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The Significance of the Insignificant (October 2, 2016)

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ “

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Worship together with Zion Baptist Church on August 28. Since I had no pastoral role, I took up my usual position standing in the back so I could watch. According to their tradition, a woman came up during altar call and rededicated her life to Jesus. Whole congregation prayed, and joined hands to do so. I watched and was impressed at the sincerity of it.

Suddenly, I felt someone grab my hand with a pretty firm grip. I looked up and it was a man—a member of Zion—who had been outside the tent talking with some elderly ladies on the lawn. He didn’t say a word, didn’t make eye contact. He just didn’t want me, the visiting white person, praying alone. No big deal for him, a very moving moment for me.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

After the death of my mom a month ago, I received many personal condolences, a bunch of sympathy cards and several donations to Alzheimer’s Association. Probably to most of you it wasn’t a big deal, but it mean a lot to me.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

As part of our fall stewardship emphasis, we asked you to write down one “Joyful Experiences” that come from being associated with this congregation. These are wonderful things that we have experienced and about 65 of you have done this so far. Most of them may not seem life-changing, but they mattered enough for people to take the time to write them down. For example:

  • Worshiping with an amazing group of people.
  • The consistent love, support, and prayers given to me over the last 50 years.
  • Teaching VBS with the preschool kids this summer. Learning about the Bible.
  • Attending both worship services. What an awesome congregation we have!
  • Sunday School. I love watching the kids get so excited about the things God has done for us.
  • Going to Sky Ranch because I had an awesome experience doing all the fun activities and making new friends.
  • Watching my kids grow and be loved by so many.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

They are possible because this congregation exists. Individually they may not seem like much, but collectively there is a culture deeply embedded with care, of love, of laughter, of joy, new life.

No one person or household gives enough financially to do all this. Each little gift, each act of generosity, each offering is an act of faith. Collect enough mustard seed acts of faith and we end up with a congregation full of people who experience love and care and inclusion.

And that mustard seed faith grows beyond our walls into the neighborhood around us. Embedded in love, forgiveness, and compassion, we sow those same little seeds as we live, and work, and go to school. Small, tiny acts that come from our life together in Jesus. They may not seem like much, but collectively they change the world. They grow. They matter.

Every year I stand up here and ask you to increase your financial acts of giving. Of course I do. The more money we have, the more ministry we can do. That makes sense.

But there is something more important than the ability to increase the overall LCM budget. That’s each person, each household, giving something. Because then we are all sowing little mustard seeds of faith together. We’re all part of the small things and the big things that become part of our lives, part of our neighborhood, part of the world. We do it together. We sow seeds that grow. We commit small acts of faith. We change lives.

Mustard seed faith. Small acts of care, love, forgiveness, inclusion that don’t seem big, but might just grow.

Fill out an Estimate of Giving card, even if it’s a mustard seed amount. It’s an act of faith on your part. It is participation in casting love and compassion out into the world. It might just change someone’s life. It matters.

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Posted by on October 4, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Camels through Needles: With God, All Things are Possible (Mark 10:17-31)

If ever there was a text that was self-explanatory, this is probably it. Wealth is a problem. The man kneeling before Jesus is a respectful, God-fearing, commandment-obeying, church-going believer. Jesus acknowledges that, but also tells the man that to inherit the kingdom of God he lacks one thing. Sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, then follow Jesus.

Who here has done that? Like the man in this text, we leave grieving because we have many possessions. This is one of those texts where the meaning is pretty clear, even though parts are exaggerated; we pretty much nudge it off to the side. It’s a spiritual thing, we say. It’s not literal, it’s about discipleship.

That may be true, but it is clearly about money. Wealth is often a problem for rich people who follow Jesus. So our tendency is to immediately skip over to Jesus saying that those things that are impossible for humans are entirely possible for God!

Whew! Maybe everything will be OK. Maybe God will make things good for us who have a lot of possessions. Maybe God will smooth the way. Maybe our wealth will no longer be a problem. Maybe we can continue as before. Because with God, all things are possible! Right?

Except that’s not exactly where Jesus is taking this. He’s not letting us off our wealthy hook. He’s telling us that with God, it’s possible to eliminate those things that stand in the way of our following Jesus. Even our money and our possessions. When he says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, he’s not saying that because of God, a camel no longer has to go through the eye of a needle. He’s saying that with God, a camel can pass through the eye of a needle. God doesn’t keep things the same; God changes everything.

That which is possible for God and impossible for us is a change so deep within us that we are willing to give up possessions for the sake of the poor. That’s what Jesus came to reveal: that God is changing the world that profoundly–changing us that deeply. With God that actually is possible.

So the question isn’t how much money you give away. The question is how much are we being changed—revealed by how much we give away? What impossible thing is God doing in our hearts and in our lives? What obstacle is God eliminating to draw us into God’s kingdom?

For those who are rich, wealth can be a problem. That’s pretty much all of us. Which is why we have worked so hard as a congregation to give away 11% of everything that comes through the offering plates right off the top. And when you factor in staff time, neighborhood partnerships, and parts of other ministries, we’re actually investing about a third of our income outside our walls. We subsidize Lutheran Family Services, government advocacy for the poor, congregations that deliberately minister in neighborhoods of high poverty, to name a few. Missionaries, world hunger, disaster relief. More!

Some of us say, “Really? A third of my offering isn’t invested in this congregation? We’d have no struggles if we kept that. Take care of things at home first, then start looking outside.” It’s tempting for those who are rich to say “let’s emphasize our own Christian education, upgrade our building, take care of our property, hire our own youth staff person first, then consider the poor.”

Then Jesus looks around and says to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!'”

But Jesus, we say, we need to educate our kids and teach them to pray and make sure they obey the ten commandments!

Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says,”You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  This text is annoyingly clear. Ministry outside our congregation is absolutely necessary as disciples of Jesus. In fact, that is our priority as disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps another way to look at this is that it’s great that a third of our offerings help the poor and others in our world. Wouldn’t it be better if it was half? And not just because more of the poor Jesus loves would be helped, but also because if we were to invest half of our offerings in ministry outside of ourselves, that would reveal God doing an impossible thing. That would be God getting a camel through the eye of a needle. That would be a rich congregation entering the kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

We are beginning a budgeting process for 2016. The council will be preparing a budget to propose to the whole congregation for approval. Hold us, as council, accountable. When you look at the proposed budget in a few weeks, check how much will be invested outside of ourselves. See whether our congregation is being changed by God. See if we are being part of God’s kingdom in the world or simply keeping “all the commandments.” Make sure we are following Jesus and not “lacking one thing.” When we approve a budget, let us be sure we will have “treasure in heaven” and not “grieving because we have many possessions.”

Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life? . . . You know the commandments. . . Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth. . . You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and ive the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Abundant Faith: Excelling in Generosity (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

 

A bunch of boys were playing soccer at recess. They had all the soccer balls off in one corner of the field, but were only playing with one of them. Some girls came up and asked for one of the extra soccer balls. The boys said ‘No, because we might need them.’

Paul keeps telling the congregation in Corinth that God’s grace has provided more than what they need. They have extra everything, he says, because Christ continues to provide them with extra faith, extra speech, extra knowledge, extra eagerness, and extra love. It’s all there, Paul writes. And he reminds them of this over and over.

His question to them here is, Since God has given you more than enough of everything, how about doing something with it? Since you excel in everything by God’s generosity, how about showing that—how about living that?

What does your discipleship look like? Because it has to look like something! If you have been given all kinds of faith and love and forgiveness and generosity to the point of overflowing in you, shouldn’t it be leaking out somewhere!? Shouldn’t it be evident? If you’ve got more soccer balls than you need, shouldn’t the girls be able to play soccer too?

Then Paul advises them on one way their abundant faith can be lived. Remember that collection you were so excited to start a year ago? Remember you were doing that for the poor in Jerusalem? Then you got mad at me and got sidetracked and didn’t finish it? Why not get that collection going again and finish that up? It is a great way to put flesh on this excellent faith you have been given. It’s a way you can live out of the abundance of generosity God has given you. It’s a way to put your beliefs into practice.

Generosity is a very tangible aspect of discipleship. It is a reminder that the ways of God are different than our ways and that our life is found in God’s ways. Generosity is a spiritual thing, so counter-cultural that it seems foolish to many people. It is an expression of life in Christ.

So Paul makes a suggestion–“advice,” he calls it. The excitement you had for helping the poor in Jerusalem a year ago was a faithful response. So finish it up. Let the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ not only flow into you, but flow out of you too.

Christians have a tendency to emphasize what Jesus gives us, and push aside what that should look like in our lives. Many of us never get to the life-applications of our beliefs. We talk a lot about beliefs, about faith, about discipleship. We have argued and fought over doctrines. We have been very quick to judge as inferior those who believe differently.

But Paul reminds us that talking about discipleship isn’t being a disciple. Debating faith isn’t living faith. Knowing our beliefs isn’t experiencing our beliefs. New life is to be lived in the world! We are called to do what we say we believe!

And one of the most straight-forward, foundational, attention-getting, counter-cultural life practices of Christian discipleship is generosity. Specifically, financial generosity.

Where do you believe God is most active? Where do you believe God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love are being revealed? If we believe God is doing something in the world, doesn’t it make sense that that belief would be reflected in our lives somehow?

How we use money is one of the loudest statements we can make as to what we really believe. God’s generosity will always provide more grace, forgiveness, and love than we need.

Editing a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel with your generosity, and when absolutely necessary, use words.” May we always grow in faith; and may we always live what we believe. There are plenty of soccer balls for everyone.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Sermon

 

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