Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ownership / Stewardship

(Gathering Meditation:     30 Day In-Home-Trial.
       Lord, I stood with one foot in the door.  I heard you calling me and I wanted to answer, “Here am I!”  My heart cried out, “I believe!”  However my mind was full of doubts.  Your promises seemed too good to be true: Salvation, Life eternal, Be born again as a child of God, Become a new creation – the old passwd away and everything new!  I’ve heard promises before.  I’ve been betrayed before.  It hurts so much to trust and have that trust broken.  How could I trust You, O Lord?  You answered, “Bring one-tenth of your income into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house. Test me in this way,” says the Lord of Armies. “See if I won’t open the windows of heaven for you and flood you with blessings.”  Really?  I could test You?  When you kept this promise, then I knew that I can trust You to keep your other promises.  I’ve put you to the test with my tithe as you command and I’ve proven that you are trustworthy.  I believe your other promises!
Based on Malachi 3:10)

Message             “Ownership / Stewardship”          Tom Williams      
  “He is no fool who gives what he can not keep to gain what he can not loose.”  I heard this quote last Sunday and it seemed to fit well with the message for today.
        Next week is Consecration Sunday for our church and we’ll be hearing about financial stewardship.  Financial support is one of the ways that we can support God’s work in the world and is an important part of being a good steward.
In the Biblical stories about stewards they are commonly slaves or servants that are given responsibility over a task or a piece of property.  Think of the three slaves who were given talents/money by their master before he left for a foreign country.  Two of the slaves put the money to work and earned additional income on it.  They were called ‘good’ and given rewards.  The one who only protected the money by burying it gave back to the master exactly what had been entrusted to him.  He was condemned by his master and the little that he had been given was taken away from him. 
        It is important to remember that this is given as an example for us to follow.  We are to take what we are given by God and put it to use for His good.
        Okay, so then the question is, “What belongs to God and what belongs to us?”  Do you remember what was in your hands the day you were born? That’s right, nothing!  That is what you truly own in this world, nothing! 
We often give a dedication prayer after the offering that says, “Of Thy own have we given Thee, O Lord.”  How often do we consider the truth of that statement?  How often do we realize that nothing on this earth is ours to keep?   How often do we realize that we are only tenants and not owners?  When do we admit to ourselves that we are only stewards of God’s world?
        I’m reminded of a story about the old-time farmer who sat down to eat and said this prayer, “Thank you Lord for this bread that I baked from flour that I ground from the seed I harvested from the wheat that  I grew in the field that  I planted on the land  I cleared of rocks with which I built the hearth to bake the bread.”  With his lips he may have said, “Thank You Lord.”  But in his heart he was feeling that he had done everything himself. 
        Perhaps the farmer should have been praying, “Thank You, Lord for this bread. Thank you for the wisdom to make flour ground from seeds you created.  Thank you for the rich soil you provided, and for the sun and rain in their seasons that caused the wheat to grow.  Thank you for the strength to work the soil and build the hearth.  Thank you for the health to eat the bread full of the nutrients you placed there, O Lord.  Thank You for this time of rest and refreshment in which to enjoy this bread. Amen.”
        Our Bible readings from the old and new testaments deal with a couple of good stewards, Moses and Paul.
        In our Hebrew Bible reading, we see the end of the journey for Moses.  It is recorded that Moses saw God face to face and that there has never been another like him.  Moses has brought his people to the Promised Land (for the second time).    Remember that it did not take forty years for the Israelites to reach the Promise Land.  It only took a few months to get there the first time.  But they refused to go in.  God gave it to them but they did not accept the gift.  Because of that, God had them wander in the desert until that whole generation died. Now they are back and ready to go in.
God has given the land to the Israelites.  They will still have to secure it because other tribes and other nations have claimed it as there own.  It is a gift but they have to take it.  This gift of God’s is much like our salvation which is a free gift but unless we accept it and use it, it makes no difference in our lives.  The Israelites were to conquer the land and use it for God’s purpose.  In other words, they were stewards of the land – not the owners.
        In our New Testament reading, Paul points out to his readers that, although he as an apostle of Christ and he had a right to be rewarded for his service, he had not come to them with flattering words not tried to trick them out of their money.  He had come as a steward declaring the love of God in Christ to them.  So that they could also become stewards of God’s plan.
        Jesus has a lot to say in his many parables about stewards and servants and slaves.  Some are bad stewards and they lose their jobs, possessions, and sometimes their lives.  Some are good stewards and they are rewarded and promoted and praised!.  There is a common beginning to all the stories of stewards: at the start, all of them are trusted to carry out the commands and wishes of the master.  By their actions their hearts are revealed to be either trustworthy or not.
        Invariably the trouble with the bad stewards is that they forget who the true owner is.  They begin to think that what they manage belongs to them.  That is a dangerous mindset.  “Mine, mine, mine!” cries the little child within us.
        The good steward is always shown as the one who obeys the master’s wishes.  But more than that, the good steward is one who begins to think like the master – to have the same heart as the master - and to anticipate what the master wants - without having to be told.  “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”
        That brings me to my own story.
        I know that many people give financially to God’s work because they believe in God.  That is certainly not unusual.  However, my story about giving is a little different.  I believe in God because I gave.  Did you read the “Gathering Meditation” this morning?  That is basically MY story.
After years of disbelief, I had been asked bluntly if I believed that Jesus died for me.  I started attending church.  I listened to the preacher and the Sunday school teacher talk about the promises of God.  My emotions were stirred, or as Wesley said, “My heart was strangely warmed.”  It was obvious that these Christians had something that I didn’t.  I was drawn to it.
And yet my mind was cynical.  Certainly I was too smart to fall for this foolishness no matter how attractive it was!  What I needed was a thirty-day-money-back-guarantee.  I needed some way to ‘try out’ this God thing.
That’s when I came across Malachi 3:10 which says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
Really?  I could put God to the test?  Wow! Here was my guarantee.  
I took God’s challenge and started to tithe.  It was not an easy step for me.  I had precious little ‘spare’ money.  I thought it a good week when I still had money left before the next paycheck came.  But I quickly learned that God didn’t want my ‘spare’ money.  God wanted the ‘first fruits’.  He wanted His 10% off the top.
Okay, so this was His challenge.  If I was going to really put Him to the test, I had to follow his plan.  So I did.  I was so surprised to find money left at the end of the first month that I put it aside and didn’t spend it.  The next month I had more money left. 
        This did NOT MAKE SENSE!  And THAT was the big lesson that I learned: this God stuff does not make sense, because God’s wisdom is foolishness to men. 
You see a good steward has that child-like faith that believes what God says, - He will do.  Being a good steward requires an attitude change and in the way we think about
‘our“ possessions.
        I’ll admit that it has not always been easy and sometimes I have not proven to be as faithful as I want to be.  However, God has continued to be faithful to me.
        Now here is a question for us.
Why does God say bring our tithes that there may be food in my storehouse?  Why does God want our tithes?  Not for Himself, certainly, it all belongs to Him anyway!  It is because it is one way that God expresses His love for us, His children.  It gives us a chance to share, to be in partnership with the Almighty
Here is that same question turned around. Why should we bring our tithes into God’s storehouse?
I was given this United Methodist Publication entitled “Why We Give” and it says that, “Christians give through their churches for many reasons, including – but not limited to – the following:
        Because God first gave to us
        Because we love God
        Because it is what Christians do
        Because it is what United Methodists do
        To make ministry and mission happen
 Because, together, we can do what no one individual or    
 congregation can do separately

Remember, God does NOT need our money.  He does, however, want us to be good stewards and share in the joy of giving.  For giving is Godlike. 
Here ends the lesson.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Where Can I Be A Gate?

Exodus 32:1-14 and Philippians 4:1-9          
       Our scripture readings both deal with intercession.  In simple terms a person who intercedes stands between two opposing forces and brings peace and protection.  I was reminded that at one point Christ referred to himself as the gate in a sheep hold.  He stood between the sheep and the wild animals and thieves who would come to do harm to the sheep.  This is intercession.
       Our message from the Hebrew Bible is an interesting story that has so many possible sermons in it.  We could talk about how quickly these people turned their backs on the God who saved them from slavery.  We could build a sermon around Aaron who so easily gave in to the pressure of the people.  We could focus on the righteous wrath of God toward this ungrateful congregation of freed slaves.  However, the thing that jumped out at me years ago when I first read this account was that Moses argued with God and God relented!
       Let us take a look here starting in verse 7 “God said to Moses, “Go back down there. Your people whom you brought out of Egypt have ruined everything.”
       Did you catch that?  God told Moses “YOUR people whom YOU brought out of Egypt
       I want to ask the parents in the crowd to ‘fess up to something.  When the kids have just done something that just got on your last nerve, have you turned to your spouse and said, “YOUR kids are driving me nuts!”  Not MY kid or OUR kids but YOUR kids.
       God is saying that they’ve already turned from the way He commanded them to live. They’ve made a statue of a calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it. They’ve already made idols for themselves and said, ‘Israel, here are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.’ ” 
       God is saying to Moses, “You haven’t even had a chance to take them the commandments that I’ve given you and they’ve already broken three of them! “I’ve seen these people, and they are impossible to deal with.
       They are impossible to deal with!  I have four children of my own.  I love them each dearly.  I remember telling someone that I wouldn’t take a million dollars for any one of them.  However there are days I would have given you the SET for free! That is not true of coarse but, in a way, I can relate to the frustration that God is feeling.  Here He is just moments from fulfilling everything that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Here is the NATION that God had said would come from their seed.  This plan had been in process for over four hundred years.  In just a short time they would reach the promised land.  Land that God had made rich for them (remember “a land flowing with milk and honey”?). 
       God had brought Moses to the mountain to give them ten laws (the shortest list of laws that any nation has ever had to live by) and during that very time, they had turned to worshiping a god created by their own hands.  No wonder God was saddened and disappointed by this ungrateful and unfaithful mob of people.
       God’s plan had been irreversible changed by the very nation that He had brought into existence.  He was ready to go to plan B. So He said, “Now leave me alone. I’m so angry with them I am going to destroy them.”
       Gasp! What?  But God is a loving God who is willing to forgive over and over and over! (Remember Jesus saying to Peter that he had to be willing to forgive seventy-seven times?)
       Yes He is.  However, He has limits.  Remember the story of Noah begins with God saying nearly the same thing.  The people have become so far gone that He decides to tear it all down and start over – again!  He had been pushed past that 78th time!
       Then God promises Moses the same thing that He had told Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob; “I’ll make YOU into a great nation.”
       Moses could have done the same thing that his ancestors did, accept the covenant from God.  But instead Moses pleaded with the Lord his God.  He becomes the gate between God and the nation of Israel when he said, “why are you so angry with your people whom you brought out of Egypt using your great power and mighty hand?”
       Moses reminded God that it was God and not he, Moses, who brought these people out of Egypt.
       Don’t let the Egyptians say, ‘He was planning all along to kill them in the mountains and wipe them off the face of the earth. That’s why he brought them out of our land.’ Don’t be so angry. Reconsider your decision to bring this disaster on your people.
       Moses said to God, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. You took an oath, swearing on yourself. You told them, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. I will give to your descendants all the land I spoke of. It will be their permanent possession.’ ”
       Moses reminded God that it was God who had made the original covenant and then repeated it to successive generations of Abraham’s line.  This was not a contract that men had made with God.  This was a contract that God had made with men and could not be broken.
       So the Lord reconsidered his threat to destroy his people.
       God reconsidered.  God relented because Moses interceded for the people.  This vast multitude of people would have perished without the persistent prayer of this one man.  God listened.
       In the new testament reading Paul asks the congregation at Philipi keep their relationship with the Lord firm! And he encouraged both
Eu-o`-di-a and Syn`-ty-che to have the attitude the Lord wants them to have.
       There was a division in this church that was destroying it.  God’s plan for this people was in jeopardy of being destroyed by the people themselves.
       Paul intercedes and becomes an advocate on behalf of the whole congregation by reminding the ‘combatants’ to be open to the love that God intends them of have.  He is asking them to look past their differences and remember that they are both children of God and should love each other as family.
       Then Paul gives them guidelines on how to achieve this harmony.  He says, “Always be joyful in the Lord!”  That is so important that he repeats it by saying, “I’ll say it again: Be joyful!’     Remember the image of the gate on the sheep hold?  Paul is standing between the sheep and the wolf and saying, “Be joyful in the Lord!”  What amazing insight!  How can there be conflict where there is the joy of the Lord?
       So step one is joy. Step two is being considerate.  Being considerate means that you look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
       Now step three is never worry about anything.  You know what worry is?  Worry is the interest that the Devil charges on a debt you don’t owe.  Worry is nonproductive waste of time and energy.
       It is easy to say, “Don’t worry.”  But how do we do that?   Paul explains, “In every situation let God know what you need in prayers and requests while giving thanks.”  Turn it over to God.  Leave it in His hands and trust that He will turn it to good.
       Here is the good news.  If we follow these simple steps, then God’s peace, which goes beyond anything we can imagine, will guard our thoughts and emotions through Christ Jesus.
       Paul’s final thoughts on this conflict resolution are, “keep your thoughts on whatever is right or deserves praise: things that are true, honorable, fair, pure, acceptable, or commendable.”
       As you read the Bible it is very easy to find examples of people of God stepping into situations where they became the gate between warring people and factions and brought about a peaceful settlement; examples where righteous people have provided shelter for the weak and guidance to the hurtful.
In my own life I can think of times when someone has stepped in to do intercessory work on my behalf.  I’m sure that you can think of examples in your life also
       We know that we have an intercessor in Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of God and acts as an advocate for us.  This same Christ commands that we do the same for others.  We are to be the bringers of peace and love to the world. We need to look for opportunities to be gates in the sheep hold.  Amen

Saturday, October 1, 2011

“Problems in the Vineyard”

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46

       The reading in Isaiah and the reading in Matthew start out a lot alike.  A vineyard has been established.  A wall has been built around it.  Rocks, shrubs and weeds have been removed.  A watchtower has been built so that the fruit can be protected from the wild beasts and thieves.  A winepress has been built in anticipation of the harvest to come.  
       Just preparing the land has most likely taken the first year in the life of this vineyard. And finally the vineyard is planted with grape vines.  Each plant placed by hand into the hole and the soil carefully replaced around it being sure not to leave air pockets.  Usually a little dirt is added, a little water is added, a little dirt is added a little water is added, a little dirt etc. until the hole is filled.
       Now comes the careful watering.  Until the root system is established the ground must be kept moist but not wet.  Too much water will drown the young plants.  Gradually the dry plantings will begin to show signs of green, signs of growth. 
       Now the next four years is spent tending the vines, pruning, supporting and training them to the trellis.  Plus tending the ground, keeping in loose enough for the water to soak in.  And keeping the weeds and varmints out goes on for a long time before it gets to the harvest stage.
       Sometimes when we read these illustrations we fail to realize the amount of time the landowner (God) has put into this vineyard (us).
       Now in the Isaiah story, the good grapes have gone wild.  The expected harvest will not take place.  Imagine all that work and nothing to show for it!  No wonder the owner wants to withdraw from this piece of property and let it go back to its uncultivated nature.
       God had planted his vineyard.  He nurtured it and trained it.  He had built a vineyard / a nation.  He settled them in the perfect spot for them to grow.  He had given ten simple laws for them to follow, though they themselves added many more from their interpretation of His laws.  God had done all that he could do to insure its survival and yet it had gone wild.  God was not pleased.
       In the Matthew reading Jesus is reinterpreting the Isaiah story and saying that the landowner after doing all he could to get the vineyard established had turned the day to day care to some tenants.  The harvest is done and now it is time to collect his share of the produce.  Being still in a far country, he sent his servants to the workers to collect his share of the produce as agreed upon. 
       The tenants in their greed decided that THEY had done all the work for this crop (which was only THEIR point of view because they were discounting all the time, money and effort the owner had put into it first).  But in their greed they chose not to give the owner his share. 
       Remember that we are really talking about God and – well – us!  How often have we denied that it ALL belongs to God?  We are only stewards.  And yet, we look around us and say, “Look what I have done! Or See what I have made!” 
       My three-year-old great granddaughter is at that stage where she is defining boundaries. She’ll look at me as I’m getting a glass of water and say, “That is not YOUR glass, gran’pa.  That’s Daddy’s glass.” Or “This is not MY backpack.  This is Sissy’s!”  Well, this is not MY world.  It is God’s, along with everything else in existence.  But praise God He let’s me use it.
       Remember what you had in your pocket the day you were born?  That’s right – nothing!  And that is all that belongs to you - nothing.  By God’s grace we have what we have and only asks for a small token to be returned to His service.
       Now some of you are maybe starting to think I’m talking about tithing.  Well I am, a little, but that’s not all.  Yes, as far back as the Garden of Eden a sacrifice, was given to God.
       That reminds me of a cartoon I saw of a family sitting in a restaurant.  The son turns to his dad and says, “Why does the waitress get 20% and God only gets 10?  Let us not begrudge God’s his 10% but be thankful that He lets us have the 90%. 
       Okay, so now that I’ve talked about tithing let’s get down to what God REALLY wants from us.  He wants our love.  He wants us to honor him by doing that which he has set before us.  He wants us to care for His creation like good stewards.
       You see, He has a job for each of us.  All it takes is for us to love Him enough – to trust Him enough.  And then we need to give God the thanks and the glory that are rightfully his.
       Back to the illustration: The workers took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned a third to death.
       Instead of seeking revenge or retribution for these deaths, the owner is still only trying to receive his portion of the harvest as is his right.  So the landowner sent more servants. But the workers treated them the same way. 
       Stepping out of the metaphor and into reality for a moment, let’s look at who these servants were.  Well these were the judges, prophets and righteous people that God sent to his people to get them back in alignment with his purpose.  In this day and age we would recognize them as being Pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian musicians, Christian authors as well as our family and friends who offer us sound advice.  Time to ask ourselves how well we have received these servants of God.  I doubt that any in this congregation have actually beaten and killed God's messengers.  However, have we received them with the love and with justice as God requires?
       Then Jesus says, “Finally, he sent his son to them. He thought, ‘They will respect my son.’ “When the workers saw his son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him and get his inheritance.’
       Now we know that approach is pure foolishness.  Killing the son in no way puts them in line to inherit anything but the father’s wrath!  But greed and other sins can cloud our judgments and make us do really stupid things.
       So the tenants grabbed the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
       Jesus was of course talking about himself here!  He knew what these rebellious people were planning for him.  But Jesus never backed down.  Instead he asks these leaders, “Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those workers?” 
       Jesus is checking: do they really not understand right and wrong; or do they know right from wrong and just choose wrong?
       They answered, “He will destroy those evil people. Then he will lease the vineyard to other workers who will give him his share of the produce when it is ready.” 
       By their own tongues they were condemning themselves but had not yet realized it. They had not seen themselves as the “evil tenants”.  They didn’t realize that the “vineyard” was about to be taken away from them and given to those people that these leaders looked down their noses at.
       Okay reality check!  Who do we turn our noses up at?  Are we SURE that we are so much more deserving of the vineyard than they are?
       Then Jesus asked them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord is responsible for this, and it is amazing for us to see’? That is why I can guarantee that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce what God wants.
       Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken. If the stone falls on anyone, it will crush that person.”
       Okay, these guys might not have got the point the first time around but, when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this illustration, they finally knew that he was talking about them.  This angered them and they wanted to arrest him but were afraid of the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.
       Again, we have to be VERY careful with casting judgment on these religious people.  They were, for the most part, good people.  However, they were people so locked into their customs and mind sets that they could not accept what Jesus was telling them even when he explained it to them. 
       We need to be careful that we are not looking at the splinter in their eye and not aware of the log in our own eye.  For we too, can fall victim to the delusion that we are always right because we keep the letter of the law but do not always filter it through the love of Christ as he taught us and command us to do.
       Part of our communion liturgy says, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another."  So, during this time of communion let us each examine our own lives to see if we have the righteousness of God within us or if it is our own self righteousness which can blind us to the true purpose that God has for us.