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11.12.23 Sermon Transcript

The parable of the Mustard Seed. Among the smallest of seeds. Small, almost unnoticeable yet becomes a great shrub. God provides for the birds of the air, a place to rest, to renew. A small thing that can be transformative. A symbol of God's Kingdom.

I am a big fan of historical fiction and very often historical fiction or fantasy, sometimes science fiction will hinge on a moment of decision - and how it changes things. Especially if time travel becomes part of it, the characters are very, very careful… because we all know if you change one little bitty thing in the past it can unravel the whole timeline and completely change the future!

But we so very rarely think that making a small change today will amount to any anything… why is that?

Small changes lead to Great Outcomes! We celebrate Veterans Day we think about those who made sacrifices small and large. Those who made a commitment and followed through on it often at great personal cost, because they saw themselves as part of something larger than themselves. They were willing to risk themselves for justice and honor and loyalty and patriotism.

A few weeks ago we celebrated some folks raising their hands and saying I will be a member of this congregation. Most of us here today have done that at some point. I shared a little bit during our stewardship series about Robin and I's journey. About how when we met I was… not a pastor. I'll just leave it at that… but I was not a pastor. I didn't get into much trouble, but I certainly had motive and opportunity to do so…

But small decisions made major changes. Friends that invited us to church… especially once they noticed that we'd stopped going to the one we'd been attending. Robin had stopped dragging me to a church. I was watching football pregame… it was great. The friend kept inviting us and eventually we showed up an event it was not Sunday morning… but I discovered I was comfortable in this place… and then I was challenged in that place… and I started attending and I started volunteering. Small things. No big commitment… just small things…

But I started being there every week… and then we started talking about membership… and we had excuses. I had excuses. And the pastor challenged me about becoming a member, about doing what I say… about connecting with others and it was a transformative moment in my life. and then a few months later she's asking me for more!? Will I serve on this committee or that committee. Will I pledge?

I shared a chart with you in the newsletter and in the letter that was sent out… a chart that a lot of times people take as too challenging, but for me it was transformative. It caused me to look at how I spent my money and what I said I did with it and what I said I valued… and how I actually spent it and to take a step. In that first year we pledged 1% and I'll be candid with you we didn't meet the pledge. We fell a little short things came up, you know… The next year I repeated that 1% pledge and we made it, we exceeded it a little bit… and the next year we went to 2% and it has not been a linear progression since then, in particular I got called into Ministry and I went to Seminary and I wrecked our family's finances by doing it… and it was worth it.

And then I shared with you that at one point in my journey I was trying to hit that 10% mark… I was trying to publicly say I tithe and I was trying to cook the books to do it. Hmmmm do my Seminary loans count? I can honestly make a pretty good rational argument for that… but who am I trying to impress? Certainly not God. God already knows… so why am I worrying about how numbers count. Relax. Pick a number, grow towards that number. Pre-tax. Post tax…?

I don't care. You do you. Some of you, I've had some great conversations… you feel called to give anonymously. That is a beautiful thing. Pledge cards are helpful to organizing a budget, but we also need people who give that didn't pledge… because some of us will fall short. So you do yo. Don't make excuses. Don't play games. It's about you and God and your commitment to your journey and your commitment to being a part of your journey through this congregation and nobody's demanding that. If it's not the right fit, find the place that is. I love the scripture that we read, because it talks about giving joyfully… the next chapter actually has that line about God loves a joyful giver. Within your means… but then some of us are called to give beyond our means. The trouble is people take that and they twist it into Prosperity Gospel and it becomes a transaction…. if you give so much today, you'll be blessed in this specific way… and how often is that just about making the preacher rich? It misses the point. That's why I think it's so important to think about giving through the church, not just to the church. And your giving includes your finances… that often for us in relatively prosperous North America and the United States, that's usually our hang up - money very quickly becomes our God… and we “cannot serve two masters,” Jesus says.

But it also involves our time. When I looked at that sheet about pledging percentages of money, the first change I made was actually my time and my commitment to showing up at things. That was actually easier for me to control, but it was a step. Each of us has a next step on our journey. We are to be challenged. We are to hold these changes in tension, but we're not to be challenged beyond our ability and we're not to give only from our leftovers, which is what I'd done for so long. Instead we're called to plan how we respond to God. To make commitments to the church (and, I firmly believe, to other causes and places) And yes - we're going to celebrate the potato giving today… it is perfectly reasonable to include that kind of thing in your planning! I'm going to give to feeding families this much… I'm going to give to other causes this much… again, you do you. There's not a right answer here. It's about your journey, your response to God who created you in God's own image, with the ability to reason and create and love and hope.

And we are not created to do that in isolation. We are created to do that in community and we are blessed to be a part of the community here in Fort Scott known as First United Methodist Church, that people have been giving to sacrificially to, to create the building; to create the community; to create the ministries, since 1866. And it hasn't always been easy. This church started two years after the Civil War. This church thrived in the 1930s. This church continued to grow, to see opportunities, to make the best decisions with the stewardship and the resources they had at the time. That we might tell the stories. That we might honor those who went before us. That we might be present to tell the story to new generations. That we would look candidly at the decisions of our ancestors and in places where our ancestors were stiff necked or selfish, that we would live differently. There have been times in this congregation’s history and the denomination’s history, when we didn't do a very good job of sharing the good news. We became about protecting what was ours, instead of sharing freely with others. But we always make the best decision we can in the moment and we always have a next step, a challenge to grow, to learn. Then (in the words of Maya Angelou) “When we know better, do better! and we forgive ourselves for what we didn't know before.

We read Psalm 78 and I debated about having Robin read the title. Almost all the Psalms have a title or an instruction and very often… I love this about the Psalms… very often it's a series of words that we don't know what they mean! Probably musical instruction but we don't know and I love that because it reminds me of mystery and Scripture not being about certainty but about the journey. But in this case, we kind of do know what all the words mean. It's a maskill of Asaph - a maskill is a teaching document. Asaph was a teacher, a prophet, and a musician. 10 Psalms are ascribed to him – and a few more to his “sons” (be that offspring or disciples, we don’t know.) This Psalm was written to instruct a gathering or a congregation and it talks about learning from our ancestors, celebrating their faith, growing in our own faith telling new generations.

I'm not sure I've ever said this from the pulpit here, but I often tell the story - my home church when I was a new member there, I was part of the “young people's class” I was 36 or 37… there were a group of about 12 of us. They sent three of us into Ministry, to the immediate detriment of that congregation as we took our families out of that congregation to go where we were sent… but it strengthened the larger church, I dare say… but while we were there, the 12 or so of us that were in the “young people's class” in our mid-30s with young families…. the average age of the congregation was 74. About 100 in worship give or take… average age of 74 even with us. About seven years later, I've been to Seminary and am in transitioning into my first appointment, they invited me back to share on Labyrinth walking. I had already gotten into that and some other things that I'd been doing in seminary, you know local boy makes good sort of thing. I was invited back. They did a series of Lenten luncheons and I was the speaker. My mom had become a member, she lives in the neighborhood, not long after Robin and I joined and she's still there, serving as lay leader, on Trustees for the ninth time - all the things I would have done if I hadn't been called into ministry - but she was like “well, you know all these people.” I'm looking around the room and I admit I am not real good at names and faces… I'm still working on a lot of them here after two year…s but I looked around that room at University. I went: “Um… I don't know these people. I know maybe 10 of the 50 people in the room.” and they got to talking. Turns out most of them had joined after I'd moved on. So we hadn't met yet They knew of me but we hadn't met and I hadn't met them. You know what the average age was at University at that time? 74… it was just a different group of 74 year olds! Fast forward to today their average age is about 72… it's just a different group of 70 year olds! But they've got some young families. They've done some really good outreach with immigrants in the community and in the neighborhood. They started with some VBS stuff. They started with some service stuff and low and behold some of those folks started showing up… and they are in the midst of transitioning that church into a new community. Tou can sustain a group of 70 year olds for a long time if you keep inviting other 70 year olds and you keep inviting other people… and telling the stories and being open to where God is leading!

That's what Asaph’s maskil, Psalm 78 is about. Teaching, sharing the story. Acknowledging where we and our ancestors have fallen short. Learning, growing, celebrating in faith.

A few weeks ago I was wasting time on the internet… but every now and then something gets a hold of me, something makes a profound impact that makes the time worthwhile. So a few weeks ago, I ran across just a snippet of a sermon by a musician named Taren Wells. He now serves as a pastor at a church he founded in Texas, but.. I've been preaching about membership and connection and Pastor Wells makes a really good point. I want to share with you… (Video Plays)

“These are guitar strings. The interesting thing about these strings is they didn't come connected to what they were made for but they were designed to be connected. The interesting thing about these strings is that they have to be connected to something bigger than themselves to operate in the thing they were created for. So many of us think if I connect myself to this it limits me, but it actually liberates me in my purpose. This is called a headstock. This is the body. If I'm only connected to this, I'm connected, but I'm not operational and it's when the head is connected to the body that we actually get to operate in the thing we were designed for. When we get connected to the head, which is Christ into the body, which is the church, you know what we experience? Tension! The reason sound can come from that string is because it's being held in tension. So many of us don't want attachment cuz we don't want tension, but could I propose to you today: that where you feel the tension, you discover God's intention for you! There are six strings on this guitar. What if we were comfortable being connected wherever God connected us. What if we weren't fighting over who gets to play which notes, because if you're willing to put your life in tension, you will realize a beautiful melody can come from your life!”

I love that illustration as an often failed guitar player. I love that illustration. I didn't stay in the tension of practicing and growing in that skill, but I admire those that have but one of the things I love - the connection is incredibly important: to the Head, Christ. To the body, the church. If we're not connected on both ends we're not fulfilling our purpose but he recognizes that when we are connected on both ends we're in tension!

Kristin said to me the other day, “Do you ever feel like church work is just putting out fires all the time” I said yeah, welcome to ministry!

OR - is it feeding the fires of the Holy Spirit? It's both. It's living in the tension of

Community. You know when Pastor Gayla was first talking to me about my call to ministry, I went to her and I said: “you put me on a mountain top, I know there's a God. You put me in the midst of people… well, I have some questions!

I if I were in charge I'd live as a hermit most of the time! People are messy and often rude and demanding… that's just me! But we are born to live in community, to nourish one another. Even those hermits require a community of people that enable them to do the kind of ministry they're called to. One of my escapes is to go down to a monastery called Clear Creek in Oklahoma. It's near Muskogee. A bunch of Latin Rite priests and monks - they do communion (that I am not invited to because I'm not Roman Catholic) but they celebrate four and five times a day - but I can sit in on the Mass and it is beautiful and it nourishes me nonetheless even as an observer - and they chant everything in Latin. There's incense… it’s wonderful.

But other than the chanting in mass, other than that there are two people in that Monastery that will talk to me. Everyone else has a vow of silence - if they're not chanting prayers and Psalms in Latin, they don't speak, not even to each other. The only exception is confession and their mentoring with their spiritual adviser, which is done in private. Two people - their call is the hospitality. They have to interact with the guests, so they are released from their vow of silence to interact. It's fascinating. I am so glad I'm not called to that… but in short burst it renews my soul. I need them… and they need people who support them. None of us live in isolation. All of us are called to prayer and to service in very different ways. There are six strings on a guitar. They're not all tuned the same way. Even when they're tuned to the same note they're different frequencies, we need each other and yes we live in tension but that's when we're productive. We are to be yeast, mixed into three measures of flour, that we might grow to be the body of Christ. That we might nourish others and nourishing others as bread requires being broken and divided and spread and renewed and the recipe starts again with a new generation. New hands kneeding and mixing…

“The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.” Paul writes to the Corinthians and he cites that line from Exodus. It evokes the story of Manna from Heaven. There is in that complicated story that I don't have time to completely unpack, there is both blessing and curse in that story. The Israelites are demanding that God take care of them and ignoring all the ways God already has and they are given Mana but they can't store it up. It only lasts for the day. To teach dependence and trust and no matter how much the greedy gathered they only had enough and no matter how much the lazy gathered they had enough… but then later in the story Quail comes because they demand meat and the quail overrun them. They get what they wanted in such amounts that they can't handle it. Careful what you ask for and how… careful of your motivations. Careful to notice what God is already doing for you…

Ask, seek, knock - but do so in Jesus’ name. We are taught - not for ourselves, not out of our greed or demands, but that we might be a blessing to others. All that we are - all that we have - comes from God. We have already received the gift! When we recognize that, we see a spark of generosity.

In Paul's writing, he can't be with the community, so he writes letters. He didn't, I firmly believe Paul did not sit down … with the possible exception of Romans… he did not sit down thinking I'm writing something that they will read for generations. Certainly not I'm writing something that will become part of the Holy Scriptures! I frankly think he would have been scandalized by that. I hope he would have been, but the communities found value in the these letters and began circulating them beyond the community it was written to and wrestling with what Paul wrote. Being shaped by it as Paul taught about being shaped by Christ. and we were reminded in these letters each of these communities had different questions and problems, different opportunities. The churches in Diaspora - in Corinth and Philippi and Thessalonica looked very different from the church in Jerusalem. Jews and Gentiles, sometimes separately, sometimes mixed - different tensions in each of those communities. The church in Jerusalem, Acts tells us, lived in common. They owned everything together. They became known as the poor, because they really didn't have a self-sustaining system. Paul sees this and recognizes that the rest of the church can help. He initiates an offering to be collected from the Gentile churches to be given to the Church of Jerusalem because the church in Jerusalem had an abundance of spirituality and prayer and teaching and the stories of Jesus, but were living intentionally in poverty much like those monks I go see. Paul saw an opportunity to unite different churches, different understandings of what it meant to follow Jesus, in a common act of generosity and even within the communities there were different opportunities. He's writing to Corinth that is relatively well off, about both the poverty in Spirit and the wealth of their community in money, how they are dependent on the prayers and the witness of others to grow in faith and can give from their abundance. All of us have an abundance. It may not be monetary. All of us can give of our time, our talent, our treasure. All of us are challenged to give just a little bit more of that and when we do, I am living proof, that that abundance can grow. Not in a Prosperity Gospel transactional kind of way, but in a new opportunities, new connection, better tuning better harmonies.

Paul had traveled all over the known world founding churches. he writes letters encouraging generosity, an offering is taken. It's taken to Jerusalem. It sustains the early church. It unites the early church, despite their differences and disagreements. The story is told to a new generation. We here this morning are the recipients of that benevolence, of that offering. We are called to emulate it, to sustain ministries that are fruitful. To be willing to end ministries that are not. To be willing to risk going outside our doors to supporting others, creating opportunities for them to take the next step. Paul writes these letters to encourage to recognize that each of us are called differently, equipped differently. We have different seasons of life. One time when I was really stressing, I was at a church that was very generous and I was really trying to manipulate the numbers to get to that magical 10% that I could say publicly… my senior pastor went: “you're at a different stage of life, dude. My kids are grown, the money I used to spend sustaining them, I now give to the church. Your kids are just entering high school and Junior High, you're saving up for college. You have all of these things. You're in seminary or you're finishing Seminary. Relax. Do what you can do joyfully - not out of guilt or obligation or trying to impress others – but joyfully. In fruitful tension.

Recognizing how often we rationalize and we say well here's my extra… that's not joyful - but each of us are called differently. Each of us are called to respond. Each of us are equipped to respond and together we are the church. We have different amounts of time, different talents, different availability, different resources. We are called to give generously, sometimes sacrificially, from all of them. We are called to invest the gifts that God has given us. That they might grow exponentially. That they might merge with the gifts of others and be and become a blessing for others, something “greather than” what we put in. We are called to follow Christ, to do what Jesus does. and Jesus assures us that when we do that faithfully, we will do still greater things! Even greater than what Jesus has done! We will be the church in the world. The world will see love and grace and hope through us and, I am firmly convinced, one day the world will be transformed - not of our effort, but by our participation in God's gift of grace. We will come together in light and hope and peace, we will become like streams of living water, to renew the face of the Earth. We will be built as living stones into a new structure, a new heaven and a new earth and God will dwell among his people… and it takes a small step. A small thing to begin. A next step, To grow the kingdom that God has promised. That's what I believe thanks be to God. Amen!



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