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Thanksliving – Psalm 100

Well, it’s Thanksgiving week, one of my favorite times of the year. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because, well, it doesn’t really require much more than eating and watching football—two of my favorite activities.

 We do a lot of things around the table at Thanksgiving, and when I was a kid there were a lot of traditions. For example, my grandma would always make a special drink for us on Thanksgiving—one that was fizzy and mysterious and was served in crystal glasses. It felt very sophisticated to drink it—until I learned a few years later than it was just cranberry juice and ginger ale.

I’ve always loved the stuffing, the turkey, and cranberry sauce has to come out of a can and retain its shape, you know? That’s the best kind.

 I love sitting at the table with my family, we pray, talk about what we’re thankful for. I always imagine Jesus sitting at the meal with us, receiving our thanks.

 What I don’t look for, however, is the image of Jesus in the food. But it turns out that’s where he very well might be. Apparently, Jesus has been popping up in all kinds of interesting culinary cuisine.

Fish stick  Take, for example, this story from November of 2004. On an ordinary November day, Fred Whan, an Ontario man in Kingston, accidentally burned a fish stick at dinner and found, with the help of his son, the face of Jesus on his fish stick. A year later he took it out of the freezer and put it up for auction on eBay.

 Earlier that year, Diana Duyser of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, declared she had found an image of the Virgin Mary on her decade-old burnt grilled cheese sandwich. She, too, auctioned it off, selling it to GoldenPalace.com for $28,000. In her eBay ad, she wrote: “I would like all people to know that I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary Mother of God. That is my solemn belief, but you are free to believe that she is whomever you like.”

 


On the morning of October 15, 1996, the manager at the Bongo Java coffee shop in Nashville looked at a pastry and found the image of Mother Theresa staring him in the face. Thus was born the legend of the “NunBun.” The media converged for a treat that became known as “The Immaculate Confection,” “The Divine Dough” and “The Cin-a-Nun.” Some believed that the bends of the roll perfectly captured Mother Teresa’s face, draped in a shawl, while skeptics claimed the cinnamon roll more closely resembled Doc from Snow White and the Seven DwarfsNunbunside1

And then there was the discovery a couple of years ago by Steve Cragg, the youth director of Memorial Drive United Methodist Church in Houston discovered this in a bag of Cheetos. One of the youth group teens dubbed this unique cheese curl "Cheesus."  Cragg decided not to eat this symbolic cheeto and displayed it on a bookcase in his office, where it has remained since its discovery.

  Cheesus  What do we make of this? Has God abandoned his usual means of revelation and finally come to us in what we all really understand … in food? Or have our imaginations run away with us? 

Reactions to the images have been mixed. Some have poked fun at the images found especially in the “miraculous” food items. Ken Schram of Seattle with some aluminum foil made a number of other images on grilled cheese sandwiches. These he hoped to sell, the proceeds to benefit Toys for Tots. Among his creations were a sandwich with his own image, one with Elvis, and another with the image of President Bush burned across its surface.

Dan French of The Examiner, also commenting on the images, writes that it seems that “God has a plan for me, and that plan is to sell you his mug in my beer mug for four grand!”

No matter what you think about these “miraculous” images, these latter-day theophanies do point to a yearning in our culture to find Christ in everyday, ordinary things. Dan French explains, “We’re all looking for the same thing, some faith-worthy sign to give us at least a fleeting clue on how to live our best lives and be our best selves in a confused, nearly unnavigable world.”

We dream of touching what we know only by faith, and whether it be in an old sandwich, some burnt fish sticks, our own church altar or even in the frosted glass of a shower stall, these images let us glimpse with our own eyes the unseen Christ.

The problem here is that these cheesy images also pose a real danger to our faith. How in the world do you lift up a God worthy of praise and thanksgiving when you’ve just found him on a fish stick? Where are my faith and my praise for a transcendent God when that God is not much more than a commodity on eBay?

After all, a God we have to save from the garbage disposal or that emerged from our own culinary mistake does nothing worthy of praise. Thanking a God we can sell or own or that we can reproduce with cleverly wrapped tin foil is a waste of our time.

Not to disparage the faith of some of the faithful who genuinely marvel at the simulacra they find in off places or objects. Not to say that their faith isn’t fervent.

But perhaps we can grow out or beyond this. Like, paw through a pile of 200 potatoes and you’re going to find one that looks like Richard Nixon.

Psalm 100 urges us to prepare for the coming of the Lord by calling us back to worship, thanksgiving and praise. And, of course, there’s not even a hint that we should look for iconic representations of deity in potatoes, fish sticks or tortillas. 

The first words in Hebrew name it a psalm of thanks. What follows this introduction are both the reasons and the words to thank and praise our God and King.

It tells us we should praise God for four reasons: because God made us, because God loves us, because we belong to God, and because God is all around us.
 

REASON 1

God is our maker. He is not made by us. The “miraculous images” of Jesus, Mary and the angels were all made by human hands. The sandwich was made by a mother. The fish stick was made by a worker. The glass, the dirt, the altar. All made by human beings. 

Not so with God. Our thanksgiving comes because “It is he that made us …”(v. 3). We did not make him, nor did we fashion him in our image. Rather, we were made in his image. Scripture tells us: “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”(Genesis 1:27). We are his creation. He is not ours.

As his creation, we thank and praise God because our understanding is limited. We only know for certain that it was God’s hands that fashioned us together. Everything else is theory and mystery. We praise God because we are his creatures and his creation. He is not ours.

REASON 2
We are loved by God! We as people love many things that do not love us back. We love our cars and our homes. We love food or entertainment. None of these things can return our love.

We love a God who loved us first. Scripture tells us: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s steadfast love and faithfulness last through all generations.

It is no accident that the psalmist ends the psalm, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

We give God thanks and praise for the sole reason that God loves us so much. God went into death itself to claim us as his own. God loved us before we even began to love him and for this he deserves our thanks and praise.

REASON 3

 God owns us. We do not own him. Each of the images belongs to someone. They were found, claimed, and oftentimes, sold to someone else. In essence, God has become the property of human beings.

When the psalmist writes: “we are his …”(v. 3) it is a statement of ownership. We belong to God in Christ, he does not belong to us. We do not and cannot own him, no matter what. Since we are his, it is fitting that we thank and praise him. As creations owned by a creator, we cry out in praise and thanksgiving for all he gives and does for us.

REASON 4
God is all around us! Finally, we give God thanks and praise because Jesus Christ’s face is found, not on the burn marks of a baked piece of fish, but in the marks of life in the faces around us. “We are his people” and as his people, we discover Christ’s presence in the faces of the people with whom we live and work, and those with whom we don’t live and work — the needy, the marginalized, the less fortunate, those in prison, those on welfare, those who live in rich houses or cardboard shacks, those who are different from us, those who live in freedom and those who live in the shadow of tyranny. 

This is most significant. For in this the baked fish stick challenges us. We need not look for Christ who says “Whatever you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40) in a piece of baked fish! He has promised to be in the faces of those around us. It should not be easier to see Christ in frosted glass than it is to see him in the faces of our neighbors.

Crowd If we long to see Christ, we need only to look around us. Christ is with us in the faces of our neighbors. In the people who do what Christ does for us as they care, provide, love and keep us safe. And in the people we are called to be Christ to, doing the same for them.

God deserves our thanks and praise.

God created us!

God claimed us!

God paid the ultimate price for us!

And God surrounds us with people who reflect his face and presence!

So don’t be looking for God in the drumstick of a turkey in a few days. Find God in the faces of those gathered around your table, wandering the streets of your neighborhood or conversing at the water cooler in the office. And give thanks!

 

MiteShares – Mark 12:38-44

With Christmas looming, many of us are already thinking about what we’ll buy for friends and family. And when you don’t know what to get Uncle Frank or the cousin you see every 10 years, one of the best options is the ubiquitous gift card. Drop one of those in a Christmas card, and you’re done. It’s an easy way to keep our obligation of giving.

The town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, using the gift-card concept without the plastic, has developed its own kind of currency. The “BerkShare” (a wordplay on the Berkshires region) looks a lot like Monopoly money. For every 95 cents, local residents get one dollar’s worth of BerkShares they can use to buy goods and services from one of 400 participating businesses in the area. BerkShares aren’t legal tender anywhere outside Great Barrington.

“Local currency helps to keep the money flowing between friends and neighbors, local businesses, which helps everybody to have a better life,” says Asa Hardcastle, president of BerkShares Inc. 

Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers, agrees. “Philosophically, it’s very much along the lines of the foundations that we set up our store under: supporting local, sustainable producers, keeping the community local wherever possible. So when the BerkShares came along, that was right up our alley. We really embraced it,” Rubiner said.

Even the design and printing of the BerkShare currency is a local operation. BerkShares feature pictures of local artists, heroes and historical figures and come with individual serial numbers that make them tough to counterfeit. 

“I think it’s nice to have a constant little reminder that we’re a community and we’re in it together,” says local resident Heather Fisch. “It’s kind of like a Great Barrington pride moment. I’m a citizen of Great Barrington. Here’s my BerkShare.”

The folks in Great Barrington aren’t alone in their currency creation. From Detroit to North Carolina to upstate New York, at least 12 other communities are trying to encourage people to buy and spend locally by printing up their own greenbacks (or pink-backs, or mauve-backs or whatever color their Monopoly-inspired money is).

It turns out that a similar kind of currency kaleidoscope characterized the economy of first-century Israel, the scene of this week’s text. A closer look at Mark 12 gives us a glimpse into the different coinage that circulated around the temple. In verses 13-17, we read the famous “render unto Caesar” passage, in which Jesus has the Herodians and Pharisees produce coins from their pockets with the likeness of the Roman Emperor Tiberius stamped on them. 

Denarius The coin in question, a silver denarius, was worth about a day’s wage, so it was no small change. Imperial coinage was circulated throughout the empire both to standardize trade between Rome and its various conquered territories and to promote the current emperor’s reputation and divinity. Around the likeness of Tiberius on the coin was the inscription “Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus,” while the flip side displayed the likeness of a female figure representing “peace” (but often associated with Tiberius’ mother, Livia). To righteous Jews, such inscriptions were idolatrous, which makes it interesting (and religiously scandalous) that one of the Jewish leaders confronting Jesus had one in the first place.

Mite To avoid those idolatrous images, most first-century Jews continued to use the local Jewish currency, some of which had been in circulation since the Hasmonean dynasty 100 years earlier. The most basic coin of this period was the bronze or copper lepton (plural lepta), which avoided violating the second commandment by inscribing natural or man-made symbols instead of human or animal likenesses. At the time of Jesus, a very common lepton in circulation was the one minted by Alexander Jannaeus (who ruled from about 103 to 76 B.C.). It often featured an eight-rayed star or sunburst on one side and an anchor on the other. It was likely this coin that the money changers exchanged for Roman currency in the temple (Mark 11:15).

The lepton’s monetary value was pretty small at the time — so small, in fact, that it may be one of the least-valued coins ever struck. Take a look at one and you notice right away that it looks like the image was just stamped haphazardly in a tiny dribble of molten copper or bronze — kind of like what happens when a kid stamps something in a piece of Play-Doh and leaves the edges untrimmed. The coins aren’t rounded or finished and weigh next to nothing, making a U.S. penny feel like a British pound coin by comparison. Truth be told, a lepton looks like the kind of currency anyone could make. 

It was very likely two of these tiny lepta, or “mites,” that the widow dropped into the temple treasury in this week’s text. Compared to the wealth of Roman coins that the religious leaders and other rich people seemed to be carrying around the temple, those two rough-stamped coins were about as valuable as Monopoly money. And yet, this isn’t a story about the value of coins but rather about the value of loyalty, commitment and sacrifice.

BerkShares are about a community taking care of its own, keeping the wealth within the community for the benefit of the whole. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus condemns the community leaders of first-century Israel for doing exactly the opposite. The “long robes” of the scribes and their VIP seating arrangements at local parties are indications that they’re more concerned with themselves than their community. 

Moreover, they “devour widows’ houses,” which was a way of saying they preyed on perhaps the weakest and most vulnerable segment of society. Widows who lacked male relatives had no status and no prospects for income, except for, as was often the case, prostitution. Some commentators have suggested that the scribes may have acted as guardians for some of these widows, but they did so by exploiting for themselves the property that the women’s husbands may have left them. So much for following the Torah law against abusing widows (Exodus 22:22-24). 

So when Jesus makes his remark about this poor widow dropping her two tiny coins in the temple treasury, “all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44), the context suggests he’s continuing his condemnation of the religious leaders and the system of economic exploitation that would cause her to donate her last two pennies. While we’ve often preached this text as a stewardship sermon, imagining Jesus smiling at the woman’s generous sacrifice, it seems more likely that he was probably shaking his head sadly as he said it. 

At the same time, though, the text gives no indication that the widow is being forced to give up those lepta. In fact, we don’t know anything about her motivation other than she just dropped them in. Jesus recognized that her offering, even though it was less than a pittance monetarily, was far more valuable than the sum total of all the other coins offered up that day. The text forces us to ask: What would cause a person to voluntarily give away her last two pennies, especially to a community and a political-economic system that continues to exploit her?

Perhaps it’s because the widow still believed. Maybe she still believed that regardless of all that had happened to her, everything she was and everything she had still belonged to God. Despite the corruption and exploitation going on in God’s name there in the temple, somehow God was still going to set things right. So the widow continued to invest in her community, a community of faith, by giving her last two coins for the good of the whole. 

Call them her MiteShares. 

The widow’s might is demonstrated in the strength of her faith. She isn’t just dabbling in spare change. She is, to borrow a poker term, “all in” with God, unlike the scribes and others. For example, the rich young man whom Jesus encountered earlier couldn’t give up the belief that his possessions were his to keep (Mark 10:17-31). 

 The widow teaches us that generosity isn’t conditional. As God shares with us, we share with God and for God. God commanded the Israelites to tithe 10% of the produce of the harvest back to God, but that was to be a starting point, not the ultimate goal. The whole point of this story is that this poor widow is more generous than all the other self-righteous religious people because she didn’t place limits on her gift. She was giving sacrificially, out of her poverty, rather than what was left over. She was fully invested in God’ work, and fully invested in her community of faith.

 Can we be so invested? Are we willing to give sacrificially to God’s work? Are we all in?

That’s the question that we live with every Sunday at church. When the offering plate comes by, we can think about scarcity, or we can think about our abundance. Do we give God our leftovers, or do we organize our financial and spiritual lives around his abundance?

 John Wesley had some rules for the Methodists about money (he had rules for a lot of things), but if you look at his summary you begin to realize that these rules reflect the same kind of attitude that gets this poor widow mentioned in the Gospels. Here’s what he says:

“These, then, are the simple rules for the Christian use of money. Gain all you can, without bringing harm to yourself or neighbour. Save all you can by avoiding waste and unnecessary luxuries. Finally, give all you can. Do not limit yourself to a proportion. Do not give God a tenth or even half what he already owns, but give all that is his by using your wealth to preserve yourself and family, the Church of God and the rest of humanity. In this way you will be able to give a good account of your stewardship when the Lord comes with all his saints.”

 The widow’s accounting got noticed by Jesus. How about ours?

This week you received a letter from us with an estimate of giving card inside. That card should not represent to you an obligation to give to the church, but an opportunity. I’ve been here for just a few months and I can tell you that I see God doing great things here every day. We all have an opportunity to invest, sacrificially and joyfully, in what God is up to. Here’s a chance for us to drop in our best and not just spare change. We have a chance to pool resources as a community of faith to make a difference in the lives of people.

Think about what it says on our own currency: E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one.” And “In God We Trust.” The Roman emperors minted their money to make sure that everyone worshipped their divinity. Our money tells us that God is the one in whom we should put our trust.

 Our money believes it. Do we?

 

Cultivating Contentment – Philippians 4:8-13

Farmer A long time ago there was a farmer who woke up one morning to find that his one and only horse had run away. His neighbors heard about it and came to console him. “How are you going to plow your fields with no horse? How terrible that your horse ran away!” The farmer only replied, “Well, it could be bad, or it could be good.”

 A couple of days later, the farmer woke to see that his horse had returned and had brought three other wild horses with him. The neighbors saw the new horses in the pasture and ran next door. “Wow! It’s a miracle! You now have enough horses to expand your fields!” The farmer only replied, “It could be good, it could be bad.”

 The farmer was able to plow even more fields and they yielded a bumper crop. Then just at harvest time, the farmer’s only son went out to hitch up one of the wild horses. The horse kicked him and broke the young man’s leg in two places. The neighbors heard about it (these are nosy neighbors, by the way) and they came running over. “How tragic! Your son’s leg is broken. Now you have no one to help you bring in the harvest. It’s all going to rot in the fields.” The farmer only replied, “Well, it could be bad, it could be good.”

 A week later, that country became embroiled in a civil war and every young man in the area was drafted into the service. Everyone except the farmer’s son, who was laid up with his broken leg. Many of the neighbors lost their sons in battle, while his son was saved.” The farmer could only say, “It could be good, it could be bad.”

 When I read Paul’s letters, sometimes I get the sense that he’s a lot like that farmer. He is never too high or too low. He sees both prosperity and poverty, safety and danger, even life and death as being both good and bad. In today’s passage he tells the Philippians, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” It’s that secret that we want to address today.

 There are a lot of people out there claiming to have the secret to prosperity.  A couple of years back, Oprah got a lot people excited about a book called “The Secret,” which proposed a way for everyone to get what they want out of life. It became a runaway best seller as people were snatching it up in order to learn how to get rich and get happy.

 What was the secret? Here it is (and I’m paraphrasing): You can have anything you want if you just want it bad enough. You put your positive energy out there into the Universe (no God in The Secret, just the Universe) and everything you want will be attracted to you.

 That was 2007. A year or so later, the stock market crashed—largely because people wanted things they couldn’t afford. So much for The Secret.

Paul understood the secret a whole lot differently. It was not about wanting things, it was about wanting to know Christ.

 He writes this letter to the Philippians from jail, which puts his words into perspective. In fact, up to this point, Paul had already spent time in places and circumstances that were anything but happy. In 2 Cor. 11, for example, Paul lays out his travel itinerary:

 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 

 And yet, to the Philippians, Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”

 The Greek word here that’s translated as “content” refers to self-sufficiency—the idea that one doesn’t need any assistance and isn’t dependent upon outside circumstances. The context of this passage is Paul thanking the Philippians for a monetary gift (which is interesting, because they are very poor for the most part). In this thank you letter, Paul is basically saying, “Thanks for the gift, but know that I’m really good with whatever I have. I’m not going to be dependent upon you, I’m really dependent upon God. I’ve learned that things have a tendency to work out for me one way or the other. Plenty or want—could be good, could be bad.

 Now, it’s important to say here that Paul does not see contentment as being a kind of resignation to one’s circumstances. It’s not, “Oh, well, this bad stuff is happening to me. It guess it’s my lot in life.” Quite the contrary. Instead of a mere acceptance of one’s circumstances, it’s an active choice. He chooses this attitude because, as he says back in chapter 2, this was the same attitude of Jesus, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” and “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (2:7-8). When he was down, in prison, in pain, Paul knew that Jesus had been there before him.

 Go over to chapter 3. Here we see Paul talking about the supposedly “good” things that had characterized his life before his encounter with Jesus. Look at v. 4 – “If anyone has confidence in the flesh, I have more.” He was circumcised as a Jew, an Israelite, a member of a tribe, a Pharisee, a man who was “blameless.”

 But, Paul says, when he met Christ, he saw all of that impressive stuff as “loss” and “rubbish” in comparison to knowing Christ and being like him. Verse 10–“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” wrote Paul—everything else paled in comparison. As to circumstances, it could be good, it could be bad—it didn’t matter because Christ was all that mattered and Paul believed that, in Christ, everything he needed would be supplied. It was this kind of contentment that enabled him to be content. It enabled him to say (4:13) “I can do all things through [Christ] who gives me strength.” Paul wasn’t content with who he was at the moment—he was always striving for the prize of knowing Christ—but because of Christ, he could be content in any circumstance.

 And that’s the secret to contentment—it’s is all about knowing Christ. We push aside our anxiety about things and are content with Christ. It’s that kind of contentment that brings peace. In 1 Timothy 6:6, for example, Paul writes to his young apprentice: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. Paul cuts everything down to the basics: Godliness + contentment = peace.

 Circumstances and things will come and go—some will be good, some will be bad—but in the midst of it all, we recognize that our lives are defined by God and cared for by God—the one who gave us the ultimate gift of Christ Jesus. It is this God who holds everything in his hand. Notice how Paul closes the letter (v. 19) – “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

 True contentment means that we put our trust in God for our daily bread. When we are content, we can live gratefully, generously, because we know that God is the one who supplies us. And God is sufficient for all.

 We’ve been talking in this series about how we can change our attitudes about our finances. I would argue that that change begins when we choose contentment and trust over anxiety and discontent. We learn to be content when we pay more attention to our needs than our wants. We learn that managing money is a spiritual discipline. We learn that we are stewards of God’s riches. We learn that when we are faithful, God is faithful.

 This morning we have a little gift for you. It’s one of those little key tags (I have a bunch of these and they’re really helpful). This one says, “Contentment” on one side, and on the other a prayer: “Lord, help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity.”

 I want to encourage you to put that on your key ring and pray that prayer when you’re out shopping or wherever you find yourself. It’s a good reminder that true contentment isn’t found in things—it’s only found when we see our lives as being bound up and sold out to Christ—the one who really supplies all that we need.

 Things could be good, or could be bad. God is always good!

 

Wisdom and Finance – Luke 16:1-13

The-parable-of-the-shrewd-manager We’re continuing our series “Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity” today by examining another parable of Jesus about the use of money and possessions. Last week we dug into the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. This week, we’re looking at one of the most difficult parables of Jesus- the parable of the Dishonest Manager.

 This is one of those parables of Jesus that’s a real head-scratcher—so much so that most preachers and interpreters avoid it. It’s that ambiguous quality, however, that makes parables so effective as a teaching tool. Jesus uses these stories to surprise the listeners and invite them into new ways of thinking. Instead of offering a series of bullet points, Jesus instead tells stories that somehow pull people into them. The point of the parable isn’t just one thing, but it’s multiple things often viewed from multiple perspectives. The black and white categories that we tend to think in are  suspended by Jesus in these parables, where the supposed villain often becomes the hero and the outcomes are unexpected. We’re simply invited to find ourselves within the parable.

 Jesus is talking to his disciples, turning to them right after he tells the more famous parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. That one was told in response to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, who saw Jesus’ eating with sinners as being scandalous. The point of that parable (well, one of the points of that parable) is that God welcomes the wayward prodigal home. Remember how that one starts—the younger son asks for his inheritance and then goes and squanders it on fast cars and fast women (or the first century equivalent). Today’s parable begins with some squandering as well, which ought to tip us off that Jesus isn’t big on squandering (the word in the Greek literally means to “scatter”). Both parables teach us, among other things, that scattering our money around like drunken sailors isn’t a good thing.

 Take a look with me at Luke 16. We’re going to go through this story a little at a time. The set-up: A “rich” property owner, probably an absentee landlord, has a manager, a steward, whose job it is to manage the owner’s estates and collect the rent from the tenants who worked the land. Somehow, the owner gets word that the manager has been playing fast and loose with his property (scattering it about in some way), and the manager gets summoned to a “come to Jesus” meeting. The owner calls for an audit of the books, an accounting of all that the manager has done, “because,” says the owner, “you cannot be my manager any longer.” He’s not fired yet, but he’s going to be, especially when the cooked books are served up.

 The manager then has this internal dialogue (a lot like the rich fool did in last week’s parable). “What will I do? I’m not strong enough to dig as a laborer, and I’m too proud to beg.” And then, like the rich fool, he comes to a decision that seems self-serving. “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people (meaning the renters) may welcome me into their homes.” This would be the first century equivalent of unemployment insurance—setting up a golden parachute, if you will.

 So he goes out to the unwitting tenants (they don’t know his head is on the chopping block) and he cuts their rent, which was paid in produce. The tenant who runs the olive press gets a fifty percent cut in his rent,  while the wheat farmer gets a twenty percent reduction. This is a brilliant, if a little shady, plan. Think about it—the manager, acting for the owner, cuts the rent of the tenants, which almost never happens, even today. As he does so, I imagine he says to the tenants, “I talked to the owner and he agreed that it would be a great idea to reduce the rent for you.” The tenants praise the owner for his generosity, and praise the manager for it being his idea. When the manager gets fired, he’ll then be able to go back the tenants and say, “Remember what I did for you?” and, according to the laws of patronage in the first century, they would have to take him in. That is, if the owner fires him in the first place. Doing so would make him look bad in the eyes of the tenants. It’s a clever, foolproof plan.

 The owner even sees it that way. Look at verse 8: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” We don’t know if he still canned him, or if he got a promotion. The parable just kind of ends there, open-ended. A shady character wins. What are we supposed to do with that?

 What Jesus does it with it is to turn it into a teaching about managing our affairs, particularly in a time of crisis. The “crisis” in this case is caused by the manager’s squandering of property. His solution was to plan—to plan to manage the owner’s wealth in a way that would benefit others while benefitting himself. Jesus says that such shrewdness is often demonstrated more by the kinds of sinners he eats with, “the children of this age,” than by the “children of light” (which was a Jewish code word for the righteous, like the Pharisees and Scribes). Verse 14 tells us that the Pharisees were “lovers of money.” Rather than being “shrewd” like the shady servant and managing the master’s property in ways that bring honor to the master, they instead hoard it for themselves, more like the rich fool (Luke 12). They ridicule Jesus because, once again, he has proven that self-awareness is better than self-righteousness. Even a dishonest manager knows better than they do that life is all about pleasing the master!

 Jesus’ next line makes sense if it’s put in that context. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A little context here: for Luke, wealth is always a bad thing because it’s a hindrance to a full relationship with God. A better translation of “dishonest” wealth here is “unrighteous” wealth (or, even better, the NIV uses “worldly” wealth). Wealth itself is “unrighteous,” worldly—it only has the power to corrupt those who hold on to it– but wealth used for others has a redemptive quality. Here Jesus is saying, essentially, “don’t make friends with wealth itself, but rather use wealth generously to gain friends who will be eternally thankful for your generosity.” The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which frames the end of this chapter, demonstrates that principle clearly. It’s the rich man that refused to share his wealth that winds up in eternal torment, while the poor Lazarus who sat begging at the rich man’s gate who enjoys eternity with God. Had the rich man befriended Lazarus, things would have been different!

 The “crisis,” for Jesus, is the coming of God’s Kingdom, which will reverse all the categories of success as defined by the world. In that kingdom, the last will be first and the first last. The poor will be comforted and the rich sent “empty away” (Luke 1). The parable is a way for Jesus to teach about how wealth should be managed in light of that coming kingdom.

 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” Jesus goes on to say, “and whoever is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If, then, you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth (wealth itself), who will entrust you with true riches (the kingdom of God)? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

 Jesus reveals what this parable has been about all along—it’s about management, about stewardship, of property that belongs to the master, and this isn’t the only parable where Jesus talks about this. The squandering manager has to give an account of his mismanagement and, in response, he comes up with a plan that, somehow, pleases the master. The real question that Jesus seems to be driving at here is this: How are you managing the resources that God has put in your care? Are you squandering it still, or do you have a plan that will benefit the master and others, while securing a future for yourself?

 We’re talking about stewardship here in the best sense of the word. A lot of times when we bring up stewardship in church it’s a code word for fundraising—stewardship means you ought to give the church more money. That’s why some people get really nervous around the time of a stewardship campaign. I sometimes encounter people who will say that they don’t go to church because the church is “always asking for money.” Stewardship thus gets cast in a negative light—something we have to grit our teeth and do every year.

 But I want to suggest this morning that stewardship is something that we engage in not just for the benefit of the church. It benefits us as well. When we learn to stop squandering wealth, when we learn how to financially plan for the future, when we are generous with our neighbors, it is then that we begin to learn how our financial management is a spiritual discipline. It is then that we learn that our giving to the church isn’t just a “donation,” but rather an expression of gratitude to God and one way that we  intentionally manage God’s wealth for God’s kingdom.

 Remember last week we said that wealth really isn’t ours to keep? That we can’t take it with us when we die? It’s true. There is no luggage rack on a hearse! We are not the owners of wealth, we are only manager’s of the real owner’s wealth. What will we do with it? How will we manage it?

 Take out your wallet for a minute and look inside. You’ve probably got some cash and credit cards in there, right? Our wallets really define us, don’t they? They contain our identity, our means of paying our way through the world.

 OK, now do this—pass it to the person sitting in front of you (note: blog readers, try and envision this happening in your church on Sunday morning!). Go ahead. How does it feel to hand over your wallet to a perfect stranger, or even a friend? Now you’re holding on to someone else’s wallet. How does that feel? Do you feel responsible? Do you want to make sure you please that person who gave it to you, that you manage their resources wisely, that you’ll give it back to them safe and sound?

 Feeling nervous? Well, how about this. I’m going to ask the ushers to come forward right now to receive our morning offering. Let’s see how generous we will be with someone else’s money.

 OK, just kidding. But you were wigging out there for a second, weren’t you? I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but my guess is that we’re much more likely to be generous with someone else’s money than we would be with our own. After all, we think, this person would “want it that way,” right? Like the manager in the parable, we know that being generous would put the owner in a good light, and us, too, by extension.

 Friends, this is what God essentially does with us. He hands us his resources, all that he owns. We are to manage it. When we manage it well, when we use his resources wisely and generously, we are commended. When we squander them and scatter them about haphazardly, well, someday we’ll be called to account for that, too. One of the catchphrases of our culture: What’s in your wallet? The question, really, is what’s in his wallet and how do I manage it?

 You can give back those wallets now, even if their not really yours!

 Being a good steward means having a good plan to manage the master’s resources. That takes wisdom, patience, creativity, and, above all, discipline.

 Here is a sample plan—six key financial principles that, when followed, can help us better manage the resources with which God has entrusted us. Let’s take a look at those briefly:

 SIX KEY FINANCIAL PRINCIPLES

Put God first in your living and giving.  (2 Corinthians 9:6-7) – It’s his in the first place. We don’t give God the leftovers but, the “first fruits,” the best part of our selves. When we order our lives around God as our first priority, everything else falls into place. The Israelites were to give God the first 10% of the harvest as a spiritual discipline. When we work toward giving a greater percentage of our income to God, it is a spiritual discipline. We may not be there right now, but we can be working toward tithing as a goal. When we give to God first, we’re honoring him and putting things in their proper perspective.

 Prepare a spending plan and track all expenses monthly. (Proverbs 27:23-24). This keeps you from squandering and scattering around money and resources. A monthly budget is a way of accounting for the master’s property. It keeps us from impulse buying and being dazzled by things we can’t afford.

 Simplify your lifestyle, live below your means. (Matthew 6:19-33) We live in a culture where people use credit to live above their means. When we downsize our lives and cut out the clutter, we are free from debt and have an opportunity to share more with others. Wear things out before you replace them. Sell or give away stuff you don’t need and use them to benefit the poor. As Ghandi once said, we should “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

 Provide immediately for an emergency fund.  (1 Timothy 6:9-12) An emergency fund keeps us from using credit in times of crisis. It’s a backup plan, a hedge against disaster. If you don’t have an emergency fund, plan to start one, even if it’s small, and build it until it has three months worth of income or so.

 Pay off all credit card debt and use cash, not credit cards.  (Proverbs 22:7) This one’s really important. I once heard it said that carrying a balance on your credit cards is a form of indentured servitude. I saw a video awhile back where a couple was talking about their credit card debt and they realized that they were still paying off the cost of movies they went to in college ten years before, only now those movies were costing them hundreds of dollars in interest! If you can’t pay you credit card bill in full each month, consider cutting up your cards and using cash only. Let God have claim over your finances and not a credit card company!

 Practice long-range saving and investing habits. (Luke 14:28) The idea here is not to hoard resources, but to have goals that reflect care for others and for ourselves. Education for children is a goal that will pay dividends not only for them but for all the people they will help in a lifetime. A retirement fund isn’t there just so that we can move to Tahiti and sip drinks with little umbrellas in them—it’s there so that we can provide for ourselves in later years and provide for those left behind when we go. Estate planning makes sure that the money we can’t take with us in used in godly ways.

 The bottom line of all of this is summed up by Jesus: “No servant (no steward) can serve two masters; for a steward will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

 The way we use money reveals whom we are serving. When we plan its use as stewards managing the master’s resources, we are shrewd and wise. When we fail to plan and scatter it about on things that don’t matter, then money becomes our master.

 Whom do you serve? 

 

When Dreams Become Nightmares – Luke 12:13-34

End-Of-The-American-Dream What is the American Dream?

 In 1931, the phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams in his book, The Epic of America. Here’s how Adams describes it: "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement..It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

 That sounds right. If you were to ask the Founding Fathers what it meant, they would likely have given you a definition similar—a dream where are men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

 Problem is that somewhere along the line, the dream became less about opportunity and more about acquisition. Instead of a dream of achievement, it became a dream of a large home. Instead of a dream of recognition of who we are, it became a dream of being recognized by what kind of car we drive or the things we own. It’s a dream that has driven many people into a prison of debt, contributed to lost jobs, gotten people evicted from their homes. It’s a dream that, to borrow George Carlin’s line, you have to asleep to still believe.

 We’ve seen in recent years how that distorted dream has become has led to a nightmare reality. The recent recession has been a wake-up call for many business and government leaders and a lot of regular people, too. We’re still reeling from it and probably will be for quite awhile.

 In times of crisis, however, there always seems to be an opportunity. The upside the recent crash of the distorted American dream is that it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with money and possessions and, perhaps, find a new way forward. That’s what this sermon series is about. Rather than continue the mantra of “more,” the title of this series is “Enough—discovering joy through simplicity and generosity.” We’re going to be looking at an alternative way of thinking about money and possessions and, in doing so, we’re going to be talking about a very different dream for our future—a future that God wants to lead us toward.

 How we deal with money and possessions is a big deal to God. In fact, the use of money and possessions is a topic that appears more than 2,000 times in Scripture – more than prayer and sex combined. It’s a big deal to God, so it should be an important topic for us.

 Today we begin by looking at one of Jesus’ parables about how dreams become nightmares when we don’t include God in them. The parable of the rich fool, as it has come to be known, is a cautionary tale and one that I think is a good one for us to start with because it diagnoses our current reality while showing us the way forward. I want to invite you to have your Bible open as we study this important parable and its context together.

 Jesus tells this parable in response to two brothers who are squabbling over an inheritance (an age old problem!). The one wants Jesus to act as a judge so that he can get what’s coming to him, but Jesus sees the motives behind the request. Whereas the Wall Street movie character Gordon Gecko once said, “Greed is good,” Jesus says that we should be on guard against greed for, unlike the American Dream has come to represent, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

 You heard the parable read. Let’s look at some of its implications for us.

 One of the things you might notice when you read this parable is that it’s centered on the man’s relationship with his stuff. Until God speaks to him at the end, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. He defines himself by his stuff, and more is better. His success is bound up in what he has accumulated. It seems to be all that he thinks about.

 Our culture is similarly preoccupied with stuff. We are bombarded with advertising that tells us that we don’t yet have everything we need. We need more, we need better, we need upgraded. And, of course, if we’re going to acquire more, we’re going to need bigger “barns” to store it in. Interestingly, between 1950 and 2000, the average home size doubled. In 1970, for example, the average home size was 1400 square feet, while in 2004 it was 2330 square feet according to the Home Builders Association. Even then, our homes don’t seem to be big enough. Americans now occupy 1.875 billion square feet of space outside the home in self-storage units, which is 75% increase in space since 1995.

 Meanwhile, while our homes have gotten larger, our families have gotten smaller. In 1950, the average number of people living in a household was 3.37. Today it’s 2.57.

 It’s this preoccupation with the bigger and better that contributed to the recent economic crisis. Banks lent money to people to buy the larger houses they couldn’t afford. Credit cards enable people to buy things they want but can’t afford, charging huge interest rates in the process. When people can’t pay back their loans, the banks crash, markets crash, businesses can’t sustain themselves, jobs are lost—you know how this works. When our only dream is about obtaining more at any cost, even a cost we can’t afford, we set ourselves up for a nightmare.

 Notice, also, that the man’s focus is on his own security through self-sufficiency. What should I do, I will do this, I will build bigger barns, I will store MY grain and MY goods, I will relax, eat, drink, and be merry. This is a man who really believes that he doesn’t need anyone else. He can provide for himself and he thinks his provisions will take care of him for many years. He doesn’t need family or friends, nor does he need a community of people around him.

 Greed does this to us—it narrows our focus inward.. Instead of thinking, “I have a lot of extra, I wonder who I could help?”, the man is only concerned about his own leisure, pleasure, and security. Greed trumps generosity. The greatest good the man can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure. He believes his future to be secure, and too bad for others who didn’t get theirs. He’s rich…that’s all that matters.

 What the man fails to realize is that the “harvest” he enjoys doesn’t come from his own efforts. Only God makes the crops grow! The man is so focused on his own greed that he can’t see that God is the one who blessed him in the first place.

 We might call this a “practical atheism.” The rich fool might protest that he believes in God, but he acts like there is no God, no recognition that God might have some claim on his life and that God is the one who provided the abundance to him for God’s own purposes. God calls him a fool, echoing Psalm 14:1 – “A fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When we believe in our deepest hearts that there really is no God—or at least no God that has claim on all the aspects of our lives, including our wallets—we’re prone to living only for ourselves.

 Jesus’ point here is that it is God who brings the harvest and that this fool has completely ignored that fact. The “harvest” is always a symbol of God’s kingdom, God’s reign and rule, God’s abundant grace given for all of God’s people. Notice back in chapter ten of Luke that when Jesus sends out the seventy he tells them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.” Harvest meant that God was doing something great for and through God’s people.

 The image of harvest as God’s provision and promise is based in the Old Testament. There, the harvest is always God’s provision at God’s initiative, thus God commanded the Israelites to give a tenth of it back as a tithe. God’s people were to manage the harvest thankfully and humbly, sharing it with those who were in need. A bumper crop was good news for everyone, not just the farmer whose fields were ripe.

 It’s interesting that the recent financial crisis happened in a country where, according to a poll by the Pew Forum, 92% of Americans believe in God or a higher power. And yet, it was in this country of supposed God-fearers that self-focused greed got the ball rolling on a worldwide economic meltdown. People love to claim that we are a “Christian nation,” but the reality is that while we might cognitively believe in God, our financial practices don’t reflect that belief. We consume more and more of the world’s resources and give less and less of our abundance to people and issues that matter to God. Instead of the biblical standard of tithing, 10% of income, the percentage of income that people in US churches give is 2.56% on average.

 We’re striving to become richer, but do we believe first that we should be rich toward God? Do we believe that God has claim over all of money and our possessions?  Do we believe that they belong to him in the first place?

 The parable ends with a powerful reality check. The man who had it all was about to find out that “He who dies with the most toys, wins” is a great lie. “This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says God to the fat, dumb, and happy fool. “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

 When I was a kid, I used to play Monopoly with my cousins on rainy days. My cousins were all bigger than me, and it was there at my grandma’s house that I learned about capitalism, extortion, bank robberies, bribes, etc. But I also learned this—no matter who wins, no matter who controls the board, no matter who has all the money and hotels and properties, when the game is over, everything goes back in the box. Everything gets put away, slid under the bed until, sometime later, someone else will pull out that box and play with everything that was once your stuff. The point of the parable? When we go in the box, we can’t take it with us, though some will try.

 It’s like the rich lawyer who was going to prove that he could take it with him, so he told his wife to fill two pillow cases with cash and put them in the attic just above the ceiling of their bedroom.He figured that when his soul was on the way to heaven, he could grab the bags on his way up. After he died, his wife was clearing out some of his things when she came upon the bags there in the attic. “Dang that old fool”, she said, “I knew he should have me put those bags down in the basement.”

 We’re dreaming if we think we can take it with us!

 Tom Sine, Christian writer and futurist, once said that what most American Christians seem to want is “the American Dream with a little Jesus overlay.” If the recent crisis has taught us anything, it’s that we need a different dream of who we are and who we are becoming. We need a dream that goes farther than even the best expression of the American Dream. We need to dream God’s dream—a dream called the Kingdom of God.

 Notice how Jesus follows up this parable by talking about anxiety. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear.” Anxiety about the future causes us to be like the rich fool and hoard things for ourselves. It causes people to hunker down in large houses and gated communities like fortresses. Anxiety gets medicated in a lot of ways, not the least of which is more consumption—be it food, or alcohol, or shopping for more stuff. Anxiety causes us to live a life filled with “if onlys”—if only I had that thing, if only I had that job, if only I could afford that, if only I could have what my neighbor has. It’s that “if only” thinking that drives people to the point of despair because there’s never enough for them. I’ve done funerals for people who have committed suicide because of depression heightened by the fact that they had it all and found that it still wasn’t enough. Anxiety leads to nightmares of worry, uncertainty, and fear. Anxiety is what makes people nervous when we talk about money in church!

 Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink…it’s the nations of the world that strive for these things. God already knows what you need. It’s God who makes the lilies beautiful even if they’re temporary, it’s God who keeps the life of every sparrow, it’s God who knows you so well that even the hairs on your head are numbered. It’s God who provides the harvest. It’s God who provides you with everything. So quit dreaming about stuff and instead get a new dream.

 “Strive for God’s Kingdom,” says Jesus, “and these things will be given to you as well.”

 While our present lives are temporary, God’s Kingdom is eternal. We trust in the hope of resurrection, that we will live with God in his Kingdom forever. The things, the possessions that seem to matter so much now will not matter then, therefore, we are to be living in the present with that future in mind. We are to invest our treasure, God’s treasure in that dream of a future. Look at verse 32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (So) sell your possessions, hold them loosely, and be generous. Make purses that don’t wear out—invest your life in this kingdom, invest in the things and the people that matter to God. No one can take that away from you. For where you put your treasure, your heart will follow.”

 Jesus doesn’t give us a dream of more, but a dream of enough. God is the one who has more, and when we trust God for our welfare and identity more than a pile of stuff we’ll begin to see the kingdom at work.

 If we dream God’s Kingdom dream—a dream of justice and peace, a dream of freedom from anxiety, a dream of God’s reign and rule on the earth and in our lives—it will radically alter our priorities. We’ll know longer see our money and possessions as ours, but as belonging to God. We will recognize that we are not really owners but stewards, caretakers of what God has entrusted us with. If we dream that dream we’ll not be thinking so much about what we acquire as we will about what we can give away. If we dream that dream, we’ll begin to see that we are not alone but part of a community. We’ll begin dreaming about how God will use our lives for eternal purposes. It’s a dream of freedom!

 How do we adopt that dream for our lives? We’ll be talking about that over the next several weeks, and we’ll talk about some ways you can participate in God’s dream for our church as we strive to be people of the Kingdom in this community.