Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Money: Grant This One Thing

This is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Mark 10:32-45:

Franklin Roosevelt once famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  He said that because he understood that we are driven by fear especially in times of crisis.  For the past few weeks we have been looking at how our money and our possessions can be a stumbling block to our relationship with God, but what we have kept coming back to again and again is fear.  When we are fearful, we seek secutiry, we seek assurances in order to try and combat or overcome that fear, and rarely does that security or assurance come to us from God.  Instead we try and seek it out through other means, through the things of the world, through the attainment of power, money or possessions.

Fear is natural and easy, because fear comes from the most basic, animal part of the brain.  The amygdala, which is at the base of the brain, controls our flight or fight response, it is the place that is triggered when we are fearful, and it is much easier to trigger than is our frontal cortext, which was one of the last areas of the brain to develop, but is also the most advanced, and it is where feelings of love, as well as rational thought comes from.  But that is harder to trigger and the amygdala wants to play a primary role.  We need look no further to see this in play than in the election.  Politicians play to our fear centers much more than they do to the frontal cortext, as does the media.  It surrounds us, and so we do things, and call for things, and say things, and act in ways because of this fear that we might not otherwise if we moved away from fear and instead were using our more advanced and developed parts of the brain.

We are told in the run-up to this rather strange story of James and John that Jesus has just told the disciples his passion prediction for the third time, and they are following him to Jerusalem, but Jesus is out ahead of them and we are told that “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”  They were afraid.  They aren’t really sure what to expect, and so they are afraid.  On the night that Jesus is arrested they will all flee in fear, and Peter will even deny knowing Jesus because he is afraid and fears for his own life.  and so with the future unknown, faced with fear, James and John seek to have some sense of assurance for the future, they seek to have security about what the future will hold, knowing that regardless of what will happen to Jesus, or more importantly happen to them, they will have these positions of power and authority to hold on to, or to rely upon in the face of the unkown.  It’s sorting of like creating their own safety net.  When we are fearful, we seek assurance, protection and security.  There is a direct connection between fear and the need for security.

Now James and John certainly take a risk in asking Jesus to sit at his right and left hand, and it is such an unusual request, that future gospel writers aren’t sure what to do with it.  matthew changes the story so that it is their mother who makes the request, something we might believe as the stereotypical jewish mother, and Luke simply says that “a dispute” took place about which disciple was the greatest.  But what Jesus is telling them is to move away from their fear, to move into trusting God, to move into a new way of being and understanding.  Really, what Jesus is saying is something like, “You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security.  Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me.  Your will be faithful disciples even to the end.” (feasting. P 193).

Can you be baptized with the same baptism as me Jesus asks?  In order to be baptized we must be willing to die to our old selves, be willing to take on a new way of living, willing to take up our crosses daily and to follow Christ where ever he will lead us.  That is not a position we can undertake with fear.  And then Jesus asks, can you drink from the cup that I drink?  Sharing the cup invites us not only into the community of faith, but it also invites us to participate in the economy of God, and that is an economy not based on fear, not based on scarcity, but instead based in generosity, based in abundance, based in love, based in forgiveness, based in JOY, where as we remember back to last week, when JOY stands for Jesus first, others second, and yourself last.  The table is God’s sense of economy and it is one where fear is left behind and we enter into a new way of being and living with God as host and provider.  (5000 with five loaves and two fish, 4000 with seven loaves and fishes)

Are we driven by fear or by joy? By scarcity or by abundance?  Do we trust in the things in our lives, or do we trust in God?  Paul tells us that God loves a cheerful giver, although the Greek word translated as cheerful is helio, from which we get the word hilarious, probably not the connotation we had imagined.  Jesus says when you give do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Both of those tell us the ways in which we are to give, which is not to gain anything, not to earn anything, not for fame or to be known, not in order to get our way, not for our own benefit or glory.  When we give for any of those reasons then our gifts have really been in vain because it has not tapped into the reality of why we need to give.  We give because we are made in the image of God and God is a giver, “for God so loved the world,” the gospel of john says that he did what?  He gave the world his only son.  We give because when we give we are changed, because it can place us in proper alignment not only with our things, but also with God, and it can indicate whether we are joyful or fearful, whether we give from abundance or if we give from scarcity.

So going back to our agricultural metaphors, here’s a little illustration about giving.  The tree of life is a common metaphor in scripture.  It is found in the garden of eden, and it continues as an image in Revelation, a topic which we will begin looking at next week.  We might look at our congregation as a tree of life, and in fact that is how jews view their synagogues.  They are often referred to as Etz Chaim, or tree of life, but in order to allow that tree to grow and to have it’s roots strengthened it needs to be cared for and given the proper things to allow them to grow.  They need light and carbondioxide, which means they need to be out in the world.  They cannot be boxed in or constrained.  They need food of some sort, which means they need to be exposed to things which feed them and renew them.  And they need water.  All of these things are important, and without one of them the tree will die, but water is one of the most important.

Now there are several things we can do with this tree.  The first thing we can do is to say “I’m not going to water it.  God will give it whatever it might need.”  But that only goes so far as we have seen this summer.  It also matches a famous statement about how things get done in the world.  It says, without God, we can’t, and without us God won’t.  If we refuse to water the tree then God won’t water it either.  Have you ever seen what a tree that is lacking water will do.  The first thing is to stop sending water out to the farthest branches and leaves.  It begins to turn inwards and reduce its size, it drops leaves and focuses only on these things that it thinks it absolutely needs to feed in order to survive.  I’m sure we’ve all seen or heard about churches like this.  But, here’s the problem, when churches go into survival mode they stop being a church because when a church is concerned only about its own survival it is no longer focused on making disciples of Christ, it is only focused on itself.

Now another thing we can do is to give it only the amount of water we are willing to give.  Now this glass represents the material blessings that have been bestowed on us.  To make this a little more colorful let’s make the water green.  Since we’re talking about money that works, but it also makes it a little easier to see.  Most of us work from a position of scarcity.  We say this is all I have and I need to be very careful with what I do with my money, while also still having some fun with it.  And so we start and we pay for housing, utilities and our food, then we pay for our car, and maybe we have to pay for school. And then there’s clothing, and our vacations, and retirement, and our credit cards, and hopefully we’re putting some away for retirement, and then we need a little spending money for movies, eating out and other forms of entertainment, and then at the end we say to God, “Thank you for all your blessings, this is what I’m going to present to you,” and so we put this in the plate, and say “ahh ahh” and we present it to God.

I recently received an email from Vanguard, who holds one of my retirement plans, and the headline said, “garden like you invest.”  And my thought was, if I truly invest like I garden, my investments are going to die.  We might also apply that to our tree of life, our community of faith here.  That’s not a lot to strengthen the roots of the tree, even with a lot of people doing the same thing, in some cases quantity does not make for quality.  I’m sure that we’ve all seen trees that are not getting as much water as they need.  When they are lacking their roots go out searching for more water and the root systems become very shallow.   Think of all the sidewalks you’ve seen broken up by roots that are too shallow.  By having shallow roots, trees can try and get more water.  We’ve all seen tree do this.  But this is only a short-term solution because what is the risk with a shallow root system?  In any strong wind, these are the trees that fall over because their roots are not strong enough to hold them in place.

A healthy tree, in comparison to one not getting enough water or other resources, have healthy root systems that are not only spread out but that also go deep in order to provide stability to the tree.

So let’s try that again.  This again is the same amount, but rather than giving to God from what remains we give from our first fruits, and look at how much still remains.  The scriptures tell us that we should be giving from our first fruits or from our treasures, and that is what this does.  It does not change the reality.  We still have the same amount of money but what has changed is how we perceive.  When we give from bounty we have changed our reality, because then rather than giving as a burden, or a yoke which we wear around our necks, we instead give freely and we give from abundance.  How much better will the tree do with this gift?

Now we know that there are some in this congregation who are still struggling financially, and we ask you to give what you can, and we ask that those who are doing better to help us all carry one another burdens because this is our tree and it lives and dies not with the work of just one of us but from the collective effort we put into strengthening our roots and spreading our branches.  To close I’d like to tell you a couple of stories.

In my last congregation, we had a family who were offered the opportunity to go and live and work in Shanghai, China for three years.  They really prayed about it for a long time and finally decided that it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.  As many of you know, being a Christian in china is not the easiest thing in the world, although it’s a lot easier for Americans and other foreigners than for native Chinese.  They kept looking around for a Christian community where they felt comfortable, where they felt like they were at home and surrounded by family, but it was not easy.  Then finally they found a couple of other families, on Christmas Eve three years ago they began worshipping together, and they again had that feeling that this was what church was supposed to be like.  They had continued sending in their offerings to our church, because they didn’t have another church to call home, until they found their new church, and then they changed their giving, because they had to give to their new home, to their new family, to their new congregation.  If you feel at home here, if you feel that this is your family, and you’ve ever been in a church where that was not the case, then you know what that’s like, and this church, this family, is dependent upon our gifts to survive.  All of us are necessary to help support, to feed and water this tree of life, the etz chaim, and I ask you to prayerfully consider what this congregation means to you and what you mean to it, and to make your gifts this year and in the coming year based on that prayerful consideration.  But let me close with this.

The Church of the Resurrection, which is located in Kansas City and is the largest United Methodist church in the country, holds a worship service once each month for Alzheimer’s patients from the area nursing homes.  Most of those who attend have advanced Alzheimer’s, and while they can’t remember their names they can still sing all of the songs.  After one of the services, one of the ladies in attendance walked up to one of the ushers and handed him an offering envelope before she was escorted back to their van.  The woman had tried to write her name on the outside of the envelope, but all she could do was just make some strait lines with a pencil, but it was what was inside that took everyone aback.  Inside was a packet of cookies that she had received at the nursing home.  They don’t take an offering at this service, but she knew that she was supposed to be giving to God from her treasure and so she gave probably the only thing she had to give, her packet of cookies.

Can we say that we match those stories?  Are we giving to God as a burden, or are we giving freely?  Are we giving because we have to, or are we giving because we are grateful for what God has given to us?  are we giving from a position of scarcity in which there will never be enough, in which we need to seek security and protection because we are afraid?  Or, do we give from a sense of abundance, do we give from our first fruits, do we give from a sense of JOY, in which we put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, do we give cheerfully, and do we give knowing that at God’s table all are served, all can eat, because there will always be enough and that God will provide because as disciples of Christ we are told to fear not, because Jesus has come to give us life, but not just any life, but life abundantly.  May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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