11/24/2013 Sermon: “Assisted Living”

Great Wall, near Beijing, China.  CN - 2007
Great Wall, near Beijing, China. CN – 2007

Colossians 1:11-20.  May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Last week, I had a phone conversation with a person – not from Manheim or Pennsylvania – who was looking for some local help with setting up a display for a Christian event. It didn’t take me long to make the connection for them; they got the help they needed. And then I asked, “Why did you call us?” It was a little random; we came up on the first page of a web search for “Manheim churches.” She looked for a UCC church in the list, but not because she was a UCC person. She said that whenever she had this kind of need for temporary work, UCC churches are the best churches to call. We are always the friendliest and the most willing to take the time. We seem to know the community the best.

She could have called anyone, and I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but there are a lot of churches around. All different flavors. The United Church of Christ is the product of mergers of several denominations over the last century. Denominations with different histories, but similar styles. Years ago, when I was going to school in St. Louis, I saw at one intersection of streets, three different UCC churches on three of the four corners! Each one from a different background! Maybe that communicates something else about us!

One of the things that’s true about the United Church of Christ is that many folks who gather on a Sunday morning to worship have come from some other Christian tradition. It means that they have to get used to some new traditions. Every church has its own culture.

When people are getting ready to join the church, one of the things we talk about is the difference between the United Church of Christ and other denominations. These differences have mostly to do with government: Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, and Lutherans have bishops to oversee the churches. Presbyterian churches are governed by a presbytery, or session, which are names for committees. In a lot of independent churches, there are boards of elders.

In the United Church of Christ, the church’s highest authority (in its governing structure) is the congregation when it is gathered. Not some individual member of the congregation or small group; when the congregation is called together for a meeting, that is where the buck stops, so to speak. It was in our churches, by the way, that the basic idea for democracy found its place in this country. When the church needs to make a decision about something, call a new pastor, build a building, or whatever, we call a meeting, and everyone gets a voice and a vote.

Worship services may be mostly the same between Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches like ours, and they have lots of committees and boards that probably function the same, but when major decisions have to be made, for better or worse, that’s when you see the differences. Even independent churches are organized around tradition, some pattern of doing things that seemed best to a group of believers at some point in its history, some kind of structure. Somebody said, “Hey, this is a good way to do ministry; write this down so we know what to do next year!” The only problem with that, of course, is that if the practice of what we do doesn’t go through some kind of continuous evaluation and evolution, the culture around us moves on and we become irrelevant. It should be obvious that many of the things that were good for our grandparents may not work so well with our grandchildren. We care that they come to faith in Jesus Christ; we don’t care, as much, that they do the same exact things we do to practice their faith. I used to work for an organization, many years ago, that had a slogan that went like this: “Anchored to the rock, changing with the times.”

Every church, and every believer in every church, at regular times in its life, needs to step back and ask, “God, is the way we should be doing things? Jesus, is this what you had in mind for us?”

Jesus, we heard you say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) God, reveal to us how we do that better. And help us make new traditions when our old ones don’t work so well.

Christians, over the years, have separated over this conversation. Some people think it’s wrong for there to be so many denominations, but I think it’s one of those issues that always has a good side and bad side. It’s bad that we’re “apart.” But it’s good that there is some variety, that there are some differences, so that each of us can find a place where God can best use us, and we can best understand and grow in our faith. And besides, what would any town be like if all it had was Italian restaurants? You know what I mean. If there are Christians or Christian groups close enough to each other to make it practical, they should work together on things like food pantries, and worship together when it’s possible.

You would think that ideally, all Christian churches should be “together.” But there were conflicts between churches – and people in churches – even in New Testament times. Mostly because of cultures. The Christians in Roman colonies like Colossae were not like the ones in Jerusalem. This is why most of the letters in the New Testament were written. This is why the gospels were written.

Scripture was written not so much as an act of devotion by the writers, but as an attempt to keep Christians straight on the basics of their faith. God cares a lot about whom or what you put your faith in; whom or what you worship. Not just you individually – what the church believes together is important to God. How the church acts on what it believes together is important to God.

The church in Colossae found that out in the letter the apostle Paul wrote to them. The main reason we are together, the reason we exist in this group called church is that Jesus rose from the dead. Faith in the living Christ makes our nothing into something powerful. Faith in the living Jesus changes you. When we have faith in the living Jesus together, we become a force that can change the world.

From prison, the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Colossae, a Roman colony in what is now Turkey, and helps them think about the basics of their faith. He lays out the basics when he says…

He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. (vv. 15-16)

Why are we here? For him. To enjoy relationship with God. The Presbyterian church has a very old teaching tool called the Westminster Catechism. Its first question is, “What is the chief end of man?” (Forgive the language) Why are we here? Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. (vv.17-18)

I’m not the head of the church; you’re not the head. Christ is the head of the church. We have a mission: “…to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshipping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ.”

We function as a democracy, but our goal, in everything we do, is to please the living Jesus and be vessels for his love. We always are asking ourselves (or should be, “Christ, what do you want from us?”

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (vv.19-20)

We believe that even though Jesus died on the cross, he is alive now, and he brings us together with the power of God, when we have faith in him. Trust, justice and peace are possible, not because we think those are good ideas, but because he lives, and lives in us to make love happen. He is powerful and amazing.  All things have been created through him and for him. Including us. Including our church.

The reading started by saying…

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from (where?) his glorious power.” (v. 11)

All of us know someone who is in assisted living. Someone whose life is made better, whose life has more quality, when they have the help of someone else who is nearby. And there are places that provide that extra help. My mother, who is 95, moved a couple of years ago to an assisted living facility.

But all of us need to “be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.” All of us need assistance with our living. That’s why we are here. It is the weak person who thinks they can live life alone or can do faith alone. We are assisted from the cradle to the grave. By the power of Christ living in us when we believe and by countless people God gives us – our parents, teachers, friends, pastors, neighbors, employers – believers who have helped us along the way.

People have been helping us all along, and God has been at work through all of them. Assisted living is the only way we can get through life. The church is an assisted-living environment. A place where we don’t need to be afraid to for help. A space where the special gifts God has given us are brought together for the benefit of all.

Those gift catalogs have some of us thinking about Christmas already, and pretty soon our lives will start to get cluttered with the holidays again, if they aren’t already. Each Sunday throughout the year, we say something in a creed or statement of faith that reminds us Christ came into the world and why he came. Now is a perfect time to think about that and answer some questions: “What difference does it make to me that Christ came? What difference does that make to our church?” What difference does it make to Manheim that we are here?

There is something you’ve brought that is a gift to the people around you. Looking around, we see many gifts, and we thrive because those gifts from God are passed along here. The point of having gifts is to give them; to make a difference in someone else’s life. And there are unopened gifts. What is the gift you’ve brought here for the glory of God and the benefit of everybody else? Let’s work together to open that gift.

Prayer

O God, sometimes we are so caught in going through the motions of being religious that we forget who you are, and we forget who we are too. You love us and care for us more than we will ever know. Help us understand and remember all you’ve done for us through your son Jesus. Help us understand and learn what it means to be your children. Help us know the power of your love. Help us remember how much growing we still need to do. Teach us to see what you see: that your world is oppressed by the enemies of love. Teach us to feel what you feel, and give us the willingness to do something that makes a difference in the lives of brothers and sisters of our church family, and in the lives of the rest of our human family.

11/17/2013 Sermon: “So Much Time, So Little to Do!”

Nablus, Palestine.  CN - 2011
Nablus, Palestine. CN – 2011

Psalm 92. 12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. 
13 They are planted in the house of the Lord;
   they flourish in the courts of our God. 
14 In old age they still produce fruit;
   they are always green and full of sap, 
15 showing that the Lord is upright;
   he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

2 Thessalonians 3.6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

I believe it was the wise prophet Willie Wonka who said, “So much time, so little to do!”  Then he would say, “Wait, reverse that!”  I think he was trying to make the point that whatever it is that you do for a living, whether it’s making chocolate, or being a dentist, or driving a truck, it’s best if you enjoy it, even love it.  Take a moment to stop having to do things.  Slow down and enjoy life.  Just stop.  God commands you to do Sabbath, a day of rest.  So much time, so little to do, and God commands it!

But obviously, that can’t be all the time.  Most of us in the room have had a career doing something for wages, or have lived in a household that was supported by someone working at a job and being paid money.  We work hard or have worked hard.  I also know that the job most of us started out with, is not the job we’ve ended up with.

Most folks know by now that my first job out of college was as a public school art teacher.  But through high school and college I was a bank teller (before computers!).  I know several bankers around Manheim, and I’m glad they do what they do.  But I needed to move on.  I think most of us have a story like that.  Where you started out isn’t where you ended up.  You evolved!

Beach near Thessalonica
Beach near Thessalonica

The reading from Thessalonians is aimed at some people in a church community on the northeast coast of Greece, in Thessalonica, on the Aegean Sea – a very beautiful spot.  Some of the people in that church have decided… to do nothing.

It’s a great place to do nothing.  But it’s not like they have retired.  That would be a great excuse.  When they first heard the good news about Jesus and salvation through faith, they also heard that Jesus might be coming back soon.  So they were looking at the sky, waiting for that to happen.  Paul is writing to encourage them to get off their… seats.  They are needed for ministry right now.

Our culture has created that time of life when we can make the choice to do nothing, although most of the retired people I know tell me that life has a way of becoming more hectic when they retire.

A few years ago, there were riots in the streets of France because the Prime Minister created legislation to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.  Retirement has become an expectation in our culture; something to fight for.  It’s a cultural right.  But retirement, as we know it, didn’t exist in western culture until just over a century ago.  Partly because so few people lived to old age (you know, over 40).

So to understand what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians, you have to imagine a place where you don’t stop working because you reach certain age.

But first, remember that this church is new, less than a generation old, a new creation of the Holy Spirit of God, who gives all sorts of gifts to people who believe.  These gifts of the Spirit cross all boundaries of age and economics and gender.  The Spirit creates a circle of people who love God and love each other.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, God wants to live in you and make you an important part of a church family.  In the early days, there was a stronger sense of hospitality and sharing, a stronger need to take care of each other.  Something that went beyond being a member of an organization.  There was a bond between people that was a great equalizer.  Christian families worked to share their food and their living. In its earliest years, the church of Jesus Christ was so controversial because this group of people intentionally cared about others; they served others generously, and that was almost unheard of.

But in Greece, God the Holy Spirit faced a challenge, because first-century Greco-Roman culture saw work as a kind of curse.  Work was something that slaves did. The Greeks believed your morality and wisdom were proportional to the amount of leisure time you had.  The best people simply didn’t work.

A person who worked, when they didn’t have to work, crossed the line between slave and master. The top rungs of society were reserved for those didn’t have to work. A wealthy person might be a patron of a person of lower class, but they would still see the worker as an inferior type.  And that made it harder for both of them to be church together.  I’m doing the best I can to achieve a higher standard of standard of living, a better reputation.  What does somebody who works have to offer me?  (Based on Homiletics, November-December, 2010)

Some of the folks in Thessalonika may have found the church an easy way to avoid work and achieve instant upper class.  If they’re just going to give me food, why work?  And Paul gives advice on how to handle those who have stopped working.  These are people who sit back and watch what happens – and generously offer opinions.  These are people he calls disorderly “busybodies” (3:11).

Because the church was a community of people who depended upon each other for basic needs, he tells the church to hold back food from anyone refusing to work.  To give them an example, Paul worked for his food, probably as a tent-maker, and then most likely shared the profits with the church.  He did this for two reasons:  First, to show them that Christians do not just sit around waiting for Christ to come back and make things right, and secondly, to show them what they could accomplish if they worked together to make things good for everyone.

Church is a lot of work sometimes, isn’t it?  Think of any church meal you’ve helped to serve.  And that kind of thing happens in so many ways here.  Some of you have spent a lot of time in rehearsals and late meetings.  You know, Jesus once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you [a lot more work to do].” (Matthew 11:28)

Rest areaThe church may translate the last word of that verse as “work,” but Jesus didn’t.   He said “rest.”  When you have faith in Christ, Jesus gives you a place to stop, a place where you can find rest.  It doesn’t matter what car you drive or what sort of clothes you wear.  It doesn’t matter how good your grades are or whether you’re popular at school.  We all have the same basic fears  — the fear of the future; the fear of growing old; the fear of losing control of life and health; the fear of being left alone; the fear of dying; the fear of loneliness, rejection, and emptiness.  However beautiful the surface of things, there can be an ocean of fear and pain down below.  Faith in Christ is a rest stop from all that.  The church is a rest stop from all of that.  This is where people hear about the peace and forgiveness of God through Christ.  But somebody has to keep up the rest stop, to serve in the rest stop, and that’s us.  But there’s more.  You rest so that you can work more effectively.  You don’t live in a rest stop!

The word “Christian” has come to mean being nice or very moral, but you would never be able to get that definition from reading your bible.  Even the Thessalonians wouldn’t have understood it that way.

Living the Christian life means living as a follower of Christ – worshiping, praying with others who follow Christ.  Believing.  Imitating those whom you respect.  Reconciling, getting past differences.  Sacrificing what’s in our wallets to support the work of God that’s happening here in Manheim, on these streets, and then flowing out to other places where there is need.  We intentionally come together to do this, in this building, and we do it through the power of God – through faith. And being the church, being followers of Christ together, does not happen successfully until we each roll up our sleeves and make the effort, each in our own way as we’re able.  Being a believer and living an effective Christian life does not happen by osmosis, as if the act of sitting and watching others counts for something.

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.  (v. 13)  There is something you have been waiting to do.  Something no one else can do.  It’s a gift you were given. And we are less than what we can be together – until you give your gift.

And as we become the church, we grow together as God changes us into the people we should be.  It’s risky.  This means taking the risk of relationships, the risk of giving, the risk of stepping out, the risk of change, the risk of moving toward a vision, the risk of making a difference in Manheim, and the risk of changing our world for the sake of Christ.  Lets take some risks for Jesus.

Prayer

O God, forgive us for those times when we think we can be the church without you.  You know that we are only human more than we know it ourselves.  In our weakness we turn to you.  With faith in the resurrection of your Son, we pray for a filling of your Spirit, so that we might face the future and face the world as strong Christians, known as people with great strength.  And the strength will be yours – you are the foundation on which we stand.  When you return, we pray that you find us taking care of your business, following through on the commitments we made to you.  For now, change us individually and as a church into the people you want us to be.  Amen.

11/10/2013 Sermon: “Coins of God”

2 Thessalonians 2 1As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters,* 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one* is revealed, the one destined for destruction.* 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters* beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits* for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news,* so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters,* stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

The coin Jesus was referring to likely bore the the likeness of Tiberius Caesar, Roman Emperor from 14-37 AD.
The coin Jesus was referring to likely bore the the likeness of Tiberius Caesar, Roman Emperor from 14-37 AD.

Luke 20 20 So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21So they asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. 22Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 23But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, 24‘Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ 25He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 26And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.

I am so thankful for the ways that many of you choose to express your faith, and the ways many of you are growing in your faith.  There are small groups here in our church, there are mission projects, there are caring ministries here and in the community.  You come faithfully to worship, and you do the best you can to live your life as a faithful follower of Jesus.  But isn’t it true that, no sooner that you leave worship (or some other spiritually uplifting event you just attended), maybe on some kind of a spiritual high, that you find your faith challenged by something at home, or work, or school?  Maybe it involves a relationship or a habit.  Maybe it’s something you saw on TV.  And it’s a challenge to your faith, a serious challenge.  Something or someone wants to knock you off your spiritual foundation and get your eyes off of Christ, to discourage you from being the person you know he wants you to be.  At least that’s how it seems to you.  Maybe it would help you to know that everyone in this room is facing the same challenge in some way.  Everyone.  And this has been going on for a very long time.

Emperor Nero (54-68 AD)
Emperor Nero (54-68 AD; great-grand nephew of Tiberius). Some believe it was his persecution of Christians in Rome that led to the deaths of the apostles Paul and Peter around 64 AD.

In one of the earliest pieces of writing to be included in the New Testament, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonika, in northern Greece and warns them about a person he calls the “the man of lawlessness… the man doomed to destruction.” This person has the capacity to draw worship to himself, and off of God. Nobody knows exactly who this person was.  But the Thessalonians knew.  Some think that this was one of the Roman emperors, maybe Nero or Caligula, who were truly evil men in those years.

In any case, the Christians living in Thessaolonika have heard things, heard something that makes some of them doubt their faith, and Paul has the cure:  stand firm, hold fast to the traditions.

He is talking about the teaching he’s given them about faith in the risen Jesus.  The lawless one wants to confuse you so that you trust him and through your confusion, he can control you.  But you stand firm and hold fast to your faith in Christ.  Stand firm.  Hold fast.  Church, whom do you trust?  Jesus Christ.  Church, in whom do you believe?  Jesus Christ.  Do the traditions that make your faith in him stronger.  Do the things that make the presence of Christ grow in you.  That is the antidote to the confusion of the lawless one.  That is your calling, and that is where you find fulfillment and contentment.  Stand firm in your faith; hold fast to Jesus Christ.

In the real world, there will always be someone or something that challenges your faith.  In the story from Luke, Jesus debates some religious leaders over taxes. These people talking with Jesus aren’t just asking him for an opinion. They’re trying to get him in trouble with the government.

The easiest way to do that is to say some negative thing about the Roman emperor publicly.  They want the Romans to have an easy excuse to arrest Jesus.  There are probably people standing by, ready to arrest him.

The one thing those two readings have in common is Romans – the occupying army, people with weapons, ready to take you away when you cross the line, and eventually they killed both Jesus and Paul.  And this was a very controversial thing Jesus was discussing: taxes.  It was this week in 1789 that Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  It was certainly true in Jesus’ time, when Palestine was an occupied country, and the Jewish people were deeply divided over taxes. If you are the people of God, do you pay taxes to these pagan Romans?  Do you pay taxes to the enemy?  The majority were probably in favor of paying taxes, because there were some benefits to having the Romans in control.  They built cities and a lot of people worked for the Romans.  Rumor had it that Jesus probably opposed giving taxes to the Romans (Luke 22:2).

It’s a Roman coin Jesus holds in his hand (see above).  “…give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  (Luke 20:25)  The next logical question is, “What belongs to God?”  What does God want?

Uncle SamGod wants you.  Maybe that gives us a mental picture of Uncle Sam with the pointing finger, and maybe that’s not so bad.  God wants you.  God wants disciples.  Jesus told the first Christians to go to the nations and make disciples, (Matthew 28:19) which isn’t the same thing as making believers.  Believing is a good thing.  God loves it when people believe.  But what God is looking for is disciples.  God wants people who will follow.  God wants people who will give themselves.

I’ve talked sometimes about tithing, about giving 10%, and what’s the point of this?  To make the connection between your financial identity and your faith, to not treat your financial commitment to God’s ministry as just another bill.  We are tithing my salary, and when I see that check coming up on the calendar, I understand that one as being about my family’s relationship with God, and a recognition that God has taken great care of us over the years.  That money is not ours; it’s part of what we have borrowed from God.

In our household, have not failed to increase our financial commitment to the church each year since 1985.  It’s a habit I recommend to you as a way to deepen your faith.

But God doesn’t just want our money.  God wants us.  God wants you and me.  And when we give ourselves to God, we start to take on the image of God.  So I guess if we reflect the image of God that makes us the coins of God! God holds us in his hand!

The more I thought about this story, the more I realized that it wasn’t about money.  We have this temptation to make God like us.  Because we want money, we think God wants money.  We think that God wants our money.  But God wants us.  God wants you and God wants me.  God wants to own and control all of who we are.  What do you give to the God who has everything?  Yourself.  And God really wants us.

A woman named Mary Ann Bird tells this story:

I grew up knowing I was different, and I hated it.  I was born with a cleft palate, and when I started school, my classmates made it clear to me how I looked to others: a little girl with a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and garbled speech.  When schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” I’d tell them I’d fallen and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow, it seemed more acceptable to have had an accident than to have been born different.  I was convinced that no one outside my family could love me.

But there was a second grade teacher we all loved, and her name was Mrs. Leonard.  She was short, round and happy.  She sparkled.

Every year, we had a hearing test.  Mrs. Leonard gave the test to everyone in the class, and finally, it was my turn.  I knew from past years that as we stood against the door and covered one ear, the teacher sitting at her desk would whisper something and we would have to repeat it back.  Something like, “The sky is blue.” Or “Do you have new shoes?”  And as I waited there against the door, God gave me a gift I never expected: seven words that changed my life.  Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, “I wish you were my little girl.”

KissThe recession has caused a lot of people a lot of hardship.  It’s possible that we’ve thought about money so much during the last five years that we missed the whisper.  When you think about your giving to this ministry or any ministry, let it be an expression of your faith.  Don’t hold back.  It’s not about the money.  God is whispering in the ear of every person in this room, “I wish you were mine.”

Prayer

 O God, we give ourselves to you.  Help us stand firm and hold fast to our faith in you.  Help us trust you more.  We know you want more than what’s in our pockets; you want us, each of us.

We give you the sin we have trouble getting a handle on.  We give our families to you.  We give our relationships with our friends to you.  We give our work to you.  We give our schools to you.

Through your Spirit, help us all be recognizable as members of your family; people who bear a striking resemblance to you and your son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

11/3/2013 Sermon: “Zacchaeus – that guy in the tree”

ZacchaeusLuke 19:1.  He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Even without knowing all the details, you can sense the tension in that moment.  In your neighborhood, there is the one household everybody stays away from.  In your school, there is the one kid you and most of your friends avoid.  At work, there’s that guy…  that woman.  These days, it seems so easy to put a target on somebody.  Maybe you’ve got some experience with being that person.

Here’s Zacchaeus, a Jewish guy who collects taxes for the Romans, which makes him a traitor in the minds of all his Jewish neighbors.  For us, it wasn’t like he worked for the IRS.  You may not like the IRS, but IRS agents aren’t thought of as traitors to their country.  Maybe it would be better to think of him as a Manheim person who was the local British tax collector during the American Revolution.  Not only does Zacchaeus have an unpopular job, he is rich.  Think about that – a tax collector, who is rich.  Most tax collectors for the Romans made their living by skimming off the top of what they gathered.  So he is easy to hate.  Can you picture him?  He’s up in that tree not just to see over the crowd.  He doesn’t really want to be in the crowd either.  He probably needs the Romans to protect him from his own people.

Maybe you know a Zacchaeus.  The path of his life led him to this place.  If you do a replay of the last few years, maybe you can see how he got here and now, he only has a choice of bad choices.  Does he want this life?  Maybe, but there’s clearly a price he has to pay.  Maybe you are a Zacchaeus in some way.  There’s a lot of bad water that’s flowed under your bridge, and there’s a lot of inner healing you know you need.  You’ve heard Jesus is nearby and you have to see him.

Jesus, the Son of God, walks along through Jericho. He knows this kind of crowd, so I think he looks for Zacchaeus.  When he came to the edge of town, he may have asked who the local tax collector was.  “You say that’s him in the tree?”  And so, in front of everybody, he calls out, “Yo, Zacchaeus!  Get down out of the tree!  Let’s have dinner!”  Jesus puts his arm around his shoulder and they walk off toward Zacchaeus’ house.

So, this story is about the scandalous side of Christianity. Jesus went out of his way to hang out with somebody that most respectable, well-mannered people wouldn’t have anything to do with.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, Jesus would love to come to where you live.  That person you don’t trust, the one you hate?  Guess who Jesus is going to have dinner with.  Guess who Jesus wants you to have dinner with!

And this story is about conflict.  Jesus was not supposed to go to the house of someone like Zacchaeus.  It broke the rules.  It made him “unclean” in the eyes of the religious folk.  Jesus’ relationship with Zacchaeus created conflict, but Jesus cared more about bringing Zacchaeus into relationship with God than about preserving peace.  Jesus has a habit of making comfortable people uncomfortable.  Something the followers of Jesus should think about.  Who is the Zacchaeus that should be invited in?

And this story is about salvation.  How was Zacchaeus saved? First, he invited Jesus into his house for a meal.  That’s the first and most important step – invite Jesus in.  That’s the game changer, the life changer.  Jesus must have had a profound effect on him because Zacchaeus then gave a percentage of his living to the poor (half) and dedicated himself to treating others fairly.  This is what God wants to do in our lives: enter in (at our invitation), change us, and make the world better through us.

And this story is about giving.  Zacchaeus took a chance by exposing himself publicly as a friend of Jesus – he changed and became a generous person.  The evidence of his inner change is that he became a giver.  He began to see the needs of others around him, and respond to that need. But the real story of giving is about what Jesus gave Zacchaeus.  Jesus gave Zacchaeus respect and self-esteem, which helped him turn his attention off himself and toward others.

God is waiting to do the same thing with each of us, turn our attention off of ourselves and toward others.  That is what God the Holy Spirit does when we believe.

Throughout the gospel of Luke you will find that there is no such thing as a separation between a person’s spirituality and their finances.  They are intertwined.  This is why the church talks about tithing.  Tithing literally means giving 10% of your living, but Zacchaeus gave 50%.  There’s another story in Luke about a rich young ruler whom Jesus told to give everything away.  The point is not what you give, but that it represents your life.  A percentage represents a connection to everything you have (which belongs to God anyway).

The fact that Jesus received a meal from Zacchaeus or that Zacchaeus received anything from Jesus is beside the point. That whole story is about giving.  The Christian faith is all about giving: what we give to God, what God gives to us, what we give to each other, and how we give to the need around us.  Like that tax collector in the tree, we come to God in need of healing, self-respect, and a new attitude toward others.  We believe in the living Jesus and God gives us those things. May God say of us, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Prayer

 O God, you’ve searched us out and we know that there’s no place to hide from you.  You come looking for us by name and you find us.  We might be hiding in a tree or in a busy schedule.  We might be hiding behind a mask, hoping that everybody thinks we’re something we’re not.  And sometimes we don’t care what anybody thinks anymore.  We thought we would stand off to the side and let you pass by, but you call us by name and you want to have dinner.  You want to be friends.  Your love searches us out and you wrap your arms around us.  Your love fills us.  Change us into people who make your presence known by sharing that love.  Help us introduce others to Savior we had dinner with today.  Amen.