Signs of the Times

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you seen, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

The disciples are just like us, and we are just like the disciples.

They’ve spent years with Jesus, listening to him tell story after story. They’ve witnessed countless miracles and have had their bellies filled time and time again. They’ve even seen parade into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. 

But sometimes, even being around the Messiah can’t explain everything. And the disciples are confused. 

Their Lord has talked openly, and frighteningly, about the great overthrowing of all things. The whole “the first will be last and the last will be first” stuff. And now here they are in the shadow of the temple, the very thing Jesus has said that he has come to destroy and the disciples cover their confusion with small talk. “O Lord, what big stones this temple has!”

It’s like those times when you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table and your filterless uncle starts in on his political ramblings. The whole family will shift around nervously until someone tries to cover up the feeling of discomfort by changing the subject, or simply talking loud enough to drown him out.

The disciples know that their mysterious Lord is acting even more mysterious than normal and instead of facing the mystery, instead of engaging with it, they try their best to bring up something else.

And how does Jesus respond to the tourist like behavior of his disciples?

“Hey guys, come close. You see all this stuff? The big ramparts and the towering walls? You see the guards pacing back and forth? You see the lines of people coming in to present their gifts to God? All of this is going to disappear. Every one of those stones will come crashing down and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

This is a shocking claim and an overwhelming revelation. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries the temple was the most sure thing around. So much so, that some worshipped the temple itself instead of the God for whom the temple was built. And to say that it would come crashing down sounds more like the proclamation of a terrorist than the Lamb of God.

Then the disciples ask the question that anyone would have asked, “Lord, when will this happen, and how will we know it’s about to go down.”

What follows is what some call the mini-apocalypse in the middle of the Gospel. Jesus foretells, in a sense, what is to come and he warns his disciples about what this will mean for them. 

“When things start to fall apart, be careful that you are not led astray. There’s going to be a whole lot of people who claim to be me or, at the least, be on my side. Don’t listen to them. They wouldn’t know the Good News if it hit them in the face.”

“When you hear about wars cropping up, or even the rumors of war, don’t be afraid. These things have always taken place, and they will always happen. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”

“And don’t even get me started on the natural disasters – the earthquakes and famines and floods.”

“But before that great disrupting of things occurs, you’re going to get arrested and persecuted. The powers and principalities are going to hand you over to the authorities and the prisons, you’ll be brought before those in charge because of me. And when it happens, don’t worry. This will be an opportunity for you to share the truth.”

“So do me a favor, don’t waste your time coming up with the perfect speech or the perfect story – I will give you the words and wisdom that none who are in power will be able to handle.”

“I know it’s going to be rough. Some of you will even be betrayed by your parents or your siblings or your friends or perhaps your children. Some of you will die because of this. You will be hated because of me. Don’t take it personally.”

“Because in the end, all will be well – I promise. It will be well because I have destroyed death, and you will live with me in the Resurrection. The end has no end.”

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Jesus goes full end of the world stuff here, rambling on like one of those men dressed in a sign on the street corners of life. And, to be honest, this reflection from the Lord has been used to inflict some serious damage across the history of the church. Leaders have held these verses over the heads of Christians in order to frighten them into faith.

Which, to be clear, doesn’t work.

Telling teenagers that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior they will suffer the consequences for eternity only leads to teenagers staying as far away from the church as possible. 

Telling new parents that unless they baptize their child the flames of hell will be their reward only leads to parents writing frightening Facebook posts about what they heard in church on Sunday. 

Telling people at the end of their lives to give more money to church or suffer the wrath of God leads only to emptier and emptier pews on Sunday morning. 

It doesn’t work and it shouldn’t.

Jesus declaration is not meant as a description of the nightmare that can be, and is, discipleship. It’s about what he is about to do, and what he has done, for us.

The world’s passion is taken up in Jesus’ passion. And by passion I mean the suffering that leads to a new creation. What we miss, what the church has often overlooked, is that what Jesus gets into here is not a catalogue of all the bad that’s awaiting us, but instead it is Jesus painting a picture of a dying and rising Lord who reigns in the midst of the world falling apart.

Jesus saves the world in its, and in his, death. But we are so afraid of death that we choose to believe something else about Jesus’ work. 

We like Easter without having to think about Good Friday. So much so that when we hear about all these horrible things happening in the world we only think about them in terms of how they might affect us as individuals instead of seeing how God already did the most horrible thing of all to save us.

Fanatical and apocalyptic Christians might warn us about how “The End Is Near” but what we’ve missed is that the real end has already arrived through the disaster that was the cross until the resurrection.

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In many ways, what Jesus said to his disciples and what he says to us today is this: “You may see signs that you think are the end. But they are not the end.”

Redemption, pointed to through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, involves neither the rejection of the world in its weakness nor the fixing of all the weakness by stepping in. All that matters is recognizing that resurrection comes out of death. 

And yet many of us have fallen prey to the myriad of ways a text like this has been used to manipulate, frighten, and even coerce those who hear it. 

We’ve left church on Sunday mornings afraid of God for all the wrong reasons. 

Instead of announcing the grace of God and the resurrection of the dead being made available to all, we lift up words like these as a potential punishment for those who don’t believe it.

Instead of resting in the strange grace of God’s unending love, we fixate on fixing all the world’s problems with programs that often lead to more doomed living. 

We try and we try and we try, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 

We embark on a new campaign and the lost keep wandering and the found keep yelling. 

We announce a volunteer program and the least wither away while the greatest smile proudly.

I don’t know how it all happened, we could probably blame sin and our own self-righteousness I guess, but in the church we behave as if we will only allow sinners to gather among us so long as they try to not look like sinners. We perpetuate systems of salvation that both deny the truth of who we are and lay it out as if its all up to us. 

For far too long, Christians have left their places of worship with the understanding that the world can only be saved by getting its act together. Or, worse, I can only be saved if I get my act together.

Now, sure, all of us would do well to get some things sorted out, but in the end that’s not what saves us. The world has never gotten its act together and neither have we nor will we. We chose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should.

That’s the disaster of history – we cannot save ourselves and neither can the world. 

So when Jesus speaks to his friends and disciples, when he tells them about things they cannot yet imagine, he is offering us, today, a corrective for the ways we’ve lost sight of the whole thing. Late or soon, the world is going down the drain. Just pick up a newspaper (do any of us still read the newspaper?) or pull out your phone and you will see how prophetic Jesus’ words really are. But as the world spins down the drain Jesus reminds us that only a Savior who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can do anything about it. 

The world has a future and the church is the one entrusted with proclaiming that future. Much to the chagrin of Hallmark and certain pastors, it is not a future of pie in the sky or even pie on the earth – it is resurrection from the dead. And without death there can be no resurrection.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ proclamation to the disciples outside the temple walls compels us to ask ourselves questions. 

Questions like:

Who are we and what in the world are we doing?

Are we like the disciples wandering around merely marveling at the scenery around us?

Are we “signs of the times” police, attacking anyone outside of what we think is the Gospel?

What is the church and what it is supposed to be?

We can begin to scratch at the surface of those first questions by addressing what the church is not. The church is not an exclusive club of the saved. It is not a gathering of people who will be granted the lifeboats of salvation while the world falls apart because of our superior faith or morality. It is not a museum for saints.

If the church is anything it is a sign for the whole world about the salvation of the cosmos made possible in and through Jesus Christ. 

Sometimes it feels like the church is in the midst of a crisis. It should come as no surprise that less and less people come to church week after week, the world feels like is twirling down the drain faster than ever before, and that’s not even getting into the specifics of cultural and societal changes. But if the church really is in a crisis it is because we have foolishly convinced ourselves that we are a bunch of good people getting better. The truth of the church is quite the opposite: we are a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

And Jesus has a word for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see: You don’t have to put your faith in political action, or moral achievement, or spiritual proficiency because those things can’t and won’t save the world. 

We need only trust that’s its not up to us in the end. And what better news is there than that? Amen. 

Look At Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to preach against the text, hiding in the lectionary, the truth, Revelation in the Old Testament, endless patience, unthinkable peace, throwing the skunk on the table, and being stuck in time. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At Jesus

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Radical

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a lot of churches around here. I’ve mentioned before that, depending on which way I go, I can pass by 15 other churches on my way from my house to this church. All kinds of churches – big churches and little churches, protestant churches and catholic churches (well, only one of those). And they’re all different. On Sundays they are filled with different people listening to different pastors preached about different subjects. 

I wish there was only one church, a united single church within which all Christians across the globe could call home. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead we disagree on an almost limitless number of things such that new kinds of churches are sprouting up every day.

In fact there are so many different versions of church out there that we have something in the modern parlance called “church shopping.” If you simply don’t like what you hear on a Sunday morning you can try out a different church next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that until you find the perfect church.

I’m assuming that most of you are here because this church is as close as you’ve found to perfection.

And even though there is no one real thing that unites the multiplicity of churches, except for maybe Jesus, there is something around here that seems to bind them all together: Harvest Parties.

Have you seen the signs recently? Have you been invited by your neighbors? I haven’t been able to drive anywhere without big and bold letters letting me know that some Christian group is having a harvest party – and they’ve all been scheduled for the same weekend. This weekend!

So why are churches hosting harvest parties? I don’t know.

My best guess is it seems like a whole bunch of churches want to have Halloween parties without calling them Halloween parties. 

Perhaps they don’t like the idea of kids in costumes, or free candy, and putting the word “harvest” on a celebration makes it feel more wholesome.

And the problem with all of that is the fact that Halloween is a Christian holiday!

Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve – a liturgical service in the midst of the Christian year. And All Hallows’ Ever is just an older English way of saying All Saints’ Eve.

It occurs the evening before the first of November, and it is a time marked by Christians across the globe by giving thanks to God for the departed saints who came before us. In other churches this took place on Friday, but we’re celebrating All Saints’ today. And because it is fundamentally a remembrance of the dead and anticipating their resurrection, it’s obvious how it connects with the habits and practice of what we call Halloween.

When Christians get afraid of consumes and the candy, or try to move it or tame it or water it down, it just reinforces our greatest fear the we try to deny with every waking breath – the inevitability of death.

But Halloween, All Saints, they are prime opportunities for us to dance with death, not in a way that worships the darkness that frightens us, but to shout with a resounding voice that death will not win. We Christians are the ones who laugh at death’s power in this world, not because it doesn’t sting, but because we have already died with Christ that he might raise us into new life. 

Halloween is therefore one of the most Christian days of the year because our God is in the business of raising the dead!

Our God is a radical God!

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On All Saints the church witnesses to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives who are no longer alive. We read their names and offer time for reflective and prayerful silence. And we do all of that because in ways both big and small, the saints we remember today joined in the unending chorus of laughter in the face of death’s dark rays.

It is one of the more radical moments in the liturgical year.

Matched only by the radical words from the lips of Jesus read for us already.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

This topsy turvy announcement about the power of God’s grace contains tremendous blessings: If you are weeping now you God will turn it around to bring forth laughter – if you are suffering now for the Son of Man you will jump in joy for your reward is great in heaven.

But for as much as it presents a rose tinted view of a time not yet seen, Jesus continues the reversal. 

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The poor and hungry will have their fortunes reversed – that sounds like good news. But for those us us who are sitting well in our finances and happy with full bellies – its not so good. The rich, the powerful, the well regarded, their fortunes are going to be reversed as well. 

In this mini sermon from the gospel of Luke, Jesus overturns all of our previous misconceptions about the way the world works: The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the outcasts are brought in, and the powerful are cast out. We might struggle with these words, or perhaps we might consider them unfair, but God isn’t fair. For if God were fair, none of us would be good enough. 

God is inherently unfair – God is in the business of righting wrongs and even wronging rights – God raises the dead.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus lives according to the words of this sermon by going to those on the margins, consistently challenging the status quo, and convicting those who feel too certain they are right. Likewise, saints are those whose lives demonstrated a care for those on the margins, or standing up for those forced to the ground, and speaking for those whose voice were taken away. 

But, lest we leave today under the impression that saints are very, very holy people, a people whose lives cannot be matched, saints really are just like us. Again and again in Paul’s letter, he addresses the people as the saints who are in Christ Jesus. For Paul, being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. The assumption being that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for your faith. 

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The earliest saints, in fact, were the earliest Christian martyrs – people literally killed because of what they believed. And here we come to another often forgotten or disregarded piece of discipleship: Christianity is about more than being nice to people. Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another and the early Christians weren’t martyred for suggesting we all just get along with each other.

They were killed for being radical. 

They were killed for saying things like the first will be last and the last will be first. 

They were killed because they believed in worshipping God rather than Caesar, rather than the King, rather than the President. 

And that’s not every getting into all the stuff about how we are supposed to relate to one another: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

And that comes into direct conflict with the powers and the principalities. To say those things aren’t the end all be all is to start carrying our own crosses up to Golgotha. 

Whether its Rome, or America, or our bosses, or our spouses, or whoever – we are forever being told who we are. We define ourselves by the definitions given to us by others, and more often than not from the others with power. When we look in the mirror we see not what we see but we see what we’ve been told.

But for Christians, none of us know who we really are until God tells us.

And that kind of behavior drives the powers and principalities crazy! As those who follow Jesus we refused to be defined by others. We are more than the people we vote for, or the team we cheer on, or the embarrassing story that stayed with us for years. We are not those things. We are who we are because of God. 

Being a saint, then, is really nothing more than confessing we have been saved by the One who made us part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let others tell us who we are.

All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to celebrate the lives and the deaths of those who were here before us. It is not an accident the the text assigned for today ultimately has to do with death. Living according to the words of Jesus is a radical thing. It is also a total thing.

The “All” in “All Saints’” is powerful. It is the church’s proclamation that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we do as a church. You don’t have to have lived the perfect life at the perfect church to be a saint. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, its the admission that we are far from perfect. But Christ isn’t done with us yet. 

Chances are, none of us here will ever be killed for our faith. Part of that stems from the fact that our nation and our faith are tied up with each other, contrary to the obsession with the separation of church and state. And another part of it stems from the fact that when we read these challenging words from Jesus we imagine them as some hopeful future instead of them being a command. 

Because if we really lived according to these words, people would try to kill us.

Thanks be to God then, that all of us here have already died. The waters of baptism brought us into the very heart of Jesus’ crucifixion that we might come out on the other side of the tomb with him. 

As the culture around us starts to turn toward Thanksgiving and an overly commodified version of Christmas, today we are reminded that those who are looking for happiness in a bigger house or a larger paycheck or a better spouse will discover that those things will never make us happy. There will always be a bigger house, more lucrative jobs, and people with power. 

On All Saints’ we cannot ignore the great cloud of witnesses who have pointed us to a different way, The Way we call Jesus. We know not what tomorrow will bring but we do know that God in Christ is in the business of making all things new, of raising the dead, and only God can tell us us who we are. Amen. 

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.

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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.”

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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. 

An Unacceptable Parable

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the publican of the podcast, Reformation Sunday, what the Spirit can’t not do, emphasizing Creation, Zima confusion, Between Two Ferns, H2O, the gift of grace, and a golden Capon quote. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Unacceptable Parable

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The Culture of Now

Proverbs 13.11

Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!

Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.

Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue! 

So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.

On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.

And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.

Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.

Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.

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

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Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.

There was a recent study 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 concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.

Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.

$9,000! 

If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!

That’s craziness. 

The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Again and again and again.

Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.

Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can. 

It’s a lot easier to say than to do.

And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice. 

Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul. 

Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.

But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments. 

It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else. 

Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING. 

Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”

As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods. 

But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God. 

That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”

The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen. 

God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.

But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained. 

The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

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That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.

For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now. 

The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford. 

Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term. 

Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist. 

Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.

Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%. 

This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income. 

What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. 

There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs. 

And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?

But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.

And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM. 

But saving is God’s cup of tea.

Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.

God is all about the long-game.

Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence. 

God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks. 

But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is. 

For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.

Seeking Welfare

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the difference between lepers and leopards, Halloween costumes, The Christian Imagination, communion vs. colonialism, joyful hymns, Being Disciples, remembering Christ, going to the cross, preaching the whole Bible, and joining the party. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Seeking Welfare

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