Generosity as a Way of Life

This week, I went back to school and began an online course. It has nothing to do with faith or leadership and everything to do with one of my favorite hobbies. That hobby is presidential history and leadership.

I admit I am fascinated with studying presidential history and what we can learn from the 43 men who have served as president. This particular course examines the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination and the legacy of his three-year administration.

So far, I am enjoying the course, but, to be honest, I would have been engaged in the course even if it wasn’t engaging. Kennedy was one of the presidents who inspired my fascination with presidential history. I remember doing social studies projects on Kennedy’s administration in grade school. You didn’t realize your pastor was a geek, did you?

What interests me about Kennedy was his visionary leadership. This came through in many of his speeches. Reading and listening to Kennedy’s words can be very informative, especially for someone like myself who likes to dream big and think about our possibilities. Kennedy’s best words came about during his 1961 Inaugural Address, where he expressed a vision of peace, justice, and hope.

It  was a sentiment best expressed through the speech’s most quoted line. After expressing his vision and dreams, Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The quote asks each person to commit to the project of advancing peace, justice, and hope in the country and around the world.

Those are big words, but I wonder what they may say to us today? I wonder if we could bring it into a context appropriate for us gathered here. I think we can rewrite so that it connects us to what it means to serve Christ and the church. I believe we can rewrite it like this: “Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you are willing to do for the mission of your church.”

Think about what this statement does. It changes our focus. So often, we focus only on what the church can do for us. By this we say that the church only exists to fulfill our needs and desires. I believe this new statement helps us to connect to something more important about church. The church does not exist to meet our needs. The church exists for the sole purpose of being the ongoing witness of Jesus Christ in our community. The mission of the church, then, is to go and “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We do this by how we share Christ’s love in Latonia, Covington, and throughout Northern Kentucky. The mission is about dying to ourself, so that the Risen Lord can live in and through us.

Each of us are called to commit ourselves to this deeper focus of the church. Our commitment is how we live into these words from Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:24 of showing a “proof our love” of Christ. To commit to the mission calls us to make a public act of showing our love of Christ by seeking to participate in the kingdom of God through the mission of the church. We commitment ourselves to allow God’s love to become realized in our hearts and through the life of the church.

But, how? How do we live out this commitment as a “proof of our love” of Christ? To best understand this, we need to first think about what commitment is not. When we understand actions that are detrimental to deep commitment, then we can think about what actions make up a true commitment to the Lord and the church.

Commitment is not about seeking our own agenda. Sometimes our actions within the life of the church can be similar to those of the Pharisees. We can become so committed to our own agenda and desires that we drown out anything that fights for space for our desires or might seek to bring us into a deeper relationship with the Lord.

Commitment is not about complaining about others for their apparent lack of commitment. It is not about saying that we are better than others, because we do more and are more involved when others “clearly” are not. It is not about looking down on others who do not show up for our favorite events. By this, commitment does not look like the disciples who were so often more interested in their own position than hearing Christ’s desires for them.

Commitment is not about placing conditions on what we are willing to do. It is not about saying we will commit only when the activity is up to our standards. It is not about saying everything must go our way for it to happen. This is similar to the actions of the Rich Man. When challenged by Jesus to give up everything to follow him, the Rich Man refused to commit himself to what Jesus asked and walked away.

All of these deficient forms of commitment have defined each of us in some ways. We’ve all have been and done these things. When we are defined by these forms of commitment we end up doing more harm than good. It hinders our growth in our relationship with the Lord and prevents the church’s mission from being truly fulfilled.

True commitment as a “proof of our love” is must deeper and holier. It is a commitment that recognizes that the mission of the church is not about us, but about seeing lives transformed, hope shared, justice advocated, and peace proclaimed. True commitment connects us with Christ and brings us closer to each other in love and mission.

All of us have a desire for this true and deep commitment. I say this, because each of us have made vows to do just that. We have made vows to be deeply commitment to the body of Christ through our prayers, presence, service, gifts, and witness. These were not empty words said to fulfill membership requirements. Indeed, these are words said before God and each other that call us to a way of living that is dedicated to sharing the love of Christ through our words, actions, and deeds.

So how do we live out this true commitment as a proof of our love? First, we must pray for each other. We must be a people who are committed to praying for each other, the church, and our mission. The work of the church is too difficult for us to ignore Jesus’ call for us to pray without ceasing and to seek God’s kingdom in all things.

We must be committed to being present in the life of the church. This means we commit ourselves to fully being here and supporting the church in all things. We commit ourselves to not just being here physically, but being actively engaged in the life of the church through worship, discipleship, and mission. It is a commitment that says we are here and desire to see the church grow and be vital in our community.

We vow to be committed through our service. During this campaign, we have been reminded that we each have talents and gifts that can be used to share God’s love with others. Our gifts and talents go beyond the financial. These are things that God has specially created us to do. We are called to use these talents to serve Christ and love others through the church’s mission.

Each of us are called to witness, through words and actions, to what God has done in us through the grace of Jesus Christ. This is a call to share the message of Jesus Christ by the example of our love. Each of us can do this, even though it seems like one of the most difficult things to do. But hear me: If we can tell someone about why we root for the Reds or the University of Kentucky, then we can tell someone, through words and actions, why we love Jesus.

Finally, we are called to commit ourselves through our giving. We are called to support the mission of the church by giving back to the Lord what is truly God’s. Everything we have has been given to us by God. It is only right that we give so that the mission of sharing God’s love can continue.

Let me say this, because I believe it is very important for us on this Commitment Sunday. We do not give in order to pay for salaries. We do not give in order to turn the lights on or to maintain the building. The reason for our giving is the hope of lives being transformed by what God is doing here and through us. We give so that a child may be inspired to grow in their relationship with the Lord and love what happens here. We give so that the poor may be loved, missions expanded, and hope shared. We give so that all may know Christ.

Each of us have committed ourselves to these very things as the proof of our love of Christ. Today, we make that commitment more visible through our pledges and our visible acts of commitment. In your bulletin, you will see a gray insert. This insert is a symbol of your commitment. During the closing hymn, if you have turned in your pledge card you are asked to bring this card forward and lay this card at the altar. Take a moment to pray and ask God to strengthen you in this holy commitment. Maybe you still have not turned in your pledge and would like to do so, there is still time. You can bring it to the altar with you or place in the basket in the back.

We are all in this together. Each of us as have a part in sharing Christ’s love in Latonia. All of us are called to make a commitment to not just this church, but to God to be used to share the message of hope throughout our community and the world.

Today is your day to take that big step. To take a risk and say God, “I am willing to commit myself again as a proof of my love.” If you are willing to do so, I promise you God will be with you in this commitment. You will never be alone as you seek to participate in the church through your prayers, your gifts, your presence, your service, and your witness.

President Kennedy said something else in that address. He said, “Let us begin.” Truly, my friends, “Let us begin.” Let us begin to take that big step. Let us begin to take risks and to take chances. Let us begin, today, to way of life that is totally committed to the Lord, to our church, and to the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Let us begin and let us begin today!

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Extravagant Generosity Day 24: Amos 5:11-12

You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you will never live in them. Though you plant lush vineyards, you will never drink wine from them.For I know the vast number of your sins and the depth of your rebellions. You oppress good people by taking bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (NLT)

There was a saying that my family would always say to my brother or I when we didn’t want to eat something. For me, I typically heard it whenever we would have shepherd’s pie. It was something along the lines of, “There are hungry people” somewhere else that would like to have what I was eating.

Of course, it was an idle threat meant to get me to finish my plate, but how true are those words. There are hungry people all across the world. According to Feeding America, 1 in 6 Americans struggle with hunger. The United Nations estimates that there are 842 million people globally who are starving. That is about 11 percent of the world’s 7.1 billion population.

There are people who are hungry all around us and we are ignoring them. We ignore them when we throw out expired food, buy more than we could ever consume, or limit the ability of sharing with others. As the prophet Amos writes, when we keep to ourselves food and other necessities from those who need them we are trampling on the poor and hungry.

Amos goes even further. He says if you keep more than what you need to survive that you are stealing from those who need more. Like you, I’m sure you would never consider yourself a thief. However, one has to wonder with these words from Amos if the way we treat food and other necessities if we are just that in how we prevent the poor access to them.

All of us have more than we could ever need. What if we took from our excess and gave to those who have a need, so that they may feel whole, loved, and cared for? What if we no longer trampled on the poor, but showed them hope, love, and generosity?

Extravagant Generosity Day 23: Luke 6:20-22

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. (NRSV)

This isn’t how we would have written this.

These words from Luke are his account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” where he taught about what the kingdom of God truly looked like. When we read them, we are immediately uncomfortable by them and would wish that they had been watered down or not included in Luke’s gospel. To be honest, we wished Jesus hadn’t said these words at all.

What we would much rather of heard was this:

Blessed are you who have a home, a car, and a good job, for you who are rich will truly enter the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who have more food than you could ever eat, for you will be honored.

Blessed are you who have no time to connect to the pains of other, because your schedule and agenda is valued.

Blessed are you when you are famous, popular, and well liked, because you have truly followed God’s kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t say any of these things.

We wish he did. Why? Because they would have been much easier to swallow than his words from Luke 6:20-22. What Jesus does, here, is to change the game. No longer would the rich and powerful be considered worthy simply because of their position in life. Jesus’ kingdom, truly the kingdom of God, would be welcomed to all people. No one would be left out.

In fact, those who we often ignore, criticize, look down upon, and shelter ourselves from are the ones Jesus says is blessed. This is not what we would want, but it is truly what God desires. God desires for the church to reflect this. The church should be a place that is open to everyone. It should not matter how much you make, what you look like, or where you came from. All that matters is that you love God and seek to live in community with each other. If you desire that then the doors of God’s kingdom are swung wide open for you.

Are you living into this? How do you view the poor? The hungry? The depressed? The forgotten? The hated? The rejected? The outcast? Are you welcoming them into the church? Or are you keeping the doors of the kingdom shut to them?

Extravagant Generosity Day 22: Matthew 6:33

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (NLT)

One of my favorite hymns is “Seek Ye First,” which is a song that is centered around the theme of Matthew 6:33 to seek the kingdom of God above all things.

What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus means that the kingdom of God is our first obedience. We are called to be people of God who seek after the things of God before any and all things. The motivations of God should be the motivations for ourselves, our families, and our ministries.

This plays out in some very challenging ways that cuts against what we would like and what God desires for us.

For instance, we are called to seek the kingdom of God before our own needs and agenda. The desires of God comes before our own personal desires for ourselves, our families, and our churches.

We are to seek the kingdom of God before any and all political reality. We are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and not strict disciples of our favorite political party or ideology.

We are called to seek God’s kingdom in our efforts for justice and peace, instead of seeking justice and peace that so often reflects the war-minded focus of our civilization and culture.

We are called to seek God’s kingdom in offering forgiveness in the ways that Christ offers forgiveness to us.

Seeking God’s kingdom is about seeking Christ in all things and before all things.

Life is not about us. It is truly about seeking God, serving God, loving God, and loving others. How are you living into this today?

Extravagant Generosity: Joel 2:28

“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. (NLT)

I always wanted to be a writer. That was my dream. I wanted to be the best sports writer that I could be, and if that meant covering auto racing in the process then that would be awesome. Thankfully, I got to live out my dream for a little bit of time and those memories are special to me.

Each of us have dreams. Mine was to be a writer, but yours might be something else. Maybe you dreamed of being a doctor. Maybe you dreamed to be a scientist, or a parent, or an astronaut. Whatever your dream was as a child they came out of our desire and what we felt we would be good at doing.

The dreams we had as children helps us with something important in the kingdom of God. Just as we have dreams about our careers or vocations, so do we also have dreams about the church and its mission. These dreams focus on our hopes and desires, as well as our passions for serving Christ and others.

Our dreams help us to connect to God’s desires for us and the church. The dreams we have give us a chance to see God’s passions and where God would like to see the church go, whether it is the local church or the global church.

So often, we hinder our dreams because we think they are unrealistic or impossible. However, what if we took the time to think about our dreams and pray about where God would like to see us go. Perhaps our dreams will not stay dreams. Maybe they will become the impetus for deep ministry and transformation in our community.

Generosity Inspires Dreams

It is good to be speechless in worship.

What do I mean? I mean the sense of awe that happens when we encounter the Risen Lord in such a deep way that it takes our breath away. It leaves us amazed. It leaves us deeply connected with our Lord and each other.

I cannot help but think this has happened in worship the past few Sundays. We have had some deep worship moments that have connected us with our Lord and brought us closer together.

I say this because for the past two weeks we have journeyed through a time of remembrance. We have remembered what Trinity has meant to each of us and how certain people here, both past and present, have influenced our lives for Christ. These acts of remembrance help us to acknowledge that in each of these stories we know that God was and is active and present.

Who knew a stewardship campaign could be so powerful and deep? It has been wonderful to hear how Trinity has impacted your life and how the people here have made you feel Christ’s love in a deep way. As I am learning more about you, these stories and many others have been special to me. They have helped me to connect with you and to fully see how special Trinity is.

I hope you see this. I hope you have gained a deeper appreciation for Trinity and what God is doing here. It is an amazing story to recognize that for almost 125 years, we have been a living witness of Jesus Christ in Latonia and throughout the world. You have been a part of a story of God’s love here that continues to be written.

A story that is ready to turn the page and set course upon a new chapter. Today we focus specific on the next chapter of our story here that is our future and where God might be leading us as a congregation. We want to focus, now, on that big step that we want to take. If you remember a few weeks ago, I asked us to be willing to take a big step and to go where God might be leading. Today we want to begin to thinking and praying about just where we might take that first step.

Today is about our hopes and dreams. These are things I know many of you have wrestled. Some of you have talked to me about them. These discussions have centered around a few basic questions: Who are we? Who are you? Where are we going? What is God asking of us? I have tried to avoid answering some of these questions, wanting instead to listen and learn how you might answer them through your words and actions. However, today I want to being to walk through some of these questions and start a process of walking forward into our next chapter.

Our passage from Colossians 3:1-4 is an appropriate starting point. Paul’s words challenges us to think about what it means to be the church, to see ourselves as God does, and to reflect upon the Lord’s direction. These words challenges us to dream big and wonder about what is next for us at Trinity. Paul’s words are guiding by a perspective that helps us to be missional in our focus and guided by what it truly means to be the living witness of Jesus Christ in our community.
A perspective that starts to become clear when Paul writes that we “have been raised to a new life with Christ.” What does Paul mean? Each of us are participants in the hope of the resurrection. So often, we only focus on the realities of the resurrection during the Easter season. However, the resurrection is the hope and power that gives life and vitality to everything. The resurrection is our assurance that Christ has won the victory over sin and death. This gives power and authenticity to all Jesus says, does, and asks of us.

And we are participants in the resurrection through our baptism. When we accept Christ’s grace we are raised to a new life and were able to receive the hope, joy, and power behind the resurrection. We who were once dead to our sin have now been raised to a new life of hope through faith in Christ. This calls us to live our lives in response to God’s grace by “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The things that scare us, hold us back, or challenge us have nothing over the greatest hope, peace, and joy the world has ever known in Jesus Christ.

Because we have been raised to a new life, we are called to set our sights on the things of heaven and not the things of earth. These are competing images. On one hand, there is the life of Christ and being connected to our Lord. It is our willingness to go where Christ is calling us. On the other hand, are the things of the earth. The focus of which causes us to live as people of this world who focus on what is in front of us instead of what could be.

What does this mean? Let’s look at what it looks like when we focus upon the things of the earth. When we focus on the things of earth we allow current realities to define future potential. That is because we think more about the bottom line than we do about making disciples. We allow fear to define mission. We let our obstacles hold us back. Focusing on earthly things happens when we says we can never be a vital church, because we do not have the highest numbers, our giving is low, or we don’t have enough people.

This is the imagery of a church that has stopped dreaming. A church and community that perhaps have said, either through words or actions, that nothing is possible anymore with God. We look around and say, “There is nothing left here, so let’s just ride it out and see what happens.” It is the image of a church that has given up.

I don’t know if this describes any of you. I imagine at some point that it likely has. Hear me when I say this: God is not through with Trinity United Methodist. God is not done with us. God has something for each of us and this community. We have work for the kingdom of God still to do! As long as there are people in need of hope, justice that needs to be proclaimed, love that needs to be shared, and until Christ comes in final victory there is still work for the church to do!

This work calls us not to think about the things of earth, but to think of the things of heaven. We must focus on what God desires and to see things as the Lord would see them. We must be a community that dreams big and asks the questions of where God is leading us.

The idea of dreaming big is at the center of what Paul means by “setting our sights on the realities of heaven.” Paul wants us to be kingdom focused. He wants everything about us – our lives, families, communities – to be directed by the truth that Christ is alive. Paul wants our churches to be led by the hope of the resurrection that gives power to all Christ did and continues to do at the Father’s right hand. When we set our sights on the things of heaven we do so with an acknowledgment that Christ is the victor over all things.

When we set sights on the things of heaven we are able to live in confidence about our future. This is because we trust that Christ is with us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, in our mission and witness. When we set our sights on the things of heaven we have the ability to dream big and pray about our vision and mission, in spite of whatever current reality exists within our community.

Friends, I want us to set our sights upon heaven and pray about where God will lead us as a church. I want us to be a church that is unwilling to allow current realities to deter us from doing the difficult, from doing the challenging, from going wherever God asks us to go to serve the poor, the lost, the forgotten, and rejected.

I never want us to stop dreaming big about the mission that we live into at Trinity. Many of you might be asking what are some of my dreams for our community. That is fair. The dreams I have for Trinity are not just for us here, but for our community and the global church.

I dream of a church that is relevant. A church that is relevant not by being “cool,” “hip,”  or “entertaining,” but by being true to God’s word and love. A church that desires to be authentic. An authenticity that leaves in an transparent desire to be honest about our faith and struggles with others.

I dream of a church that is willing to be the hands and feet of Christ in our community. A church that partners with other churches to help to address the poverty and drug issues that surround us. A church that seeks ways to heal the sick, pray with the hurting, and care for the rejected in ways that reflect Jesus’ love for all people. A church that is willing to do the challenging to share God’s hope.

I dream of a church that is committed to a vision and purpose. I dream of a church that knows its gifts and talents and is willing to use those gifts to serve God and world. A church that is committed to a way of being like Christ that defines everything we do and seek to be. A church that knows who it is and where it is going. A church where we are unified around a common focus that is simple and powerful.

All of us have dreams for Trinity and the global church. Dreams that may be what God asks of us here. Today I want to announce that in a few weeks I will be inviting some of you to come together to pray and seek God’s desires for us at Trinity. We will work to build a unified vision and purpose that will define our worship, discipleship, and missions. We will discern God’s plan for Trinity. What will come out of these discussions, I hope, is a pathway of mission that will define everything about us here at Trinity.

It is a process that actually begins today. In your bulletin, you will find your third “heart card.” This week’s card will lead us into this time of dreaming and visioning. What are your dreams for Trinity? What are the big steps you seek us taking when we set our sights upon heaven and commit ourselves to God’s desires? Whatever those dreams are – no matter how big or small – I want you to write them on that card. As we sing our closing hymn, you are invited to come up and lay the card at the altar as an act of us seeking not just our vision for Trinity, but God’s vision for this great church. After the closing hymn, we will take a moment to pray for these dreams, to pray for our church, and to ask God to lead us in what it means to dream big here.

God isn’t through with us. God has something wonderful and powerful for us. I wonder what it may be. I wonder what will happen if we set our sights upon heaven and trust that God has a plan for us. Let us take that big step forward and go where Christ is calling.

Extravagant Generosity Day 19: Ephesians 2:19-22

19 So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. 20 Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. 21 We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. 22 Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit. (NLT)

For many of us the idea of family is not something that is comforting. When someone mentions a family to us we are likely to mention all of the wrongs we can see in a family, such as brokenness, disputes, frustrations, and unmet expectations. The mere focus on family can sometimes bring up unresolved hurts and pain that we just do not want to talk about.

Yet, Paul, in Ephesians 2:19-22, uses the imagery of family to describe our participation in the kingdom of God. He says we are members of God’s family as the Lord’s very own children. Why would Paul use this imagery? I think because even though our families can be the places of such deep pain, they can also be the places of unexpected grace, connection, hope, and joy.

Within this image of family we are reminded that we are connected together. We are all one in Christ and part of the Lord’s kingdom. It is a family built upon our relationship with the Lord, each other, and the world.

This image of a family also helps us in understanding what it means to be generous. We would never want to see any member of our family hurting or with need. If someone in our family is hurting we would do everything we could to help them out.

The same is true when the image of family is expanded to how God sees family. For if we are all God’s children, every one of us, then our desire to care for others is akin to caring for a member of our family. We care for the world, because we do not want to see anyone in God’s family without.

We are all members of God’s family. How have you loved your family today?