Monday, October 24, 2011

Non-Lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship

Sermon 10/16/11
Genesis 6-7, selected verses

Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship

            Today we switch gears from our focus on God-values, to focusing on stewardship, and how God calls us to car for all that we have been given. Or, I guess we could say, we begin to focus in depth on stewardship as one more God-values. This Sunday is Inspiration Sunday – next week is Gratitude Sunday, and finally, on the 30th, we will celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we offer our pledges to God for the year ahead. And this year our theme for our stewardship focus is The Steward and the Ship, (get it? Steward/Ship) which will focus on the story of Noah's ark. But we will come back to Noah in a few moments.
As I said, today is Inspiration Sunday. Do you know what inspiration means? If you break down the word, it literally means to breathe in. Of course that root, spir- - is what gives us the word Spirit. Inspiration, then, is what breathes life into us. And as people of faith, it is the Holy Spirit, literally God's Holy Breathe, that is meant to breathe life into us. But hopefully many things work together to inspire us. When I was in junior high, I used to keep a list, actually, of people I found particularly inspiring. I called it my hero list. It wasn’t very easy to get on – it was reserved for people who really touched my life – who did something in a way, lived life in a way that really made me want to emulate their good qualities. No celebrities – all people I had met personally. They included a student who was two years older who had a confident ʺI know just who I amʺ way about her, my 8th grade science teacher and my 9th grade English teacher, a speaker from one of those life-lesson school assemblies, and a couple others. Who inspires you? Who breathes life into you, makes you want to do or be something more?
            Sometimes I feel inspired by what I see unfolding here at First United. I feel particularly inspired when I see people taking initiative, or acting out of their comfort zones, or making a little go a long way, remembering our abundance instead of feeling limited. Let me give you a few examples. I won't name names, although I am sure you can figure out who I mean in some of these cases. This year, while planning our carnival, someone had the inspired idea to make a phone call that enabled us to have our carnival fliers go home with children in the ESM school district. The result was that we had a ton of children at our event. Another carnival inspiration: one of our young people, new to the church, asked if she could run a jewelry and craft table at the carnival. I will be honest – I wasn’t sure how popular it would be. But I am no fool – I don’t turn down people with ideas who want to do things. It was a huge hit – the table was frequently swarmed all through the day. Many of you visit our shut-in members, but I am particularly inspired when, for example, I hear that one person and her family have gone above and beyond to help out someone during a difficult health crisis. I was told, ʺshe and her family are angels, they are just angels.ʺ I am inspired when you go beyond in your care of one another. I've been inspired by someone who has a vision for our physical space, this beautiful building, and who keeps coming up with creative ideas to make it warmer and more welcoming, including a completely transformed nursery. I am inspired by a man who is not a big fan of public speaking but got up here to tell you about his personal Giving Beyond challenge and how he hoped to inspire you, in turn, to give. I am inspired by a young person who stayed home from his family's weekend away because he wanted to do some volunteer work at the Rescue Mission instead. I am inspired by one of you who invited speakers to come talk to us about Haiti, that led to a successful and rewarding Dress Our People ministry. I am inspired by the man who almost every visitor to our worship services names as the person who greeted and welcomed them when they stepped in the door. There are some people working hard, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to breathe life into us, into this place. Who inspires you? Who do you inspire?
             Inspiration, breathing in the Holy Spirit, having new life in us, and breathing new life into what is dear to us here – let me not give the impression that these are some magical, unrepeatable acts that we can’t all do. I believe we can all be inspirational. And we do it like this: we pray for help – that is what Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit being – our Advocate, our helper, who fills us up with God's Holy Breath. And then we act as good stewards of our resources. We take the tools God has given us, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and we act. And I firmly believe that when we do that – use the tools God gives us and rely on God's Spirit-directed guidance – we will be inspiring and inspired.
            So what are the tools we have? We could talk about it in any number of ways, but we are all stewards of at least these things: our time, our talents, and our treasure. Today we read about Noah and his ark. Noah might not be who pops to mind when you think about stewardship. But actually, Noah, for a tumultuous period, is made by God steward of everything! We have talked before about what stewards were in biblical times.  Stewards were managers of the property of wealthy men. The steward was usually a slave or a former slave, but they had a great deal of power, too. They were responsible for all the affairs of the master’s household. They oversaw all the finances, and had authority over all the other household slaves, and sometimes even over the children of the master. The Greek name for them is oikonomos, and that’s where we get our English word economy.
            Noah becomes the steward of all creation, and he uses his time, his talent, and his treasure to carry out what God calls him to do. Think about it. Imagine how long it would take to build an ark. Even today, with our technology and skilled workers, it takes a long time to build a large sea vessel. Noah must give an enormous amount of time to the task. And no doubt he is giving enormous financial resources to build the ship. Although we read about God describing just how the ark should be, we don’t read that God gifted Noah with any special fund to make it happen. And of course, Noah must have had the talent – the ability to construct an ark. Time, talent, treasure, as a steward of what is God's – namely, all creation.
            Noah's tools are our tools – time, talents, treasure. And maybe God isn’t calling us to build an ark. But we are called to be stewards of everything that God has put into our hands. If all that we have is from God, then we have to be stewards of all that we have, and take good care of what is God.
            So how do we do it? How are we stewards of time, talent, and treasure? I have more homework assignments for you. Three. But you can pick and choose – do one, two, or all three. But humor me, and try one this week, ok?
            You are a steward of your time. Time is such a precious commodity isn’t it? One of the biggest struggles churches face is helping people commit to the time that mission and ministry takes. We are so very busy, and we have so many demands on our time. What time do we give to God? How much of your day do you spend with God? How do you spend your time? Are you even aware of where your time is going? I think many of us would be surprised, if we mapped it all out. So that is your first assignment – I want you to keep a record this week of how you spend your time, in ½ hour or hour increments. You can make up your own chart, or you can use one I have for you. But I want you to write down everything you do this week. Don’t change your normal behavior. Do what you normally do. And then take a look – where is your time going? Are you spending it how you thought? Does it match up with your priorities?
            You are a steward of your talents. And yes, you have talents – gifts from God. Things that you can uniquely contribute. We talked about it a bit before summer and we will be coming back to all those little slips of paper I had you turn in with what you like and what you are good at. The apostle Paul talks a lot about spiritual gifts. If you read his words carefully, you will discover that Paul was most interested in gifts that could be used for building up the community of faith. What are your talents, and how can you use them to build up the Body of Christ? What Paul thinks is inspiring is when we use our gifts – whatever they are – and we find ways to serve others, serve God's kingdom with them. So assignment number too: I have here for you spiritual gift inventories. A way of figuring out how you are gifted, and how you can share those gifts. Take the inventory, and see what you find out about yourself. Are you using your gifts?
            You are a steward of your treasure. What do you spend? Why? On what? What do you save? What do you give? I want you to do the same thing for your treasure assignment as for your time assignment – keep track of every cent for one week. What did you make? What did you spend? What did you spend it on? Did you spend it how you intended? Does your spending match your priorities? I make myself a budget for every pay period. It is always filled with great intentions. But somehow, what I spend and what I meant to spend never quite match up by the end of two weeks. So I can tell you this is an assignment I will be doing. Start asking questions. Are you using your treasure how you want to be? In my own stewardship journey, I can tell you that I had a challenge giving what I meant to give to God – until I finally just had it directly withheld from my paycheck. When I left it up to me, somehow I never had enough. But when I put my tithe first, somehow I still managed to make ends meet. I just needed to give up a little bit of the control. Are you using your treasure how you want to be?
            Time, talent, treasure. These are tools. Tools that can help us inspire and be inspired. How are you using these tools? How will you inspire, be inspired?  In these coming weeks, I hope you will be spending some time in prayer, thinking hard, doing some homework, seeking inspiration – the Holy Spirit bringing us to life. We have everything we need. Noah built and ark. What we build together for God in this place? Amen.

Non-lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship

Sermon 10/23/11
Genesis 8:6-22

Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship

            This Sunday is Gratitude Sunday in our Stewardship focus. And we will continue with Noah and his story to look at exactly what gratitude means. So today we pick up with Noah where we left off last week. He and his family had built and boarded the ark and taken with them sets of seven of some animals, pairs of others. The floods came, and it rained for forty days and nights. Maybe that in itself doesn’t seem so bad until we realize from the passage that Jerry read today that they actually had to stay on the ark for ten month while the flood waters abated from the earth. Noah keeps sending out a dove to check for dry ground until it finally returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. And finally, he and his family and these animals can leave the ark.
            The first thing Noah does when he gets off the ark is build an altar and make sacrifices – gifts of animals – to God. Noah makes an offering. And the scent, we read, is pleasing to God, and God promises never to destroy creation again. I think this is a pretty profound action on Noah's part. Maybe we think nothing of it – Noah just survived with his family a natural disaster of epic proportions – of course he is thankful! But he also just lost everything he knew about his life and world. His home, his city, any family outside of those listed in the scripture – his immediate family. His neighbors. Whatever livelihood he had before ark-builder. A way of life that made sense to him. If you had lost all of that, could you still have gratitude be your first response, even if you walked away with the gift of life?
            Cultivating a life of gratitude is developing the practice of looking at what we have and seeing the abundance and giving thanks. It isn’t always easy, for sure. But what do we see when we look at what we have? Our situations? What we experience? A couple of weeks ago we talked about joy – deep joy – as being more than something that just made you happy or entertained – but that deep God-given contentment that rests in your soul – joy. I think gratitude is similar. I have a pet peeve that is a peeve against myself. I have picked up what I consider the annoying habit of responding Yup when someone says thank you. Thank you. Yup. It doesn’t quite work, does it? But I think it might reflect that culturally we don’t let our thankfulness go very deep. Is giving thanks just something that we go through the motions of? Is it too inconvenient to give thanks, and are we not really even thankful? I love the beauty of many languages, but I have to say English has it all over French or Spanish where the standard reply to Thank You is – It was nothing. In English, we are supposed to say You’re welcome. Short for you are well come here. In other words – it is a good thing, a pleasing thing, that you are here. Such a genuine response, isn’t it? Thank you. You are welcome. Gratitude – a thankful heart.
            Are you a grateful person? And again, like with joy, gratitude doesn’t mean closing your eyes to the serious and real painful situations you experience. But when you look at the whole of your life – are you thankful? Deeply? What do you see when you look at your life? Is the glass half full or half empty? Or can you see that God has filled it to overflowing? And how do you show your gratitude? 
            Here is what I think is the crux of it: We have gratitude only if we see what we have as a gift. If I go out and buy myself a pizza – I am not going to be grateful to you for it no matter how nice and thoughtful you are – because you didn’t get me the pizza – I did! But if you buy me a slice – not even a whole pie – just a slice – well, then I am grateful to you – because you gave me the gift. I am grateful for the gifts I receive. The question, when we come to faith and stewardship, then, is this: What do we see as a gift from God? Of course, we talk about everything being a gift from God. God gives us life, is our creator, sustainer, redeemer, giver of all good things. Everything is from God. But I wonder how much we really believe that? Or live into what we believe? 
            Everything is a gift. Last week, I gave you three homework assignments – a spiritual gifts survey, a time study, and study of how you spend your money. And I asked you not to change your habits to get the answers you wanted, but to honestly assess where you were. How did it go? Any surprises? Any eyes opened? Or just what you expected? Were you happy with what you saw? Talents, and time, and treasure.
            I think we are most easily grateful for the talents – the spiritual gifts – we've been given. But in this case, we have to be convinced that we have them. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. If you aren’t sure how to use them, we can talk. I am sure I can find some ways to put your gifts to use. But you are gifted.
            What about time? What did you learn about using your time this week? Are you thankful for your time? I suspect that a record of how we use our time would reflect that we aren’t always appreciative of it. We often say that we wish we had more of it. We don’t have enough of it. But sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t think our requests for more time are like asking for second helpings of food when we haven’t yet finished what is already on our plate. Are we asking for more time without even really using what we have? Oh, of course, it ticks by. It moves on with or without us. But what are we doing with it? Growing up, one of the worst things to say to my mom, but especially to my grandmother was: I'm bored. My grandmother was a depression-era baby and she just had no use for boredom. Saying you were bored was the ultimate form of ingratitude. And it would surely get you assigned a task or chore you would really rather not do. Rest is good – God rested, and asks us to rest, to have holy rest even! But wasting time is a whole different issue. We want more time? Are we really using what we have in a way that warrants such a bold request? Time is a gift. And unlike our talents, we always use it up completely. But how do we show we are grateful for it? Sometimes the way we use time is like taking our best linens and using them to wipe the floor. Using our best stationary as scrap paper. Wasting something precious. You have time. Show me time well spent, and you show gratitude for God's gift.
            Our money is a gift. Here I think we struggle a bit more to agree. Because we get a little confused. Didn’t we work hard for our money? Didn’t we earn it? And if we earned it, isn’t it ours to spend as we please? Isn't it our right to do so?  Sure, we put in work. We are laborers in God's vineyard. But friends, the vineyard always still belongs to God, and we may be the best stewards in the world, but we are always still stewards. If we earn money, I guarantee that we had to use several gifts from God in order to make what we have. If you find yourself thinking a bit too much about how hard you’ve worked, try to trace the source of what you have. For example: Did you get a good scholarship to college? How did that happen? Did you do well in school? You needed some intelligence for that. Where did that intelligence come from? Is it not from God? How do you earn your living? What gifts do you use that convince someone else to give you a paycheck? For example – I have learned to be extremely grateful for the gift of music I have. Carrying a tune, for the most part, isn’t something you can learn. Most people can either carry a tune, or they can’t. And while you can refine your voice with training, without something to refine to start out with, you can’t do much. Singing is a gift God gave me, and it has been more useful to me in my ministry than I ever anticipated. It helps me in my life work – and so what a build up to support myself from my ministry – it all belongs to God, and is shared by God with me. I try to use it well, but I know who it all belongs to.
            Are you grateful? We can only be grateful if we can look at all we see and see it all as gift. Our talents, our time, our treasure, our lives, our world, the love we share – all gift. And to show our thanks, we do what we are always trying to do – be more like Jesus. Follow his example. Do what God does. Give, give, give. To God. To your loved ones. To God's house. To strangers. To enemies and friends alike. Give, and give thanks. Thanks be to God for all our gifts. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - God Values: Joy

Sermon 10/9/11
Philippians 4:1-9

God Values: Joy

            This week we conclude our series on God Values – we took a pause last week for World Communion, so I hope you can remember what we talked about – forgiveness, fairness, or maybe unfairness, and authority. When I planned this series, I had a number of different ideas about today's theme. At one point, I planned to focus on the gospel lesson and the feast images in the scriptures. Then, I decided I wanted us to give some attention to Philippians – we have been hearing, but not focusing on these passages. This passage has been one of my favorites since childhood, especially this verse: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
            I guess, as a young person it caught my attention because of the word excellent. I grew up when the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was popular – and excellent was used frequently in a slang style to denote something pretty awesome. It isn’t a very common word in the Bible – sometimes a person is described as being excellent. When Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 13 about love, he calls it the more excellent way. And in this verse – well, Paul is telling us we are supposed to think about excellent things. That appealed greatly to my young mind. And today I meant to talk about the God-value of excellence. But all week, I kept coming back to a different verse in this passage:
            Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Such a simple verse. I knew it as camp song, a round we sang. But I never gave it much serious thought. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice. Excellent occurs a few times in the scripture – but joy and rejoice – these words occur several hundred times throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, think of some significant ways. When the angels announce Jesus' birth, Gabriel says, I bring you good news of great joy. Jesus says to the disciples after teaching them: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. His parables and teachings about the kingdom of God frequently mention joy. Certainly the resurrection story is marked with the word joy. Joy, joy, and more joy.
            Are you a joyful person? Is there joy in your life? Is there joy in the life of this church? Is it joy that marks your relationship with God? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! For my mom, deep joy comes when all her children are together. She loves it when all four of us are at home, especially, but mostly when we are together and enjoying each other's company. Sometimes we will all be at home together for some reason or another, and my mother may be falling asleep on the couch late at night. But she is unwilling to actually go to bed. She will be half asleep, but with a smile on her face – she just likes to be around us when we are together and happy. It brings her joy.
            Children are experts at joy, aren’t they? They don’t need much to be joyful, in that relaxed, worry-free way that only children seem capable of. Last night we took my nephew Sam to Cackleberry Castle in Camden, the pumpkin farm we always visited when I was little. These days it is a bit smaller than it was when I was little, but it didn’t matter to Sam. He ran around looking at the display of spooky decorations and beautiful pumpkins and was having the best time, with a sparkle in his eye, and that practically out-of-breath voice he uses when he just can’t tell you fast enough about the great time he is having. Joy.
Or maybe we need a more contemporary image than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: This week I just finished rereading the Harry Potter series, books I enjoy enough to turn back to when I am between other new reads. I've been think a lot about dementors and patronuses. In case you aren’t familiar, dementors are these dark, hooded creatures that suck souls out of people, a fate worse than death. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
To fight off a dementor, wizards have to produce a white, glowing figure called a patronus, which takes an animal form and chases away a dementor. Professor Lupin describes it like this: "A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up... lose yourself in it... then speak the incantation "Expecto Patronum." Harry himself says: "Make it a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember. Allow it to fill you up… Just remember, your Patronus can only protect you as long as you stay focused… Think of the happiest thing you can." At first, he tries thinking of winning a Quittich match – that a wizard sporting event. But that isn’t the deep joy that the spell requires. Our experiences that are so powerful that they can drive away the things that chip away at our very souls – that is joy.
            When I talk about joy, I don’t mean some sappy feeling that masks what we are really experiencing. Even this week, I know we have lost some of our own church family; we have some who have lost someone dear to them. We have some who are critically ill and struggling. But joy doesn’t mean plastering a smile on your face when your heart is full of grief. In fact, I would suggest that we are capable of grief because we are capable of the joy our relationships bring us. Are you joyful? What in your life brings you joy?
            You know that my sense of humor is pretty sarcastic. I love a good snappy retort. My whole family functions with this kind of humor. I ran into a bit of trouble my freshman year of college, because two of my suitemates were from China. Humor is very cultural and it doesn’t translate very well. Sarcasm, I found, especially doesn’t translate well, and my roommates often thought I was just being mean. We actually had to sit down and talk about where I was coming from and what they were hearing from me. I tried to curb my sarcasm with my roommates, and they also learned more about my sense of humor, and eventually, things worked out pretty well. But we were on some shaky ground for a while. Really though, I must confess I like my sarcastic sense of humor. And it seems to be my gut reaction, with my sarcastic response sometimes out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
The problem with my sarcastic outlook, though, is that sometimes it can serve as a wall between me and something I might more fully experience if I didn’t have my gut reaction of sarcasm. I’ve occasionally found myself unable to enjoy an experience that others might find moving, because I just can’t take it seriously – a performance, or a movie, or a story. Pastors sometimes have this trouble when we participate in worship instead of leading it. We spend so much time analyzing the worship services and how the pastor preached and what we would have done differently, that we kind of miss the worship itself, rejoicing in God, which is the whole point, isn’t it? I have a clergy colleague who, without fail, puts aside everything else and seems to be fully present whenever he is in worship – I admit I sometimes envy the joy and peace that seems to fill him when he opens his heart to God. What keeps you, prevents you, holds you back, lets you to hesitate from filling up with joy?
What brings you joy? How is it that you rejoice in God? What brings you joy in this place, this congregation, right now, today, in this moment, among these people? I think I know a lot about what our struggles are – what people want to change, what frustrates us, challenges us. But I am less sure what brings us joy, deep joy, the joy that Jesus seeks to bring us to make us whole, complete. Next week we shift gears and we begin to focus on stewardship and giving to God. I invite you to start as I invited the children to start. I want you to make a list – make it as long as you can. I want you to carry a slip of paper with you this week, or keep a note on your cell phone, or a document on your laptop. And I want you to list the moments that you find joy this week. What brings you joy? If you find this assignment to be a challenge, if you find it hard to create a list of joyful moments, maybe you will need to ask some tough questions – why does so much of what we do fail to bring us joy? What are we filling up our lives with? 
And then as we begin thinking about giving next week, I will ask you to first offer up your moments of joy to God, who is the source of all good gifts. You don’t want the children to show you up, do you? Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say rejoice. Amen.