We Really Need To Talk

Mark 10.17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these word. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brother and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

The old pastor had a reputation for turning church finances around. Every where he went he encountered the same sorts of stories: “we’ve lost some really big givers, we’ve had to cut corners, we just don’t know what to do.”

And it was his responsibility to preach fiery sermons about the virtues of generosity such that a church would receive the kind of cash flow that could bring resurrection out of financial doom.

He wasn’t really sure where he developed the aptitude for financial sermons, but people kept calling him to fill in from time to time, particularly when the offering plates started to feel a little light.

And so it came to pass that he received a phone call from a very wealthy member at a church on the other side of the state. It didn’t take long for the old pastor to discern some of the same problems he had heard before; The church was suffocating under horrible debt that had accrued over years of bad financial management. Finally, after describing all of the problems, the wealthy church member said, “When you come to preach you are welcome to stay at my country house, my town house, or my seaside cottage.”

To which the old pastor responded, “I’m not coming.”

The rich member was incredulous, “But you have to come, we need your help! How else can we pay off our debt?” 

The pastor said, “Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself.” And then he hung up.

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Woe to those who are rich! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!

Last week we spent the entire worship service addressing one of the topics Jesus spoke about all the time, a topic that for some reason we avoid in the church – divorce.

And as I stood up in this place and preached those words, I witnessed some pew squirming as the rigidity of Jesus’ proclamation landed upon our ears. Whether we’re divorced, or we know someone who is divorced, this was a place defined by a feeling of anxiety last week.

But now we have to talk about money. And if you thought people were uncomfortable last week, you should’ve seen how you all looked as the scripture today was being read!

Money! 

Presumably we all interact with money on a regular basis, and presumably most of us here wish we had more of it.

And perhaps some of us truly need more money – maybe we don’t have enough to pay our bills, or purchase groceries, or fill up our gas tanks. 

And maybe some of us have just enough – we’re able to make ends meet, save a little for the future, and splurge every once in awhile.

And still yet there may be some of us who have more than enough – we never have to think about bills because we know we have enough to cover them, we’ve can’t remember the last time we bought something used, and we are always the ones who reach for the check at the restaurant.

Money, whether we are poor or rich, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else. 

Jesus was about to set out on a journey when a man ran up and knelt before him. In the other gospels we learn a little bit more about this man, but in Mark’s version we don’t know anything about him except that he apparently kept all of the laws and that he had a bunch of stuff.

Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?

You know the commandments! Do them.

Of course I know them teacher, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth. 

And Jesus, looking at him with love, said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He wanted to know what he could do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He had apparently done a lot already, even from the time he was young. And Jesus had the gall to look him in the eye and say, “That’s not enough.”

When Jesus invites people to follow him in the gospels, they almost always drop everything right then and there to do so – but not this guy. For some reason his wealth was such that it was not something he could walk away from – whether it was the materialism of it, or the power that it created, or the comfort that he appreciated – he, unlike almost everyone else, walked away from the kingdom with grief.

And, lest we skip over the detail that stands out with strange absurdity, Jesus’ response to them man was apparently born out of love!

What kind of love compels someone to say, “you know what… the only way you can do this kingdom thing is to do exactly the thing you are not going to do.”

This is painful stuff! This is the Messiah peering into the heart of the man and naming right then and there the sin that has wrapped itself around his heart.

And to make things worse, Jesus doesn’t even wait until the man is gone before he begins regaling the crowd!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed, much like us.

So, some sermons would now logically shift into a “each of us can surely take look at our own lives…” And someone like me who ask people like you to imagine what in your life is keeping you from the kingdom – an attachment, a desire, a hope – something that acts more like a shackle holding you back than a spring that pushes you forward.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons like that, in fact I know I’ve even preached some sermons like that. A sermon where the final line is something like, “just let it go.”

But what if the point isn’t about what we must give up, but that we won’t be able to?

Jesus is clear with his disciples about the impossibility of the rich man’s salvation; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

And yet he also proclaims the Almighty power of God to make the impossible possible.

So… which is it?

In theological terms we call this divine tension, it is an impossible possibility. One cannot inherit eternal life in the sense that so long as you do this, this, and this it’s all yours. Time and time again the gospel, what we call the Good News, grace offered freely to us in spite of us, gets whittled down to a proposition. 

If you do this… then the kingdom is yours.

If you repent of your sins… if you pray everyday… if you sell all your possessions.

And when that becomes the defining message of the church the Good News is no longer good news. Instead, its just another version of the law whereby impossible tasks always remain impossible.

There is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom. 

And of course there are things in this life, sins and desires and temptations, that prevent us from being all that God would have us be. But when those very things become the lynchpin to everything we experience and know as disciples, then our lives will be little more than chaos.

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We really need to talk about money and our unhealthy obsessive attachment with it – but perhaps it’s more important for us to talk about the fallacy of earning the kingdom. 

This moment with the rich man reveals the kind of righteousness we think we require to acquire the kingdom of heaven. We make it out in our minds that its even more than following the laws, its more than checking off all the boxes. We take it to dimensions of frenetic fear and imply that to acquire the kingdom its all about who we are behind closed doors, who we are when no one else is around.

And then we boldly proclaim that Jesus is waiting in the wings to ask us to drop the very thing that we know we cannot. 

Why?

Perhaps Jesus wants to suck out all of our self-righteousness. Jesus asks the rich man a question, and vicariously asks all of us a question, as a reminder that we are no better than the people maligned in the media and the people dropped because of bad drama.

Maybe Jesus asks the question because he wants us to know that we really are sinners. That its not just a noun that we throw around all the time, but really, truly, deeply, who we are.

But where is the Good News in that?

The tension of the story, that pull from what we are asked to do to what we know that we cannot do, is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the rich man and to people like you and me: We have a job to do, and we cannot save ourselves.

That is the uncomfortable comfort and the impossible possibility of our salvation – that we worship a God who, in spite of our best and worst intentions, desires our salvation even when we cling to the things we know we should not.

God, in the midst of our chaotic and frightening dispositions, waits for us to realize that it is because we are sinners, it is because we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved.

When we read the story of the rich man, and we make it into a call for better stewardship, then it appears that none of us, poor and rich alike, none of us will inherit the kingdom. When faced with our own version of the question, we would all grieve while looking back over our shoulders.

But friends, that’s kind of the whole point – inheriting the kingdom is not up to us!

If all the Christians we know make us feel like we’re not doing enough, if every sermon leaves us feeling guilty, then we cannot call it amazing grace. 

When the gospel becomes a commodity to be propositioned – Jesus did something for you and now you have to do something for Jesus, then the cross is foolishness.

We all, the rich and poor, fail to live according to the law. If any of us were there that day, Jesus would have given us our own impossible task. That’s why the passage ends with the terrifying list of things to be abandoned for the sake of the gospel – friends, family, property.

Sure, selling our possessions to help the poor is a great thing. But it doesn’t earn us a ticket to the kingdom.

Sure, confronting a family member for their bigotry and hatred is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t earn us a spot in the resurrection.

Sure, abandoning our sinful desires that prevent us from being who God wants us to be would be a smart idea. But it doesn’t procure us anything.

Were our salvation up to us, it would be impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God. Amen. 

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In God We Trust

Mark 12.38-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then it does.

Over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we can only use what we are given.

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

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

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

This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devotional – Psalm 138.6

Devotional:

Psalm 138.6

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

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On Sunday morning, in the middle of worship, I gathered the children from the congregation and I announced a new plan for ministry. We moved about the sanctuary and I showed them where I was praying when God spoke to me as clear as day about what we need to do. Their faces were aglow with anticipation as I announced that the future of the church rests on the congregation’s ability to raise $54 million dollars.

While the children danced around with thoughts of all the money, the adults sank down deeper in their pews. I was grateful that one of the kids finally asked what the money was actually for and then I proudly announced that we need to purchase a private jet so that I, as the pastor, can share the gospel around the world.

I, of course, was kidding.

But a pastor named Jesse Duplantis said just about the same thing to his church two weeks ago, and he was dead serious.

If that church raises the funds, and it seems like it might, it will be Duplantis’ 4th private jet since entering ministry and he justifies the request because, “If Jesus were on the earth today he wouldn’t be riding on a donkey, he’d be in a private jet spreading the gospel.”

The Lord we worship is magnificent and beyond our ability to comprehend yet, as the psalmist puts it, our Lord regards the lowly. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about the subject of money more than just about anything else and very wonderfully says that its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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I, for one, cannot wait to see Jesse Duplantis fly his (4th!) private jet through the eye of a needle.

In our fast-paced frenetic world that is so consumed by a thirst for power and wealth, it is always a strange thing to remember that our Lord came to dwell among us not as the televangelists live, but like those who wander among the margins of life. We worship a first century Jew who ate among the sinners, not a preacher who thinks flying with other people is akin to spending time with demons.

What a blessing and privilege to know that though our God is mighty, God chooses to meet us in the muck of life, instead of escaping away into the stratosphere.

An Example – Sermon on Luke 12.32-34

Luke 12.32-34

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 your heart will be also.

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Meanwhile, when the crowds gathered by the thousands to hear him talk, so many in fact that they began to trample on one another, Jesus rose to speak. He warned his disciples against hypocrisy – live honest lives. He instructed them to confess fearlessly – all who earnestly repent will be forgiven. He shared the parable of the rich fool – you can’t take your money to heaven. And then he gave them some final instructions:

“Do not be afraid little sheep! For it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give away your money, use your gifts to bless others here and now. For where your treasure it, there your heart will be also.”

Sometimes Christians drive me crazy. You know, the super pious ones who are forever wearing their faith on their sleeves; the ones who stand on the street corners of life blasting off about some passage or another; the ones who come knocking on your door and try to sell you on the gift of eternal life instead of the fires of hell.

Have you ever met or encountered a Christian like that? I can’t help but feel like they are the kinds of Christians that are giving the rest of us Christians a bad name. Jesus never instructed his disciples to act like the people from Westboro Baptist church who are forever picketing the funerals of people whom they believe did not live up to Christ’s expectations. Jesus never called his disciples to be racist or bigoted toward peoples of different nationalities, or race, or creed, or sexual orientation. Jesus never implored the disciples to use fear mongering to convince people to come to church or otherwise be threatened with the fires of eternal punishment. Yet, if you turn on the news, or get online, those are the kinds of Christians we hear about the most; the ones who give the rest of us Christians a bad name.

Like Hillary Clinton proudly claiming to be a Methodist over and over again, and how much her Methodism has shaped her politics. But we know that she has gone back and forth on a number of issues and made untruthful claims when the bible is pretty clear: you shall not bear false witness.

Or like Donald Trump who, when asked about his faith said that he’s never needed to pray for forgiveness and when asked about his favorite scripture was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Except the scripture he was talking about actually goes like this: “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’”

Just once I would like a good Christian to be featured for all to see; someone who has absorbed the Word throughout his or her life and has lived accordingly; someone who believes the good news is so good, that is worth sharing not to fill the pews, but to fill hearts; someone who could stand like an earthly example for the rest of us to catch a glimpse of the ways Jesus calls us to behave.

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This winter I was asked to be a guest preacher at Augusta Street UMC just down the road. We had a midweek and midday service and I decided to preach about how good it is when we dwell together in unity. The service was well received and we gathered in the social hall after worship for a light lunch. I walked around for a couple minutes until I found an empty chair next to Wilford Kirby who was deeply engrossed in a conversation with someone else.

Elsewhere in the room, United Methodists from all of the churches in our town were sitting with their friends from their churches. Like cliques in a high school, the Central folk were at one table, the Cherryvale folk at another, and so on. But Wilford refused to be subject to this paradigm. He was sitting with the preacher from Augusta Street, though I don’t think he knew that he was the preacher. Because I eavesdropped on the end of their conversation, and the last thing Wilford said to the preacher was: “You should come try out our church on Sundays.”

Anyway, I sat with Wilford and he was quick to make a couple comments about their church facility in comparison with ours, offered a few critiques on how my sermon could have been better, and continued to eat his soup and sandwiches. I had other things to get done that afternoon, so after I finished eating I excused myself and told Wilford that I’d see him in church on Sunday and left.

Not fifteen minutes later was my phone ringing. When I answered all I heard was: “Wilford fell, broke some ribs, on his way to the hospital.”

I immediately turned my car toward the direction of Augusta health and beat the ambulance to the Emergency Department. But because they needed to do some x-rays and have him checked out I wasn’t able to get back, and he didn’t want me to anyway.

The next day I showed up at his house and banged on his door until he slowly made his way to the front of the house and let me in. I should have been a little more compassionate and patient regarding the fact that he was walking around with a few broken ribs, but I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to make sure he was okay. I wanted to pray for him.

And as we sat down in his basement, before I could even open my mouth, he asked me how I was doing, and then went through the list of everyone he had been praying for and wanted updates since he had been out of the loop for a whole day.

Wilford Kirby is the kind of Christian that makes the rest of us Christians look better.

Wilford Kirby is an example to us all about what it means to follow Christ in this life.

Luke, in this passage about our treasures and our hearts, calls for us to put first things first. The things of the Lord are to be the most urgent and pressing priority in every Christian’s life. We are not to be afraid nor are we to succumb to the worldly distractions of wealth that constantly distract us from God’s love and care. There are no wallets, or stock portfolios, or bonds that will not wear out in time. God promises not to fill us with earthly wealth and material possessions, but instead surprises us with the gift of the kingdom.

Receiving this gift, the kingdom, makes us rich beyond our ability to comprehend. But being rich toward God is not about putting sizable sums in the offering plate during worship. What Jesus rejoices in, is our reorientation toward the whole of life as an abundant gift from a generous God – a gift that can be given away with abandon.

Wilford Kirby has given his life to the kingdom, because the kingdom was first given to him.

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He has easily attended more worship services than anyone in this church over the last three years, including me (and I’m the pastor!). On Sunday mornings Wilford is the first layperson to enter the sanctuary making sure our heat is pumping in the winter, and the AC is on during the summer. He checks the lights for optimum worship participation, and he checks through the bulletins to make sure everything will go smoothly.

Every winter he sits out in his truck for hours on end waiting for people to come take a peek at our Christmas trees and offer them his assistance. Even though we have a giant sign advertising the times the lot will be open, Wilford believes in being present for the kind of people who ignore signs like those.

He is here an hour before our special services throughout the year like Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday, and Christmas Eve just in case anyone arrives extra early.

He is almost always the first person to show up in my office to find out how someone from our church is doing and how he can be praying for him or her.

For years he has mowed the lawn of our church and took care of the property as a volunteer. He never complained; he never sought recognition; he never wanted praise. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in the comfort of my air-conditioned office day-dreaming about God when I’d see Wilford come flying past my window on the lawn mower with a smile hidden underneath his dust-mask.

Wilford has been here for every funeral since I arrived. Even for people he never knew. Yet he always stands in the back greeting people as they walk in, not because he was asked to, not because he was told to, be because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

            The greatest treasure that Wilford Kirby has offered this church has been his very life, and he has given it with abandon.

But why? Wilford could be spending his precious time working with other civic organizations trying to make the world better. He could be spending his afternoons on the golf course or relaxing in the comfort of his home. He could use his life to do any number of things, but instead he has given it to this church.

My suspicion is that Wilford has given his life to the church because he knows and has experienced how the kingdom was given to him, and he wants to share that gift with others. He trusts that the Lord will provide. He humbly obeys the commands to love even the unlovable. He has seen first-hand how the kingdom of God can become manifest in other peoples’ lives. He put his treasure in this place because his heart has always been here. He wants other people to be blessed in the ways that he has been blessed. So he shows up. He prays. He cares. He loves. And he is an example to us all.

But that’s not to say that Wilford is perfect; he’s not. There are plenty of Sunday mornings when I finish a service and walk down the center aisle only to see Wilford standing in the back with his arm outstretched and his finger pulling me in as if to say, “Let me offer a suggestion.” Or there have been plenty of times that I’ve heard his footsteps walking down the hallway and I know from the texture of his tempo that he’s coming not to congratulate me on something but to complain about something that has happened in the church. But the thing is, even when Wilford is frustrated or upset it is because he believes our church can be better. He believes that we are part of the kingdom and we can’t be just like any other church. He expects excellence precisely because that’s what God expects from all of us.

Being rich toward God involves a generosity of spirit that opens our perceptions toward God’s generosity. Wilford knows how blessed he is, for the kind of life that he has had, and therefore he knows no other way to live than the way that he does.

Theses words from Jesus first meant for the crowd, and now meant for us, decisively interrupt our lives in this place and on this day calling us to focus not on the demands of the overly scheduled life, but on the Lord who comes in surprising ways to offer comfort, assurance, and love. Through these words we hear Jesus telling us that the time is now to start living a new life, not dictated by the past, but defined by God’s belief in our future. God uses people like us, people like Wilford, to make the kingdom manifest so that lasting joy will come to God’s little flock we call the church.

At this table, where Wilford has come time and time again, we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In this profound moment we are offered the kingdom again even though we do not deserve it. We come forward with hands outstretched remembering this incredible gift that has been given without cost. And by receiving this gift, we cannot help ourselves but live transformed lives.

So come and see that the Lord is good. Feast at this table where heaven and earth are bound together. Join together with Wilford Kirby as he walks to the front to receive the gift of the kingdom once again. And let it change your life like it has changed his. Amen.

The Talent Show – Sermon on Matthew 25.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

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I have an idea. We are going to start things off in the sermon a little differently this morning. Instead of sitting patiently and attentively while I spout off about theological ideas and anecdotes, we are going to do an activity…

In the parable of the talents, the master gives to the first slave five talents, the second slave two talents, and to the third slave he gives one talent. During the time of Christ, a talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a daily laborer; therefore this was a tremendous amount of money. So, here’s our activity: I want us to imagine that we are the modern equivalent of the master’s slaves, and we are going to discuss what we are going to do with the talents. If you’re sitting in the front third of the sanctuary I want you to imagine that the master has given you $50,000. In the middle third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $20,000. And the back third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $10,000. (If you remember anything from worship today, let it be this: It pays to sit near the front!) Anyway, I would like you to break up into groups of three or four and discuss what you would do with the money for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Begin.

Okay. The master would like to know what you are planning to do with his talents…

Of course, in the parable things work out a little differently. The master has decided to go on a great journey, and entrusts an incredible amount of money to three of his slaves. He provides them with five talents, two talents, and one talent, to each according to his ability. After the master leaves the five talent slave goes off and works hard with his talents and makes five more. Likewise the two talent slave goes off and works hard to earn two more talents. However the one talent slave went off and dug a hole in the ground to hide his master’s money.

The master returns and is greatly thrilled with the first two slaves. He rewards their trustworthy and hardworking nature by placing them in charge of many things, and then invites them into the joy of their master. But with the one talent slave, the master is very disappointed. The third slave was afraid of his master and saw that he was harsh, so he hid the talent in the ground. To which the master replies, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest.” The master takes away the one talent and orders the slave to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Out of all the parables that Jesus shared with his disciples, this one has probably been more abused and misused than any other. Once any parable is abstracted from the proclamation of the kingdom, misreading is inevitable. Jesus shared a story about a shepherd who goes after the one sheep that is missing – God rejoices in seeking out those who are lost, even if they appear insignificant. Jesus tells another story about a young man who squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father begging to be welcomed as a slave and the father throws a great banquet for the return of the prodigal – God, though harsh, is a loving, reconciling, and forgiving presence.

Parable Definition

The parable of the talents however, has been twisted around to fit the arguments of many pastors and theologians throughout the centuries. For instance, this passage has been cited, in prosperity gospel churches, as a defense for why God wants us to become wealthy; God blesses us money so that we can make more money! Additionally this scripture has been used to claim that the poor are poor because of their own faults and problems, God gave them all the opportunities in the world to become rich, but they failed to pull themselves up by their boot straps and make something of themselves.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend to his followers that we should work hard, make all the money we can, to give all we can. Instead, the story is a judgment against those who think they deserve what they earned, and a judgment against those who do not know how precious is the gift that they have been given.

The slaves did nothing to earn their five, two, and one talents. They were given as gifts! What becomes crucial is how they regarded the gifts and what they did with them.

A professor of mine in seminary named Stanley Hauerwas is widely regarded as a radical ethicist in the church. He has made some stunning proposals throughout his career about the need for the church to be the church and reclaim a sense of its radical nature in order to return to its mission for the kingdom of God.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

He argued that we, as pastors, should never perform funerals in funeral homes because the services of death and resurrection should always take place where baptisms happen. He argued that we, as pastors, should never marry strangers off the street but take the time to know them intimately before bringing them together in holy marriage. He argued that we, as pastors, should remove American Flags from sanctuaries because the flag’s presence blurs the line between what our country expects of us, and what God requires of us. But one of the strangest proposals he ever made has to do with money and the church.

When we receive new members we often have them stand up here in front of the church like Tom and Linda will do a little bit later and take vows of membership. They promise to serve the church with their time and gifts for the glory of God. We then applaud them and shake their hands after the service.

Hauerwas believes that we should add a new requirement to membership. Whenever we receive new members, they should stand in front of the entire gathered body and announce how much money they earn in a calendar year… (pause for dramatic emphasis)

“Hi, I’m Taylor Mertins. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, I am a transplant to the Staunton region and I really enjoy the pace of life here. I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I make $36,500 a year.”

His reasoning behind this is two-fold: It would allow the church to have greater transparency regarding the wealthy during times of need. If everyone knows who the bigger earners are, they can seek them out when someone in the community is in dire straits, or if the church needs immediate help with something.

It would also allow the church to recognize the great gaps of wealth within the local congregation regarding the rich and the poor. When a family joins that make very little during the year, it would allow us to know who it is that we can truly help by consolidating our resources. We, as Americans, do such a good job at trying to cover up our socioeconomic status that we are blind to those who are in need in the pews next to us. 

What do you think? Should we adopt his plan here at St. John’s?

I’m not so sure. I understand his idea on principle, but I believe that it would result in us abusing one another and it would prevent us from viewing everyone as part of the body of Christ. If you discovered that one of the humble women in the church was a millionaire wouldn’t you treat her differently? If you discovered that one of the men who appears very wealthy has no money at all, wouldn’t you treat him differently?

Yet, at the same time, I really like Hauerwas’ idea. It would push us to be more vulnerable with one another about what we have to offer, and what we need. So I’m going to offer a slightly different proposal. What if, when we received new members, we required them to share their talents with us?

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Jesus’ parable of the talents uses money, but in the big picture it has nothing to do with money at all. God, as the master, has given each of us unique abilities and talents that we have been tasked to use in the world for the kingdom. To some he has given more talents than to others, which is to say the hand is not the foot, nor is the arm like the leg, in the body of Christ. Yet everyone has been blessed with some talent that is beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly important. 

Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do — work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and learning to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share with him.

The slaves that earned more with their talents did so because they worked with what they had. No effort is made to describe how the slaves doubled their talents, but that they worked hard with the talents the master had given them. However the one talent slave rationalizes his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him by blaming the master! How often are we guilty of the same thing? —Blaming God for the failures that are indeed our fault.

Since the beginning of the church is has been a routine for Christians to excuse themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. How can little ole me possibly do anything for God’s kingdom?

Let me assure each of you of the contrary: You have been given gifts, wonderful and unique talents, that are begging to be used in the church for the world, and in the world for the church. You might not recognize them as such, you might feel insecure about whatever they are, but God has endowed you with the gifts so that they can be used. If you hide them inwardly, if you dig a hole in the ground, you fail to make good on the investment that God has made in you.

Jesus insists, through the parable, that the talents that God has provided us are to be used and implemented to their full ability. Christian discipleship is not something that we can just hope our pastors or churches can carry us through, but instead requires hard work. It demands that we take a good look at our lives and talents and ask how we can put them to use for God’s kingdom.

What talents do you see in your life? Are you a teacher who has the gift of sharing the Good News of God’s Word with others? A carpenter who has the gift to repair and shape shelters for others? A prayer warrior who has the gift to pray for our church, our community, and our world? A financially savvy individual who has the gift of helping others learn how to manage and invest their money? A nurse or doctor who has the gift of healing and presence?

I see a church full of Christians who have gifts that God has given.

Church should be like a great talent show where we share with others what God has given us, so that we can them employ those gifts for the kingdom. What are you doing with your talents?

Amen.

Red With Envy – Sermon on Genesis 25.29-34

Genesis 25.29-34

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

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There was a man who lived a perfect life. For years he did his very best to maintain the commandments of God, love his family, tithe to his local United Methodist Church, serve on the Trustees Committee, and volunteer as a coach for local little league sports. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. He was charismatic and hardworking, personality traits that would come to reward him when he started his own business.

He was a shrewd business man who seemed to be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market, quickly amassing a vast sum of money that he would then reinvest in the right companies. Yet, even with his vast wealth, he never overdid it with his community. He was humble and thrifty, fitting in with everyone else even though he was wealthier than anyone he knew.

As his life progressed he found success in nearly every direction. His company continued to expand and produce wealth, his family was the ideal example of love and compassion, and he had a strong relationship with his church. Near the end of his days God appeared to him one morning in his office. The Lord said, “Do not be afraid! You have lived a wonderful and virtuous life. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to make an exception for you; when you die you can bring a briefcase of whatever you want to heaven. So think about it while you still can, and I’ll see you soon.”

During the final weeks of the man’s life he thought deeply about what to bring with him to heaven, and when the time came he was confident with his decision.

Standing on the clouds of heaven, right beside the pearly gates the man was thrilled to see St. Peter ready to greet him and let him into paradise. “Welcome” St. Peter began, “we have been waiting for you. But if I’m being honest I can’t wait to see what you brought to heaven! God doesn’t make a deal like that with just anyone and we have been so curious to see what you brought!” The man smiled and proudly passed his briefcase over to St. Peter. As he opened the case he discovered six perfectly polished gold bars that glowed in the light of heaven.

“Interesting choice,” St. Peter said, “but we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”

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Greed. Our current economic downturn is often attributed the vice of greed, having grown out of control. For many of us, we’re not exactly sure how this actually happened, but we are ready to believe that we are suffering because some became too greedy. Greed has no limits or shame; while CEOs make millions and millions in bonuses, regular people are stuck in debt, unsure of the future, starving for work, and afraid of the consequences of others’ greed.

Greed is seductive and always waiting in the recesses of our minds. It is something that tempts all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Just like the hypothetical virtuous man who lived an incredible life, he failed to appreciate the goodness of God’s kingdom when he brought gold bars to heaven. We so desperately cling to the materialism of our world that we are unable to imagine a life without greed.

Have you ever heard a sermon about greed? The fact that we do not hear about this particular topic seems strange considering how prominent the temptation of greed is considered to be one of the greatest threats for Christians.

Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24). Paul suggests that the love of money is the root of all evil leading some to walk away from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10). James is very blunt about the folly of greed: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4.1-2)

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Time and time again scripture frustrates our conceptions about the world: If we are Christian and wealthy or if we desire to have wealth, we have a problem. 

Greed, however, is not limited to monetary gain alone. Greed sits at the root of most of our sins. We become greedy for wealth, power, position, place, people, and programs. We want more than our fair share. We desire the most for the least effort.

Jacob and Esau were born in conflict with one another.

The first born was red and covered with hair so they named him Esau, which means Red. The second born came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel so they named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber. Esau would grow to become a mighty warrior, skillful hunter, and a man of the field whereas Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob.

So it came to pass one day that while Jacob was cooking a meal, Esau came in from the field completely famished. “Let me have some of that red stuff, because I am starving!” Esau said to Jacob. So Jacob replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to, but first sell me your birthright.” “Are you serious, I am about to die from hunger; what good is my birthright to me now?” “Swear to it” said Jacob. And so Esau swore to his younger brother and traded his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. When Esau finished eating he rose and went away and began to despise his birthright.

Who is the greedy one from our scripture? 

Esau’s greed is evident and obvious. Rather than trust in the Lord’s provision, Esau’s vision was limited to the present and he wanted immediate gratification for his desires. In order to satisfy his appetite, Esau’s greed became so powerful that he was willing to give away his future for the present moment. 

We are a generation of busy people, consistently fighting a battle to determine what to give up and what to continue. When our plates become too full with responsibilities we plan to remove that which is unnecessary and no longer life-giving. So many people give up the important things of life to pursue something that is meaningless because we are consumed by our present needs rather than steadfast in our trust of the Lord. Many of us are tempted to ignore our baptismal identifies when we see someone in need, we are tempted to disown our family, friends, and children when they do something wrong. We are often tempted to sell out for something less than what we are truly worth.

Esau’s greed is obvious because it is so similar with our greed. Forgetting the long-term cost, we are quick to serve our sinful desires and natures right here and right now. What do I have to do to make more money as soon as possible? What do I have to do to get that girl at school to like me? We are captivated by the fast sprint rather than the patient marathon.

Pastors love to chastise Esau for so quickly releasing his birthright, and use him as an example for what not to do. But what about Jacob? Jacob who used crooked and deceitful ways to steal his brother’s birthright. He was no doubt the promised one, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive him for taking advantage of his brother’s need.

Jacob’s greed is subtle and relentless. Instead of offering his brother some food out of kindness he is always looking out for number one. Later in the story, after Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob is willing to give away all his animals, wives, and children just so that he might save his own neck. Jacob was blinded by the greed of power, to draw to himself everything he could by whatever means necessary, even letting his brother starve.

We are a generation of individualists who are taught from infancy the importance of a capitalistic world view. When we see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain we are willing to do whatever it takes to amass power. So many people will go against their values, morals, and ethics in an instant, purely to make our lives a little better. Many of us are tempted to forget who we are and whose we are because we have forgotten the true meaning behind “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

Jacob’s greed is apparent when we realize how similar it is with our own. Consumed with our lives alone, we ignore the needs of others when they prevent us from getting what we want. Why would I give my money to the church when I am the one who earned it? Why should I be responsible for helping to poor when they should be the ones helping themselves? We are captivated by our solitary vision of the world rather than seeing the world through the eyes of Christ.

Years ago I was preparing to help lead a team of youth on a mission trip to Guatemala. We would be serving the needs of the indigenous Mayans in the highlands for a week by building stones, playing with children, and planting trees. In order to go on the trip, as a youth, you had to regularly participate in youth group and fundraising. Throughout the year there were numerous opportunities to plug into the regular programming and this requirement helped to foster strong bonds and fellowship before we left the country.

There was a man at the church whose daughter wanted to attend the trip but had not participated in any of the youth activities, nor was she part of the fundraising. Her father believed that these requirements were frivolous and he was going to beat the system.

One morning he arrived at church and walked straight to the pastor’s office with a smile on his face. He held up a substantial check that he was willing to give to the church with the following stipulations: I will give this money if it directly goes to the mission trip to Guatemala, and if it guarantees my daughter a space on the trip.

Greed. I’m sure that the man felt he was doing a great thing for the church and indeed for the kingdom of God, after all here he was willing to give of his own money to help others in need. Yet, don’t you see how similar he was to Jacob and Esau? Rather than encouraging his daughter to give of her time through participation in youth group and fundraising he, like Esau, wanted immediate results for the minimal effort. Yet at the same time he was willing to challenge the church and, like Jacob, was willing to have his needs met at any cost while foregoing the need of others.

Greed is mighty and powerful. It seduces us and tells us that we are the most important beings in the universe. It fuels our desire for gratification in ways that are even beyond our imaginations.

Yesterday I arrived at our church to do some pre-marital counseling only to discover the church had been broken into and my office door had been kicked in. With a knot in my stomach I walked into my office: all of the drawers had been opened, most of my paperwork examined and scattered. Thankfully nothing seemed to be missing which furthered the mystery of the break-in. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what they were looking for. But I’m sure that they were fueled by greed.

Jesus, thanks be to God, calls us to a different life. Less is more. We are not the center of the universe, God is. We have more than we will ever need because God’s love and grace abound and our cups runneth over.

In order to break free from the slavery of greed we begin by acknowledging it in our lives, in whatever forms it presents itself. It’s easy to point out the greed in others, but now we have the challenge of looking inward at our greed. We may succeed in our fight against greed only when we learn to trust God for our needs, when we see the world the way that God sees us, and when we are prepared to give our lives for others because Christ gave his for us.

Amen.