Archives For Generosity

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s the sermon from this weekend from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

     Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead it’s just creepy quiet. And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. Neither the Donald nor Hillary is here.

Other than Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that.

And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No.

Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker.

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.

About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master was some sort of economist. He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world. That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that. There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

In the story, the master says to his servant:

 “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.”

But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:  “After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me? After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life. And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?! My Kingdom isn’t just good news; it’s responsibility. You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too someday.

 

Midrash in the Moment: Money

Jason Micheli —  November 26, 2013 — 1 Comment

IMG_1470Nothing tightens a congregation’s collective sphincter, quite like the subject of money.

Preaching about money and giving and generosity just makes people uncomfortable. This weekend I thought I’d turn the tables; perhaps it should be my turn to be uncomfortable.

And nothing makes me more anxious than preaching without any notes.

So on Friday, I asked people to send me scripture passages about money that they found challenging, confusing, or obscure.

I wrote them down on a spinning wheel and then ll just shot from the hip and thought through the passages as we landed on them at random.

As I mentioned in one of the services, if we were to put every scripture passage that speaks about money onto a spinning wheel like the one above we’d need a wheel that was 233 times bigger than this one.

Each of the 4 sermons were different this weekend; unfortunately, I’ve only got the recording from the 9:45 service.

Here it is. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Midrash-in-the-Moment-J-Micheli-11-24-2013.mp3

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

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.’

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

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.

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

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.

pastedGraphic_5.pdf

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.

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.

 

 Maybe.

At least according to this study by the Chronicle on Philanthropy. As news chatter swirls in the media about tax rates and entitlements, this study offers interesting, objective data on how generous we are with our money.

It’s an important question to explore.

After all, any argument to reduce entitlements for the poor must surely rely on private and faith-based giving as an alternative.

Just as surely, another could push back by wondering if those who advocate entitlements do so because they do not believe, or participate themselves, in faith-based charity.

The Chronicle study found that lower-income Americans tend to give more, as a percentage of their income, to the poor. The study also found that wealthier Americans give more when they live in proximity to those who are poor.

(Both of which may go towards explaining how our own zip code here in Fairfax scores so high in generosity.)

On both these counts, the study really only verified what churches have known for a long time.

It’s important, from a Christian perspective, to note how it’s proximity to need that elicits a compassionate response. To the extent that poverty is an abstraction generosity suffers. It’s about relationships, in other words.

In the same way that it’s easy to demonize homosexuals when you don’t know any, if you don’t know any actual poor people, your generous response will always be further down your priority list.

You have to know real faces and names and homes and concrete needs and problems.

And if, as Christians believe, generosity is a necessary expression of our humanity, as we’re made in God’s image, then our proclivity to isolate ourselves from the poor with sheltered lives and gated communities actually renders us less human.

The study also found that people of faith tend to be more generous too, which accounts for higher levels of giving in regions that report greater church attendance.

This isn’t surprising. What the Chronicle study finds is what Christians already knew from Jesus, who saved one of his harshest pictures of hell for someone who was willfully ignorant of the hunger and suffering of poor Lazarus literally at his doorstep.

This is why the Church has always emphasized not charitable giving but hands-on works of mercy for the poor. Writing a check to an abstract cause or a face and name in a magazine is one thing. Having to look in the eyes and learn the name and about the life of a person in  poverty is another, more transformative, thing entirely.

 Maybe.

At least according to this study by the Chronicle on Philanthropy. As news chatter swirls in the media about tax rates and entitlements, this study offers interesting, objective data on how generous we are with our money.

It’s an important question to explore.

After all, any argument to reduce entitlements for the poor must surely rely on private and faith-based giving as an alternative.

Just as surely, another could push back by wondering if those who advocate entitlements do so because they do not believe, or participate themselves, in faith-based charity.

The Chronicle study found that lower-income Americans tend to give more, as a percentage of their income, to the poor. The study also found that wealthier Americans give more when they live in proximity to those who are poor.

(Both of which may go towards explaining how our own zip code here in Fairfax scores so high in generosity.)

On both these counts, the study really only verified what churches have known for a long time.

It’s important, from a Christian perspective, to note how it’s proximity to need that elicits a compassionate response. To the extent that poverty is an abstraction generosity suffers. It’s about relationships, in other words.

In the same way that it’s easy to demonize homosexuals when you don’t know any, if you don’t know any actual poor people, your generous response will always be further down your priority list.

You have to know real faces and names and homes and concrete needs and problems.

And if, as Christians believe, generosity is a necessary expression of our humanity, as we’re made in God’s image, then our proclivity to isolate ourselves from the poor with sheltered lives and gated communities actually renders us less human.

The study also found that people of faith tend to be more generous too, which accounts for higher levels of giving in regions that report greater church attendance.

This isn’t surprising. What the Chronicle study finds is what Christians already knew from Jesus, who saved one of his harshest pictures of hell for someone who was willfully ignorant of the hunger and suffering of poor Lazarus literally at his doorstep.

This is why the Church has always emphasized not charitable giving but hands-on works of mercy for the poor. Writing a check to an abstract cause or a face and name in a magazine is one thing. Having to look in the eyes and learn the name and about the life of a person in  poverty is another, more transformative, thing entirely.