Sermon: True Christian Community

This was one of those weeks that brought forth all the emotions of life out of me. I’ve been sad. I’ve been happy. I’ve been nervous. I’ve been pleased. I’ve been anxious. And I’ve been relaxed. That seems to be the state of a Methodist pastor during General Conference season.

If you followed my posts or seen the news, this week, our tradition of faith has seen better days. The world unfortunately saw us at our worst. We focused on our divisions between conservatives and progressives. We became disinterested in doing ministry together. We lost our way. Yet, in the news of the discord over issues that have defined our nation – such as human sexuality, which we will talk in more detail about on Wednesday – came word that approximately 70 percent of our congregations did not have a profession of faith or a baptism in recent years.

We are a church that is struggling. We are a church that has lost its purpose. We are a church that is dying. Continue reading

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Worth the Wait

At our church’s altar sits the Nativity set. A collection of sheep, camels, cows, and a donkey, as well as Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and a Shepherd. Each have a part in telling the story about Jesus’ birth.

There is one element to the Nativity that is not there … yet. That is the Baby Jesus. His arrival to the Nativity set is a few days away (Dec. 24 to be exact). Many of us, myself included, want to go ahead and put Jesus there in his place at the Nativity, but we cannot. Not yet at least.

There is a reason for this. Jesus’ present absence from the Nativity set teaches us something about this season of Advent and how we are to live today. It is a reminder that we are living in anticipation of the One who came to save.

Advent reminds us in a culture “I want it all now,” that there is value in waiting. In the waiting periods of life we are often molded and prepared for the next chapter or challenge that will come our way.

The same is true for Advent. It calls us to wait and get ready for Jesus to come and to come again. We cannot rush that. Advent is a counter-cultural reminder that we are to slow down and allow the joy of Christmas to truly change us. Every moment of Advent is an opportunity to prepare and, as well, to experience the excitement and anticipation of Jesus’ birth and arrival.

We would miss a lot if we just rushed to Christmas and not lived in this waiting moment. So, we’ll wait for a few more weeks for Jesus to arrive at our Nativity set. Until then, may we all experience this time as a chance for renewal and growth in our relationship with the Lord.

The Gardener Never Gives Up

I’m not much of a gardener. I do not have a green thumb. I do not have a good agricultural sense. In fact, if someone asked me how to produce a good fruit or vegetable my response would not be about how one would grow the desired plant. Instead, I would likely tell them to get up early on a Saturday morning, take some money out of the bank, and head to the nearest farmer’s market. The fruits and vegetables would be there for the picking!

To be honest, Abbi and I did try our hand at growing our own vegetables once. A couple of years ago, in the days before Noah, we decided we wanted a garden. We enlisted the help of some friends who helped us to prepare a plot of land. Now, what we had in mind was a small garden where we could plant a few things. Our friend had a different idea. We ended up with a 30-yard long and 10-yard deep garden.

It was probably too big for two amateur gardeners, but we did our best to produce what vegetables we could. We cleared the weeds and prepared the rows. We planted the seeds and watered the land. We sowed some seed in some good places and some, honestly, in some bad places. Before too long, to my own shock, we ended up with a good crop of three-foot long squash, some tomatoes, and a few beans. Continue reading

Extravagant Generosity Day 15: Matthew 22:34-40

3Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV)

There is a basic truth in following God. We cannot share what has been given to us unless we are willing to be people of love.

This is the message Jesus expresses to the Sadducees and Pharisees in Matthew 22:34-40. Everything in life is tied to how we love others, whether it is God or our neighbor. To be truly generous we must be willing to be people who are capable of loving in both big and small ways.

Jesus gives us an outline of what our love should be based upon. He uses two passages from the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) to express this. He quotes Deuteronomy by saying we should love the Lord with, essentially, everything we have. In other words, everything we are or ever seek to be should be defined by and be in response to our love of God. The Lord is our First Love, because of what God has done in us through the grace of the cross. We are called to respond to the Lord with our love and commitment.

Jesus also quotes Leviticus and says we are to love others in the same ways  we would love ourselves. The idea of neighbor for Jesus extends not just to people who are close to us but to all people. Jesus says we should love and care for others in the same ways we would love and care for ourselves.

What does this mean for us? How can our generosity be defined by this kind of action?

If anything it means this: The ways we serve the kingdom must be defined by our willingness to love others unconditionally. We must be willing to serve and give out of love. A love that is in response to what God has done for us and a love that is a gift we share with others in hopes that they will see God’s love for them. Each of us have the ability to be agents of change who promote love, whether it is in our church, our homes, our communities, or in the places where love does not seem to exit.

Where are places where you can share love today? Who do you know needs to feel love from someone? Who can you serve in love today?

Extravagant Generosity Day 5: Psalm 112:5

 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. (NIV)

Culture tells us that in order to be happy you must have more and bigger of everything. More money. Bigger homes. Bigger cars. More clothes. More games. More toys. Bigger vacations.

We often believe having the best things in life is where all good and happiness comes from. If I just have more money then all my problems would go away. Have you ever said something like that? If I had a bigger car then my life would be more relaxed. I know I’ve said that one recently.

This chasing after the “finer things in life” consumes us. As Pope John Paul II once wrote, it is no bad to have nice things. However, it is the belief that having nice things is what makes life good is what is the issue. Chasing after riches does not make us happier or make our lives more fulfilled. Instead, chasing after things often leaves us wanting more and in debt.

A good life does no’t come from having more things.  It comes from a desire to be a blessing to others, because of the blessings we first received.

Each of us have been blessed in ways that words simply cannot describe. These blessings go beyond the financial, but include everything about us. God’s blessings have filled each of our lives through provisions and grace. It is God’s blessings that truly surround us when we think of our lives. God’s blessings of provisions for our needs. God’s blessings of grace and love to cover our imperfections.

God’s blessings desire a response. The proper response is to use what we have to bless others. Through big and small ways, we can be witnesses of God’s goodness by offering hope, love, peace, kindness, and joy to others, whether they are members of our community or a stranger who we do not know.

Being a blessing to others is what defines a good life. It is an outer expression of our love of God and of each other.

How might you be a blessing to others today? What is one way you can share God’s goodness with someone today?

Extravagant Generosity Day 4: Matthew 6:24

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24, NIV)

The Sermon on the Mount is filed with some of Jesus’ most challenging words. Blessed are those who are persecuted. Turn the other cheek when attacked. Love your enemy and pray for them.

Of all the teachings  Jesus gives us in this sermon it is these words from Matthew 6:24 that challenges us the most each day. That is because everyday our finances dictate how we live our lives.

This doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor. Our finances have power over us. They dictate how we live and, often sadly, how we view others. Finances influences many of our daily decisions from what we will eat to what we will do with our free time.

Jesus knew this. He knew how money influenced life in the Roman government and for the people of Judea. That’s why he spoke these difficult words. What does Jesus mean by them? Jesus is saying that when we are controlled by our finances we have trouble seeing God’s grace and provision. Truly we have a hard time trusting God when we are beholden to our money.

That is the main issue. We cannot completely trust God’s provisions and direction if we are controlled by our finances. That is because we see ourselves as the provider and maker of all things. Yet, it is God who graciously and lovingly provides. What God desires is that we move away from seeing money as the most important thing and to allow our relationship with God to define this important aspect of our lives.

However, we struggle with this. The reason is that we don’t want to let go of our money or to let go of it controlling our lives. It’s hard to step away from something that has so much power over us. When we do let go of money’s grip on our lives and trust God’s provision we will see ourselves more able to live within our means, to live freer lives, and to see God’s grace in all things.

What would it look like, then, for us to let go of our need to be controlled by our money? What if we allowed God and our relationship with the Lord to direct how we see money and finances? What would be different about us? Our families? Our church?

What would be different about today?

Extravagant Generosity Devotion Day 3: Luke 16:10-12

Today’s devotion comes from another friend within our connection. Our devotion comes from Jonathan Powers, who is the director of student involvement for the World Gospel Mission at Asbury University in Wilmore. Powers is also a key leader with the Offerings Community at First UMC in Lexington. The devotion comes from Luke 16:10-12.

He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s who will give you that which is your own? (NASB)

There is a certain segment of Christianity that promotes a teaching known as the “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel promotes the mindset that true trust and faith in God amounts in physical, tangible rewards. Thus, the opposite is also true – if things are going poorly in life, then somehow God has been displeased and is punishing as repayment.

There are times when I have heard Luke 16:10-12 used as a basis for prosperity thinking. The logic goes: “If I am faithful to God with the little he has given me, then I just need to wait and he will heap even greater blessings upon me!” And so we wait to see if God will grant us the desires of our hearts. This mindset is quite troubling to me, because I find in the history of the church that many of most faithful Christians found persecution and death in this life because of their faithfulness, not wealth and comfort.

It is important to recognize that the original word used for “wealth” in this passage is actually the word “mammon.” Wealth may not be the best translation for mammon because the word mammon is meant to convey the idea of wealth as a personified object of worship. Mammon shapes desire and motivation – even in our religious lives, as evidenced in prosperity thinking. Luke 16:10-12 instead points to a deep reality of Christian character – Christians are to be a completely transformed people, those who live in righteousness and integrity. And one of the best ways we can show ourselves to be of such upstanding character is with our use of money.

Money is a great stressor in our lives as well as a great motivator. Thus, proper stewardship of money is a way of showing great faithfulness. Being faithful in little ways (not cheating on taxes, not stealing from the office, being careful with spending habits, etc.) establishes a character that is quite a contrast to many in the world. Furthermore, as we learn in small ways to hold our desires for wealth at bay, we find that we are able to become people of great generosity. And I believe that it is in such generosity that we discover the true riches of God’s Kingdom (for further study, see Luke 19:1-9, Matthew 25:31-46).

How is it that God is calling you to faithfulness through stewardship of your wealth? Is there a way you have cheated or been unfaithful with your finances? What might he be asking you to give up so that your money can better reflect Christian character? Where might he be calling you to give? Pray and ask him to reveal those places where wealth has become an area of worship. Ask him to purify the desire for wealth from your heart and help you discover the riches of his Kingdom.