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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 12:1-9 and Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the importance of ‘no,’ even though the theme for this sermon is on the importance and power of ‘yes.’  I find the Senate’s ‘yes’ to Judge Kavanaugh troublesome.  I wanted their ‘no,’ though I didn’t expect it.

I could list my reasons why I find his confirmation troublesome, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of our personal assessments.  I’ll leave that for a blog post I may get to before the week is out.  Today, or at least during this sermon, I invite you to use the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as an object lesson for my larger point:  that choosing ‘no’ and choosing ‘yes’ has impact and repercussions, not just for the people saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but for others as well.

Three-and-a-half years ago, an organizational consultant named Tony Schwartz wrote an article for The New York Times about “the power of starting with ‘yes’” for business leaders and managers.  He begins with a little anecdote.  “As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk.  I just conducted a little experiment with them.  First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm.  The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me.  Next I said ‘No,’ firmly.  Both dogs looked down and slunk away.  I felt as bad as they did.”[1]

I suspect the dogs were responding as much to his tone of voice as the actual words.  Still, you know how empowering it feels to be told, ‘Yes.’  I’m sure Barack Obama chose “Yes, we can!” as a 2008 campaign slogan for many reasons.  One of them had to be that the slogan felt affirming and empowering as it drew people into community and common purpose.

Schwartz points out, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.  It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.

“In situations like those, the instinct to say ‘no’ serves us well.”[2]  It even has an evolutionary benefit.  Quoting a psychologist, Schwartz adds, “‘Organisms … attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats.  Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.’”[3]

“There is a difference,” Schwartz points out, “between surviving and thriving.  Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving.  The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”[4]

For an example, Schwartz points to research by the psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, that has found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a married couple falls below 5 to 1 – if it falls below five positive interactions for every one negative interaction – divorce is far more likely.[5]  Negative interactions are so powerful in a relationship that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the impact of one negative interaction.

Starting with ‘yes,’ stepping into a situation with an attitude of ‘yes,’ is important, not simply because such an attitude is energizing and builds safety and trust, but because starting with ‘no’ is so destructive.

Imagine how different the world would be if, instead of saying, “Let it be with me just as you say,”[6] Mary had said, “Nope.  No way!”  Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the world.  As did Abram’s.  Though Abram’s ‘yes’ needs a little more unpacking, I think.

Abram’s story seems to start with our reading in chapter 12.  It seems to start almost out of the blue.  “Now Yahweh said to Abram …”  Of course, none of our stories start out of the blue.  We all come from somewhere.

Abram’s story starts in chapter 11, and his ancestors’ stories start even earlier.  It’s not much more than a genealogical mention in chapter 12, and I know I’m typically tempted to skip over the biblical genealogies.  But in those last verses of the genealogy in chapter 11, we learn that Abram is the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Haran, husband of Sarai, and uncle of Lot.  And we learn that even though their family was from Ur, Terah took his family and left Ur, for reasons that are not enumerated, and headed off for the land of Canaan.

This is significant because, when God shows up in chapter 12, in today’s reading, Abram is already headed in the direction of Canaan.  True, their journey seems to have stalled at Haran (that is, the community of Haran, not to be confused with Abram’s brother Haran).  Perhaps the invitation from God acts as a kick in the pants to get them moving again.

In any event, this call from God isn’t as dramatic a “change the course of your life” call as I’ve generally thought it to be.  It is more of an invitation to continue or to get back to what had already begun.  Still, I think there is something new happening here.  I think the key to that new thing is found in the blessing God gives Abram:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[7]

If you were at Tim Weible’s installation last week, you heard me preach about how tribalism in human evolution led to violence.  (It still does, as far as I can tell.)  Still, tribalism served a purpose.  In hunter/gatherer cultures, the tribe provided protection, belonging, and identity.  That is why tribes are inward-focused.

Here, in the blessing God gives Abram, God invites Abram to look outward.  Abram’s tribe, the “great nation” he will father, rather than turning inward for defense, is called to turn outward for blessing, to be a blessing.

“The purpose of the blessing is to be a blessing to others.  From the very beginning, the invitation to be part of God’s people is a call to look outward to the needs of others.  The generous sharing of our gifts, financial and otherwise, is then a natural and necessary action for those of us who call ourselves the people of God.  Our blessings never stop with us.  They always flow onward to someone else.”[8]  Our blessings never stops with us.

Lee Hull Moses, who wrote a commentary on this passage I used in creating today’s sermon, shared a story that explains what I mean.  “Years ago, when my parents bought me my first used car – primarily so they could stop driving back and forth to pick me up from college – my dad included a note along with the instructions to keep the oil changed and gas tank filled:  Use this to help people.  I don’t know that I followed that advice as often as he would have liked, but it’s been a good reminder to me that the things we own are best understood as tools by which we serve our neighbors.”[9]

The things we own are best understood as tools of blessing.

That would be our ideal relationship with our stuff.  I know I’m some distance from that ideal relationship.  But I’m working on it.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abram brought his ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to continue to Canaan, he didn’t drop everything to follow.  Quite the opposite.  He packed up all his possessions, including “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran,” to set off on the journey.  And there’s no mention that he discussed the matter with Sarai.  He made a decision and off they all went.  While these aspects of the story are disturbing, it’s nice to know that God calls people who aren’t perfect.

And when Abram led his family and possessions to Canaan, they didn’t do it all at once.  The journey takes quite a while, first to Shechem, then Moreh, then Bethel, and on to the Negeb.  At each stop along the way, Abram did the same thing.  He pitched a tent and built an altar.  Then he did it again.

It’s not a bad way to structure a life:  listen for God, follow the call, set up an altar, worship, be a blessing … rinse and repeat.

As I wrote in my newsletter column (which I’m sure you all read and memorized), we hold a pledge campaign each fall for at least two reasons – one practical and one theological.  The practical reason is that it helps us create a budget.  Knowing about how much money will be coming in can help us plan our spending.

The theological reason is to encourage us to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  This season is about our stewardship of our whole lives.  Today we are invited to consider how we are stewards of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  And we are invited to consider how we are stewards of our listening for God’s invitations to take the next step on our journeys – our individual journeys and our congregation’s journey.

The invitation is to bring your ‘yes’ to God so that we might be a greater blessing to the world and so that we might join God in changing the world.

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

What might God be kicking our church in the pants to continue (or start)?

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

[1] Tony Schwartz, “The Power of Starting With ‘Yes’,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/business/dealbook/the-power-of-starting-with-yes.html (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 26 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schwartz, quoting Roy Baumeister, “Bad is strong than good,” link broken.

[4] Schwartz, op. cit. Oxford commas added.

[5] See, for instance, Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” The Gottman Institute, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ (posted 4 October 2017; accessed 6 October 2018).

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

[7] Genesis 12:2, The New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

[8] From a commentary by Lee Hull Moses that is part of the stewardship campaign materials Niles Discovery Church purchased from the Center for Faith and Giving, https://centerforfaithandgiving.org.

[9] Ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 22:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Truth be told, when I read this parable a couple weeks ago, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  How on earth am I going to use this in a pledge campaign?”

The simple fact of the matter is that I haven’t liked this parable very much.  I don’t like its violence – the violence perpetrated by the wedding invitees, nor the violence perpetrated by the king.  And when the parable is looked at as an allegory it easily becomes anti-Semitic.  Making light of the kind’s invitation on one hand and killing his slaves on the other can be interpreted as blaming the Jews for ignoring the prophets and for killing Jesus (even though we know that the Roman government was responsible for killing Jesus).

As I sat with my discomfort, my dislike of this parable this week, I realized that I am treating the parable too literally.  I am looking at it too closely.  I need to step back to see the bigger picture.  I had this experience on Friday, sitting too close to some prints hanging on a hospital waiting room wall.  Only later that morning when I was sitting in some chairs across the waiting room could I see the beauty of the artwork.

You may have had a similar experience with pointillism.  If you’re too close, you have no idea what you’re looking at, but if you back up, you can see the whole picture.  If I step back from the parable and think about the whole picture, I don’t get lost in the details.

Early Christians thought that Jesus was going to return to fully establish the Realm of God, the Realm that he has started to establish during his lifetime through his preaching, teaching and healing.  By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, some of the community “had begun to lose confidence in the second coming of Jesus and in the final manifestation of the Realm.”[1]  The person we call Matthew wrote his gospel to impress upon the community the importance of remaining faithful, even in the face of conflict within the community and conflict with authorities outside the community (be that with Jewish authorities or Roman authorities).

When you remember this, you can see this parable as fitting into that purpose.  “It urges people to accept the invitation to the Realm, to accept others who have accepted the invitation to the Realm, and to dress accordingly, that is, to live according to the perspectives and behaviors of the Realm of God.…  When listeners accept the invitation to become part of the community that is part of the movement to the Realm, they make a commitment to live according to the values and purposes of the Realm.  They agree to put their time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources at the service of the Realm.”[2]

The use of a wedding banquet to refer to God’s rule is not unique to the Gospel writers.  Isaiah is one who uses this image.  And it’s an appropriate image.  “Weddings in antiquity were significant social occasions.  In villages, the event could last several days and would involve generous amounts of food, considerable dancing, and other festive qualities.  The [whole] social world of the village was transformed during the time of a wedding.”[3]

And here’s why this parable works for our pledge campaign.  “The invitation to join the Realm is an invitation to turn away from using time, [skills, gifts], money, and other resources to serve the values and practices of the old age, and to turn towards God and to use [those resources] … according to the values and practices of the Realm of God.”[4]  Yes, our pledge campaign is leading toward October 22, when we will ask you to make a financial commitment to support the work of the Realm of God we are carrying out through the ministries of our church.  But more than that, this pledge campaign is about “getting caught up in the movement towards the Realm, and in response committing oneself to practice the Realm.  The money for the budget is intended to help the church be a genuine community of the Realm and to make an adequate witness.”[5]

That’s the invitation of this pledge campaign.  I know that, just like in the parable, some people won’t want to come.  Some people make light of the invitation and return to whatever the modern equivalent of their farms and businesses is.  Presumably, their lives will continue in the broken way of the world.

But some will respond to the invitation, including people who think they are not good enough to be invited and are surprised to have a servant come and seek them out.  And we all know that some will respond to the invitation, but won’t invest themselves in the work of the Realm.  I’m glad to say that we don’t through them out, but I do always feel some sense of loss and sometimes even failure, when people who’ve said “yes” to the invitation don’t follow through with a Realm-transformed life.

The reality is that the pledge you choose to make during this campaign is just one piece of a Realm-transformed life.  I’ve been calling this a pledge campaign (and not a stewardship campaign) because stewardship is about much more than giving money.  Stewardship is about being part of the new social and cosmic order that is the Realm of God.  “When we commit to the church, we commit to the Realm, which is committing to the movement for a renewed world.”[6]  Stewardship is really everything you do after you say, “I believe.”

That said, stewardship definitely includes how you use your money.  And not just about how you use your money to support the church.  If you live a life-style that exceeds your income, putting you into debt, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship, and maybe you need some help with that.  I’m not exactly sure where to get that help, but I’m happy to work with you to find it.  If you try to feed a spiritual hunger by buying things, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.  If you’re so good about saving your money that you are stingy with your neighbors, yourself, and God, that’s not a healthy, Realm-building form of stewardship.

So, part of the invitation of this pledge campaign is to ask you to look at your income (and maybe even your savings) and decide what you need to do to be even healthier about your stewardship of your money.

There are two more things in today’s gospel lesson that I want to talk about.  The first is about the violence of the king.  There are two ways this violence is cast.  The king sends his troops to destroy the murderers of his slaves.  And the king, once the party has begun, has one of the guests thrown into the outer darkness for not wearing the right attire.

Perhaps I am guilty of looking too closely at the parable right now, but because this so disturbs me, I have to comment.  I can only interpret these lines as hyperbole.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, would not burn down whole cities.  The God who is unconditional love, who seeks justice for all, “would not actively consign people to the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.”[7]  Still, I do think that when people choose to refuse the invitation to be part of building the realm of God, they end up building walls between themselves and God.

And I do think that metaphoric dress has consequences.  When we clothe ourselves unethically, disregarding the attitudes and actions that are part of the Realm of God, we create communities of distrust, exploitation, and violence, and that eventually causes many people to weep and wail and gnash their teeth.

The final thing I want to comment on are the lines where the king sends his slaves to get other people to come to the banquet.  Let me remind you of those lines.  “Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’  Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

I’m taken by the notion that slaves rounded up everybody to come to the wedding banquet.  I think this is saying that the gospel is for everybody.  I think this is saying that we should be out inviting everybody, not just the people who are in whatever way “like us.”  We should be out inviting people who we think might, in some way, be bad – and then get over our judgmentalism.

Back in May, we adopted a strategic plan for the next two years.  The plan has two goals.  One is to start at least two new hands-on, multi-cultural, intergenerational service project each year for the next two years.  The other is to encourage the faith journeys of all members and visitors by increasing participation in church programs by 10% annually.  I think both of these goals fit in with this image of gathering up people to join in the wedding banquet that is the Realm of God.

And so I want to remind you that when you make your financial pledge to the church later this month, you are supporting this work of invitation.  “For Matthew’s [Jewish community], ministry with Gentiles and with those who do good things and bad things was a significant magnification of their ministry, but one that was essential to their identity and purpose.  To stretch is to be faithful.  To fail to stretch is to be unfaithful.”[8]

My friends, the invitation has gone out.  We have been invited to the wedding banquet and everything is prepared.  Will we come and celebrate?  Will we come ready to be part of the new social order that transforms the world?  And if we will, how will we live that out in all aspects of our lives, in all the ways we are stewards of our resources?

In other words, how will we respond to the invitation?

_______________

[1] Bruce Barkhauer, et. al., Journey to Generosity: The Way of Jesus, published by the Center for Faith and Giving in 2016 and downloaded in 2017, page 85.

[2] Ibid, 85-86.  I have replaced “talent” with “skills, gifts,” and will to that in this sermon because the word “talent” is a unit of money in scripture and it is being used here to refer to skills and gifts.

[3] Ibid, 86.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid, 87.

[6] Ibid, 89.

[7] Ibid, 94.

[8] Ibid, 92.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 1, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Deuteronomy 15:1-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been talking about the uprising that began with the resurrection.  While I can’t tell you exactly what the resurrection was, I know this:  The resurrection resulted in the uprising of a movement.  The disciples of Jesus changed from followers to leaders and they gathered new followers, people who wanted to be part of this uprising that offered a path that was different from the roads the Empire of Rome was so famous for.  This uprising forged a new path, a new road they made by walking it.

We are inheritors of this uprising and, like those first members of the uprising, we make our road by walking it.  This path was and is different from the ways of the Empire.  This road we make by walking is marked by it being a fellowship of scared and scarred people who find courage and healing in community.  This road we make by walking is marked by a discipleship where we are both leaders and followers, teachers and students.  This road we make by walking is marked by worship that brought everyone from every background into a state of equality.  This road we make by walking is marked by partnerships that can even make enemies into friends.  This road we make by walking is marked by the strange relationship we end up having with money – the subject of today’s sermon.

I invite you to think about how your relationship with money began and how it was formed.  Think about your experiences, what you were taught, how you felt and feel about money.

My introduction to money was with an allowance.  Each week, my parents gave me some money that I was free to do with as I chose.  It wasn’t a lot and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to spend it, but it was mine.  I was encouraged to think about what would happen if I spent it now rather than letting it accumulate.  I think, perhaps, my parents were trying to teach me that sometimes I have to wait to buy something.

I was encouraged to save and I opened a savings account at an early age – I don’t remember how young I was, but I know I was in grade school.  I remember arguing with my parents when I was in junior high that the inflation rate was so much higher than the interest rate I was earning, the real value of my savings was actually decreasing so they should be okay with me withdrawing it to buy a walkie-talkie to match Danny Kennealy’s.  Yes, I was a little mathematician when I was in seventh grade.

The other important lesson my father gave me, and this one was very direct, was about credit cards.  He co-signed for my first credit card, a MasterCharge (back before VISA).  He told me to pay off the full balance the first month, pay off most of the balance the second month so they can charge me a little interest on the unpaid balance and will think I’m going to make them money, then pay off the full balance the third month and each month thereafter.  “And,” he said as he signed the application for the card, “I never want to hear from them.  Ever.”  He didn’t.  And except for a few times when I had some major expenses like a car repair, I’ve never charged more than I could pay off that month.

Other lessons came later.  My parents never did the three jars lesson that is on the cover to the bulletin.  The idea is to teach not just savings, but sharing as well.  Had they participated in this activity, I would have been encouraged to divide my allowance (and birthday money) among the three jars, one for spending now, one for saving, and one for giving away.  My parents never talked about how they decided how much money to give to the church or how they decided what other organizations they would support.  I never really started thinking about giving until I was ordained and I needed to raise the money to pay my own salary when I was working for a Council of Churches as a chaplain.

And I didn’t really start thinking about the power of compound interest until I was several years into my professional life and an older colleague was encouraging me to start saving for retirement while I was in my 20s.  A side effect of this lesson in particular, and the other lessons as well, is that I was taught that my safety lies in my savings.  My safety is in my savings.  It may say “in God we trust” on the money, but that’s not the lesson the economy really teaches.

These overt foundational stories formed my relationship with money.  But there are other lessons learned as well, covert lessons, lessons the culture taught without teaching.  One of them is the money is power.  Sometime called the “Gold Rule” (and not to be confused with the Golden Rule), the Gold Rule say, “The one with the gold rules.”  Another rule is, “the bottom line is the bottom line.”  Profits are more important than how other people or the environment are treated.  “What’s mine is mine and I’m going to keep it” is another rule, or at least a mantra of the Empire’s economy.  Some people go so far as to chant, “What’s yours is mine and I’m going to take it.”  These are the rules that allow, even encourage corporations to pay slave wages in foreign countries, to dump their toxic waste in countries that don’t have good environmental protections (or to break the environmental laws in this country).

The uprising had a very different relationship with money.  “When the uprising first began in Jerusalem, people started bringing all their possessions to the apostles.  Since they knew it wasn’t God’s will for some … to have luxuries while other lacked necessities, those with surplus began to share freely with those in need.  … All things [were held] in common.  As you might expect, that created some problems.  Some old prejudices sprang up between Jews and Greeks, and some people began playing games, pretending to be more generous than they really were.  In spite of the problems, holding all things in common was a beautiful thing.”[1]

As the expected return of Jesus didn’t happen, the “all things in common rule” was followed by fewer and fewer communities of the uprising.  The one thing that didn’t change was the realization that the systems of this world run on one economy and the Commonwealth of God runs on another.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that money brings power, privilege, and superiority; it teaches that money brings responsibility for neighbors.  The economy of the Commonwealth of God doesn’t teach that what’s mine is mine, but that what’s mine is God’s.  And if what’s mine is God’s than it’s not mine really at all.  It’s God’s and I’m only the steward of it.  Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “I choose to follow Jesus.”  How we use our time, our potential, our possessions, our privilege, our power, and our money is all a matter of stewardship – because all of it is God’s, not ours.

And the uprising had (and still has) a radical idea:  Stop working for money and start working for Christ.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be paid for your work, but that the payment isn’t the primary purpose of your work.  The primary purpose of your work is to follow Jesus.  So that means that your profession needs to be one that decreases harm to the environment and our fellow human beings.  The notion that we work for Jesus and not for money is why the original members of the uprising weren’t allowed to be soldiers.[2]

Brian McLaren says that the early Christians used the jam-jar method of budgeting.  What is needed to meet the basic needs of the family?  That goes in the spending jar.  What’s left is divided between the saving jar (like an ant storing food for winter) and the giving jar.  The money in the giving jar is the money that would be presented in the offering that I described in my sermon two weeks ago.[3]  This money was used for the work of compassion, justice, restoration, and peace.  It supported the leaders of the uprising and it supported the vulnerable in the uprising – the sick, the widows, the orphans, the elderly, those who had lost their homes and land and work.  “That’s what stewardship is, really, love in action.”[4]

“Paul always reminds us,” McLaren writes, “that nothing has any value without love.  That explains why money is so deceptive.  It deceives people about what has true value.  You cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught.  If you love God, you will hate money, because it always gets in the way of loving God.  If you love money, you will hate God, because God always gets in the way of loving money.”[5]

This attitude about stewardship is, I think, one of the most radical things about the uprising that started with the resurrection.  If it’s not one of the most radical, it is one of the most challenging for me personally.

Some of the lessons I was taught are in keeping with the uprising’s idea of stewardship.  The importance of delaying purchases, the importance of meeting needs before wants, the importance of living within my means, the importance of giving a portion of my income away – these don’t conflict with the uprising of stewardship.  But those other lessons – my safety is in my savings; the one with the gold rules; the bottom line is the bottom line; what mine is mine and I’m going to keep it – those go against the uprising of stewardship.  And they are the lessons I still need to excise from my brain and heart.

Preparing this sermon reminded me of a sermon series I did several years ago on God’s Economy.  I think it may be one of the most important sermon series I have ever preached.  Or maybe it’s the one I most need to hear.  Maybe I’ll dig it out and preach it again next Lent or Easter.

For now, I invite you to reflect in silence on anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention, or reflect on one of these:

Reflect on a time when you got mixed up about what really has value.

How do you respond to the idea of dividing your income into three parts—to spend, to save, and to give away?

Reflect on the tension between loving God and loving money.  See if any insights come to you.  Ask God to help you be a wise steward or manager of the resources that are entrusted to you.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], Chapter 38. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[2] See, for instance, Scot McKnight, “The Early Church and Military Service,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/07/08/the-early-church-and-military-service/ (posted 8 July 2013; accessed 30 April 2016).

[3] Jeffrey Spencer, “The Uprising of Worship,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/the-uprising-of-worship/ (posted 17 April 2016).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 8, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 12:38-44 and Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve been ordained a little over 27 years. That means that today is the tenth time that gospel lesson has come up in the lectionary. Always in the fall, always right around pledge time, every three years, we hear the story of the widow putting her two pennies in the Temple treasury and receiving Jesus’ praise.

I wasn’t preaching every week when I started as a pastor, so I suspect this is probably only the seventh time or so that I’ve preached on this passage. I’ll tell you the focus on my sermons in the past. The widow give more than the others because she gave more proportionally. With apologies to those of you who don’t like math, there are at least two ways to look at how much money you give to the church (or to any organization). You can look at the total you give, or you can look at the percentage (the proportion) of your income (or your net worth) that you give.

The widow’s mite.

Without a doubt, the rich people in the story put in much more than the widow – in terms of total given. They put in “large sums,” Matthew tells us. The widow put in two copper coins worth about a penny. But they are rich and the widow is poor. As a percentage of their net worth, they are way below what the widow put in. “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.” She gave 100%; there’s no way the others reached that level of proportional giving.

And the conclusions of those sermons? Brava for the widow; let’s be like her.

I’m reminded of the joke about businesswoman who came to church to pray. She had a big decision to make. She sat in a pew next to a guy who was mumbling his own prayer. “God, I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the end of the week. Right now, it’s a choice between paying the power bill and buying food, so I need $100 to make it.” The businesswoman reached into her wallet, pulled out a $100 bill and pressed it into the man’s hand. The man was elated, praised God, and lets the sanctuary filled with joy. The businesswoman prayed, “Well, God, now that I have your undivided attention.”

I’m not sure what the moral of that joke is, but I was reminded of it.

I still believe that looking at the proportion of your income is a much better gage of your financial support of God’s mission than looking at the total dollar amount. But based on my study of this scripture over the past week, I think I’ve been interpreting this scripture wrong for the past 27 years.

How do you hear Jesus’ description of the poor widow’s offering – is it praise or lament? To put it another way: Is Jesus holding up the widow and her offering as an example of great faith and profound stewardship, or is he expressing his remorse that she has given – perhaps feels compelled – to give away the little she has left?”[1]

David Lose put together a pretty good list of reasons that Jesus’ tone of voice is more likely to be lament:

  • “This passage is part of a larger set of passages that focus on Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees and center on his critique of the Temple. Indeed, ever since Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (in ch. 11), he has done little else except teach in the Temple and debate with the religious leadership there.
  • “The first verses of this week’s passage condemn the scribes precisely for ‘devouring widow’s houses’ – shorthand for pretty much everything they own.
  • “In the passage immediately after this one, Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple itself, seemingly the culmination of his attack on the religious establishment of Jerusalem, an attack that has prompted his opponents to seek first his arrest (12:12) and, eventually, death (14:1).
  • “Notably, there is actually no word of praise in Jesus’ statement about the widow or any indication that Jesus is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing. Which makes how we imagine his tone of voice – praise or lament – so critical.

“All of this leads me to conclude that Jesus isn’t actually lifting her up as an example but rather decrying the circumstances that demand her to make such an offering, a sacrifice that will likely lead to destitution if not death. He is, in short, leveling a devastating critique against Temple practice and those who allow, let alone encourage, this woman to give ‘all she had to live on’ (or, in a more literal translation of the Greek, her whole life!).”[2]

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is also about widows. The way the story goes in the Bible, Naomi was a Hebrew who was married to a Hebrew. They had two sons. When famine struck their land, they fled to Moab where there was food. There, her two sons got married. They married outside their faith and nationality; they married Moabites. Then tragedy struck. Naomi’s husband and her two sons died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law to fend for themselves. Given their culture and the role of women in that culture, they were in a bad way. Naomi had no way to provide for her daughters-in-law, so she decided to return to Judah and she told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab where they might be able to find new husbands.

One of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, took her advice, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, would have none of it. And at this point, we hear some of the most lyric lines in scripture: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.”

When Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem, they were still widows without a man to provide for them. Their options were very limited. They turned to gleaning, going to the fields after the harvest and gathering what the farmers left behind. Leviticus 19:9-10 instructs, “You shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.… You shall leave them for the poor and for the foreigner.”

“Such sloppy harvesting would be an affront to our modern notions of efficiency. Harvesting machinery is designed to gather every kernel possible, milking machines vacuum every drop a cow can give. Never mind that the surplus will as likely mold or be destroyed as be given to the poor and refugee.

“In contrast, implied in gleaning is an ethic of gratefulness for the source of the harvest – an acknowledgment that the growth of the grain is a gift given above and beyond the farmer’s work, a gift of God’s provision that must be shared.”[3]

As the younger woman, Ruth did the actual gleaning. She found fields whose owners obeyed this Hebrew law in order to provide for herself and her mother-in-law, Naomi. One of the fields she went to was owned by Boaz, a distant relative to the family she married into. Boaz noticed Ruth’s kindness and hard work for Naomi (far beyond the call of duty) and responded by taking the gleaning code further. He instructed his workers to leave extra grain for Ruth to gather (2:15-16).

And then we get to today’s reading. Naomi figures out that Boaz might make a suitable husband for Ruth, so she instructs Ruth on how to entice him. The two get married. They have a baby, a son, and the Naomi’s lineage is safe.

Our scripture stories are filled with choices the characters make. The rich men in the Temple choose to benefit from a system that abuses the vulnerable. The widow in the Temple chooses to give everything she has to the Temple treasury. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi back to Judah. She chooses to go out into the fields to glean. Naomi chooses to coach Ruth on how to entice Boaz. Ruth chooses to follow Naomi’s advice. Boaz chooses to marry Ruth.

Every one of these choices is a stewardship choice. In fact, every choice we make is a stewardship choice – and we are constantly making choices.

Maybe it would be good to define what I mean by stewardship. Stewardship is the management of something. Good stewardship implies an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management. Christian stewardship implies that that ethic is grounded in Christian ethics.

Just using our scripture stories for examples, here’s what I mean by every choice we make is a stewardship choice.
The widow chose to come Temple in the first place: a choice about the stewardship of her time and energy.
She chose to give the money to the Temple: a choice about the stewardship of her finances.
Naomi and her husband chose to move to Moab: a choice that impacts how they manage, how they care for every aspect of they life.
After the death of the men in the family, Naomi chose to return to Judah: a choice that impacts how she manages her life.
Ruth chose to go with her: a choice about the stewardship of her identity, the stewardship of her compassion, and the stewardship of birth family and her family of choice.
And Ruth chose to get all dolled up and to “uncover Boaz’s feet” where he slept: a choice about the stewardship of her body and her sexuality.

Now, there are lots of influences on our choices. In the story of Ruth, we know that famine is an influence on several of the choices that get made. Hunger influences her choice to go gleaning. Consider the risks that Ruth takes just in choosing to go gleaning so she and Naomi can eat, scraping up sustenance from the leftovers of those with plenty. She wanders as a stranger in foreign fields. She is there, a woman alone, when a woman alone was vulnerable to harassment or worse. We see in Ruth the plight of the refugee, the widow, the migrant worker.[4] For the widow at the Temple in our Gospel lesson, there are the pressures that cause her to give all she has to the Temple, pressures Jesus objects to.

Influences or not, every choice we make is a stewardship choice. Stewardship is everything we do, because everything we do is an expression of how we care for our time, our financial resources, our relationships, our skills, our community, our neighbors, our bodies, our – well – everything.

growlogobrownI’m supposed to be taking about the third word in our three-word summary of our mission and purpose as a church. Two weeks ago, Pastor Brenda spoke about our stewardship of welcome. Last week, I spoke about our stewardship of growth. And this week, I’m supposed to be speaking about our stewardship of service. So let me connect that up to the themes in our scripture lessons.

Service can really take two forms. One is the direct service that meets someone’s needs. The special offering we receive today for Abode Service’s Home Warming program is an example of this. Some family is going to become homeless this year and Abode Services will call on us to quickly come up with the money to help get them back into housing – the security deposit, etc. – and to help them with furnishings if they need them. Our offering today will be held until Abode calls on us, and our hope is that what we receive today will be enough to cover those costs. So, someone will be in need and we will respond. That’s what Boaz did when he instructed his farm hands to be a extra sloppy in their harvesting.

However, this is not what is happening at the Temple. Here, the system is “devouring widows’ homes.” Here, the system is making a woman with nothing feel like she has to put what little she has into the temple treasury. And this is where the second form of service comes in. If the system is poor societal stewardship, how are we working to change it? Every governmental law and policy is an attempt to influence stewardship and if they move us, individually or communally, into poor stewardship, then we need to change those laws and policies. Laws and policies and practices that devour widows’ homes need to be changed, and our choices to help make that happen is the other way we are stewards of service.

If you’re newly worshiping with us, this last bit of today’s sermon really isn’t for you, so please just stand by. This last part of the sermon is for the members and friends of the church.

If you didn’t receive it yesterday, you should receive it Monday: a pledge form for your financial support of the church in 2016. This is an invitation to make a commitment, a stewardship commitment for next year. While the form asks for a dollar amount, I encourage you, as I said earlier, to look at that commitment as a percentage of your income rather than as a total dollar amount. Please don’t be like the widow and give all you have. Don’t let your commitment push you into further debt. Do let your commitment be an expression of your stewardship of your finances. Do let your commitment express how much you value our mission to welcome, grow, and serve.

And remember that this is hardly the only stewardship choice you’re going to make this week. Everything you do (or don’t do), every choice you make is a stewardship choice. Because stewardship is everything you do. And Christian stewardship is everything you do after you say, “I believe.”

Amen.

[1] David Lose, “Pentecost 24 B: Surprisingly Good News,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/ (posted and accessed on 3 November 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julie Polter, “Gleaning Grace,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gleaning-grace (accessed 3 November 2015).

[4] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 1, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 11:32-44 and Isaiah 25:6-9
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Four days.  Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days by the time Jesus shows up.  If only he had come earlier, before Lazarus died, when he was sick.  He could have saved him.  But, no; he was delayed.  No wonder Mary comes to Jesus weeping.  It is not just that Lazarus is dead.  It is that she feels let down by the one who she knew was a healer.

Jesus, too, begins to weep.  People assume it is because of Lazarus’ death.  Jesus must have loved him deeply, and now he weeps.  I always thought it was Mary’s grief that moved Jesus to tears.  He sees Mary weep and he cries with her.  That’s how I experience God.  God doesn’t protect us from the losses and pains of life.  Instead, God cries with us.  God feels our pain with us.

The people think Jesus is weeping because of his own loss.  “Where have you laid him?” he asks.  “Come, we’ll show you,” and they take him to a cave with a stone rolled in front of it.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus direct them.  Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tries to stop him:  “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Or as the King James Version translates it, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”

Jesus convinces them to roll away the stone, and he prays, and then he calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And the dead man hobbles out because he is still bound in the burial cloths.  And Jesus commands the crowd to unbind him and let him go.

This may seem like a strange reading for All Saints’ Day.  I don’t recall anyone every suggesting I pray to St. Lazarus.  In fact, I didn’t even know he was considered a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church until I looked it up.[1]  And as far as I can tell, in the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints, he’s not the patron saint of anybody or anything (though my research is hardly exhaustive).  So why this reading?

Well, to start with, because today is a day that lifts before us the stark reality of our mortality.  Today, we celebrate all those who have died – not expired, or passed away, or who we have lost (like a favorite glove) – but rather those who have died … in faith.[2]  Later, at the communion table, we will name those from our congregation who have died in the past year.  We will pause to remember them and others who have died as we celebrate the body of Christ.

We will celebrate those who have died, but the liturgical color is not the black of Good Friday and mourning.  Today the liturgical colors are white and gold, the colors of Easter.  “After all, we gather to worship the One who was given power over death; the One, as [we heard in our Gospel lesson], who raised Lazarus to life; the One who’s own death and resurrection, in fact, gives witness to the trustworthiness of the promise made in the first … reading that God will one day bring to an end the reign of death, cause mourning and suffering to cease, and wipe every tear from our eyes.”[3]

Today, we don’t just remember those who have died.  We remember that they and we are united with Christ.  We acknowledge that reality every time we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism.  In baptism, we are buried with Jesus into death so that, just as Jesus was raised to life, we might walk in newness of life – to paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:3-4).  “And this means at least two things for us …  First, death no longer terrifies us.  Promised a share of Christ’s resurrection, we can look even death in the eye and not blink.  For this reason, while we mourn the death of our loved ones, … we also celebrate their triumph, their victory, as they now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory.

“Second, and perhaps more importantly, life no longer terrifies us either.  … Our whole life is now sanctified – that is, made holy and given a purpose – through God’s promise to be with us and for us and to use us and all of our gifts to God’s own glory.

“Here, in fact, we perceive the true significance of the name of this day – All Saints’ Day – far more clearly.  Saints are not only those persons in the Bible or Church history who did great things.  Nor are Saints only those who died for the faith.  Saints are not even only those who are of such great moral courage, kindness or discipline that they set examples for the rest of us.  Rather, saints are also – and especially – all those who have been baptized into Christ.”[4]

“And if you have any doubt of this, take the time to read … Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth.  … In these letters, Paul at many points scolds the Corinthians for their lack of faith, for their poor stewardship, for their shoddy treatment of one another, for their divisive one-ups-manship, and for their offensive moral behavior.  Nevertheless, when addressing this poor excuse for a Christian congregation, he refers to them regularly as ‘Saints.’  Well, now, c’mon:  If this is true for the Corinthians, then so also is it true for us.”[5]

Now I don’t say this to put pressure on you.  I’m not calling you a saint to make you feel like you have to be perfect.  In fact, I want to be clear that you don’t have to be perfect.  I’m just saying that if you call yourself a Christian, I get to call you a saint.  You are a holy one, set aside by God for the fullness of life.

And, at the same time, I want to acknowledge that there is the additional cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints who have formed us.  And this is where All Saints’ Day and our pledge campaign’s theme intersect.  Last week, Pastor Brenda focused on the first word in this year’s pledge campaign:  welcome.  Today, we focus on the second word:  grow.  And the growth that I think most connects to All Saints’ Day is our growth as disciples of Jesus.  These are the saints I want to turn to now.

Marcus Borg

This past year, several of my saints, several people who helped me grow in faith, died.  Now it happens that two of these saints have reputations far beyond my own life and I am hardly the only one whose growth as a person of faith was touched by them.  Marcus Borg was a professor and author who changed my whole approach to confirmation class with a single lecture.  His book, The Heart of Christianity, has become a touchstone of organized thought about being a Christian for me and will be seen as a classic to help thinking, rational people understand how they can be Christians without checking the brains at the door.

Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle – aside from having one of the coolest names in theology – opened up to me the goodness in change, even radical change, in the church through her lectures and through her book, The Great Emergence.

Two other much less famous saints – at least they’re saints for me – who also died this year.  Dena Hokom modeled for me the importance of the ongoing wrestling match of faith.  She kept thinking and pondering and questioning her faith right up to the end, and while at times that made her feel less faithful (questions and doubts have a way of doing that), I believe it was an act of faithfulness to participate in that wrestling.

Betty H

Betty Harris

Betty Harris was my aunt.  She was a singer who encouraged my singing.  She loved classical music, which was almost always sacred music.  And she encouraged me (probably to her own surprise) to let the music teach me and form me.

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

Suzanne Hanni Spencer

And I have to mention my mom.  This summer, I passed the date where she’s been dead for more than half of my life.  Yet her impact on my spiritual journey lives on in so many ways.  She modeled giving; she taught the importance of community; she modeled listening and pastoral care (not that she would have ever called what she did ‘pastoral care’).  She was a woman of compassion.  And despite my troublesome adolescence, I never questioned her love for me.

Brad Ellis

And the saints for me are not just those who have died.  For instance, Brad Ellis.  You may recognize him as the character “Brad” from the TV series Glee.  For me, he’s a friend from high school and church youth group.  When I told him a few years ago about the role he played in my spiritual development during our high school years, he told me, “I may simply have been the rock you tripped over.”  Well, whatever.  He’s on my list of saints.

And then, quite recently, this year in fact, another more famous person helped me grow and I now include him in my roll call of saints:  Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Spong has helped me re-embrace the Gospel of John in his book The Fourth Gospel.  His thesis is that none of the Gospel of John is history.  It is a story told to teach theology, or better yet to teach discipleship.  Many of the characters are completely symbolic, and he puts Lazarus on this list.  “[Lazarus] is a mythological character, a symbol of those who see, of those who respond and of those who are transformed.  He is the archetype of the Jesus movement.  He represents the ones who are born of the spirit, the ones who are able to taste and experience, to share in the new life that Jesus came to bring.  He is the ‘Lazarus’ who has passed from death into life.  The one who knows that to be in Christ is to have the life of God flow through him as the life of the vine flows through the branches.”[6]

And with this understanding of Lazarus, that he is the archetype of a disciple of Jesus, I can think of no better reading for All Saints’ Day.

There is one other saint I want to mention:  Mister Rogers.  In 1999, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.  In his acceptance speech, which was given to an audience who were largely people involved in the television industry, he invited his listeners to think about what they do.  I’ll let him finish up the sermon.


(The portion of this video screened was from the 7:47 mark, to the 10:43.O)

[1] See “Lazarus,” American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1232.

[2] David Lose, “All Saints’ Sunday B: Look Twice,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/all-saints-sunday-b-look-twice/ (posted and accessed 26 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 251.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 26, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 14:15-24
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time,[1] there was a boy named Haile.  He was a happy boy living with his mother and father in their home in Ethiopia.  But one day his mother died and Haile was so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.

A year passed and his father decided to remarry.  But, Haile remained so hurt, and so confused, and so angry.  So when Zeynab met him and hugged him he pulled away from her.  When she fixed him his favorite foods for dinner he didn’t eat.  When she made him a play suit out of fine cloth he ran through the woods and played so roughly he tore the clothes up.  Whenever she spoke to him he ignored her.

One day when her husband was gone hunting, Zeynab went to Haile’s bedroom to talk to him.  “Haile, I love you so much and I really need you to love …”  Before she could finish Haile jumped up and said, “I hate you, you aren’t my mother.”  And he ran out of the house.

That night, as the other two slept, Zayneb went out and walked deep into the forest to the home of the shaman.   The shaman was a very wise woman who knew the ways of peoples’ minds and hearts.  “I need you to make me a love potion so my step-son will love me,” said Zayneb.

“Well,” the old woman said slowly, “Before I can give you a love potion, you must bring me the whisker from a ferocious lion.”

Zeynab’s eyes grew large as she said, “How am I supposed to do that?”

“Use your imagination,” said the shaman.

Zeynab went home and slept just a few more hours.  She got up before the sun rose and put several large pieces of raw meat in a bag and headed toward the hills.  She walked until she found a cave that had large paw prints around it.  Zeynab took a piece of meat from her bag and placed it in front of the entrance to the cave.  Then she hid in the bushes about 50 feet from the entrance and waited.  After a few minutes a large, very ferocious looking lion stepped out of the cave, looked around, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a second piece of meat in front of it.   Then she moved back only 25 feet and didn’t hide in the bushes.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.

Zayneb waited for a couple of hours more and then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a third piece of meat in front of it.  She moved back only two steps.  After a few minutes the lion came out.  He looked around, stared at Zayneb.  She stared back at the lion.  Although she was shaking inside, she didn’t move her body.  She just stared right back at the lion’s large brown eyes.  The lion smelled the meat and began eating.

Very slowly Zayneb extended her hand, grabbed a whisker and quickly pulled it out.  The lion kept eating as slowly, very slowly, as if walking on a tight rope, Zayneb backed away toward the bushes.  When she got into the forest she ran back to the shaman’s home.  Breathing heavily, she rushed into the shaman’s house and held up the whisker.  “See, here, I brought you a lion’s whisker.  Now, give me a love potion.”

The shaman took the whisker and looked at it.  “Ah, this does look like a ferocious lion’s whisker.  But, I don’t have any love potions.”  And she threw the whisker on the fire.

“What, what do you mean?” screamed Zayneb.

“Tell me,” the shaman asked calmly, “how did you get that lion’s whisker?”

“Well, I had to be very, very careful and patient.  I was very gentle and very quiet, and persistent.”

“Yes, and you were very courageous.  See, you have all of the skills you will need to get your stepson to love you without a magic potion.”

When asked by a Pharisee what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (6:4-5).  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’”  He says, “This is the greatest and first commandment.  Then he quickly adds, quoting from Leviticus (19:18), “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Loving God with our whole being is not always easy.  Like Haile, we can be resistant to loving God.  Or we can be resistant to loving God all the way.  It’s not that we dislike God.  But we can make all sorts of assumptions about God – that God is demanding or judgmental or hard to please – and so we may hold back, being resistant to really letting ourselves go with our love.  Or we can be distracted by life and it gets in the way of our loving God with our whole being.

I read a story[2] this week about a woman who got a puppy named Zeke.  This was 15 years ago, long before the TV shows about training your dog.  Nonetheless, she immediately hired a trainer to help her get the dog housebroken and on his way to obedience.  She was surprised when trainer said she should wait a few weeks before she started training.  “A foundation needs to be established before any teaching can begin,” the trainer said.  He explained, “This dog can’t be in relationship with you as the pack leader until you first help him with one important thing: confidence.  We must build-up Zeke’s self-confidence so he can bond with you.  Only then will he follow your lead.”

Like Zeke, we can have an inferiority complex about our ability to be in relationship with God.  Are we loveable enough to bond with God?  Are we worried that we’ll be whacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper?

Loving God is framed as a commandment, but it’s really more of an invitation.  God loves us with a courageous, gentle, quiet persistence – all in the hope that we will love God back.

We can only guess at why Jesus answered more than was asked, why he added the second most important commandment in his answer.  My suspicion is that love of God without love of neighbor is like faith without works.

Loving our neighbor is often more difficult than loving God – or at least differently difficult.  Our neighbors can be really annoying or down right mean.  And it’s so easy to question the motivations someone has when they do something.  We attribute evil, hurtful intentions to people who do something that hurts us.  We attribute mean-spiritedness to people who say something that stings.  How are we do love these neighbors?

One worthwhile piece of advice came from a marriage seminar (described as “mediocre” by the author[3] who was writing about it):  “Think of the most generous explanation for your spouse’s behavior and believe it.”  Yes, easier said than done.  But what a wonderful attitude to have.  Imagine if we did that in all situations.

“Think of the most generous explanation for anyone’s behavior and believe it.”  Imagine how interactions with others would change if we cultivated that mindset.  Imagine how much easier it would be to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel comes at the end of a dinner party.  Jesus is eating a meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  We get to listen in on the conversation.  Jesus offers some practical advice, particularly in an honor/shame culture.  When you go to a dinner party, don’t take one of the important seats.  You might get told to go sit at the table by the kitchen when someone more important than you comes in.  Go sit at the kids’ table and let the host call you up to a more prestigious seat.  That will make you look good.

Then he tells his host, Nice party, but next time, don’t invite your relatives and the rich guy down the street.  They’ll just feel obligated to return the favor.  Instead, invite “the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  They won’t be able to repay you, so it will be a real gift.

I can hear the thoughts of many at the table with Jesus:  Ew! Who wants to eat with them?!

One guest has a different response.  The host doesn’t say anything, but this other guest says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”  The guest takes what Jesus has been saying about life here and now and makes a comment about the realm to come.

Jesus’ pulls this guest and all of us back to the here and now by telling a story.

A man plans a banquet and invites his guests.  When everything is ready, he sends out his slaves to tell the guests that it’s time to come.  The invited guests give excuses – lame excuses in my book.  “I can’t come because I have to check out this property I just bought.”  Who buys property without checking it out before hand?  “I can’t come because I have just bought five yoke of oxen and I need to make sure they can pull a plow.”  Who buys a tractor without making sure it can do the job?  “I can’t come because I just got married, and, well, you know …”  Okay, maybe that’s not such a lame excuse.

But look at the excuses.  This is a rich guy who invites rich people to his banquet.  They can buy land and multiple yokes of oxen.  When his guests won’t come, he sends out his slaves to go find other guests.  “Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” he tells his slaves.

So they do, but there are still empty seats at the banquet.  So the man sends his slaves out again to check under the bridges and down by the railroad tracks.  Bring everyone in; my house will be full.

I hear Jesus saying, “Sure, it’s a blessing to eat bread in the kin-dom of God.  But why wait until then?  Let’s make the kin-dom now!  Invite everyone in!  Don’t leave anyone out!”

To love our neighbors is to welcome them, to invite them to the table of God’s abundance, to create a space for them, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.

When First Christian Church and Niles Congregational Church were in the initial discussions that led to the creation of Niles Discovery Church, we did an exercise that I remain grateful for.  We asked the participants, the members and friends of the two congregations, to identify the values, the norms of their congregations.  The one thing that people from each congregation could agree on is that their congregation valued being an Open and Affirming[4] congregation.  They valued the purposeful and explicit welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into the full life of the church.

I have called this the original charism of Niles Discovery Church.  Expressing and extending God’s extravagant welcome is a core component of Niles Discovery Church’s mission.  It’s a core component of our mission because it is a core component of fulfilling the great commandments.  Extending God’s extravagant welcome is one of the ways we show our love of God and our love of neighbor.  It’s how we make Jesus’ parable about the banquet come alive.

growlogobrownThe reason I wanted to talk about this today is that we launched our fall pledge campaign last week.  Hopefully you received a letter or an email (or both) from Barbara Swint, our Moderator.  So you know our theme.  We’re focusing on the mission of our church in this campaign, and we’re inviting you to make a financial pledge for 2015 to underwrite that mission.

When we fulfill that component of our mission that can be summed up in the word, “Welcome,” we are offering something the Tri-Cities desperately needs, something we are uniquely suited to offer.

So this week, I invite you to think about God’s love for you, God’s invitation to love God back, and God’s challenge to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – especially though the act of welcome.

Amen.

[1] This story is quoted almost exactly (I did make a few revisions and deleted some parts for length) from a telling of this tale by Skywalker Storyteller that can be found at http://www.storyteller.net/stories/text/8 (accessed 23 October 2014).  The tale can be found in Ethiopian, Korean, and Japanese folklore (with different family members and different animals).  This is a retelling of the Ethiopian version.

[2] Susanne Bossert, “Relax,” The Juniper Tree, http://www.juniperstories.com/blog/2014/10/18/3iswzkduabiezd975afhnfj7po686e (posted 18 October 2014; accessed 23 October 2014).

[3] Tina Fox, “Being ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ People,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5489/being-benefit-of-the-doubt-people (accessed 23 October 2014).

[4] Both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ have movements of welcome of the lgbt community called “Open and Affirming.”  You can learn more about the DOC’s O&A movement at http://gladalliance.org/site/open-affirming-ministries/ and about the UCC’s ONA movement at http://ucccoalition.org/ona/.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 11, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 16:9-12 and John 10:7-10
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            So a guy called the church, the secretary answered the phone, and the guy said, “Could I speak to the Head Hog at the trough.”[i]
The secretary said, “Sir, if you mean Reverend Spencer [it’s just a coincidence that the pastor and I share the same name] you will have to treat him with a little more respect.  You can ask for ‘Reverend Spencer’ or ‘the Pastor.’  But certainly you cannot refer to him as ‘the Head Hog at the Trough.’”
The man said, “I understand.  You see, I was calling because I have $50,000 I was thinking about donating.”
“Hold on for just a moment – I think the big pig is available.”

That’s right, it’s time for my annual money sermon.

There’s an interesting info graphic in the latest issue of “World Ark,” Heifer International’s magazine.[ii]  Giving in 2011 grew by 4% in the U.S.  I don’t know if you can attribute that to improvements in the economy or something else.  It totaled roughly $275 billion (that’s right billion with a B).  The vast bulk of it came from people – just about 80% – and when I say “people,” I don’t mean corporations.  People gave $218 billion and corporations gave only $15 billion.  (The rest, about $42 billion, came from foundations.)

The biggest chunk of the giving – just under a third – went to religious organizations (like churches, synagogues, etc.).  The next biggest chunk, at 13 %, went to educational organizations (like colleges and universities).

You probably won’t be surprised that members of the Silent Generation and older (those born before 1945) are the most likely to give, with 77% giving.  But I was really surprised by which generation came in second.  Between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials, anyone care to guess?  It’s Millennials (looking at the portion of the generation that’s 20 and older) with 54% giving charitably – ahead of Gen X and 52% and Baby Boomers at only 45%.

They also have a map of the United States, pointing out the top 10 and bottom 10 states in terms of “average donation per taxpayer.”  Anyone care to guess the top state?  Utah, averaging $2,388 per taxpayer.  And the bottom state?  Maine, averaging $612 per taxpayer.  By the way, California didn’t make their list; we must me among that middle 30 States.

But, as I thought about these statistics, I realized that the raw average amount given per taxpayer isn’t comparing apples to apples.  Since average income is different from state to state, the percentage of income being given is going to change, and isn’t that the more informative number?  So I did a little research.  In 2010, income per capita in Utah was $32,595 and income per capita in Maine was $37,300[iii] – actually, not as big a difference as I thought there was going to be, and the numbers actually push Utah’s giving even higher when you look at percentages of income.

The chart does have an important note plopped off the North Carolina coast:  “When calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.”

“When calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.”

If everyone gave the same percentage of their income away, the impact of that giving would already be greatest on those with the lowest incomes.  If you make $1500 a month and you give away 10% of it, you’re giving $150 a month, leaving you with $1350 to pay for housing, food, clothing, medicine, transportation, etc.  If you make $10,000 a month and you give away 10% of it, you’re giving $1,000 a month – which looks like a lot more than the $150 a month in my first example – but it leaves you with $9,000 a month to pay for housing, food, clothing, medicine, transportation, etc.

But calculated as a percentage of income, the neediest are the most charitable.  The neediest give away a greater percentage of their income than do those with more to give.

I can’t help but wonder if they have discovered the transformative power of generosity.

You’ve received a couple letters and you’ve heard from a few people as part of our pledge campaign.  We really have two foci this year:  the challenge of figuring out how much you’re going to give; and that there is delight to be found in giving.

I’m going to leave that first focus with this comment:  I recommend you look at the percentage of income that you’re giving and ask yourself if that percentage really represents how you value the church and its ministry and if that percentage is big enough to have an impact on your lifestyle.  The focus on this sermon is on the ways generosity transforms, including the delight to be found in being generous.

Our first lesson comes from the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah.  Deuteronomy is written as Moses reviewing everything that happened in the Exodus and reminding the Hebrews of the rules God has given them just before they start their conquest of the “Promised Land.”  Our particular reading comes amid a review of the festivals the Hebrews are supposed to observe.  Our particular festival is the Festival of Weeks, a harvest festival.

Once you start harvesting your food (an interesting commandment to give a people who are, at this point, nomadic), count seven weeks, then have a big party.  This is how you should party:  bring a portion of your harvest, according to how good a harvest it is, to God (that’s sort of what I was saying about how to decide how much to pledge) and then rejoice with your family and neighbors and even strangers and those with nothing.  That’s what we’re going to do next week.  We’ll receive the pledges during worship and then we’ll gather for lunch with no agenda by rejoicing together.

And the reading concludes with why you should party:  Because God has freed you.  Delight in the harvest.  Delight in the resources you have.  And delight in your freedom.

Now, I agree with the scholars who say that Deuteronomy was written well after the establishment of Israel as a nation.  In today’s reading, there are clues.  The fact that there are directions about farming being given to a theoretically nomadic people is a clue.  The direction to bring the offering to God “at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” – in other words, bring it to Jerusalem even though Jerusalem won’t be under their control until David is king – is a clue.

Also, this religious command to “bring your offering to the Temple” might be a little self-serving.  But the reality is your offerings are important to keep the ministry going.  They do real things.  They buy music for the choir and pay the electric and gas bills.  They pay my salary (and, thank you, really) so I can help organize our congregation to make disciples of Jesus to transform the world.  They buy curriculum for our Sunday School and help our children grow.

And that’s not all our offerings do.  Our offerings – not just the pledges we make, but the act of fulfilling them, the act of giving, the spiritual practice of generosity changes things.  They change things in obvious ways for the receiver – like in ways I was just talking about.  And they change things for the giver.

Once upon a time, there was a very wealthy man who had never been known for his generosity to the church.[iv]  In fact, it is possible that he had never given money to the church at all.  One year, the stewardship committee resolved to pay him a visit to see if they could get him to give something to the church.  When the committee met with the man one afternoon, they said that in view of his considerable resources they were sure that he would like to make a substantial pledge to the church.
“I see,” he said, “so you have it all figured out have you?  In the course of your investigation did you discover that I have a widowed mother who has no other means of support but me?”
“No,” they responded, “we didn’t know that.”
“Did you know that I have a sister who was left by a drunken husband with five children and no means to provide for them?”
“No,” they said, “we didn’t know that either.”
“Well, did you know also that I have a brother who is handicapped due to an automobile accident and can never work another day to support his wife and family?”
Embarrassingly, they responded, “No sir, we did not know that either.”
“Well,” he thundered, “I’ve never given any of them a cent.  Why do you think I’d give anything to you?”

This poor guy, rich as he was, was indeed very poor.  He had not discovered the transformative power of generosity.  He had not discovered how the practice of generosity opens up the heart wider and wider.  He had not discovered that the practice of generosity empowers the practice of thanksgiving and opens the eyes of the giver to the abundance of grace and blessings in the world.  He had not discovered that the practice of generosity frees the soul from fear.

The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance, a song of praise for God’s generosity.[v]  It keeps saying, “It is good, it is good, it is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.”

Jesus, filled with God’s generosity, went around to people suffering from scarcity – scarcity of health, scarcity of food, scarcity of acceptance, scarcity of power, scarcity of understanding – and replaced it with a gift of abundance.  Jesus was well schooled in the transformative power of generosity and in the conviction that if you share your bread with your neighbor, the world will be made new.  He knew that generosity isn’t something you just think about.  It’s something you do.

Stewardship presumes blessings and abundance.  Jesus sums up the purpose of his ministry this way:  that we “may have life and have it abundantly.”  When we practice generosity in the spirit of Jesus, we are changed, we are drawn into a life of abundance.

So, in the next day or two, you will receive a third letter from the stewardship committee.  It will have the pledge card in it and it will ask you to fill the pledge card out and bring it to church next week.

My prayer for you, as you complete that pledge card, is that it draws you deeper in the practice of generosity so the practice of generosity can continue to transform your life even as it transforms the lives of others.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[i] Adapted from (no author cited) “Giving,” quoted in an email from sermons.com (6 November 2012).

[ii] “For the Record,” World Ark, Holiday 2012: 5.  The info graphic cites The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University for the data on total giving in 2011 and the breakdown about to what types of organization that given went, The Chronicle of Philanthropy for the data on giving by generation, and The Urban Institute for the data on state by state giving.

[iii] Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0104652.html (11 November 2012).

[iv] Adapted from Staff, “Giving Till It Hurts,” quoted in an email from sermons.com (6 November 2012).

[v] This conclusion is adapted from Doris R. Powell, “Transformative Generosity,” Stewards in the Household of God (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2008), 25.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, June 17, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.

Scripture:  Matthew 6:19-24 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-5

Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Many of you (maybe all of you) know that I bought a new car nine days ago.  On a Friday afternoon, I went for a test drive of the car I had decided I was going to buy, provided I fit in it okay.  I did, so I bought it.

Friday night, I slept horribly.  I had trouble falling asleep.  I tossed and turned during the night.  I had dreams about the car and the purchase.  And by the time I gave up on sleeping at around 6:00 (I realize that’s the normal time for many of you to get up, but it’s early for me), I had convinced myself that I got ripped off, that the purchase was a bad choice, and that I had made a horrible mistake.

I spent a good bit of Saturday and Sunday reminding myself that it’s only a car and all it cost was money and that I will almost certainly be replacing it before I retire, perhaps long before I retire.  And, yes, it’s a screamingly loud orange that part of me finds a little silly, but I have already found that helpful.  I managed to find it quite quickly in a parking lot.

This is the new car.

I bring this up because today’s sermon is the next installment in our 12-part, monthly sermon series on stewardship.  We’ve looked at our stewardship of Sabbath, our stewardship of our relationship with each other, our stewardship of the earth, our stewardship of covenant, and our stewardship of faith formation.  In many ways, all of these examinations have been looking at our stewardship of relationships – our relationships:  with God, with each other, with the earth and our environment, with and in covenant, and with ourselves and each other in the context of growing in faith.

Today, we turn to money.  You knew it was bound to happen in this series.  But today I don’t want to talk about our stewardship of money.  It’s not just the money.  Today, I want to focus on our relationship with money and how we are stewards of that relationship.

My supposition is that my reaction a week ago Friday night was not about second-guessing my stewardship of money in the purchase of my car.  My reaction came out of my relationship with money and how I’m stewarding that relationship.

So, what is your relationship with money?

In preparation for today’s sermon, I surfed around the web and took a couple online tests to help determine my relationship with money.  According to the test[1] I found most interesting to take, I “sometimes make spur-of-the-moment purchases, but usually [my] decisions are more considered.  It looks like [I am] able to strike a good balance, although [I] need to be sure [I] don’t let [my] impulses take over too often!”

“The Big Money Test” (that’s what this test is called) also looked at the two principle methods people employ to cope with stressful situations – ‘vigilance’ and ‘avoidance’ – since money issues can be stressful.  ‘Vigilance’ means seeking out more information to manage the threat or uncertainty of a situation.  ‘Avoidance’ means avoiding facing a situation, effectively putting it out of your mind.  Apparently being too vigilant or too avoidant is bad, just as being insufficiently vigilant or avoidant is bad.  I tested out in the middle of both of these scales.

But, more interesting to me than these results, are the questions that got asked.  Here’s a sample:

  • Do you find yourself worrying about the spending, using, or giving of money all the time?
  • Are you inhibited about talking to others about money, particularly about income?
  • To you buy things you don’t really need because they are great bargains?
  • Do you hold onto, or hoard your money?
  • Are you constantly puzzled about where your money goes or why there is none left at the end of each month?
  • Do you use money to control or manipulate others?
  • Do you spend large portions of your free time shopping?
  • Do you buy things when you feel anxious, bored, upset, depressed, or angry?
  • Does shopping make you feel good in a way nothing else does?
  • Do you have a fear of losing money, or of being taken advantage of financially?

Ding, ding, ding!!!  We have a winner!  That last question – that’s the one the kept me from sleeping that Friday night.

All these questions point to how we feel about money, how we use money – and ultimately to our relationship with money.  And so I thought about how I would describe my relationship with money.

We can describe other relationships in our lives.  Today’s Father’s Day.  We could all describe our childhood relationships with our fathers – even if that description is, “My relationship with my father was non-existent.”  But what about our relationship with money?

“Money and I have been going steady for years now.  I think it’s time I popped with question and asked money to marry me.”

“Money and I have a love-hate relationship – I love having it around and it hates hanging out with me.”

The fact is, I had a hard time putting into words a description of my relationship with money.  I know what I want it to be.  I want to say that I view money as a tool, a convenience that allows me to get cell phone service without needed to ship a goat and two bushel baskets of wheat to the phone company.  But the reality is that money is more than that to me.  Money is status, a measure of worth to me.  Money gives me a sense of security and a belief in the possibility of retirement.

And I’m not sure Jesus appreciates either of those.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.… No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Or as the King James Version translates it, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Jesus is clear on where he stands in the economy of his day – and I think that makes it clear as to where he stands in the economy of our day.  Jesus stands with the poor.[2]  And Jesus is clear that his disciples are those who voluntarily join the ranks of the poor.[3]

In today’s reading, he identifies the world’s great idol as Mammon, “by which he meant money, or property in general, as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs.  The chief manifestation of the [false] god Mammon is accumulated wealth.

“Thus, when a rich man asked Jesus the way to eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow him (Mark 10:17-22).  Jesus’ ruthlessness here is overwhelming; he refused even to use the occasion of the man’s conversion as a way to fund his own band.  Nor did he plead with the man to change his attitude toward his wealth and practice better stewardship of the ‘largess bestowed upon him by God,’ as our preachers like to put it.  Instead, he demanded complete divestiture of the rich man’s wealth.”[4]

Jesus goes on to say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.  “The ‘eye of the needle’ is not [a] ‘city gate’ in Jerusalem; that is a figment of medieval exegesis.  It is the eye of a sewing needle, and it is easier for a camel to squeeze through this tiny hole than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:25).  In short, it is impossible.  The rich must cease to be rich [to enter the kingdom of God].

“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus indicates the reason.  The rich man ‘feasted sumptuously every day,’ as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage.  When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham, whereas the rich man cries out in torment from hell (Luke 16:19-31).  This account, at every stage of its development, is not the original pie-in-the-sky argument whereby the poor are lulled into acquiescence with the hope of a heavenly reversal.   On the contrary, it demonstrates the impossibility of salvation for those who promote [or benefit from] a situation which causes inequities and [for] those who gorge themselves on the illicit fruits of their injustice.”[5]

As best we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus didn’t allow any of his disciples to hold on to accumulated wealth.  John 13:29 implies they held everything in common.  And the book of Acts clearly tells us that this was the practice of the early church.  Now this economic plan makes perfect sense if you’re expecting the world to end any day now – which the first Christians expected.  “They merely liquidated assets and lived off the proceeds until the Jerusalem church was destitute.”[6]  That’s why Paul had the fundraising section in his letter to the church in Corinth that we heard today.

Eventually this belief in the imminent end faded, and the worship of the idol Mammon increased within the church.  “By the time 1 Timothy … was written, the wealthy were being courted, coddled, and coaxed to be generous with a wealth they were no longer required to renounce.”[7]  And the faithful have been faced with the question of which master they will serve – God or Mammon – ever since.

“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus said, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As with all the relationships we’ve looked at in this series so far, as disciples of Jesus, we are stewards of our relationship with money.  It’s not just the money itself that we’re stewards of.  We are also stewards of how we relate to it.

And perhaps our stewardship of this relationship comes down to our answer to this question:  Are we relating to money as the false god Mammon, or are we relating to it as a tool to further the realm of God?

We know what the answer’s supposed to be.  Let’s live into that correct answer.

Amen.


[1] “The Big Money Test,” found on the BBC’s UK website at https://ssl.bbc.co.uk/labuk/experiments/money/.

[2] See, for instance, Mark 10:17-30; Luke 6:20-26, 12:13-14,15, 16-20, 22-31, 32-34, 16:19ff.

[3] See, for instance, Mark 10:17-30; Luke 1:53, 12:21.

[4] Walter Wink, “Unmasking the Powers,” Sojourners Magazine, October 1978; republished at http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj7810&article=781009&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Proper_21#PTWProper21C (16 June 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, May 20, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.

Scripture:  Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 4:11-16

Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            To start my sermon, I would like you borrow your imagination.  I’m going to say a few words, and I invite you to pay attention to the images that they evoke in your imagination.  Sunday School; Christian Education; Faith formation.

Now, if I could, by a show of hands, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Sunday School”?  I did, too.  My image was of a classroom with a handful of children and an adult, papers in front of the kids, the teacher speaking.

By a show of hands, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Christian Education”?  My imagine wasn’t nearly as specific as it was for ‘Sunday School.’  It had morphed into more adults, and an attempt to visualize concepts and theory.

And by a show of hand, how many of you got a specific image when I said, “Faith formation”?  My image might as well have been a blank piece of paper.

And yet, faith formation is one of three central missions of the church.  (The other two might be labeled “loving God” and “loving neighbor.”)

Faith formation is the work we do in grounding people in the faith.  Think of a potter with a lump of clay.  She pushes it, kneads it, shapes it, forms it into something.  She might do it free hand; she might use tools or a wheel.  She might form it into something utilitarian (like a bowl) or into something artistic (like a sculpture).  But it is through her work that the lump of clay is transformed into that something else.

Faith formation is like that.  It is the work of pushing, kneading, and shaping that forms us into disciples of Jesus the Christ.  The potter – this is where the metaphor breaks down – is both us and God.

“To be a self,” wrote H. Richard Niebuhr, “is to have a god.”[1]  The thing is, and Niebuhr acknowledged this, sometimes we choose the God of Jesus Christ and sometimes we settle for lesser gods, like the gods of family or job or soccer or fame or accumulation of stuff.  One task, then, of faith formation, is to help us choose the God of Jesus Christ, rather than one of those lesser gods.

There is no time in life that is more focused on the development of self-identity than adolescence.  One of the reasons that friends can have so great an influence – typically greater than family or parents – during adolescence is that the adolescent is breaking away of the identity of being part of the family in an effort to develop a self-identity.  And so, the lure of these lesser gods can be particularly strong at this point in a person’s development.

That is not to say that the lure of these lesser gods is felt only by teenagers.  All of us can direct our lives toward the common gods of power and status, money and education, drugs and alcohol, family and jobs.  I believe, however, that at our core, as human beings, we have a desire for the uncommon God.  We hunger for a god that is bigger than the self.  Hopefully, this hunger will drive us beyond the choice of an inadequate god, a god too small to transcend our limitations and who therefore can neither save nor transform us.  Hopefully, those of us who are past adolescence will take a cue from the teenagers in our midst and join them in the search of the God that is bigger than the self.[2]

Our reading from Deuteronomy is a central scripture for Judaism.  It is known as the Shema, the first word of the reading.  “Hear, Israel,” or “Listen up, Israel,” it begins.  “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you might.”  When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus quotes this scripture.

The reading continues, admonishing the Israelites to keep this commandment and the others in their hearts, to recite them to their children and make them the topic of conversation at every opportunity.  Make them omnipresent in your life by wearing them and posting them on the door to your house so that you’ll see them every day.

It is easy to hear within this reading a responsibility to our children:  to teach them our religion.  But more and more I’m thinking less and less of this responsibility.  Our religion is not something to be taught.  Knowledge is not wisdom.  Teaching our children information about God or information about Jesus or information about the church has little value if we do not do something deeper as well.  The job of faith formation is not to pass on a religion.  The job of faith formation is to help us all choose a way of life.[3]

If we listen carefully to the reading from Ephesians, we hear that God has given each of us gifts for a purpose: to build up the body of Christ.  Paul says that this work is to continue “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translates it:  “until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”[4]

The thing that I notice here is that the work, this utilizing the gifts God has given us, doesn’t finish when our kids are confirmed or when they graduate high school.  Our work isn’t even just for our kids.  Our work is for all of us, to help all of us grow in faith, to mature in faith.  Paul goes on to talk about what looks to me like a faith formation feedback loop:  “we must grow up … into Christ, from whom the whole body … promotes the body’s growth in building itself up…”  We are here for one another so that all of us can continue to grow.  And when we serve each other, when we help each other with our faith formation, we get formed.

So I’ve been wondering what this looks like.  I think we see this in our adult Sunday School class.  Here, a group of people wrestle with questions and build each other up in the body of Christ.  I think we see it in the Spiritual Direction groups, where the members prayerfully reflect on faith questions that get raised out of the lives of the groups’ members.

I think about a time back in the distant past when I was in seminary, doing my internship.  It was junior high youth group meeting night and I had gathered with the kids in the large youth room, despite the fact that I was sick and should have been home in bed.  As the kids bounced off the walls, I put my head down on the table.  I didn’t have the energy to try to get them to focus on whatever program I had created for the meeting.  One of the kids must have noticed me, because in the midst of the cacophony, I heard him say something like, “Jeff must be really annoyed with us.”

I didn’t lift my head from the table, but I said, loud enough for them to hear, “The funny thing is, I love you guys.”  There was a pregnant pause.  And then the cacophony began again.

I am convinced that I did more faith formation in that moment than I did with that program or all the other programs for the rest of the year.  Faith formation happens when we build each other up in the love of God.

A few months back, I read an article[5] that managed to find its way to the top of the pile on my desk last week.  It’s an interview with a Lutheran pastor about a program he stated called FAITH 5.  It’s a family-center faith formation program that asks parents and kids to commit themselves to five minutes a night to simple faith encounters.  When the first kids is ready to bed, the family gathers and walks through these five steps:

  1. Share your highs and lows for the day
  2. Read a verse of scripture from Sunday’s worship service or Sunday school class
  3. Talk about how the highs and lows of the day relate to the scripture (the hope is that behind this sharing is the question, Is God actually saying something to you?)
  4. Pray for one another’s highs and lows
  5. Bless one another before turning out the lights on the day.

The family is where most faith formation happens – whether it happens intentionally or not – so why not be intentional about it.  Parents therefore are the most important part of the faith formation of their children.  And parents who are intentional about this find that their children are a key element of the parents’ faith formation.

Yes, many parents think that they aren’t equipped to talk about faith.  But Paul didn’t tell the Ephesians that they had to be mature in the faith in order to build up others.  He said that we call are called to build each other up, no matter who we are or how ill equipped we might think we are, so that all could mature in faith.

It occurs to me that this FAITH 5 program is designed for families with children at home, but it could work just as well with a couple, or with singles meeting on the phone or chatting on line.  The reality is that we need each other as we grow in faith.

There’s an important moment in the synoptic gospels when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”[6]  It’s not that Jesus is wondering who he is for himself.  He knows who he is.  He’s curious how he’s being seen.  The crowds have said that he’s John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets come back to life.  But Peter says who Jesus is.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

There’s an important question teenagers ask as they try to figure out the answer for themselves:  Who do you say that I am?  Will we answer – regardless of what they’ve done or what’s been done to them – “You are a beloved child of God”?  And as those of us who are well beyond those teenage years, as we continue to be formed in our faith, when we ask that question, will we hear – regardless of what we’ve done or what’s been done to us –“You are a beloved child of God”?

All of us, regardless of age, regardless of where we are on life’s journey, “are looking for a soul-shaking, heart-waking, world-changing God to fall in love with,”[7] and if we do not find that God here, in the body of Christ, each of us will settle for a lesser god we find somewhere else.

And so, we are stewards of – even as we are in – formation.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[1] Quoted in Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville: The Upper Roo, 1998), 17-18.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] Ibid, 15.

[4] Peterson, E. H. (2002). The Message: The Bible in contemporary language (Eph 4:13). Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.

[5] Rich Melheim, “How faith is formed: Family Affair,” Christian Century, 22 February 2012, p. 22.

[6] See Matthew 16:13-20, Luke 9:18-20, and Mark 8:27-30.

[7] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, op. cit., 9.

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