Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

γ

It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

γ

Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

γ

And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

γ

Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

γ

The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Advertisements

Whole Everything All

A sermon based on Psalm 126 and Mark 12:41-44 preached November 1st, 2015

The two small copper coins she put into the treasury at the Temple weren’t much. Like most pennies these days, there was nothing she could have purchased with them, but still there were all she had.

Jesus was across the way staking out the Temple, gazing upon one of the trumpet-shaped chests that folks threw their offerings to the Temple into. There were 13 of them that ran around the court of the temple, each one bracketed against a wall. They were narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom.

There was a Temple Tax that was non-negotiable. By law, everyone had to pay it. But these trumpet-shaped chests weren’t for that. They were for voluntary contributions over and above the tax.
It wasn’t the amount she put in, but the attitude with which she gave it that grabbed Jesus’ attention. As Jesus sat across the collection chest that day, he saw many throw in their contributions, small amounts, their spare change. It all appeared to Jesus as mindless giving—giving to God as an afterthought. Jesus had nothing good to say about that kind of giving. But this widow caught Jesus’ eye. Her gift to the Temple treasury was different—different in amount for sure (much smaller)—but at the same time, different in attitude. She deposited her two coins in one at a time, almost placing them into the mouth of the trumpet-shaped chest. Where the rest hadn’t even stopped walking, just throwing their spare change in as they flew by, this woman stopped and considered each of her copper coins, heard them clink at the bottom of the trumpet, one at a time, as if she was making a wish, using the very last of what she possessed, prayerfully handing her pennies to God, hoping that God could do much with very little.

ο

For the last several weeks we’ve been talking about 365 stewardship—going all-in, giving 100% of our hearts and lives and choices, and lifting them all up to God as an offering we make to Him.

This widow is the model of faithful giving. Her two coins are everything she has and even though they might not have been enough for her to buy even one morsel of bread with, her gift was larger than any other gift thrown into the Temple chests that day. Those two copper coins were not a portion of all she had, they were her whole, her everything, her all. When Jesus saw the widow’s gift, he exclaimed,

Now, that—that’s my idea of giving!

o

I like money. I’m sure you do, too. I like what it can afford. Money gives us a sense of freedom and independence—the kind that the widow didn’t have. And you and I love that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I will not be following the widow’s example by placing 100% of my paycheck into the offering plate. You shouldn’t do that either. But she does challenge me to give a little more than what I’m comfortable giving. She does challenge me to be more mindful of how I spend what I do have—to put it in the right places, to spend it in the right ways, to be more thoughtful about how I spend my money.

ο

How many of us can say that we’re prayerful over the ways we spend our dollars and cents? I don’t pray before I make a big purchase—or any purchase at all, really. I don’t say a prayer before I send in any of my charitable donations. When’s the last time you sat down at the kitchen table to write a check, even if it was to pay your monthly cable bill, and said a prayer over it? Not a prayer that the Barboursville Post Office would deliver it successfully (although in my experience that might actually be necessary), but because even your ability to enjoy a night of entertainment around the TV set with your loved ones is a gift from God.

Is how you spend your money an afterthought or a forethought? Are we just cutting checks and sliding cards or are we more intentional with the gifts God has given to us? Are you like the widow who contemplates her giving and celebrates her ability to give, or are you more like all those other passersby who Jesus saw who simply toss in a few bucks without prayerful discernment beforehand? The attitude with which we spend our money is just as important as how we spend it, and spending it prayerfully is what Jesus wants us to do.

ο

There’s one other thing that strikes me about the widow’s offering, and it also has to do with the attitude from which she gave those two last copper coins of hers. Unlike all the rest Jesus saw throw money into the Temple chests that day, she wasn’t so much giving to the Temple as much as she was giving from her poverty. She knew that her two cooper coins, worth about a penny, would do nothing for the Temple. There was not a thing anyone who ran the Temple operations would be able to do with her gift. But that didn’t keep her from giving. She threw her pennies in anyway, because her attitude was different than all the others. It didn’t matter to her that her offering was minuscule, because she wasn’t giving because the Temple needed what she had to offer. She was giving because, no matter the amount, it was important for her to make the offering.

So, what’s the attitude of your giving?

Do we think of our pledges and offerings to the church merely as giving to the church, or do we (like the widow) see it as a giving from our abundance? Do you see your pledge as giving to the church. Giving to…so that we can pay the electricity bill? Giving to…so that we can patch up the ceiling? Or do see it as your way of giving from all that God has blessed you with because it is right to give back a portion or what we have been blessed with? One of those is an empty and anemic way of giving. Mostly meaningless and purposeless. The other one is a joyful and meaning-filled vocation that God invites you and I to undertake, and it holds deep blessings for us.

The widow’s gift teaches us not to give to the church budget, but instead to give from our heart—a sacrifice fit for an offering given to God.

So, my invitation to each of you is to ask the question differently. Don’t ask, “How much do we want to pledge to the church this year?” Instead ask, “How much are we feeling led to give from all that God as blessed us with?”

ο

There’s another side to the story, though. In the passage after this one, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. He wasn’t a big fan of it, you know. During his last week on earth, Jesus would ransack the Temple, tossing and turning over tables and shouting at all those who have made it into something different than what God intended it to be.

In the very next verses, Jesus correctly predicts that not one stone of the Temple will be left unturned. And so it was. Around 70CE, the Roman Empire leveled it to the ground, and most who witnessed the destruction took it as a judgment against all that the Temple had turned into—a place of commerce instead of a place of worship. The Jewish leaders, the human keepers of the Temple took their eyes off of God and place it upon other things, and for that, judgment had come upon it.

All that is to say that just as much as it is our responsibility to give of what we have to the life and ministry of our church, it is just as much (if not more) of a responsibility to make sure that your pledges are used faithfully—to practice the right use of your gifts, to make sure your gifts help this church spread the Gospel in both word and in deed.

ο

So, as we prepare this week for our upcoming Stewardship Dinner, where all of us will be invited by God to giving from our abundance, please be in prayer for a few things. Pray about the right use of everything you have been given. Pray for discernment upon how much to give to the mission and ministry of your church. And pray also for those of us who serve in positions of our church’s leadership, that we may listen to the Spirit of God, that we would be propelled to give 100% of ourselves in stewardship to this church and to practicing stewardship in our 365 lives.

Really, what I’m asking from you, is that you would pray for everything. Pray for the right use of everything that you have been given and how you might use it. That’s also my invitation and my encouragement to you. Be like the widow who gave all that she had, not because she felt she had to, but because it was her joy to give her whole, her everything, her all.

ο

What the widow did that day at the Temple was only a foreshow of a much bigger offering made. After witnessing the woman handing over her whole, her everything, her all, Jesus too would hand over his whole, his everything, his all—on the cross, for us. And just like the old hymn goes,

Love so amazing, so divine, Demands our soul, our life, our all.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Two Extended Hands

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on March 15th, 2015

Sermon audio

We had just arrived in a small, remote village two and a half hours outside of the city of La Esperanza. Thirteen of us from Three Chopt Presbyterian Church on a summer mission trip together to Honduras after my junior year of college.

Once we arrived, one of the men there asked us if we would like to go for a walk through the village.

Now, in Honduras, when somebody asks you if you would like to go for “a walk,” what they really mean is

would you like to go on a two hour hike up and down impossible inclines?

All of us put on our best walking shoes and set out down the main dirt road that cuts through the village.

I grabbed my water bottle at the last minute.

The day before we had arrived, it had rained hard but the main road was dried by the sun. After a short walk up the main road, we stopped at the beginning of this little path that led up to the top of the mountain that we were evidently taking.

Because it had rained the day before, I had seen that there was a patch of mud that we would have to jump over to get to the dry path that led up the mountain. And would you know it, I ended up being the first person in our group to jump across this muddy pit between where we were and where we were going. So I clenched my water bottle in my left hand like it was a football and I took a step back to get a running start. I leapt…and my left foot landed right into the mud, ankle deep. I took my foot out of the mud and laughed, embarrassed at myself.

Then I took another couple steps back to use my momentum, and I jumped—and I landed once again in the mud, my right foot this time. It wasn’t quite so funny to me now, and I was even more embarrassed. I started shaking out of weakness and embarrassment.

I heard Lisa, who was right by my side, ask me to hand her my water bottle, still clenched like a football in my left hand. I dismissed her and clenched it tighter. I took another two steps back and lunged myself forward. Once again in the mud—both feet this time.

By now I wasn’t only embarrassed but I was out of energy—exhausted physically and emotionally. I had made a fool of myself. This should be easy, and look at what is happening!

I lifted my head up to look to the other side—the dry path leading up the mountain. I thought to myself

This time, I’m going to get it. It will happen.

I was ready to jump again. And as I lifted my eyes up to see where I needed to be, I saw two hands reached out to me from the other side. On my left side was the hand of my friend Ken. On my right side was the hand of my brother Mike. I dropped my water bottle, and I reached out to grab the hands offered to me. Ken and Mike pulled me up and over the mud to the dry path up the mountain.

I was all right negotiating the rest of the way myself except for a couple of times on the way down where there were some slippery spots. My brother was ahead of me, and he seemed to know exactly where to stop and extend his hand or offer his shoulder to help me negotiate my way.

χ

Today, were talking about grace and the paths we walk along in our journey of faith. We’re also talking today about the wouldas, the couldas, and the shouldas of our lives. The have-to’s and the must’s.

As a part of making my way to West Virginia and becoming your pastor, I had to go through a series of interviews by a couple of the Presbytery’s committees, and Bob Bondurant was on one of those committees, and he asked me if I knew the connection between West Virginia and God’s grace. I was puzzled, and I said no, I had no idea what the connection was. And Bob said that people in West Virginia are hard working people who feel like they have to grind for everything they earn—no such thing as a free lunch, pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps, do it all yourself, or be left in the dust.

I think Bob was right, except for the fact that he left out the other 49 states. Every one of us has that mentality. In order to get something, we have to sweat for it, work hard to get it, bend forward to grab it. America is like that. Do it all on your own or go home. Hike the mountain yourself or get run over or left behind. That work ethic bleeds its way in our churches, and that’s what Bob was referring to.

Just as we have be taught by our dog-eat-dog world that anything good only comes to us if we work hard to grab it for ourselves, we also have somehow convinced ourselves—despite passages like this one from Ephesians—that we have to do something to get on God’s good side, that we are in charge of our own salvation, that it’s all up to us.

We in the church suffer from what Lutheran pastor Kyle Fever calls MPS, Moral Perfection Syndrome. MPS is that disease that keeps us restless. It’s the dis-ease that we carry around—an ailment that says we can never do enough or be enough because God demands moral perfection from us. MPS is leads to RSS: Restless Soul Syndrome.

The good stuff we do has to cover up or cancel out all the bad stuff we do, so the life of faith becomes something like a sin management program. Keep the sin-count low and keep the good deeds count high, and maybe, just maybe, we stand a change of getting on God’s favorite list. It’s as if the life of faith was like earning or losing points with Weight Watchers.

This is the problem we have with grace. The journey of faith is not toward moral perfection. It’s toward surrender.

That sin management program—it’s like a hamster wheel, pointless exertion that takes us nowhere.

χ

If hiking up that mountain was all up to me, I’d still be at the bottom with both of my feet stuck in the mud. My own effort wasn’t getting me anywhere. Grace got me through that day—the two extended hands reaching out to me and pulling me up and out of the mud and onto the path up the mountain. That’s grace.

Author Anne Lamott says,

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

Grace is Jesus saying,

Step off the hamster wheel, I got this.

Grace is Jesus saying,

There’s nothing to earn here—no careful weighing of sins, no reason to try the balance them out with good deeds, in fact the scales are broken.

There are no scales, really. No point systems. Nothing at all like that. There never has been.

God is a terrible scorekeeper, and His eyesight is skewed. Because when God looks at you and me, all He sees is Christ. And Christ is the One who, with two extended hands on the cross, gave away himself to show us once and for all that there is nothing—nothing at all—we have to do to get in good with God. Because Jesus did that for us. To put our trust in our own efforts to climb our way into God’s favor is actually to doubt what Jesus has done for us.

When it comes to God’s grace, there’s no catch, no fine print, no strings attached. Salvation has nothing to do with what we can accomplish on our own. Paul says in verse 10,

Instead, we are God’s accomplishment.

χ

Our lives are lived not to prove our goodness to God but to respond to God’s goodness by walking on the path where we encounter God’s blessings. We could respond to the free gift of God’s grace by saying,

Since there’s nothing for me to do here, I guess I’ll spend all my time sitting by the pool sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them.

That sounds nice, especially since spring break is upon us, but after Paul declares that we are God’s accomplishment, he writes,

created in Christ Jesus to do good things.

Not only that though,

God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

We do good things—something as small as holding the door for another or making a stranger smile, or something bigger like building houses for Habitat—as our way of graciously responding to the goodness and mercy of God.

Christ extends his two hands to pull us up and out of the places where we’re stuck, so why wouldn’t we want to respond to that and be that presence for others?

χ

I spent a lot of time during the rest of my trip in Honduras thinking about that moment in the mud and the two extended hands that reached down to pull me up.

By the time we left for home, I knew that moment would be one I’d never forget. It meant too many different things all at once.

When we don’t have the strength to do something ourselves, we need to rely upon the strength of others. That’s grace extended to us. And before we can reach up to receive the gift extended out to us, we have to stop the frantic struggle to get up the mountain by our own efforts.

I had to let go of that water bottle—that thing I clenched onto so tightly, and up until that moment, refused to let go of. I had to release it in order to take hold of the hands extend out to me.

χ

The only way to fully accept God’s grace is to drop it all and come to Him with empty hands.

Salvation is not determination. It’s surrender.

Can you give up trying to hike up this mountain on your own?

Instead, can you reach out and take God’s hands? They’re right in front of you. There are two of them, extended out and ready to pull you up.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.