Archives For Adam Hamilton

photo-1This weekend I concluded our sermon series on Generosity by pulling, at random, scripture passages having to do with money and taught on them.

One of the passages in the mix that I didn’t get to preach on was from 2 Corinthians 9.11-13

It’s a good one too so I thought it worth a look here:

11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.

I always think of the Corinthians as this married couple who fight about sex and clothes and drinking, but really every time they fight they’re fighting about money.

Money comes up again and again in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

But unless you read the Book of Acts you don’t necessarily know why is so focused on money. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that Paul traveled throughout the Greek-Gentile world planting churches but also taking up a collection for the Christians back in Jerusalem.

And one of the reasons for the collection was that the Christians back in Jerusalem were suffering both a severe famine but also an intense persecution for their faith.

The other reason Paul was taking up a collection was an attempt to unify the Church- that from the very beginning of the faith one of the practices of being a Christian was to  give to others you’d never met, would never meet and with whom you had nothing in common except Christ.

So Paul, according to the Book of Acts, traveled from church to church, taking up this collection. Initially, we’re told, the Christians in Corinth, who were quite wealthy, were very enthusiastic about giving to the collection. But when it came time to kick-in what they had pledged…not so much.

I had a job going door-to-door when I was in college, and I always knew that when someone promised me they’d mail in a check rather than give it to me on their front porch that they weren’t going to give anything.

The Corinthians hadn’t given anything; meanwhile, the Christians in Macedonia, who were so poor Paul hadn’t even asked them to contribute to the collection, showed ‘rich generosity’ despite their poverty.

So that’s the context to all this talk of money in Corinthians.

To me, what’s really interesting in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is how seamlessly Paul will go from the every day, nuts and bolts of our giving our money to imagery of God’s glory.

It’s even more interesting, as I mentioned this weekend, when you remember that the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters didn’t have any of the chapter and verse divisions that your bibles today do.

And so in a famous passage like 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes with this passionate rhetoric about how ‘if Christ has not been raised then we are still in our sins’ and where Paul mocks Death with a capital D “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?’

And then the very next verse in chapter 16, verse 1 Paul tells the Corinthians to pass the offering plate.

Paul makes those kinds of moves, transitions that seem jarring to us, because for Paul our love of God and our love of neighbor is inseparable.

You see this in verse 12 where Paul uses the word ‘service’ to refer to giving to the collection.

The word there is λειτουργία, liturgy.

Worship.

The word ‘liturgy’ originally was a secular term. In Rome, it referred to the ‘service’ of wealthy Romans supplying for the needs of the poor in their community.

The first Christians took that word ‘liturgy’ and used it to refer both to their worship of God and their generosity to the poor.

You see by using the word liturgy to refer to both practices, the first Christians made sure we would know that our generosity to others is a way we worship God and that our worship of God is a way that we serve others.

Too often we focus on our giving as an act of charity; it’s something we do for the poor and the needy.

But when we focus on giving as an act of charity we split the Greatest Commandment into two.

We focus on our love of neighbor but forget that our giving is one of the necessary ways we love God- that’s why Paul says elsewhere that ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ Because if our giving is an act of worship it has to be done out of joy not compulsion.

You see this in v. 13 of this passage where Paul writes that the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving isn’t for the hungry and hurting in Jerusalem, as important as that remains.

No, the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving is to glorify God.

The primary purpose of our generosity, Paul says, is to witness to our faith, to give evidence of the reality of God’s grace in our lives by the way we handle our money.

Remember, the Christians back in Jerusalem hadn’t been supportive of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. They didn’t want Gentile Christians in the Church.

But Paul’s convinced that when the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem see the extravagant generosity of the Gentile Christians they’ll have to come to the conclusion that God’s grace must be real and alive in these people’s lives.

And Paul was right.

If you go back and read the complaints that pagan Romans wrote about the first Christians, their biggest complaint- their primary observation about Christians- was always about how exceedingly generous Christians were.

Not just to other Christians but to pagans as well.

The first Christians made the Romans look bad they were so generous to others.

And the way the first Christians made converts was through the example of their exceedingly generous lifestyle.

The way they gave their money away, the way they welcomed strangers, the way they cared for widows and lepers, the way they rescued infants left to die in the fields- their generous lifestyle- not their doctrine, not their music, not their facilities- is what convinced unbelievers that Christ must be raised from the dead.

And that’s important to know in a culture like ours where 77% of the population will not attend any church this year.

Generosity is the single best way to witness to the grace and glory of God.

And even though it’s true that Christians as a demographic are more generous than any other group in the country, it’s also true that over half of all Christians give nothing.

Just imagine if Christians had the same reputation in the 21st century that they had in the first century.

 

lk12_33p14_33We close our series on Generosity and Simplicity this weekend.

Here is my assistant’s (Dennis Perry) sermon from last weekend on the story of Zaccheus.

      1. More

Midrash in the Moment: Money

Jason Micheli —  November 22, 2013 — 5 Comments

ac05_03-04This weekend we’re closing our November sermon series on Generosity.

Preaching about money is a sure-fire way to make church people uncomfortable.

I figure turn about is fair play, right?

I get away with inflicting dis-ease on a biweekly basis so perhaps it’s time for me to be made uncomfortable.

If money is the one thing that makes church people uncomfortable, public speaking on the fly is the one thing that makes me ulcer-inducing uncomfortable.

So here goes:

Submit a scripture passage about money/giving/generosity/poverty that you think is particularly challenging, question-raising, troubling, or just worth a second look.

I’ll throw them all together and preach on them at random, extemporaneously this weekend.

You post your scripture passage in the comments below or email it to me.

Deadline is 4:30 Saturday.

 

2013-01-31-pastortipIgiveGod10blur550We’re nearing the end of a sermon series on generosity and simplicity.

As I’ve noted, nothing tightens the sphincters of Christians, who have their biblical problems of food, freedom and shelter already taken care of, quite like the subject of money.

Specifically, their giving of it.

Just calculate the sermon topics of the Messiah and you’ll notice that money fronts the list of our greatest of idols and gravest of sins.

All too often church people think a preacher’s emphasis on money and generosity is about the cynical bottom line, a rhetorical, alliterative, bible-speak plea to pay for the lights, keep the heat on and- let’s not dance around the obvious- the pastor’s salary.

Of course it is all of that (minus the cynicism), but I think what we miss is that the need for Christian generosity is only secondarily about exorcising our grip on Mammon and even less so about funding the Church’s ministry.

No, more than anything what Christians do with money speaks volumes about what Christians believe about God.

Generosity = Witness

Evangelism is best done not with sandwich board signs, not with screen preaching, not with Gospel tracts or PACs or legislative agendas or door hangers ad infinitum.

Evangelism is best done through generosity.

The most compelling proof of the resurrection is a people living and acting as though some Jew really was raised from the dead.

And therefore we do with our money exactly what he said to do with it.

Share it.

Not covet it.

Get rid of as much of it as we can.

And pass it on to others.

Don’t believe me? Wonder why I bring this up?

I offer you two contrasting case studies, one modern and the other ancient.

This is from Justin Lee:

“We Christians have often become our own worst enemies. In many communities, our reputation is that of uncompassionate culture warriors, quick to shout about gays or abortion or political candidates, but slow to show grace and mercy in our everyday lives. And these acts of ungrace by Christians have far more power to damage Christianity’s reputation and influence than any attack launched at the church from the outside.

In my book, for instance, I tell the story of my first job waiting tables:

“Sundays are the worst,” one of the servers explained to me. “That’s when the church crowd goes out to eat.”

 

“What’s wrong with the church crowd?” I asked.

 

“Oh, honey,” she said. “They’re usually the most demanding, and they’re always the worst tippers. I guarantee you, if you see your table praying before the meal, you can mentally subtract a third from your tip.”

 

Standing nearby, the manager cracked a smile. “They already gave at church,” he said. “They don’t have any money left.”

 

In conversations with my server friends across the country, I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed time and time again. As a Christian, I find this infuriating.

 

In most states, servers are paid only a little over $2 an hour (yes, you read that right), with the expectation that they will make their living from tips. You might not like that system, but if you choose to express your displeasure with it by tipping your server poorly, the only person you’re hurting is the server — someone who is already living on very little money and depending on your tip to help them pay their bills.

 

As a former server myself, I always tip at least 18-20 percent unless the service was just so unbearably horrible that it destroyed the dining experience. Even then, I still tip, just not as much. If I can’t afford the tip, I don’t eat out, or I eat someplace where diners aren’t expected to tip. Otherwise, I consider paying my server to be part of the cost of the meal.

 

I think everyone should tip that way. It’s the right thing to do, regardless of your faith, and followers of Jesus are especially called to be generous and give more than people expect. Personally, I’d love to live in a world where non-Christians said of Christians, “I don’t agree with their beliefs, but those folks sure do know how to tip!”

Cliff Notes takeaway: Christians skew stingy.

(It should be added: statistically, most Christians are stingy with their churches too).  

But wait! The world Justin Lee longs for exists not in a Platonic ideal but in the Christian past.

This is from Julian the Apostate. Julian became Emperor of Rome in the 4th century after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Empire. Julian was Rome’s equivalent of a Christian Conservative, attempting to return his nation to the faith of its founding, in this case, paganism.

To his incredulity, Julian found that a harder nut to crack than he’d anticipated.

Despite Christianity being a nascent, counterintuitive religion, Julian couldn’t persuade his countrymen to return to the faith of their heritage.

Why?

Not because Christians had correct, compelling dogma.

Not because they advocated the right political positions.

Not because they offered impressive facilities or helpful services.

No, Christianity flourished because Christians were…

Generous.

To the point of shaming and in turn wowing all other people.

Here’s Julian’s complaint in letter form about Christians, trying to bolster his own pagan priests:

“The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time

Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?

Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia without exception.

Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies.

For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars.

For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Christians support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.

Do not therefore let others outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness; rather, let us not quite abandon our piety toward the gods . . .

Above all you must exercise philanthropy. From it result many other goods, and indeed that which is the greatest blessing of all, the goodwill of the gods . . .

We too ought to share our goods with all men, but most of all with the respectable, the helpless, and the poor, so that they have at least the essentials of life.”

Cliff Notes takeaway:

The best way to get nonbelievers to profess “I believe in the Risen Savior” is to get nonbelievers to say “Look at those Christians, they’re so…

Generous.

 

 

ac05_02a

We’re nearing the end of our annual commitment campaign as well as a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity.

There’s nothing that will tighten the sphincters and of people in the pews like preaching on $$$.

Here’s a little-known gem of a bible story sure to raise the collective blood pressure; it shows, in economic fashion, money’s tendency to lure us into deceit:

Acts 5

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us* but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body,* then carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

In case you skipped past the scripture, here’s the married couple, Ananias and Sapphira sell some property, hold back some of the proceeds for themselves instead of giving it to the Church, lie about it and then they’re struck dead, presumably by God.

The Lord may love a cheerful giver, but Acts 5 suggests God may kill stingy givers. Or deceitful ones.

And there’s my question to you.

As a pastor I hear a lot of folks repeating the ancient heresy: that the God of the Old Testament is angry, violent and full of wrath while the God of the New Testament is loving, gracious and forgiving.

I usually respond by pointing out some of freaky scary things Jesus says in the Gospels, but Acts 5 may be the best example of all.

Ananias and his Mrs being struck down instantly with no offer or opportunity for repentance and forgiveness seems like a story we’re more likely to find in the Old Testament not the New.

NT Wright says we can’t have the awesome deeds of power, miracles and mass conversions in Acts without also taking the more ominous displays of the Spirit like here in Acts 5. I don’t know how persuasive that view is even if it is logical.

So….

What do we do with a story like this?

How do we explain justify God killing them?

What are we to take away from this story other than our reflexive fear and distaste?

Money: A Poem

Jason Micheli —  November 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

ct-ct-ct-prj-christian-wiman01-jpg-20130419We’re in the middle of a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity, a good time I thought for this poem from Christian Wiman. I love how the momentum of the speech tracks with the imagery, barreling towards it destination.

O the screech and heat and hate

we have for each day’s commute

the long wait at the last stop

before we go screaming

underground, while the pigeons

court and shit and rut

insolently on the tracks

because this train is always late,

always aimed at only us,

who when it comes with its

blue snout, its thousand mouths,

cram and curse and contort

into one creature, all claws and eyes,

tunneling, tunneling, tunneling

toward money.

– Commute (1)

1231472_10201379536123104_1520633178_nWe’re in the middle of a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity. This is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Minister:

Teaching children about generosity begins in the home.  Even children who are three years old can learn to give a toy to another child or to draw a picture for a sick friend.

The Lord tells us  

“And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”  Matthew 10:42

The most effective way to teach generosity to children is when parents model this behavior themselves.

Seeing first hand when parents give their time and money to schools, churches, families, and charities instills a behavior that children will model.

When children see their parents helping in Sunday school, serving the homeless, participating in worship, giving money in the offering collection, and helping a friend or family in need, they learn how to be generous.

They also learn by participating in the giving.

A few years ago, one of our neighbors had a house fire.  I didn’t know them, but I can only imagine the devastation they felt at losing most of their home.

Our family decided to replace some of the lost items.  It became our mission to find out the children’s favorite toys, where the teenager liked to shop for clothes, and what food the parents usually prepared.

We shopped together at the mall and grocery store, making it our task to find “just the right item” for each family member.  I remember the sparkle in my son’s eye when he found the perfect Spiderman toy and said, “Mommy, he will LOVE this!”

Later we made supper together and delivered the bags of food, clothing, and toys to the family.  My children were able to witness the joy on the faces of the family receiving the gifts, and the joy they felt at giving to others.  Afterwards, my son said, “Mommy, that was fun!  Can we do it again?”

I try and teach my children that generosity not only includes giving things to others, but also giving our heart to Jesus.  We have so much to be thankful for: our home, our family, our friends, and our church.  Generosity begins in the heart by giving our love and time to Jesus; getting to know Him and following His ways.

What better role model do we have than Jesus to teach our children about generosity?  He gave his time helping and healing others, his money, and eventually, his life.

Instilling a generous heart can occur at any age.

Children are no exception.

Teaching them to serve not only helps others, but develops and nurtures their relationship with Christ.

I’m blessed we have so many opportunities to be generous!  I look forward to the upcoming Christmas season and who my family will choose to serve next.

9fd2f25f6a96a760872a425d027134abI’ve read that Josef Mengele Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel of Death,’ who was one of the chief architects of the holocaust, also had a compassionate, some say charming, side to him.

It was not rare, for example, that Mengele would act in a caring, empathetic manner towards exhausted mothers and their children.

While they waited on ramps for the train cars to come and ship them to death camps.

We’ve all got our good side, right?

No matter how rotten the lemon at least a little bit of lemonade can be made.

Of course I’m exaggerating when I draw an analogy from the above to the (in)famous Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll. Such a comparison is shockingly insensitive, snarky to the extreme, wildly overblown, willfully ignorant of the larger context and aimed only at scoring rhetorical points for the sake of your attention.

In short, it’s exactly the kind of sarcastic parallel Mark Driscoll would draw up himself.

And to be honest, I wonder if therein lies my love-hate-hate-hate-hate-stomach-love relationship with Mark Driscoll?

Minus his cro-magnon misogyny, Driscoll practices the very same blunt, acerbic rhetoric of which my heart is fond. As some of you, dear blog readers, have pointed out I can come across as an a@%hole on occasion and a quick Google search will show that that’s the consensus on brother Mark.

So maybe what I don’t like about Mark Driscoll is what I don’t like about myself.

Or, even more intriguing, is what I don’t like about Mark Driscoll what I DO LIKE about myself?

Whichever the answer, whenever I think of Jesus’ command to love our enemies…Driscoll makes the top ten.

A while back I attempted to read Mark Driscoll’s ebook on fatherhood in a spirit of openness and charity and blog about it. I think I managed one non-snarky post before the skuvbalon hit the fan.

Well, I’m doing some penance.

Mark Driscoll has a new book out: A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity have a Funeral or a Future?

If you can tune out the page % given over to homosexuality and Barack Obama (I’m no liberal but WTF?), there’s actually solid nuggets of bible wisdom in here, delivered up in true, tell-it-like-it-is Driscoll fashion.

Here’s one on the lack of generosity churches tolerate from their would-be Jesus followers:

“Next time you are in a store, imagine that, instead of a cash register, there was a bucket and a sign that read, “Pay Whatever You Want and If You Don’t Want to Pay Anything, That’s Fine Too.” 

How long do you think that store would remain in business? 

That is the business model of the church. Unlike the government, which simply takes money from you, or an actual business, which will have you arrested if you do not pay for a good or service you receive, the church depends entirely on generosity. But the statistics reveal that most professing Christians are not generous givers:  

More than one out of four professing American Protestants given away $0. 

The median annual giving for a Christian is $200- just over half a percent of after tax income. 

About 5% of Christians provide 60% of the money to churches and religious groups. 

20% of Christians account for 86% of all giving. 

Among Protestants, 10% of evangelicals, 28% of mainline folk, 33% of fundamentalists and 40% of liberal Protestants give $0.00. 

But-

Jesus devoted roughly 25% of his words in the Gospels to our use of money.

 

 

Your Salvation is Impossible

Jason Micheli —  November 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

camel-needle-surrealHere’s this weekend’s sermon on the rich (young) man.

You can listen to here, on the sidebar or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Your Salvation is Impossible

Mark 10.17-27

I originally tried to get an actual, live camel here for this weekend. As it turns out that would’ve been obscenely expensive, which Dennis thought would’ve been too ironic given this month’s focus on simplicity.

So I don’t have a live camel, but I thought I could approximate one to help us visualize the story. I need a few volunteers.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the one-humped dromedary camel is about 7 1/4 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its hump, and about 10 feet long from nose to tail.

In his day and in his part of the world, the camel was the largest animal Jesus could’ve have conceived. Just just hold those dimensions in your mind.

In Mark 10, Jesus and the disciples are a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Jesus has just taught that if anyone wants to enter the Kingdom of God they’ll have to approach the Kingdom as children, as having nothing, as children have nothing.

No sooner are his words out of his mouth than someone with everything approaches Jesus. A rich man. You don’t have everything you want without knowing how to get anything you want. So the rich man tries his hand at flattery: ‘Good Teacher’ he calls Jesus.

And then he asks him a rich man’s kind of question. With everything in this life taken care of- no worries- the rich man asks what he has to do to inherit the next one.

Jesus doesn’t return the rich man’s flattery and responds disinterestedly by giving him the most ordinary answer imaginable.

He recites the 10 Commandments.

But the rich man waves him off: I’ve already done all that. I’m a good person. I’m religious. I don’t lie. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t stolen from my neighbors.

You’re still missing one thing, Jesus says.

Go.

Liquidate your 401K. Empty your savings. Put the house on the market. Trade in the car. Sell the season tickets. Forget the beach vacation. Cancel your membership at the club. Everything. Give the cash to the poor.

And then come follow me.

And the rich man says: ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. What do you know? You’re just some homeless guy.’

Then Jesus looks at this one rich man and makes a sweeping generalization about all rich people:

 their salvation is impossible.

This same Jesus who promised paradise to the thief

This same Jesus who refused to condemn the adulteress

This same Jesus who compared himself to a shepherd who will go out of his way searching for a single lost lamp

This same Jesus who said God’s love was like an old lady who turned her house upside down looking for a dime

This same Jesus says salvation is impossible for the rich.

The disciples, who’ve grown up believing that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, they ask Jesus: what do you mean it’s impossible?

I mean, it’s about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded 7 x 10 foot camel through the eye of a needle.

Jesus says.

Or, as we might say today, when it comes to heaven the rich have a snowball’s chance in hell.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Just kidding.

Actually, the story’s maybe not as bad as it sounds.

As the ancient Church Father, Origen, pointed out, the Aramaic word for camel (kamelon) is almost identical to the Aramaic word for nautical cable (kamilon).

It’s just 1 letter difference. It could be as simple as a copyist’s error.

So when Jesus says ‘impossible’ he doesn’t mean camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle impossible.

He instead means that the rich getting into heaven is more like threading a mariner’s rope through the eye of a needle.

 

See, that’s more comforting right? Not really?

If nothing else, we can seek solace in the fact that Jesus didn’t say this to everyone.

Jesus didn’t tell his 12 disciples to sell everything and give it to the poor. Sure they dropped fishing nets and left boats behind in the water and walked away from homes and, presumably, families inside them.

But Jesus didn’t tell them they had to or heaven was null and void.

And when a lawyer- who definitely wasn’t poor- asks Jesus this very same question about eternal life, the lawyer doesn’t get an impossible image of a camel squeezing through a needle.

He gets a story about a Good Samaritan.

And the woman at the well, when she asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell her ‘Go and give away everything for the poor.’

Jesus tells her ‘Go and sin no more.’

So before you get all worked up about this Gospel passage, just remember that Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. Jesus doesn’t pull the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle comparison for everyone. He doesn’t say salvation is impossible for everyone.

He just says it to the rich, about the rich.

So as long as we’re not rich, we’re in the clear.

We can love our neighbor as ourself. We can go and sin no more.

We don’t have to worry that our salvation is impossible.

But how do you know?

If you’re rich?

After all, rich people are notoriously adept at deluding themselves.

In study after study, sociologists have shown how rich people seldom think of themselves as rich. Hardly ever.

It’s always the person above them, in front of them, who has and makes more who’s wealthy. Not them.

Rich people rarely think of themselves as rich.

Even if we were rich, chances are we wouldn’t think we were. So how do you know?

A few years ago, Money Magazine surveyed its readers and asked them how much they would need in liquid assets to consider themselves wealthy.

Guess how much? 5 million dollars.

That seems a little high to me.

But here’s the thing-

When it comes to wealth, we don’t need to agree on tax brackets or net worth.

We don’t need to debate exact amounts or dollar figures because we can easily identify a rich based on some very specific behaviors.

Some ‘you might be a rich person if’ behaviors.

Because rich people have so much money they do some crazy, strange things that are easy to point out.

For example, one of the things rich people do is called ‘upgrade.’

Maybe you’ve read about it. It’s when a rich person has something that works, perfectly, and then they go out and get another just like it, only a litter newer.

And then they have 2.

Strange right?

Like I said, we don’t have to agree on net worth because we can I.D. rich people by the crazy things they do they have so much money.

Don’t believe me?

Listen to this:

Rich people will go into a kitchen, a kitchen with countertops, a microwave and an oven, and guess what they’ll do

They’ll rip it all out.

And then…they’ll replace it.

With countertops, a microwave and an oven.

You’re smiling because it’s crazy right?

That’s why we don’t need to agree on how much money makes a person rich because we can identify a rich person based on what they do.

Some rich people I know, they’ll go to the mall and they’ll wait in line outside the Apple Store, and let me tell you rich people hate waiting in line.

But they’ll wait in line at the Apple Store for an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours. And while they wait, they’ll pull out their iPhone and they’ll post on Facebook: ‘At the Apple Store, waiting to get my new iPhone.’

Rich people do such strange things they make themselves obvious.

Something else rich people do- maybe you’ve heard about this before.

They’ll open up a refrigerator filled with food, and they’ll look inside and then they’ll say the craziest thing: ‘There’s nothing to eat.’

It’s true.

I know rich people who will do the same thing in front of their closet.

They’ll stand in front of a closet full of clothes and they’ll say: ‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’

And the truth is, they’ve got work clothes, workout clothes, afterwork clothes and work in the yard clothes.

It’s ridiculous I know.

Don’t say anything, but I know this one rich woman. She’s got like 13, 14 pairs of shoes and she’s always on the lookout for another.

What could you possible do with 14 pairs of shoes? That’s like half of February.

You see, we don’t need to peek inside a person’s portfolio to know if they’re rich. Their behaviors are so easy to spot.

For example-

Rich people have so much stuff they’ll gather up stuff they don’t use- it all works fine- and they’ll give it away.

They’ll give it away.

And then, they’ll feel good about themselves for giving away stuff they don’t need in order to create more space in their house so they can go get more stuff.

I’m telling you, rich people do the craziest things.

But it’s not just the crazy things that make a rich person easy to identify.

How many of you know someone who owns a car? Any kind of car?

Only 8% of the world has a car. 92% of the people in the world would look at that person with the car and think ‘rich.’

How many of you know someone who has some way to drink a glass of clean water?

Because 1 billion people in the world would look at that glass of water like it was gold and lick their lips and think ‘rich.’

How much change do you have on you? Right now in your pockets?

Over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I won’t tell the IRS but congratulations, you’re rich.

How many of you know someone who will eat something today?

Because half a billion kids won’t.

This girl on the back of your bulletin. 

I’ve been to her home at least 3 times. Fact is, I can tell you for sure that my garbage disposal eats better than she does.

I’m rich.

When surveyed, the readers of Money Magazine said they’d need 5 million dollars in liquid to consider themselves rich.

 

The truth is- if you have a combined household income of $45,000 you’re in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.

You’re rich.

And I know, the way wealth works, you probably don’t think of yourself as rich.

I know, most of you, in this part of the world, in our part of the world, you’re not considered rich. But don’t forget Jesus was a homeless dude and probably wouldn’t find that a very persuasive argument.

It’s a dangerous thing when we think our world is the world.

It’s dangerous because we might read right on past a passage like today’s and not even realize that Jesus just said our salvation is impossible.

 

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The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answers by reciting the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet or cheat or dishonor.

But notice.

Jesus doesn’t rattle off all 10 of the Commandments.

Jesus leaves off the first 2, the 2 most important ones, the 2 of which the other 8 are only subsets:

I am the Lord your God.

You shall worship no other gods but God.

‘I’ve done all that; I’ve kept those commandments’ the rich man says.

 

And Jesus parries:

There is one more thing- what about the first 2 commandments? How are you with those?

Only Jesus doesn’t phrase it that way.

 

He asks it in an object lesson instead.

Go sell all your stuff. Put it on Ebay and Craigslist. Auction it off.

Take the money- I don’t want your money- give it to the poor.

Get rid of everything you have so that you just have me.

Get rid of all you treasure and you can have me, your homeless God, as your greatest treasure.

 

How does that sound?

Mark says the rich man walked away, ‘grieving.’

And that word in Greek (aganakteo) it’s the same exact word that Mark uses to describe another rich, young ruler in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he gives everything away, when Jesus weeps and sweats blood because he’s losing the most precious thing he has: the presence of God the Father.

Mark says the rich man ‘grieves’ thinking about losing his god.

As the rich man walks away, Jesus says ‘Huh, rich people…their salvation is impossible.’

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I know enough rich people to know that that rich man- he probably heard that as bad news.

It just goes to show how money can make it hard to hear the Gospel.

Because it’s not bad news.

It’s not.

Let’s be honest, rich people like us- we’re such sinners. Our hearts have so many idols, money is only the primary one. Our values and priorities are so compromised . We’ve hurt so many people in our lives and messed up our own lives in so many ways.

It would take a completely impossible miracle to save rich people like us.

I mean, it would be as likely as a rich man willing making himself poor. Not going to happen.

Our salvation is as unlikely as a King stepping down off his throne to become a slave. What are the odds?

It would be like someone paying an incredible debt that someone else racked up. There comes a price point where no one would ever do that.

It would like an innocent man laying down his life not for his friends or his family or his country but for a guilty man. What are the chances of that happening?

Our salvation IS an impossibility!

It’s like hell freezing over. It’s like pigs flying.

It’s like a dead man coming back from the grave.

It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.

Thanks be to God.

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The only people who are saved are the ones who realize that their salvation is an impossible miracle.

An act of God.

A gift I don’t deserve and could never purchase.

Something that was bought at great cost but has been freely given…to me.

Once that Gospel transforms your heart, once it becomes your treasure, once it becomes the most precious identity-forming thing in your life, it changes everything.

Once the Gospel transforms your heart, you realize that asking the question ‘How much do I have to give?’ or ‘What percentage do I have to give?’ misses the point completely.

Because it’s not about obligation.

You should want to give all that you can because Jesus Christ gave it all away for you.

Even putting the question that way: ‘How much do I have to give?’ is a good indication that you haven’t experienced the Gospel yet.

You might be a religious person; you’re just not a Christian.

That’s why, for example, it never works out when people say ‘I’ll give more once I make this much money, once I’m at this stage in my career, once the kids are gone, once this bill is paid off.’

Odds are, you won’t.

Because it’s not a money issue. It’s a God issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

Statistically, the more money a person makes the less they give as a percentage of their income.

Because the more stuff you have, one, single gift doesn’t seem quite as important does it? The more provisions you have, the less you need a Provider.

It’s not a money issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

It’s not about asking how much you have to give.

It’s about having your attitude about money- and everything else- shaped by the Cross.

It’s not about percentages or pocket change.

It’s about giving and living sacrificially.

And by definition, giving and living sacrificially means it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It’s costs something. It’s not easy. It strains you.

Look, full disclosure: you pay my salary.

So if you want to chalk this up to a self-serving, fundraising sermon, fine.

Don’t give your money to the Church.

Give it to Lupe to use in Guatemala.

But give until it hurts.

Give until it hurts because it’s NOT ABOUT MONEY.

Jesus didn’t want the rich man’s money, and God doesn’t want yours.

God wants your heart. He already paid a lot for it.

God wants your heart.

And God wants your heart to be shaped like his.

And if the preaching of Jesus, again and again and again, is any indication:

 

Nothing competes more for your heart than money.

 

Nothing competes more for your love of Christ than the pursuit and management of wealth.

 

Nothing works against you following Christ fully, you maturing in your faith, you surrendering everything you are to Christ, you making yourself available to Christ’s call upon your life- nothing works against you following Christ more than the pursuit and management of a lifestyle.

Nothing competes more for our hearts than money.

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So it’s always good to find out where our heart is, whose our heart is.

 

Now I’m not going to test you like Jesus did and challenge you to sell everything you got and give it away.

 

Because actually, you can find out where your heart is without all that trouble.

You just have to think about this one question and answer to yourself honestly.

Here goes:

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear:

There is no God. Your sins haven’t been forgiven, but that’s okay because there is no heaven and after you die you won’t be with God or any of your loved ones.

Or

You have no money.

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear: there is no God or you have no money?

Where your answer is, there lies your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

* ‘rich’ anecdotes and closing question owed to Andy Stanley.

Rich People Care Less

Jason Micheli —  November 7, 2013 — Leave a comment

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyWe continue our Enough sermon series this weekend with a look at Jesus’ reply to the rich man’s question: ‘What do I have to do to get into heaven?’

After a segway through the Decalogue, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.

The rich man apparently loves his stuff more than his neighbor and walks away, grieving.

According to the NY Times, he may not be the only rich person who simply doesn’t care for his poor neighbors:

Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them.

These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

Bringing the micropolitics of interpersonal attention to the understanding of social power, researchers are suggesting, has implications for public policy.

Of course, in any society, social power is relative; any of us may be higher or lower in a given interaction, and the research shows the effect still prevails. Though the more powerful pay less attention to us than we do to them, in other situations we are relatively higher on the totem pole of status — and we, too, tend to pay less attention to those a rung or two down.

A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.

This has profound implications for societal behavior and government policy. Tuning in to the needs and feelings of another person is a prerequisite to empathy, which in turn can lead to understanding, concern and, if the circumstances are right, compassionate action.

In politics, readily dismissing inconvenient people can easily extend to dismissing inconvenient truths about them. The insistence by some House Republicans in Congress on cutting financing for food stamps and impeding the implementation of Obamacare, which would allow patients, including those with pre-existing health conditions, to obtain and pay for insurance coverage, may stem in part from the empathy gap. As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them.

Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.

Freud called this “the narcissism of minor differences,” a theme repeated by Vamik D. Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who was born in Cyprus to Turkish parents. Dr. Volkan remembers hearing as a small boy awful things about the hated Greek Cypriots — who, he points out, actually share many similarities with Turkish Cypriots. Yet for decades their modest-size island has been politically divided, which exacerbates the problem by letting prejudicial myths flourish.

In contrast, extensive interpersonal contact counteracts biases by letting people from hostile groups get to know one another as individuals and even friends. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. Mr. Pettigrew, who was born in Virginia in 1931 and lived there until going to Harvard for graduate school, told me in an e-mail that it was the “the rampant racism in the Virginia of my childhood” that led him to study prejudice.

In his research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those demonized “others” were “just like me.” Whether such friendly social contact would overcome the divide between those with more and less social and economic power was not studied, but I suspect it would help.

Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed. Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyThis week we continue our sermon series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.

The scripture on tap is Jesus’ response to the rich man who asks: What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Matthew refers to the man as ‘young,’ making him one of the few young people mentioned in the New Testament. Mark adds that Jesus ‘loved’ him, making him the only person in the Gospels that Jesus specifically loves.

Luke leaves out both those modifiers, telling us the man was an ‘archon,’ a powerful civic leader.

Jesus responds to the rich man with 4 imperatives:

Go

Sell

Give

Follow

The rich man grieves because he has lots of stuff.

And Jesus replies by observing it’s damn near impossible for rich people to get into heaven, as likely as jamming a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

Fun story, right?

The history of (mis)interpretation of this text is almost as funny as Jesus’ illustration, with scores of theologians and preachers and biblical scholars trying to wiggle any meaning other than the plain, obvious one Jesus intended.

We don’t want Jesus to mean what Jesus so clearly means.

Because we all love our stuff.

Perhaps more than we love Jesus.

Our stuff has a powerful hold over us, as late George Carlin brilliantly demonstrated:

Enough: A Letter to My Boys

Jason Micheli —  October 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

fruit-of-the-spirit1This weekend we continue our sermon series on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.

Here’s an old Father’s Day sermon/letter I wrote to my boys that echoes the very same themes of simplicity and sufficiency in our lives.

Everything We Need: Galatians 5

 

Dear Gabriel and Alexander,

 

First, my apologies. I had meant to write this letter and give it to you on Father’s Day. Unfortunately I have this job where I have to work most weekends so instead you’re getting it a week late. In any case, I hope you will take this letter, tuck it away somewhere and save it for a day when you want some advice and life wisdom from your old man. I’m guessing that day will not come until you are in your forties so make sure you store this in a dry place.

 

You might be wondering if this should not be the other way around. Maybe you should be the ones writing me a letter. After all, what kind of self-aggrandizing, cheese-ball writes his kids a letter on Father’s Day and then reads it from the pulpit? Gabriel, if you do happen to ask yourself that question, the answer is your godfather, Dr. Dennis Perry. I got the idea years ago when I was just a teenager, listening to the letters he wrote to Jess and Ben.

 

You should know I went through a phase in my theological development where I didn’t think it appropriate to talk at all in sermons about mothers and fathers and children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t liturgical holidays, after all, and Jesus seemed to have had a complicated relationship with his own family.

 

I can tell you I’ve disappointed no small amount of church ladies with my previous refusals to preach Mother’s Day sermons. Obviously its because of you two boys but these days my thinking is changed. I can’t help thinking that if the Gospel has no bearing on our everyday, ordinary decisions and relationships then the incarnation- God taking flesh and dwelling among us- was kind of a waste of time.

 

Alexander, by now you’ve spent not quite two of your seven years with us. Just as if I’d held you at your birth, I honestly can’t recall a time you weren’t with us. As much as the extra weight around my middle, the weight of your head on my shoulder feels a part of me.

 

X, when I think of how far you’ve come since you first came to live with us and when I think of all the obstacles you have overcome, I’m filled with pride for you. And my faith is reinvigorated. I know your success is not because of your mom or me or even entirely because of you. I don’t often talk about seeing God at work in my life for fear of intimidating people who don’t see their lives that way. X, you are one case where I feel no need to be reticent.

 

Since we promised to be your forever home I’ve watched you go from just a handful of English words to turning the pages of Roald Dahl. This year I’ve seen you step out from your fear of getting something wrong to try new things- and, okay, maybe you should’ve been more afraid of skiing.

And this year I’ve discovered just how empathetic you are Alexander. With everyone. I can’t guess what path you will choose when you are older, but I pray its one in which you get to exercise this gift that God’s given you.

 

Gabriel, you make me laugh. I hope you always will. Some parents wonder what their children will be like when they are older. Considering how often I catch you hiding in the closet eating cheetos and cookies, I mostly wonder how big you’ll be when you’re older.

 

Gabriel, this year you’ve learned to ride your bike, your skateboard and to jump in the pool- all with reckless abandon. As the Fantastic Mr Fox says, that’s your trademark. This year you’ve also developed your potty humor and sarcasm to heights previously unmatched for a four year old. While some will say you couldn’t have inherited this from me genetically, I like to think it certainly has come by osmosis.

 

I can’t believe you’re four years old. I already miss the sound of you tramping down the hallway at 11:30 at night, wrapped in your red Nationals blanket, asking if you can watch Deadliest Catch with your mom and me.

 

But this year we’ve noticed other things about you boys too. For example, Alexander I’d no idea you could recite the Lord’s Prayer all by yourself, and Gabriel I don’t know when you learned to hold your hands out to receive- rather than take- communion.

 

I saw signs of your spiritual development all year, such as the afternoon this spring I listened to the two of you arguing in the backseat of my car about the nature of the Risen Christ. Alexander, I heard you positing that the Risen Jesus is ‘kind of like a Jedi, like Obi-Wan after he dies.’ Gabriel, on the other hand, you felt the Easter Jesus had more in common with Gandalf from Lord of the Rings because when he comes back from the dead ‘he’s sparkly.’

 

That’s hardly all. There was the evening at the dinner table when you, Alexander, matter-of-factly explained that Jesus and God are one and the same and, in your own words, you explained how Jesus was present at creation. Not too shabby for a first grader.

 

And there was the Easter night this Spring when we were all serving the homeless in DC with some church people when you, Gabriel, looked at me with complete seriousness and explained that we were doing what we were doing because Jesus had been homeless too.

 

When people hear this about you, its possible they’ll chalk it up to you being a couple of preacher kids. They’d never believe that in our house we actually talk more about bluegrass, baseball and the X-Men. Despite wearing a robe once a week and having some people call me Reverend, the truth is I don’t know how to plant this faith in you any better than any other parent.

No, the growth of your faith is a testimony to the Church- not just to Aldersgate Church specifically but to the Church with a big C, to the Church as a sacrament, to the Church a visible means of a grace we can’t see with our own eyes.

 

You’ll learn one day, if you’ve not already, that the Church is often easy for people to mock and parody. The Church can be easy to criticize and it can be a convenient scapegoat for disillusionment. Nevertheless, its every bit as true that the Church can transform people. Of that, you are already exhibits A and B.

 

Gabriel, one afternoon this summer while we were at the pool you pointed out how I had a couple of gray hairs on my chest. You then said: ‘Daddy, you’re old. Are you going to die soon?’

 

I like to think the gray hair is just part of my plan to look more and more like Sam Elliot, but even if that doesn’t work out for me the gray hair at least puts me in a better position to begin offering you sagely wisdom. Are you ready?

 

Here it is:

When you get older, one day and probably many times thereafter, you are going to wonder: DO I HAVE ENOUGH?

 

Enough what? you might be asking. Enough of anything.

 

I’m starting my 10th year in ministry and my 6th year at Aldersgate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people its that there’s one anxiety we all share. Its an anxiety about not having enough: money, time, love, health, security, faith.

 

You should know, boys, that question’s as old as the bible; in fact, they even asked it in the bible. A teacher named Paul wrote a letter about it.

 

Gabriel, you already know some of it. Thanks to Mrs. Mertins and the Aldersgate Day School you know all about the fruit of the Spirit. But somehow I doubt Mrs Mertins taught you that Paul writes about the fruit in the middle of a long argument about circumcision. I imagine it is hard to explain circumcision with construction paper.

 

If you were to read Paul’s letter now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was confusing, that you tripped over words like Flesh, Law, Justification and, naturally, Circumcision.

 

Here’s the thing- when you push all the confusing parts to the side, what you discover is that Paul is writing to people who wonder if they have enough. Only their question is: Is Jesus Enough?

 

These people loved Jesus. They believed in him and had faith in him.

 

They believed Jesus was enough to get them into heaven; they just didn’t think Jesus was enough to make sense of their practical, everyday lives. They wanted something else that would tell them what to do and what not to do, who to be, and where to go with their lives. So they hoped that something called the Law could give them the answers that, let’s face it, everyone wants.

 

We do not argue too much about the Law anymore, but the fact is boys: every moment of your lives you’re being bombarded with messages about what to wear, what to desire and buy, how to think, who to fear, what to hate, where to belong, what is possible and what you should aspire to.

 

So its no different than it was in Paul’s day. Everywhere you are confronted with messages telling you that Jesus is not enough to make your way in the world.

 

In response, Paul says we should ‘live by the Spirit.’

 

X, you asked me not too long ago what the Holy Spirit is. And I said it was like wind or breath, something that is everywhere even if you can’t see it. I could tell from the look on your face that that was a singularly unsatisfying answer.

 

I think in general Christians are too sloppy when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit because really its simple: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.

 

The Spirit is Holy because its Jesus’ Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus is at work in the world today. The Spirit does what Jesus did and if the Spirit allegedly does something Jesus would not have done then, chances are, its not really the Spirit.

 

When Paul says that we should live by the Spirit, he means we should follow Jesus: mimic his life, practice his teachings, apprentice our lives to his life. He is the mold we should pour our lives into.

 

That’s where the fruit of the Spirit comes in, Gabriel. Paul says that if we apprentice our lives to Jesus then our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Some bibles have Paul saying ‘There is no law against such things’ but, really, in the Greek, it says: ‘There is no shortage of such things.’

 

In other words, Paul is saying our lives will resemble Jesus’ life. And not only is that is enough for your life, really its everything you need.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you want- you’ve probably learned that already.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you need to be happy and free from disappointment and suffering.

 

But God does give you everything you need to follow him. That’s what we were made to do and that’s what the fruit of the Spirit means.

 

And that brings me back to the Church, boys- the Church with a big C. Because our lives are meant to bear fruit; our lives are meant to look like the life Jesus lived. So its not that your faith can ever be just one part of your life.

 

The moment you become a disciple your life suddenly becomes something for you to cultivate and grow. And you can only do that among the People we call Church. You can only do that by learning how to worship and pray, by learning how to give and forgive, by serving and sharing another’s burdens.

 

I hope when you are my age you have not forgotten that. I hope none of us have.

 

Love,

Dad

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyFor our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.

In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.

We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.

In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.

Or not.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.

Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.

That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.

Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.

They’re not freely chosen.

We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.

Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.

Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.

As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.” 

Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.

Freedom so conceived is freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something. Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom of God.

In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-driven) creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.

When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.

Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

As William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom).

And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as an act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as a free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.

Sin is not a free act or decision at all.

It’s slavery.

That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.

Augustine would point out  that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.

Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.

 

hand-over-the-money-sirThis week we kick off our annual stewardship campaign, that time of year when people who give to the work of the Church say ‘It’s about time the preachers are talking about money’ and the people who do not give to the work of Christ complain ‘There they go again, always talking about money.’

The theme of our sermon series for the campaign is Enough, which could be taken as a double entendre given that a good many people just want to scream ‘Enough!’ over any mention of money in church or any suggestion that discipleship manifests itself through sacrificial generosity.

Oddly, United Methodists have made it impolite to talk about, much less preach about, two things that any honest reading of the Gospels shows consumed Jesus the Preacher:

Hell

&

Money

Just take this old sermon from 5 years ago. The text is Luke 16.19-3. Proving why we eventually crucified him, Jesus delightfully combines both those taboo topics, money and hell, into a disarming parable.

Last weekend I officiated at the wedding of a friend of mine in Farmville, Virginia. After the marriage ceremony was over, I was standing on the sidewalk outside the church, shaking hands with people, when this middle-aged woman with horn-rimmed glasses rushed up to me, thrust her hand out and began pumping my arm up and down.

“Reverend, that was so wonderful!” she said.  “Your sermon was so warm, lovely and uplifting. Most of the preaching I’ve ever heard is either about money or its all fire and brimstone. Do you know what I mean?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything one way or the other.  I just smiled and moved on to shake the next hand, but I could’ve said: ‘Excellent! You should come to my church next weekend- Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria. Next weekend we’ll be talking about money and hell.”

Did you know:

Jesus talks about Hell more than Paul, Peter, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel combined?

Did you know:

In St. Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly talking about money?

Now that I can see that you’re totally pumped about today’s sermon, let’s get started.

To understand this morning’s parable you need to know that it’s not told in a vacuum. This isn’t just an isolated, independent story. It has context. You need to know who Jesus is talking to here. You need to know that Jesus tells this story to the Pharisees, the wealthy religious leaders who have been standing on the sidelines, sneering sarcastically. By the time you get chapter 16, they’re openly mocking and ridiculing Jesus.

Now, to really hear this parable you also need to understand how the Pharisees read scripture. For the Pharisees, wealth and possessions and material prosperity were signs of God’s blessing and favor. Today we call their way of thinking the ‘prosperity gospel.’ If you can picture the Pharisees as a bunch of grumpy-faced Joel Osteens- minus the capped teeth- then you’ve got the right idea.

For the Pharisees, if you HAD it was because God gave it to you…because you deserved it. So if you didn’t have it was because, well, in God’s eyes you didn’t deserve it. In other words, for the Pharisees money was not a means to some other good, it was a good in itself. It was a possession. It was a sign that God had found favor with you. Money was not a means to further God’s Kingdom it was instead a sign that God’s Kingdom had blessed you over others. And, as you can do for anything else, the Pharisees found plenty of scripture to justify themselves.

And then this Jesus comes along, and he doesn’t conform to what they think a religious person does or what a rabbi looks like. And they hear this Jesus say things like:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God will be yours, but woe to you who are rich for you have already received your consolation.”
  • “Whoever would follow me, first go and sell all that you own.”
  • “Do not worry about your wardrobe or your budget or you house or your groceries. Worry only about furthering God’s Kingdom and God will take care of everything you need.”
  • “If your wealth’s not serving God’s Kingdom, then you’re serving your wealth. You can’t serve both of them, Money and God.”

And that’s when they start to sneer. You see, for the Pharisees, Jesus wasn’t just different, he was dangerous. It’s not simply that Jesus didn’t conform to their expectations; it’s that he would change everything about the way they lived their lives. Jesus would invite God into parts of their lives where they didn’t want him.

So in verse 14 of today’s chapter, the Pharisees start to mock Jesus, ridicule him, hoping to diminish him in the eyes of the crowd. And Jesus, since he’s Jesus, responds by telling a story.

I normally hate people who explain stories, but today Jesus’ parable is too pregnant with subtlety and meaning to do otherwise. So, humor me and pull out your bibles and turn to Luke 16.19 and I will try to unpack this for you.

Verse 19- “There was a rich man…”

The parable Jesus tells is actually a storied version of what he preached in his sermon on the plain: ‘Blessed are you who are poor/Woe to you who are rich…You’ll get the Kingdom/You’ve already gotten your reward.” Jesus begins his parable by laying a trap for his hearers. He says: there was a rich man who wore the kind of clothes you can’t find in a store, clothes only Paris Hilton can afford. This rich man ate extravagantly every day.

And already Jesus’ listeners- the Pharisees- already they don’t know where Jesus is going with this. They would hear Jesus describe this man’s threads and his dining table and, just based on that, they would say: ‘This guy has made it made. This man is blessed. This man is righteous.’

Verse 20: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…” 

Like many wealthy people, this man has isolated himself from the rest of the world, from the needs of others. Jesus says the rich man lives in his very own gated community. Outside the rich man’s gate, lay a poor man. The word your bibles translate as ‘lay’ actually in Greek means ‘dumped.’ This poor man outside the rich man’s gate was dumped there by someone else. So not only was he poor, he was probably crippled too.

You will see that Jesus sets up the poor man as a mirror contrast to the rich man. The rich man is covered with fine linen, the poor man is covered with open sores. The rich man feasts opulently every day, the poor man begs for what falls from the rich man’s table- and Jesus doesn’t just mean scraps of food. In Jesus’ day, the wealthy would eat with their hands and then, rather than a napkin, they would wipe the grease off their hands with a piece of bread. Then they would dump the piece of bread onto the floor. The poor man’s not begging for leftovers or scraps. He’s literally begging for the rich man’s trash. Instead Jesus says dogs from the alley treat him like garbage, licking his open wounds- which, just to add insult to injury, makes the man ritually impure. Evidently, the poor man is too weak to even scare off the dogs.

The poor man is a contrast to the rich man in every way. As much as the rich man has, the poor man lacks that much more. Just as the Pharisees would’ve assumed that the rich man was blessed, this poor man- they’d say- was cursed. He must have done something to deserve his life.

But Jesus sets up an even more striking contrast. Notice: the rich man doesn’t have a name, but the poor man does. Lazarus. The poor man’s name means ‘God is my helper.’ You can even translate it: ‘God is on my side.’

In all of Jesus’ parables, in all four of the Gospels, Lazarus is the only character with a proper name. The rich man has everything, but he doesn’t have a name. The poor man has nothing, but he does have a name. What’s Jesus getting at?

The rich man is nothing more than his possessions; what he has is all that he has. He’s built his identity around his possessions so that he has no identity apart from them. This is Jesus saying that if you don’t build your primary identity around God, you don’t really have a ‘you.’ You’re defined instead by your stuff, success, things, title, job, or rank. Like any story, Jesus wants you to wonder who you are in the story. Do you have a name? Do you have an identity rooted in God? Is there a you beneath your material life? Are you about something bigger than you?

Verses 21-22: “The poor man died…” 

Death comes to both men, Jesus says. No one tries to save Lazarus’ life, but neither can the rich man’s wealth protect him from death. The rich man is buried because he can afford it. Lazarus is not because he cannot. Probably his body just lay abandoned in the alley until it was scavenged by dogs, burnt or carried off to a dump. In Jesus’ day, not to receive a burial was considered a mark of shame, a sign of being cursed by God.

Instead of shame, Lazarus is carried off by angels while the rich man, Jesus says, goes to Hell.

Verse 23- “In Hell, where he was being tormented…” 

I imagine this is the point in the story where Jesus really had the Pharisees’ attention. Dennis begged me this week not to say anything at all about Hell- especially given that it’s the stewardship campaign and we’re running a deficit- but I just want to look at what Jesus is getting at here, and Dennis can plug his ears for the next few minutes.

Sometimes people will ask me: ‘You don’t believe in a literal Hell, do you? With literal flames and physical torment?’

And to be surly, sometimes I respond by saying: ‘Oh no, I think Hell is much worse than that.’

Today’s parable gets at what I mean when I say that. Probably, most of you all have in your minds a caricature of Hell. Hell, you probably think, is a place God sends people against their will for some sin or lack of faith they committed. Hell, in other words, is where God sends such people and shuts the door and closes off any chance for them to repent. And maybe you even think God enjoys the justice of it.

Now compare that to Jesus’ parable. According to scripture, no one’s trying to get out of Hell- that’s what makes it Hell. According to scripture, you’re only in Hell as long as you choose. Hell according to Jesus isn’t a place God sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen but false identities. Look at verse 24 to see what I mean.

Verse 24- “Father Abraham have mercy on me, and send Lazarus…” 

So, he’s in Hell. Notice what the rich man doesn’t ask for:

  • He doesn’t ask to get out.
  • He doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
  • He doesn’t ask for God’s presence.

What does he do? He says: ‘Father Abraham, it’s kind of hot here. Send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Those of you who are perceptive, close readers will notice something: the rich man knows Lazarus’ name. It’s not that Lazarus was hungry and begging outside the rich man’s gate and the rich man was ignorant of his need. No, he knows his name. The rich man ignored him. It’s not that he didn’t know. He didn’t see Lazarus as someone worth the expense of his time or his wealth.

‘Father Abraham,’ the rich man says, ‘send Lazarus to bring me some water.’ Even in Hell, the rich man still sees Lazarus as an object, as someone who should serve him. In other words, he doesn’t see Lazarus at all because, even in Hell, the rich man still clings to his false, material identity. He still thinks his stuff makes him something above others.

Verse 27-28: “…send Lazarus to my father’s house…” 

Skip down to verse 27. The rich man still shows no repentance. He still doesn’t ask to leave. He still sees Lazarus as someone who exists only to serve him.

“Send Lazarus to my father’s house,” asks the rich man, “send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that they won’t end up here too.” Now the rich man is worried about his brothers, but he has yet to realize that his problem, his sin, is that he never saw- still doesn’t see- Lazarus as his brother. The rich man goes to Hell not because he’s rich but he’s let his wealth pull down the shades on his brother’s need.

Actually, the rich man’s not really concerned about his five brothers either. Look again at what the rich man says in verses 27-28: “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers so that this doesn’t happen to them.” What’s the implication of the rich man’s request? He’s saying: ‘I didn’t know this was going to happen to me. This isn’t fair. My judgment’s unjust.’

Verse 29: “They have Moses and the prophets…” 

In effect, in verse 29, Abraham replies to the rich man: ‘You don’t need special signs from God to know what God wants with you in the world. What are you waiting for? God has told you again and again, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Hosea and Micah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah. God has told you over and again that you’re to care for the poor. You’re to lift up the lowly and bring your brother to the Table. That’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.’

Verse 30: “…if someone goes to them from the dead…” 

But the rich man doesn’t give up. He says: ‘Still, if you send Lazarus back from the dead, then you will get my brothers’ attention and they’ll repent.’

Verse 31: “…neither will they be convinced…” 

You know…some people are scared of fire and brimstone. But scares me…what’s terrifying about the way Jesus ends his story is his warning that we can believe more in the worth of our material lives than we believe in what God finds worth in.

What scares me is Jesus suggesting that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the importance of our stuff, our possessions, our self-made, false identities- we can get so caught up in our material lives that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change. That, sounds like Hell.

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.