Sermon Transcript 10.22.23 "Greater Than: A Foundation for our Stewardship."
What is our foundation what do we base our words and our actions on how easy it is to get distracted by the patterns of the world; to segment our faith to an hour on Sunday morning and live the rest of our lives as if we didn't gather here at all. Or maybe worse to pepper our speech and our actions with Jesus, Jesus, but not actually be shaped by who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
Those of you who have been around the church for some time know that October is usually stewardship season. The necessary time of year when we talk about money in terms of how to keep the lights on and the doors open and pay the pastor and the staff and I confess I'm fairly tied into that conversation and yet I struggle with talking about stewardship. Some months ago I started looking, knowing that this season was coming, knowing in a time of transition of leadership of our committees, a great deal of this season of stewardship would fall on my shoulders. I started looking at themes and possibilities and I found a series that the New Jersey conference had done called Greater Than and other than using their idea I'm remixing a lot of things as I have prayed and thought about what we are doing here in Fort Scott, but I'm indebted to them for the way that they structured it and the way they talked about giving.
One of the things I am still pondering that will come up again this year and in years to come is they make a distinction between giving to the church - which is not a bad thing - but we give to the church and then we expect things to happen automatically.
Greater than is about giving through the church. Hear the difference - not just to the church but through the church, because it's not about the money, it's about our spiritual response to God's grace. One aspect of which is how we fund the church budget, pay the pastor and all of those kinds of things, but that's not really the point.
I talked about membership a couple weeks ago and last week we celebrated members joining. Being a member of a local congregation is a big deal, it's important but it's not the be all and end all of our faith. It's not about being on the roster of the in group, it's about living out in everyday life the change that Jesus is working in us.
We read Psalm 95. It starts out as a celebration. Oh come, let us sing unto the Lord! Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! And it extols God's creation. The heights of the mountains, the depths of the valleys. The sea and the dry land are his. Everything ultimately belongs to God. All that we have; all that we are is a gift from God. A gift we can never repay. We celebrate in the midst of God's creation. We give thanks and then there's a turn in that Psalm. O that this day it would really take. O that this day this day we would really have eyes to see, ears to hear; that we would really be transformed. That we wouldn't harden our hearts as in the day of Meribah and Massah. I don't know about you, but I hear that and I go: I don't know where those places are. And so I went looking Meribah and Massah both talk about water and land. There is great debate whether they're one place or two places, but they're both referred to as a pairing in Exodus and Numbers and in both cases we're talking about the Israelites in the wilderness turning away from God and specifically we're talking about the Israelites grumbling that there's not enough water and demanding that Moses do something about it. And so Moses turns to God and the two accounts are just slightly different. Different storytellers, different emphasis - but Moses either humbly ask or arrogantly demands that God do something about these grumbling people because he's had it. You ever feel that way? And God tells him - and again the two stories are slightly different - but God basically tells him I have equipped you to solve the problem. Speak to that rock or in one case strike that rock and water will come forth. And there is a story of a miracle; of Moses saying words, striking the Rock and more water than the Israelites can possibly use comes flowing forth in the midst of the desert. it's one of those miracles, if I'm honest, I don't quite know what to do with. As a preacher I am caught up in a scientific worldview and I just I struggle with that. I did learn when I was privileged to go to Israel in 2016 that much of the surrounding stone there is a kind of permeable stone ,a Sandstone or a limestone, that will hold a great deal of moisture right up until it reaches the point where it can't and then it will weep and even gush forth. So there is, even in scientific terms, some explanation of this kind of story - but part of me resists overanalyzing and oversimplifying. And especially in the reference in Psalm 95 - it's about disobedience, not obedience. In the Numbers telling, Moses gets in trouble, having accomplish the miracle God is miffed because Moses does not do exactly what God says to do. In fact Moses kind of seems to take credit for what happened. “Look what I've done for you” instead of “Look What the Lord has provided for us.” We fall into that trap. Pastors fall into that, trap it becomes about us and our glory.
I've said many times and I truly believe it, when I was a kid, partially due to my behavior, partially probably due to an undiagnosed hearing loss, I wound up sitting by the teacher's desk quite often. That's not a compliment. When you're invited to sit by the teacher's desk that's “I’ve got to keep an eye on this one!” I really, truly feel my call to Ministry is, to a certain extent an invitation to sit by the teacher's desk. You struggle with this, Christopher. We're going to make you do it fulltime. We're going to have you live in a fishbowl and have everybody look at how you make your choices. You're not going to be allowed to hide - and I accept that because it is a gift to be in ministry; to be called your pastor. To be able to go into hospital rooms and sit at bedsides and work through the struggle of what it is to be a human community together and so I cherish stories like this and the reference in this Psalm, the reminder to be humble, to stay constantly aware of all that God has given me, that all that God has given us. And I weigh the challenge to call all of us to account when we fall short - and we do fall short. We will fall short we dress up our own biases and our own desires in Godly language. We worship violence and money and power. We make idols and we forget the mystery of God that is revealed to us every time we take a breath, every time the sun shines, every time the rain falls. The sound of the waves, the dropping leaves of the fall – when the trees that remind us what it is to let go, to rest. And the Evergreens that remind us persistence, staying true to ourselves, regardless of the season.
We are encouraged to become members, to raise our hand, to say here I am. I am going to willingly subject myself to walking my faith path with other people. When I I was discerning a call to ministry, I went into the pastor's office one day. Reverend Gayla Rapp, a tremendous influence on me, and I said “I don't know about this church stuff.” and she laughed. I said “you know you get me alone on a mountaintop, I know there's a God, but if I have to sit in one more committee meeting with… name excluded… I'm going to…. I can't stand this guy.” and gayla just laughed. Welcome to ministry, Christopher.
I muttered something about “I don't know if I'm cut out for this” and yet here I am! And here you are! All of us are ministry. All of us are called to participate., I have a particular role, but you are called to ministry. Every time we dare say we are a member of a church, that we claim the name Christian, the world is looking at us to see who God is and if we are angry and arrogant and bad tippers and demanding… now they don't get a very good impression of the one who humbled himself and became flesh and embraced his Humanity even to the point of death, even death on a Cross. The one who calls us to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek - not to be dormant but to break cycles of violence and dominance. Following Christ isn't about gaining power, it's about yielding power while claiming our own humanity and insisting on the humanity of others - friend and enemy alike. It is not an easy path. It's a narrow path. Much of the church through history, I believe, has gotten it wrong and yet even as I say that… I stand right on the edge of thinking I alone have got it right and falling into the same sin that I condemn. One of the things I cherish about the United Methodist Church is that we don't start with a creed or a statement of faith that you must believe and understand exactly the same way I do - we start with lived faith, a call to action: to love God with heart and mind and soul and to embrace our different faith paths together. It's not an easy road and yet it is how we remind ourselves that we are human that we are fallable. that we don't have all the answers.
We read the end of chapter 7 of Matthew a few weeks ago when I was doing the series on The Sermon on the Mount. If you hear these words and you do what Jesus says, you're like the one that builds on the Rock. If you hear these words and you don't do what Jesus says, you're like the one that builds on sand. The foundation of our stewardship, the foundation of all that we are, is to be Christ and I believe that means not merely believing in Jesus as God but trusting in Jesus as human - paying attention to what he does with his one beautiful fragile human life.
I have a friend that's posted several times recently, he's having some fairly serious health problems, and he keeps coming back to this thought. You know we joke around “what would you day what would you do if you knew you had one day to live? What would you do and you know… most of us would party, most of us would do something we've always wanted to do. Spend, indulge… Jesus washed feet.
Jesus sat down with the same group of people that had been misunderstanding him and falling short for months and he broke bread and he gave it to them he said “take and eat. This is my body. Drink this, all of you, this is the blood of the New Covenant poured out for you and for many.” Jesus humbled himself. Jesus calls us to follow.
Jesus calls us to do what he says in the Sermon on the Mount. He says some very challenging things. The Beatitudes blessed are the meek and those who mourn. “It's not how the world works, Jesus!” Blessed are the peacemakers… the call to be Salt and Light, to love enemies to be intentional about how we give alms and how we pray; that we make sure it's not about us being seen… so we're not to be seen doing these things, but we are to be salt and light to the world
We're not to be murderers, we're not even to be angry… and yet we are to challenge injustice… Teachings on relationships, divorce and adultery… on how we judge… on retaliation… on worry! To trust that God who provides for the sparrows and the grasses of the field will provide for us. Not to lay up treasures, but to keep our treasure in heaven. To ask and search and knock … but to recognize that not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom. It is a challenging set of teachings and then Jesus acts. He says these things in this order, according to Matthew, and then he goes down the mountain and as he travels, the crowds that have heard him are in awe because “he speaks as one with authority” not merely as a scribe but having Authority himself.
When pastors are ordained, the bishop lays hands on and hands us a Bible and says “take thou
Authority. It is an amazing moment and it's not about us…. it's about recognizing that we are empowered and authorized by the church, who has recognized our call from God, to speak, to challenge, to comfortm to be more than ourselves. One of the reasons I tend to wear a stole and a robe when I preach is the ritual of putting it on reminds me that this is not Christopher standing here, this is a duly ordained and called Pastor and I have to be constantly aware of when I'm preaching that it is not just what I want to hear, but instead what the Spirit is saying what God is saying… and I don't always get it right but it's a role and a calling and a blessing.
We are called to act; to do as Jesus does. And what does Jesus do? He comes down the mountain and the first person that Matthew tells us he encounters is a leper. Outcast, unclean clearly a sinner, for why else would God be afflicting him with this? And the leper says to Jesus “if you choose, you can make me clean” and Jesus says “I do so choose.” there is no discussion of why this leper deserves this. There's just a choice by Jesus to alleviate suffering; to restore this person to his community and you notice he doesn't say to this leper “follow me.” He says Go and show yourself to the priest, do all of the ritual things that we have in the law to show that you have been healed - not Proclaim me, shout my name. It's an interesting thing isn't it? Apparently this leper already has sufficient faith in who Jesus is and Jesus truly wants to restore him to the community that the community might be changed not by lip service and words but by presence and faith…
And then the community gets expanded. The next story is about a centurion who comes with the same sort of attitude. The Centurion says “I have a servant, he's suffering terribly. You can heal him.” and Jesus responds by offering to come to the man's home. Do you hear what the Centurion says”” I'm not worthy to have you under my roof.” but I believe in your power, you can speak the word and you don't have to go. I recognize your authority and I respond to it. You speak on behalf of God and this Centurion, this legionnaire, this Roman, this oppressor of the Jewish people… is included in Jesus’ mercy by witness of his faith. Jesus says that he hasn't seen faith like this in all of Israel and he heals the man's servant. “Truly I tell you…” Jesus says.
How might our faith, as members of First United Methodist Church in Fort Scott Kansas in 2023, be a blessing to others? How about our witness, our respect of the authority of Christ, our willingness to listen and respond to who Christ, is be a blessing to those who aren't even in the room? Who may or may not share our opinions and our practices? How are we called to restore
community with our words and our actions and our giving and our prayers? How do people see the authority of Christ through who we are individually and as a congregation? Those really are what the questions of stewardship are about. What do we do individually and together to reflect God's grace and mercy and love? When people see and hear us, are they intrigued? Do they want to know more about what's going on in our life and faith? Or are they repelled?
It's a challenging call. I believe that loving our neighbors is not the same as simply not hating them. Love is not a lack of hate or anything else. According to scripture, love has form and content and it compels us to act. It compels us to actively seek the well-being of others, to love our neighbor as ourself. Certainly to take care of ourselves, the analogy of the air mask in an airplane is useful. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else but we get really good at justifying, taking care of ourselves and making sure our preferences are handled, before we take care of others… if we get to them at all… How do we use the gifts that God has given us individually and collectively?
This building, this community, the assets individually and collectively that we have? How are we investing them to grow them for the good of the Kingdom, not just ourselves? How are we following? Are we listening to what God calls us to do? Are we going through the motions, are we making assumptions and projecting our will, or we truly doing what God calls us to do? Which may mean leaving our fishing boats behind and following him down the beach and around the countryside or it may mean going and showing ourselves to the priest and rejoining our community or going back to our town and Village and bearing witness. What is our individual call? What is our collective call? How do we see Christ? How do we respond to Christ. How do people see Christ through us? In John 14, Jesus says to his followers: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and in fact will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
What do we make of this verse. Do we look at Jesus and go well of course Jesus can heal people he's God. Would we listen to Jesus assuring us that together as the church, as the body of Christ we will do greater things still than he has done? Not for our glory but for the glory of God. How do we see Christ? How do people see Christ in us? Are we willing to become living stones, that God can shape us into a sanctuary? into a temple? into a community that transforms the world? That ultimately is what a stewardship campaign is about. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.