundance that she had. But by the time my mother came around this was not something that was instilled in her, and therefore it was not instilled in me. I have no idea whether or not my parents ever gave money to the church because it was not something we ever talked about.

What I do remember is a story that one of my pastors told about receiving a letter from a young boy in the congregation. The boy had been mowing lawns in the community and his parents had talked to him about the importance of tithing so that boy collected 10% of his lawn-mowing earnings, and placed them in the offering plate inside of a ziplock bag. The way my pastor told the story was so powerful that it got many of the adults crying. Look at the faith of this young boy and his willingness to give back to God!

Photo of a Collection Plate

But when I think about that now, I don’t see it as something special, in fact I see it as something rather ordinary. The fact that it was something so deeply celebrated as a rarity is another testament to the fact that we have neglected to tell the story of God’s mighty acts to the coming generation. They recently did a study at my home church and they discovered that only 25% of the people who attend worship give money to the church. That means that 3/4 people in the pews let the offering plate pass right over them. What are we instilling in the future generations that allows them to witness the incredible acts of God in the world today? How are we sharing the story with others so that we remember who we are and whose we are?

Instead, we hope and expect that others will just figure it out on their own and that they will know to give 10%, that they will know how and when to pray for their enemies, that they will place their hope in the resurrection in the midst of death. We so desperately want to privatize everything in our lives that we don’t want to talk about our prayers, we don’t want to talk about how much we give to church, and we don’t walk to talk about when and how we doubt.

When I was in seminary we were required to take a class on preaching. For weeks we gathered in the basement of the Divinity School listening to our professor lecture on the importance of proclaiming the Word, and then we were asked to preach in front of our peers on assigned texts so that they could critique our style and form. One day however, our preaching class went on a field trip to one of the local funeral homes in Durham, NC. The point of the visit was to help prepare us for the sermons that we would be preaching at funerals, offer advice on how to interact with funeral home directors, and talk about the theology behind death.

We walked through the facility from the basement where they did the embalming to the chapel where they held smaller services. And when we passed through one of the rooms, I noticed that a coffin had been prepared and opened for a viewing that would happen that afternoon. I stopped to pay my respect and offer up a brief prayer when I saw one of my friends frozen in place with her gaze locked on the casket. At 27 years old, she had never seen a dead body. Even with all the training and reading, the practice and focus, she was completely shocked by the sight, and I had to physically help her out of the room to continue the tour. I can remember her muttering under her breath as if she was unaware that she was actually speaking “death is so real.” I learned later that she had never been to a funeral and seeing that embodiment of death for the first time came as a frightening and almost overwhelming dose of reality.

What does it say when we keep our young people from experiencing death through funerals? Are we so afraid of death that it blinds us from the hope of the resurrection? Are we so concerned about how it might affect the coming generation that we neglect to instill in them the story about how God conquered death through Christ on the cross?

Of course, this isn’t just about teaching children the stories. It’s about all of us, whether we’re nine or ninety. We gather here in this space to remember, over and over, the great acts of God in the world. We move from creation, to redemption, back and forth, to remind one another what God did for us, and what God continues to do through us.

The psalmist, so long ago, believed in retelling the story to help shape the people of God. The psalmist believed that in going back to their origins, by remembering who they are and whose they are, they would always find the living God. When we retell the story we become a people of habit and pattern, we become shaped by the Word to be Christ’s body in the world today. 

We tell the story to open our eyes to how God has provided us with so many blessings that we respond by giving back to God our tithes and offerings. We tell the story so that we can open our hearts to the ways that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We tell the story so that we can open our souls to the great cosmic victory over death and remember that we have the hope of the resurrection.

If we want the coming generations to be steeped in the Word of the Lord, if we want them to remember the glorious deeds of God, and his might, and the wonders that he has done, if we want them to be a people of hope, then its up to us to share the story with them.

Amen.