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November 2018

The Truth

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Truth”

Rev. Art Ritter
November 25, 2018

 

John 18: 33 – 38
Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him.

Two men had an argument. To settle the matter they went before a local judge for arbitration. The plaintiff made his case. He was very eloquent and persuasive in his reasoning. When he finished, the judge nodded in approval and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” On hearing this, the defendant jumped up and said, “Wait a minute your honor! You haven’t even heard my side of the case yet.” So the judge told the defendant to present his case. He too, was very persuasive and eloquent. When he finished speaking, the judge responded, “That’s right, that’s right.” Upon hearing this, the clerk of the court became very confused. He jumped up and said, “Your honor, this is impossible! They both can’t be right.” The judge looked at the clerk for a few moments and said, “That’s right, that’s right.”

We live in a time in which the truth is an easy thing to claim. We also live in a time in which it is exceeding difficult to reach a consensus on what is the truth. Our leaders present alternative facts to confirm truth as they wish us to understand it. Social media has become an out of control public courtyard of voices clamoring with self-claimed truths or truths posted from sources whose authority no one bother to authenticate. We long for a simplicity of black and white falsehood and truth and instead we find ourselves mired in truth that is the grayest of grays.

This summer, President Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani appeared on “Meet the Press.” He was asked why he did not want the President to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller. Giuliani responded, “When you tell me that he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that is so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.” When reminded that “truth is truth,” Giuliani replied, “No, no. It isn’t the truth. Truth isn’t truth.”

Oprah Winfrey has found some acceptance by using the phrase, “your truth.” Winfrey says that “your truth” is distinctive from “the truth” and in most cases it is more powerful and influential. By this she means that the facts of the situation do not matter as much as one’s perception about the situation that they experienced. Your beliefs about what you have faced is so much a part of you that they are true whether or not those beliefs are factual. While it is somewhat frustrating for me to accept this definition of truth, as I grow older I think I understand it more. Things that I remember and believe happened to me carry a lot of power in how I act today, even if I discover that those remembrances and beliefs aren’t exactly historically accurate.

Way back in 2005, television host Stephen Colbert coined a new term-truthiness. Everyone laughed back then but perhaps no one is laughing now. Colbert used the term to mean understanding something to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be. Writing on Patheos.com, Matt Sapp says that truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth. The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to uncritically accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

Writing about the Kavanaugh hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Matt Thompson voiced in The Atlantic, a view that perhaps many on both sides of the confirmation hearings felt. There was a wide chasm between two witnesses professing the same reality. While many expected an answer from the testimony, we got performances rather than fact and a desire for power rather than the truth. Thompson said we must now acknowledge that truth is no longer power and the battle for power has eclipsed the pursuit of truth.

I read this week where the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year is “webinar.” I guess I have no argument with that. I went back to check on words chosen from previous years and found a perfect choice made in 2016. The word chosen was post-truth. The definition of post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstance in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In a post-truth world, we seek out and lend credence to those sources of information that confirm our biases. Wanting to be right, wanting to win an argument or an election is more important than truth. In the post-truth world, truth is something that is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves and confirm who we are and our interpretation of the world.

This morning is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical calendar. Today is known as Christ the King Sunday. It is an acknowledgement that Jesus the Christ is Lord and King of all creation. He is the fulfillment of the covenant made to David that one of his heirs would sit upon the cosmic throne. In Jesus the Christ, God has brought the world back to God and established the Kingdom of God. On Christ the King Sunday we understand that we must be part of that kingdom by representing Jesus in word and in action.

The Scripture assigned to this Sunday is usually this rather strange and seemingly out of place passage from the gospel of John. This is a scene that we find in the extended Holy Week readings, of Jesus appearing before the Roman Governor Pilate. In this passage, Jesus looks nothing like a king. He stands before Pilate as an accused criminal, his hands bound, his face bleeding from a blow given by one of the chief priests’ officials. It is Pilate who looks more like the king, sitting in the trappings of a palace, wielding the authority of government and economy and army. Pilate is looking for the truth, in a way that we normally understand it, so he can deal with the situation logically and efficiently. He asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus turns the question back to Pilate and answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I
came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then offer the question that we all must consider, “What is truth?”

What was Pilate asking when he offered the question? What is the secret of life? What is life all about? Was he being sarcastic? Was he merely being the example of all of our human attempts to find truth in power, in beauty, in wealth, in knowledge, and in being right? Was Pilate asking the question with the correct answer already in his hands, hoping to win the situation, to convict Jesus who he was certain would give the wrong answer?

But Jesus said nothing. He just stood silently before the powers of the world. He did not say that his teachings were the truth. He did not say religion was the truth. He did not say the Bible was the truth. He did not say what people thought about him was the truth. There may be a part of the truth in all of those things but truth is not something that can be captured in a word, in a doctrine, or in a fact. Perhaps where Jesus stood that day said it all, alone and defenseless in front of the power and authority of the world, he stood as a contrast to our own assumptions and way of being. He simply was truth. He simply was the power and presence of God.

Truth is something that speaks in silence and in the noise of confusion. Truth is something that moves and shifts and comes at us in many different directions. Truth is something that we capture for a brief, unambiguous moment and then it flutters away from us leaving us wanting more. Truth is that which is ultimate yet exists in the midst of our everyday story. Truth is that which convicts us and inspires us. Truth is something that cannot be found in easy answers, in human logic, or in the desired formulas that we seek. Truth is the unsettling silence that comes when we stand face to face with God, the presence of the ultimate power of the universe speaking to depths of our soul, comforting and condemning us.

In a Lenten reflection, Barbara Brown Taylor remembers being at a retreat where the leader asked participants to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. When it came time to share the answers, one woman stood up and said, “I had to think hard about that one. I kept thinking, “Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?” According to the gospel of John, Jesus died because he was the truth, a perfect mirror in which people saw themselves in God’s own light. The light of that truth reminds us of who we really are and what we have failed to be.

When confronted by such truth, Pilate sentenced Jesus and then tried to wash his hands of any responsibility. The truth stands before us today. It stands not in ways that we might wish, in ways we can make it “our truth” or in ways that we can live in comfortable “truthiness.” In the presence of Jesus the Christ, truth exposes our integrity. In the presence of Jesus the Christ, truth brings to light who God really created us to be.

On A Boat

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“On A Boat”

Rev. Art Ritter
November 18, 2018

 

Ezra 8: 21-23
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

Hebrews 11:13-16
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Don McCullough writes of a Middle Eastern tribal chief who told the story of a spy captured by a general from an opposing tribe. The spy was convicted by a local tribunal and quickly sentenced to death. The general had a rather strange custom of allowing the condemned under his watch to choose between two options for their demise: a firing squad or facing whatever was behind a big, black door. As the moment of execution grew near, the convicted spy was brought before the general and the choice of the method was given: firing squad or big, black door. The spy hesitated for a moment and they quickly shouted out, “Give me the firing squad.” He was then led away for his execution. Moments later an aide came into the general’s office to get some signatures and the sound of the firing squad rifles filled the room. The general turned to the aide and said, “They always choose the firing squad. They always prefer the known to the unknown. It is common for people to be afraid of the undefined. But we gave him a choice.” The aide asked the general, “What behind the big, black door?” The general quickly answered, “Nothing but freedom. But no one will take the risk of such uncertainty.”

Thanksgiving is our holiday. With the exception of the Fourth of July, it is as American as a holiday can get. Thanksgiving is our holiday, a time in which the
spotlight comes closest to our tradition and our history. Those of us who are life-long or long time Congregationalists know the story by heart but many of you may not know all the details. As Congregationalists, the Pilgrims were our religious and historical ancestors. They were known as Separatists, who believed that mandatory membership in the Church of England violated biblical teaching. They held that believers other than priests should be able to reach and interpret the Bible for themselves. They lifted up the idea of covenant above creed and maintained that the church was not an institution presided over by a pope or king, but a group of like-minded believers whose sole authority was Christ. They believed that worship of God must progress from the individual to God not through priest or books of prayer. These Separatists broke away from the established state church and formed their own independent congregations. Some were jailed. Some lost their vocation. Other died from harsh conditions. Eventually some sought their freedom of religion in Holland. Later, as Englishmen, as people seeking to worship freely, they joined with those who sought a profitable business venture and boarded a ship bound for the New World.

We know the story of the harsh and difficult journey of the Mayflower, we know of the quarreling between the religious Separatists and business driven strangers, and we know of the journey that took them not to their planned Virginia destination but to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and we know of the need to establish a common purpose and commitment thus bringing the Mayflower Compact into being. We know the statistics if not the reality of the first harsh winter, that 45 of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower died due to the cold and disease. We have heard stories of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrim plant their crops and sharing agricultural information that enhanced the harvest. Of course we know of the First Thanksgiving, the feast to offer gratitude to God for bringing them through that cold and bitter year, a feast shared with the Native Americans, incidentally, a feast without pumpkin pie.

Yet much of what we know about the Pilgrims has been romanticized or perhaps even watered down to suit our interest and our needs. There is an awareness of them in our popular culture. Children actually study about them in school- at least I think they still do. Sometimes we see them almost as cartoon characters. We picture them in black clothing with buckles on their hats and shoes, who spoke in the language of the King James Bible, although none of that was really true. It is easy to take pride in what they stood for: religious freedom, bravery of commitment, originators of American democracy, and colonists who throughout their early years in Massachusetts maintained a good and healthy relationship with the Native Americans- and all of that was probably true. As good Congregationalists we name our churches and our fellowship groups Pilgrim and Plymouth and Mayflower. The Pilgrims are our people and we are darn proud of it!

But can there be anything more to our connection to the Pilgrim story than an historical reference? I mean, we can point at our Separatist ancestors with pride but does that resonate with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a Methodist and a Congregationalist? Does that mean anything to those who don’t care about denominational labels and history? And if the most significant contributions to our Congregational way of life were made by Pilgrims four hundred years ago, what does that say about our vitality today? If we market ourselves as the Pilgrim people, what can we do to make certain we are not just marketing cartoon characters or meaningless historical references? How can we use our Pilgrim heritage to inform the way we worship and serve within our present community and inspire our faith and life into our future?

Last spring I had the pleasure of attending the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches Ministers’ Retreat. The resource person was Dr. Kyle Small, the Dean of Formation for Ministry and Professor of Church Leadership at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. Small spent most of his presentation talking about examples of Biblical leadership and about how the church is to do in a corporate way what Jesus did individually. But at a question and answer session at the end of his presentation, Small offered some thoughts that really touched me as a Congregational minister. He spoke about how we are living in a world of ambiguity. There are no certainties anymore. Each day brings the threat of a new unknown darkness. Meaning can no longer be found in infallible principles, conclusive resolution and guaranteed outcome. Meaning must now be found in the midst of ambiguous journey.

Small said that as Congregationalists, we have the perfect metaphor of how to live in such times and we have it right before our eyes. The Pilgrims! The historic Pilgrims got on a boat without many or any assurances. They didn’t really know where they were going. They didn’t know what they would find when they got there. They could only trust that they would end up somewhere near where they thought they were going. That kind of sounds like life today, doesn’t it? They got on a boat trusting they would have enough food and provision for the journey, knowing that they really only had enough for a couple of months. They got on a boat trusting that they would be safe, all the while knowing that there was a certain danger in an ocean crossing in an old merchant vessel, and after hearing stories of hostile natives who might await them on the shores of a new land. They got on a boat trusting in their neighbors; trying to live a private life with strangers hearing every noise on the other side of a fabric curtain; hoping that the different interests of saint and stranger would come together to form a civil society. Small posited that the Pilgrims were the best example of how one could live the life of faith today. The unknown is the normal today. We can’t always find certainty before we are called to proceed. Faith is now found in the journey rather than in the collection of facts. The Pilgrims were a boat people, living by faith while moving through uncertainty; embracing change by being courageous enough to trust that God was always doing a new thing. We are on that same boat, navigating our way through a journey.

As Congregationalists we are not to plant our flag in the ground and ask people to stay fixed in a certain place or make choices to maintain certain beliefs. We are each to live by our faith, embracing the ideas of change and uncertainty and journey, knowing that God will provide what we need when we enter a new and different land.

There are a couple of old adages that fit sailors, people in journey on a boat. One is that “A calm sea does not produce a skilled sailor.” If one is to find joy and satisfaction in life, one must risk the occasional rough water. The other is “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” We cannot find God’s new possibilities if we stay in the same place, doing the same thing, walking the same path.

There is much truth to what we celebrate in our Pilgrim mothers and fathers. Their history is something to be admired, to never forget, and to even boast about from time to time. But we must remember that it was their tireless and firm faith that kept them moving forward and kept them alive. From them we can learn that one can try to escape complication and conflict, frustration and sorrow, but by doing so we limit the scope of our faith. When we trust only in certainty and depend on sure and evident answers, we will never venture forth on any journey that requires a larger compass or a bigger map. It is quite another thing to find the call of Jesus the Christ as a challenge to board a boat, to understand that life is an ambiguous journey that takes us to places where we never thought we would end up, a place beyond our compass and map and even our GPS. We are moved to take the risk of faith and see what oceans and lands are out there where we can have a part in God’s work. We are a Pilgrim people. We are on a journey. We are on a boat.

The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock. The committee organized to help us celebrate that event wrote some word perfectly appropriate for us today.

We thank God…
For Grace and Love
For a fruitful land
For a faithful people
For a place for faith, freedom and fellowship.

We give thanks…
For those who have cleared the way before us
For those who inspire us
For those who serve us
For those who sacrifice for us

We are aware…
We are not all we can be
We do not do all the good we could
We too often submit to fear
We do not use the courageous examples before us.

We give thanks….
We continue to be called a pilgrim people
To go place we’ve not been before
To sing songs we’ve not sung before
To meet peoples we’ve not met before
To think things we’ve not thought before
In the year of our God 2018
We are a pilgrim people yet today
God still speaks to us today
God is still with us. Thanks be to God!

All In

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“All In”

Rev. Art Ritter
November 11, 2018

 

Mark 12.38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

In December of 2011, the New York football Giants’ record stood at a mediocre 7-7. They had just lost four games in a row. The Giants invited Gian Paul Gonzalez, a social studies teacher and executive director of a New Jersey non-profit to give the talk at their weekly Sunday morning chapel service. Gonzalez had spoken at the chapel services before and was quite a popular speaker. He was a former college basketball player and seemed to understand the professional athletes very well. That morning he urged the players who attended chapel to be “all in.” By this Gonzalez meant that they should focus and offer their best all of their attention and efforts to the responsibilities of life. Gonzalez preached that in whatever they made commitments, they should give all that they had. It was designed to be a spiritual challenge and a challenge for them as sons and husbands and fathers, not a football motivational speech. It was a simple talk, offered to be nothing more than a balm for the spirits of busy and perhaps frustrated athletes. All in.

But something happened in the chapel service that day. The players who heard Gonzalez’ message took it to heart. They quickly told their teammates about it. The New York Giants took the theme “All In” as a rallying cry for their efforts the rest of the season. Soon fans joined in as the slogan grew popular. The Giants won their last two games of the regular season. They barely qualified for the wild card game yet won it. They made their way to the Super Bowl and upset the heavily favored New England Patriots. Gonzalez went on to be a sought after motivational speaker and the name of his company is of course, “All In.”

It is hard to believe that Halloween and Election Day are both in the rear view mirror of the 2018 calendar. This year’s Halloween celebration was much easier than normal for me. Amelia and her friend Ted came from Lansing to hand out goodies to the trick or treaters this enabling me to have the night free. This year Laura purchased Goldfish, Welch’s Fruit Snacks, Skittles, and Starburst to hand out at the door. I don’t know how our trick or treaters felt about those offerings but I probably would have been disappointed, expecting more chocolate.

Usually, in addition to Skittles and Starburst, we will have a couple of bags of snack-size chocolates. Things like Kit Kats, Whoppers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Heath Bars, and assorted Hershey products. Like most people I suppose, we tend to overbuy, not wanting to be caught short and not really minding if there is chocolate left over. I also have a strategy. I give out the candy I like the least first, giving out Skittles and Starburst in generous quantities, saving the candy I like best just in case there will be any left over at the end of the evening. Sometimes I will even go so far as to sort out a few Heath Bars and the Kit Kats and Whoppers, setting them aside for my own enjoyment after trick or treating is over. I know it is terribly dishonest but when passing out Halloween treats it is always important to keep back what I like to protect my own interest and assure my future happiness.

When it comes to Halloween candy, and perhaps quite a few things in life, I am not “all in.” I want to hold back on a few things for myself. I don’t want to give everything away so that I am protected in the future. It is better to be “almost all in.” I don’t want to be like the widow described in our Scripture lesson this morning who emptied her pockets of her meager savings and tossed her last two small coins in the temple treasury. She held back nothing on her commitment and Jesus noticed, even in the midst of all of the pretentious giving going on around her.

The widow’s example stood out that day. It stands out in Mark’s gospel. A few weeks back we heard the story of a rich young man coming to Jesus and asking what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus’ reply was that even though he kept all of the commandments he was not all in. His wealth stood in the way. Jesus said that he should not define his worth by possession. He should sell what he owned and give the money to the poor. The rich young man went away shaking his head. He had to hold something back. He was not all in.

Just a couple weeks ago we contemplated the story of disciples James and John who came to Jesus wanting to know what they could do to ensure a place beside him in the Kingdom of God. They said that they were ready to follow Jesus completely, right up until the part when he began to talk about sacrifice and suffering and being a servant to all. With those requirements, James and John were not quite ready to be all in. They expected something less demanding.

In the scene described by the gospel of Mark today, there is a lot going on in this story. Jesus was sitting in the temple courtyard, watching the crowd which had gathered. He noticed the scribes, walking around in their long robes and greeted with great respect by anyone they encountered. He noticed that they demanded the best seats in the synagogue. He noticed the crowd of worshippers putting money into the treasury box, including the rich who apparently were making a great show of their ability to contribute. And finally Jesus noticed the poor widow who gave up the last resource she had in life, two small coins. She withheld nothing from God. She was all in. Jesus teaches, “The others have contributed out of their abundance. But she, out of her poverty, has put in everything that she has.”

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that Jesus could not have picked out a less likely role model for his disciples. She says, “if Jesus had taken a Polaroid snapshot of the temple that day and handed it to his disciples with one question written underneath, ‘Where is Christ in this picture?’- They would never have guessed the answer. There were major characters in that room…smart people and rich people and people with degrees and people with name and faces. ‘She’s the one,” Jesus tells them. ‘The one without a penny to her name. She’s the one to watch. She’s the one we must imitate.’”

It is interesting to note that from the temple that day, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to teach his disciples more about his impending death and resurrection. Two days later at a home in nearby Bethany his feet were anointed with costly perfume, a symbol of his death and burial. Two days after that he sat at the Upper Room with his disciples, offering them of his body and blood before making his way to pray in Gethsemane. Jesus himself was weighing the cost of what it will mean for him to follow God’s intention. Perhaps on that day while he watched the widow go “all in,” he understood that of all of the people in that crowded temple scene, she was the one he was supposed to resemble. She had given all and he would be called to do likewise. He would be most like her. And so Jesus praised the widow who is all in, who gives her all.

Alyce McKenzie reminds us that in the passage that precedes this story, Jesus spoke with a scribe who, like the rich young ruler, wanted to know which commandment was most important and how he could assure his place with God. Remember, Jesus had denounced the scribes who were all about their own comfort and status and security, giving of what they think they can afford, sacrificing only what is safe and logical. The scribes Jesus warned against were always trying to trump God as the most important voice and figure in the place. They competed for power, for fortune and fame, always seeking to be most important even at the expense of others and especially at the expense of the poor. Jesus asked that scribe what he knew about being one with God and the scribe replied, “One must love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” He was right. But McKenzie says that there are an awful lot of “alls” in that commandment. She adds, “Apparently Jesus believed that all it will take is all that he’s got!”

That kind of teaching ran completely counter to the assumptions and priorities of the scribes. This kind of teaching isn’t something taught by the so-called wise of our world who emphasize goals of wealth and wisdom, security and strength. That kind of teaching worries me as I hang onto my protected share of Whoppers and Heath Bars and Kit Kats just in case I need them later. All in when I want to be just “kind of in.” The good news is that this kind of teaching is the work of God’s people and the work of the church. It is our call. God has hope in each of us. Trusting in God’s love, we can be faithful to God’s call and give of ourselves, laying down that which is important to us, to be a sign of a new reality, a picture of the Christ, healing and reconciling as we are able.

Living Generously

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Living Generously”

Rev. Art Ritter
November 4, 2018

 

Psalm 112: 5-9

It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.
They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through 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, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

 

I would imagine that most of you have seen the musical Les Miserable. I like to tell the story that I should have seen it twice but haven’t seen all of it once. One time many years ago Laura and I got tickets as a Christmas present but on the night of the show both girls were sick and we gave the tickets away. The second time we at least made it to the theatre in Salt Lake City. But Laura took ill during the first act and when I walked out to check on her at intermission, she was laying on a lobby bench with medical personnel surrounding her. As you can see, Les Miserable has been a bit of a jinx!

Nevertheless, there is a scene in the musical that takes place between Jean Valjean, the bishop, and the magistrate judge. Jean Valjean was befriended and given lodging by the bishop. Later however he stole the bishop’s candlesticks. The bishop reported the theft and the magistrate is brought in to question Jean Valjean. As the scene unfolds, it is clear that everyone understands who stole the candlesticks. Valjean is headed for jail. Surprisingly, the bishop retracts his charges and offers an excuse for the missing candlesticks. He tells the magistrate that he offered them to Valjean as a gift. Jean Valjean is stunned. When he and the bishop are alone, he asks, “Why did you do that? You know that I am guilty.” The bishop replies, “Life is for giving.” That is the principle that we recognize as our theme for Consecration Sunday this year. That is the principle of generous living.

A few weeks ago, Marilyn Sullivan told me about a visit she had once made to a Panera restaurant. This was not your typical Panera or typical restaurant however. At this Panera there were no absolute prices on the menu board in front of the customers, only suggested prices. Customers were asked to pay an amount as they felt moved to offer based on their appreciation of the meal and based on their concern and ability to help others who may come to the restaurant to eat but can’t afford to pay the full cost. The concept, called Panera Cares, was offered in a handful of restaurants nationwide, including one in Dearborn and one on the east side of the Metro Detroit area. It was introduced several years ago as a way to fight hunger and to bring the awareness of hunger issues to a larger community. I knew that this concept was practiced at a few privately owned eateries across the country but I was excited when Marilyn told me about it happening at Panera. I thought it would be a perfect sermon illustration on Consecration Sunday. After all, that is the philosophy that we advocate for stewardship giving. You give, not out of obligation, not because you are told to give but rather from an appreciation of the gifts that you have received and from a need to offer thanksgiving to the giver.

As I prepared to write this sermon I did some research on Panera Cares restaurants, hoping to find a lot of fodder to nourish and inspire you as you consider your own giving to the church. When I googled the program, I found some disappointing news. According to a news release from June of this year, the program, with the exception of one Panera Cares restaurant in Boston, is no longer in existence. And there went my planned sermon illustration! Despite the best of intentions, a suggested donation restaurant did not seem to work. People who work at Panera Cares offered their theories. One was that regular customers simply did not want to eat with those who could not afford a meal. The prospect of sitting next to someone in a soup kitchen type atmosphere was not terribly inviting. Secondly, those who were hungry did not visit Panera Cares. Thus, the program did not reach those whom it was designed to serve. Perhaps the poor did not feel welcome or accepted there. The restaurant limited clients to one reduced cost meal per week thus not really providing a meaningful solution to change the conditions of deep need.

But there was a third reason offered for the business failure of Panera Cares. That reason was that the suggested menu pricing left potential customers uncomfortable.  The article specifically mentioned the word “trust.” Those who entered the doors found it difficult to trust the concept of paying what they felt the meal deserved. Customers preferred to be told exactly how much to pay. Some wondered, “Did I pay too little, considering that I am also supposed to be paying for someone else’s meal?” Other worried, “Did I pay more than I needed, something that allows others to take advantage of me and am I better off eating someplace where I know exactly what to pay? People who were willing to give the restaurant concept a try were not really willing to trust in the concept: trust in the other customers, trust in their own uneasy conscience, or trust in the ability of the idea to really work. The author of the article I read, from the Washington Post and Fast Company said that Panera Cares became a place of anxiety and uneasiness rather than welcome and trust. People did not want to go to eat where they were either uncomfortable givers or uncomfortable recipients.

The theme for this year’s stewardship campaign is “Living Generously.” These words are taken from Psalm 112 where the Psalmist assures us that it is well with those who deal generously and who conduct their living with a sense of justice for all. Essentially this Psalm reminds us that true happiness is to be found in a life that honoring the intentions of God and that such living will produce blessings of its own. Our lives and our future are shaped by the way we mirror the grace of God in our own actions. Our generous dealing and just affairs, our compassion for the poor, our sense of priorities in life should be described in terms of God’s intention for the use of our resources of time and money and energy.

The second lesson this morning is from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. In this letter Paul shares some basic lessons on the Christian faith, including instruction on living generously. Paul reminds people that generous living reaps a harvest in return. If you sow sparingly, you will also reap sparingly, and if you sow bountifully you will also reap bountifully. Paul writes that God’s love is poured out on those who are cheerful and joyous in their giving. Blessing comes when giving is not an obligation, not a rational exercise that determines when enough is left over to be generous. Giving in joy and without coercion is what God desires. Giving generously, giving in cheerfulness, enhances the value of the gift and provides a sense of worth that can’t be measured by a price tag or menu board.

Finally, and this comment speaks directly to the idea of giving without obligation, Paul writes “you will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” Paul implies that if we really trust God with all that we are and all that we have, there should be no anxiety about whether we are giving too little or offering too much.

Church stewardship consultant and architect of the idea of Consecration Sunday, Herb Miller writes, “Giving is not so much a matter of being generous as it is an act of trust. We do not feel secure financially because we have things. We feel secure financially because we trust God to continue providing what we need.” Giving generously then is an act of mature faith, of discovering and acting upon the realization that if we are willing to risk giving, God will supply whatever we need. Instead of the anxiety of waiting until someone tells us what to give, instead of the weariness of giving out of a sense of duty, we give generously knowing that life with God calls us to give and that in our giving we will grow closer to God and find greater joy.

Last week, noted author and minister Eugene Peterson died. I will remember Peterson specifically for one story that he liked to tell. He was observing some birds learning how to fly. Three young swallows were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake. One adult bird got along side the chicks and starting pushing them toward the end of the branch, moving them with gentle force. One chick fell off but somewhere near the branch and the water its wings started working and it flew away. The same thing happened to the second one. The third chick however was not to be bullied. At the end of the branch it gripped its talons tightly, holding on even if it swaying unsteadily. The adult bird pecked at the chick’s desperately clinging talons until it became more painful for the little bird to hang on then to risk falling into the lake. The grip was released and the wings started flapping. The third chick flew away.

Peterson observed that the adult bird knew what the chicks did not- that they could fly and that there was no danger or risk in doing what they were designed to do. He wrote, “Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk and they can cling. But flying is their characteristic actions and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we humans do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth.”

Perhaps we try so desperately to hold onto ourselves and what we have to guard against the future, to protect ourselves from uncertainty, to be sure that we are safe. It is common for us to make careful and measured choices about our resources of time and energy and money. But generous living calls us to use the sometimes untested wings of giving. We don’t live generously because we haven’t tried, clinging to a safe place while missing the opportunities to soar. Yet Jesus showed us and the words of Paul teach us that life is for giving. Trusting in God to provide we are to risk that with which we have been blessed, mirroring the deeds of our Lord. Life is for giving. Let us find more way to give of ourselves generously.