“Seeking Shalom” Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, October 9, 2016, FPC Holt

“Seeking Shalom”
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
October 9, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2016-10-9-slide-1-richmond-hillWhen I hear this last verse in our passage in Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of the city” I am reminded of a place in Richmond, VA that I visited several times while in seminary there, that had this very phrase on the outside of the building, reminding all who came there of these verses we read today. This place is called Richmond Hill, and as you might imagine it is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the city. It’s a retreat center that has some members living in intentional community and every day they take time to pray for the city. What I found most helpful about these prayers is that they are direct, praying for specific groups in the city.

2016-10-9-slide-2-prayerEvery day they pray for the healing of Richmond, for the sick, for the welfare of all, and for the establishment of God’s order in the community. On each day of the week, they add additional prayers. On Mondays their prayers are focused on city government, nonprofits, schools, and all who suffer from addictions.

On Tuesdays they pray for print and broadcast media, the churches of Richmond, all who live in poverty, and all who suffer from mental illness. Wednesdays they pray for the state government, service businesses, construction workers, all in healthcare, victims and perpetrators of crime, and all senior citizens.

On Thursdays they pray for surrounding towns and their governments, all who work in finance, prisoners and prison staff, all unemployed or underemployed, and all public servants. Fridays they pray for manufacturers, for police, fire, and rescue workers, the courts, all young people, and all who hurt, need inner healing, or are unable to love.

I do believe that Richmond is a different place because of their prayers. I know when I heard that they were praying for the work and studies of our seminary I felt a certain presence of care. When they were praying for those I might forget about I was made to remember them too.

2016-10-9-slide-3-meal-prayerAs a small child saying family prayers I liked to go last because after my parents and sisters listed those they would pray for, I would add “and everybody else.” I didn’t mean this as disingenuous, just knew there was no way of covering everyone. However, when you take the time to think about specific groups and specific people and organizations by name, I do believe it makes it a bit more authentic, more connected, which is what happens in the prayers of Richmond Hill.

2016-10-9-slide-4-seek-the-welfareWhen I usually think of a “retreat” center I think about a place where you become disconnected from worldly concerns and where you seek one on one time with God. But this retreat center is very different. It calls for more engagement with the city than less. It invites people to engage with the world around them, silencing their own personal concerns for the sake of the greater community. It calls them to be more in the world so that one might understand God’s desires for the city.

2016-10-9-slide-5-fpc-holtWhen I think of Jeremiah’s direction to build, plant, multiply, and seek welfare wherever God has sent us, I think of all the ways that our church is connected to the world around us. In fact, one of the things that initially drew me to this church was the way that you are engaged with the community. When I meet people around town and they find out that I am your pastor these are some things that I’ve heard:

2016-10-9-slide-6-aaOne man I met at a funeral said that he knew our church well from going to Alcoholics Anonymous here for many years and that he’ll always be grateful for the effect it had on his life. Did you know that A.A. meets in our building every day of the week? And on some days there are two meetings. It is not an exaggeration to say that hundreds of lives have been impacted by this ministry in our building.

2016-10-9-slide-7-medical-equipmentOne of our neighbors in the medical supply store across Aurelius was excited to meet me, saying that he’s so glad for the ministry our church does with the medical closet. While I thought such a business might object to us giving away for free the very kinds of items they were selling, he said how it makes him happy that we’re able to help those he has to turn away due to insurance or other financial restrictions.

When I visited our own Upstream band leader, Devin Lamb, in the hospital after he had back surgery last fall he told me about how he was excited that his insurance had covered some great medical equipment and that he couldn’t wait until he was done with them so he could give them to the medical closet. This is the spirit of this ministry, wanting the best for those in our community, particularly when they are in need.

2016-10-9-slide-8-food-bankOther people I’ve run into around town have asked, “Oh, you mean the food bank church?” I’m always happy to say yes to that. Though it’s a separate organization at this point, it began over 20 years ago as the ministry of a few individuals of this church in response to the needs of this community. At this point the food bank provides support for over 150 families each month.

One of the joys of being in the church building during the day is seeing how the shopping cart of food donations piles up and even occasionally hearing the stories of those who are donating. One particular story came from our very own Kalin Gleason who asked for donations for the food pantry as his birthday gifts this past summer. I love this picture of all the kids at his party all surrounding their gifts of food for those in need in Holt. 2016-10-9-slide-10-kalin The joy on his face speaks to the spirit of generosity and care for this community that shapes our church family members of every age.

2016-10-9-slide-11-walk-to-schoolThis past week there was another occasion of our church investing in the life of our community. Students throughout the Holt district celebrated International Walk to School day. Our church was the gathering site for nearly 150 children, parents, and teachers before they made their way to Sycamore Elementary. Susan Land shared with me that this event was a great experience for all involved, creating opportunity for our church members to interact with the community, talking, laughing, and serving a small breakfast. Principal, Steve Garrison, shared that some students enjoyed this so much that they asked him if they could do this every day! For the time that they were together, our church members served as Christ’s hands, feet, and smile for our community.

2016-10-9-slide-12-mission-handsThis is what seeking the welfare of the city looks like. It is about being open to what is needed in your immediate neighborhood. It is about sharing what you can with the resources that you have, and even seeking outside your own resources to make a way for God’s work to be done.

As our scripture tells us, by seeking the welfare of the city, you are securing your own welfare. You are a part of this community, and by seeking to strengthen those who are in need in the community you are securing a future for all of us.

2016-10-9-slide-13-jeremiah-29-11 Following our passage in Jeremiah 29:11, we read: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This is often quoted as a motivational passage, a way to find peace in God’s awareness and desire for good in our lives. But do we really understand what is meant by this passage? Especially in our American context it’s easy to skew this heavenly design as a balm for our individualistic concerns.  However when read in the Hebrew, we read that the “you” at the end of “surely I know the plans for you” is plural. It is not a plan for a singular person but for all of us.

My first class in seminary was Biblical Hebrew, or Baby Hebrew as our professor Carson Brisson called it. And in it we learned the importance of the point of view of a word. In English our plural second person and singular second words are often interchangeable. Saying you is ambiguous. My Hebrew professor, originally from North Carolina helped clarify this by referring to the plural second person as “y’all.” As a born and raised Midwesterner at first I found this quite off putting and strange, but as we unraveled bits and pieces of this beautiful and complicated language I was grateful for the “y’alls” that truly did give a bit more insight into who it was exactly that were called, charged, and oftentimes reprimanded by God in the Hebrew Bible.

2016-10-9-slide-14-james-howellIn my preparation for this sermon I came across the words of another southern pastor, Methodist James Howell. He writes, “In the South, God would say “the plans I have for y’all.”  The future, the hope God gives “you” (“y’all”) is for a crowd, it’s for the community, it’s for the nation.  God called Jeremiah to speak God’s Word, not to this man or woman or just to you or me, but to the nation of Israel during its most perilous time in history.  God’s plan is for the people, one plan, not a thousand plans for a thousand individuals…So who is the “y’all” God has plans for now? … Could it be the Church?  Aren’t we the “y’all” God promises to use for good?  God is not through with the Church, the coalesced body of believers who, by the grace of God, never lose their destined role for the sake of the world.  God has plans for the Church; Church is about being God’s instrument, not whether it suits me or entertains me.  I never go solo with God; my life in God’s plan is interwoven with others in God’s “y’all.”  I do not therefore lose my individuality, but I finally discover it when I find my proper place in the Body of Christ. I don’t even want to believe alone; I want to believe with y’all.  I need y’all. “

2016-10-9-slide-15-crosshandsThese plans that God have for us are not for us to be in isolation, but to be connected to the greater fabric of the community. While those who were in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon might’ve considered that their time in Babylon was only a temporary arrangement God is clear that it is not their position to decide, and in fact that they should settle down for at least three generations. That’s longer than most receiving this message will be alive. In a way, that takes the pressure off of that original audience. They are not called to change the world, they are called to live their lives, to take root in the community, and live fruitful lives. Part of seeking the welfare of our city is acknowledging that we are a part of something so much bigger than our own bodies and our own lifetimes.

Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

How will God save you from your own plans? Jeremiah calls this community to hope in an escape from exile, but could that perhaps be worked out by making the foreign into home? By transforming the stranger into family? If we think God’s plans working out means things go according to our plans we’re going to disappointed, and miss out on all the good plans that God has already set in motion. God’s plans are far beyond what we can imagine or understand. If we are so busy trying to limit this grand design into our own narrow view we miss out on the beautiful landscape of God’s great plan.

2016-10-9-slide-17-welfare-of-the-cityWhile God is working this plan out in, through, and beyond us, what are we to do in the meantime? We’re called to seek the welfare of the city, see the hope and promise in exactly where we are and what we are doing. May you find such peace by securing peace for another. Amen.

“Tend, Feed, Follow”; Luke 19:28-40; April 10, 2016, FPC Holt

“Tend, Feed, Follow”
Luke 19:28-40
April 10, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Listen here

What do you do when nothing seems right? When you need a bit of a reset button? Is there a place or a practice where predictability brings you a sense of peace?

Believe it or not, when I was a freshman in college and overwhelmed by a majority classes that required critical thinking and never had just one answer to a question, math homework brought me a sense of peace, knowing that if I did things just right, there was just one right answer.

Nowadays knitting does that for me, one row building off of the next, each stitch linked to the one beside it, hats, scarves, and socks building up in predictable patterns.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 2 - Disciples GriefIn our scripture today, the disciples are looking for this very same sense of predictability, a reset on the pain surrounding them. This story comes to us in the days following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus had appeared to the disciples three times previously. By doing so he had confirmed the promise of his resurrection and proved, even to the doubters, that he was indeed Jesus and had returned from the dead. But for Peter things were yet a bit unresolved. Peter was stuck in the grief of having denied affiliation to Jesus. He was grief stricken and not quite sure how he could continue to follow Jesus when he felt like he had failed him when put to the test. In his defeat he returns to what he knows, what is safe and predictable: fishing.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 4 - Full NetBut then, after a night passes with no luck in their fishing, Jesus shows up again and gives fishing instructions to the disciples.  When fishing on the other side of the boat yields a tremendous catch, John realizes that Jesus is the one on the shoreside. At this news, Peter jumps into the water, eager to be by Jesus’ side.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 5 - Peter and Jesus ShoreIn this moment we see two different responses to the presence of Jesus. First, John is the disciple who sees, who recognizes Jesus and names him. Second, Peter is the disciple who acts, diving into the water to pursue Jesus.

In our relationship with God we need both, we need to see Jesus and to act in response. Or to put it in Biblical terms, we need both the faith and works, both believing and responding.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 6 - Faith that WorksIn James 2:14-18, 26, we read, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith… 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

2016 4 10 SLIDE 7 - Peter and Jesus FireOne without the other is incomplete. A point which Jesus further drives home with Peter by the firelight. Peter is desperate to be reconnected with Jesus whom he loves.

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

As Peter seeks reconciliation, Jesus not only forgives him, but welcomes Peter back into the community of disciples and empowers him to do the work of God’s kingdom.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 8 - Agape and PhileoIn the Greek this passage takes an interesting turn, through the use of two different terms for love, agape and phileo. Agape is the word for the strongest form of love, unconditional love, while phileo is a more subdued term for love,  a type of sibling or friendship love.

With these words in play the exchange goes a bit more like this:

Jesus says to Peter “Do you agape me?”

And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.”

The second time Jesus asks “Do you agape me?

And Peter says again, “Yes Lord, you know I phileo you.”

The third time however, it changes a bit, Jesus asks “Do you phileo me?”

And Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I phileo you.”

This could be read as Peter’s lack of commitment to Jesus, but I think it’s equally possible, that after Peter’s confidence in his allegiance to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed by his betrayal, Peter wanted to be a bit more realistic in what he was capable of. Jesus asks for unconditional love, and Peter not wanting let down Jesus any farther says that he can provide this friendship type of love. They repeat this exchange one more time, and then the third time Jesus meets Peter where he’s at, asking for brotherly love, which Peter confidently says he is indeed able to provide.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 9 - Abundant FishJesus’ generosity in abundance, patience, and grace with the disciples and particularly Peter underscores this entire story. When giving help with the disciples’ fishing he provides not just enough for breakfast, but enough to overwhelm their nets and boat. 2016 4 10 SLIDE 10 - Peter and Jesus Silhouettes When Peter wants forgiveness, Jesus provides both understanding and a way forward, a way that requires Peter to respond with his own acts of generosity, putting his faith into action.

For me, Peter makes this story a bit more accessible than some of the other acts of the disciples. In this exchange Peter is humbled by his past failures, but that doesn’t exclude or excuse him from the important work God has for him. This is a message of hope for all of us, our mistakes do not make us ineligible to serve our neighbor in God’s name. Thanks be to God for that!

2016 4 10 SLIDE 11 - Jesus and DisciplesSome refer to this story as a “re-commissioning “of the disciples, who were commissioned at the beginning of their ministry to leave their nets and follow Christ. So much has happened between then and our story today. They’ve seen healings, heard parables, and walked long distances, all alongside Jesus who took every opportunity to invite them into God’s will and work for them. Then, this man in whom they’d come to love and trust, was met with the betrayal of one of their own and the opposition of an overwhelming crowd. In the pain of these circumstances, all but John withdrew from Jesus’ company, filled with the very real fear that to remain would be to invite the same fate for themselves.

But over and over again Jesus meets them behind the locked doors of their fear and at the shores of their grief, bringing an abundance of hope and grace. When they’re not sure how to carry on, Jesus gives them a new direction, a new way to throw their nets. When Peter’s worry turns his focus inward on his own failings, Jesus turns him again to look outwards, to tend his feed his lambs and tend his sheep.

2016 4 10 SLIDE 12 - Peter and RoosterLuther Seminary professor David Lose had this to say, “we will fall short of our goals and aspirations. We will at times have to compromise. We will not always follow through. And we will time and again disappoint and even fall away. 2016 4 10 SLIDE 13 - CommissioningWhich is why we not only need Luke’s story of commissioning, but also John’s of re-commissioning. Because Jesus does not give up on us. Ever! Rather, after each failure he invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment – what else is our Sunday gathering? – and then calls us to add what we have and depart worship to meaningful work in the world.”

To what is God calling you today? To what “other side” are you called to extend your nets? What different way forward does God have for you?

Life is messy. Peter knew that, and Jesus certainly does too. But our mess is not an end, but a beginning. Our deficit is not a stopping place, but a place to start again. For where we offer little, God multiplies it into much. In Christ we are called, claimed, and commissioned to be a people of generous abundance. Thanks be to God.

“Ready, Set…Now!”; Mark 12:38-44; November 8, 2015; FPC Holt

“Ready, Set…Now!”
Mark 12:38-44
November 8, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

2015 11 8 SLIDE 1 - Faith4GensThroughout the past few weeks we’ve been focusing on stewardship, on our Generations of Faith, the foundation of those who have come before us and the legacy we hope to establish for those who come after us; our giving towards the ongoing ministries of this church as well as investing in the future of what we will be able to accomplish in the future once our capital campaign is completed.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 2 - Widow Close upHow fitting it is then that the lectionary passage this week just happens to be the story of the widow and her two coins. If you’ve been around Christianity for a while, it’s a story you’ve likely heard many times and if so you probably have a good idea already of what I’m going to preach on, right? Praising sacrificial giving of our money.  Right? Well, not exactly.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 3 - piggy-bankShe gave all she had. All she had to live on. I remember hearing this story while I was growing up, and thinking of how I could give everything I had too. Surely God would want me to break open my piggy bank and give all of my pennies to those in need. But those pennies were not all I had to live on. Breaking my own bank would not leave me diminished. And if I were hungry that hunger would’ve dissipated the very moment my parents called me down to lunch.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 4 - Widow in TempleShe gave all she had. Hearing this story now I can’t help but worried for her. We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 5 - James-c-christensen-the-widows-miteI really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

The truth is, for all the teachings that lift up the widow’s tremendous sacrifice as the ideal giving, Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that. Could we even wrap our minds and hearts around it if he was? After all this scripture comes to us from the very same Bible that teaches us that God, “desires mercy and not sacrifice,” and that Jesus came to give his life for us, not the other way around.

Instead, there is truth in this story that is indeed in line with our very God who desires good things for all of creation, particularly those who are disenfranchised, overextended, and desperate. In this passage Jesus teaches us about the wrong way to give and the right way to be stewards, both of our own prosperity and of the well being of all of God’s creation.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 6 - Jesus in backgroundFirst, we hear about the wrong way to give, which Jesus lays out in the verse immediately before the verses we read today. He says,. “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” These are the same scribes Jesus rebukes in Matthew because they sound the trumpet before they give their alms. But we don’t give in order to be acknowledged for our giving. The scribes shouldn’t be giving to get a seat at the head table, and we shouldn’t give to be first in line at our potluck today, or for say, naming rights to some part of our building. We give because of our reformed understanding of stewardship, that all we have is God’s and our giving is much more an act of acknowledging God’s providence than it is lauding our own generosity.

The passage continues, “They [the scribes] devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” All throughout Hebrew scripture God’s people are directly commanded to care for widows, to not was seen as tremendously unfaithful. Jesus condemns the actions of those who have put this woman in this position of desperation, it is likely that these leaders are taking advantage of the widows’ hospitality and therefore, what was left to them to live on after their husbands had died. Their long prayers do nothing to further the kingdom of God when they take advantage of those already on the margins of society.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 8 - Questioning Jesus If you have your Bibles open or if you are quite skilled at memorizing Scripture passages, note what happened only moments before Jesus notices the widow. “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one and beside him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”

2015 11 8 SLIDE 9 - BillboardThe scribes simply are not—for all their piety—loving their neighbors. Their long prayers and large sums of money cannot possibly further the kingdom of God without loving actions toward others. Our giving—be it financially, through our time, or in how we use the spiritual gifts God has given us to further the kingdom—must be given in love.

Which brings us to how we can learn to indeed be good stewards of everything: monetarily, physically, relationally. Every aspect of our life and livelihood can point to God’s goodness if we let it.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 10 - Generations of LightThroughout our Capital and Annual campaign season we’ve heard many stories of what faithful living looks like. We’ve heard about the 150 years of past generations of Presbyterians that have done all they could with all they had to make this Church great, to indeed strive to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community.2015 11 8 SLIDE 11 - Bell RingingThere are members here who can point to various parts of the building and excavate layer after layer of stories of ministries lived out in this space.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 12 - Building PlansIn a similar way I’ve seen Dave Viele and others point to our space both in walking about and in architect renderings and paint the scene of the possibilities that await us in generations to come: expanded Christian Education, a food kitchen, a liturgical arts studio, so many things that we hope and pray will come to fruition.

 But there’s one generation that we cannot overlook. A generation we’re depending on for faithfulness, stewardship, and gifts given in love…. I’ll give you a hint. Look at those sitting around you. Look at those sitting behind you and in front of you. Look around you, and see your brothers and sisters who make up this church. As surely as we can look around the building and see the history and potential, we can look around this room and see God at work among us right this very moment. You are the generation called to be stewards of the many gifts we’ve been given in our history and called to be stewards of the relationships yet to be built in this place, the faith that will be formed from the foundation we help to lay.

You are tasked with serving God and God’s people in the here and now. Your faithfulness in this very day, in these next few weeks of our capital campaign, in the support of our annual campaign, shape the reality of the impact we have as a church, in the future, yes, but also in the here and now. What we give financially right now shapes how we are able to serve those God calls us into relationship.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 14 - Light of ChristOur giving to our annual campaign enables us to yes, keep the lights on, but also to shine the light of Christ into the lives of children each week with A-Team, X-team, and church school. 2015 11 8 SLIDE 15 - BlanketsWe’ll keep the building heated and we’ll also warm the hearts of those seeking hope through the Food Bank, Act Uganda, and our ministries in the Yucatan.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 16 - AAEvery day of the week we have people meeting in our church basement for Alcoholics Anonymous. Every day. This is not a future hope for service but a current vibrant relationship we have with our community. If we are able to meet or exceed our capital campaign goals we have the potential to better serve these brothers and sisters with an elevator, allowing all to access this life saving ministry.

2015 11 8 SLIDE 17 - Spiral StainglassIn taking our place in the line of faithfulness behind and before us, we are working to bring about God’s kingdom in the very here and now. How will you live into this call? Every one of us has something to contribute in this Body of Christ whether it be time, abilities, money, or gifts. And only you know for yourself the difference between a gift of faithfulness and a gift of spare change.

How will we be a Generation of Faith? What legacy will we leave? What path will we create? May God guide us all. Amen.

“Faithfulness,” Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13; September 22, 2013; FPC Jesup

 “Faithfulness”
Luke 3:7-18; 16:10-13
September 22, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 1 - ScriptureOur scripture lesson today pairs two difficult passages, one from a conversation with John the Baptist and one with Jesus. In each there is discussion about what it takes to be faithful in our stewardship. Stewardship is often a word congregations become wary of when they hear it in sermons, and pastors often balk at preaching because there is often the presupposition that when we talk about stewardship we’re just talking about money. But these two passages show us the need for faithfulness in our stewardship within money management but also far beyond it.

SLIDE 2 - Parable GraphicEach of our passages is strange in it’s own ways. In the parable preceding our passage in Luke 16 a “dishonest manager” is introduced. When he comes up short in his accounting, instead of shouldering the blame, he goes to all of his debtors and tells them to fudge the numbers a bit so it’ll all work out evenly for him. When he does this his creditor rewards his efforts.

SLIDE 3 - Parable of ManagerAlyie McKenzie explains, “In ancient Palestine, there was a complex social, economic relationship among landowners, stewards, peasants, and merchants. The wealthy landowners sought to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and tenants. The steward was the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents. If he was able to get an additional take for himself in these transactions, the master didn’t mind; in fact he expected it. As long as the master’s profits kept rolling in and the steward did not get too conspicuous in his consumption, the master was fine with the steward’s benefiting from each deal. As for the merchants and tenants, they were in a relatively powerless position, unable to directly confront the master. Their target, when they were disgruntled or felt put upon, was the steward, the master’s retainer. SLIDE 4 - Parable of ManagerThe steward’s position in this complex social network was both privileged and vulnerable. He had a relatively high standard of living, a benefit of his being able to read and write and his training by the master, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of the master. He himself states it in verse 3. “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We might assume that he is whining here, selfishly unwilling to engage in honest labor. He is actually just stating the fact that he is not prepared by physical training or by the habit of hardship to compete with the peasant labor pool for the hardest, most menial of jobs: digging. His strength gone, he would be reduced to begging, and, in short order, would die because of the malnutrition and disease that came with poverty. His situation is dire. Something must be done to prevent this future. No one can do it but him.”[1]

SLIDE 5 - ParableAnd so, he fudges the numbers and while the manager commends his efforts, we’re not told whether or not he gets his job back, but just that he has helped himself to have some political capital among the other dishonest people and so even if he’s left without a job, at least he has some friends he could fall back on.  Whenever I read this parable I want to ask, really Jesus? You’re uplifting those making friends by dishonest wealth? Are you being sarcastic?

This parable is a bizarre example to come before the moral tale we read here, that God calls for our faithfulness, and that faithfulness in little and in managing the wealth of others allows us to be given much more as our own wealth to manage. Bizarre, yes, but is this the word of God? Well yes, yes it is.

And though the parable is hard to interpret I think there is still a message beyond that parable: God calls us to be faithful, and to be stewards of the gifts we have been given. Perhaps the challenge related through that parable is how easy it is to manipulate the system for our own profit and wealth. While such manipulation may have immediate earthly rewards it leads to the sort of deception that is condemned in our earlier passage in Luke.

In Luke 3, John the Baptist lays out specific directions of how to honor God in our stewardship. In verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

SLIDE 7 - Peter“What should we do?” This is the question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message,  “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While he begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.

“What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question. They were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.

SLIDE 8 - John the BaptistBut the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of every day life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives, and how we operate within our work, choosing at every moment grace over profit.

Helen Debevoise offers this reflection on our scripture passage for today, “Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”[2]

SLIDE 10 - Burying treasureBurying our treasures keeps it out of the hands not only of those who make take it from us, but also out of our own hands so that we are unable to create good with our use of it. Burying our treasure keeps us from offering it up to others. How often does our own desire for security keep us from opening our hands, our minds, and our lives to another?

John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.

SLIDE 11 - Bearing fruitIf we are living only for ourselves, this call to bearing fruit in our worldly relationships simply doesn’t make sense. If stewardship was about hoarding, those holding on to their treasures to separate themselves from those who they deemed below them would be the one’s getting things right, but that’s not what is being asked here. John is asking this crowd to look beyond their own treasure, into how their treasure can be invested in the lives of others, can be invested in God’s kingdom.

Every one of these acts explained by John have to do with taking from our neighbor what they need. Repentance is not just about the difference between faith and sin within our own being, but it is about living out our love of neighbor, extending the love and grace we have received from God.[3]

SLIDE 12 - luke 3v9Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?

Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”[4]

SLIDE 13 - Bearing_FruitSo, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully?  What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?

You are tasked with being a good and faithful steward, not only of your resources, but of your position in this life. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.