November 20, 2011
Scripture: Psalm 95:1-7a
Above All gods,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
There is a window, an entryway into recognition and response that our psalmist offers us this morning. There is an invitation, to come make a joyful noise of “Halleluiah’s,” to come worship and bow down, a gracious invitation to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving and so we have brought our thanksgiving to this place on this day, we have set our thanks in the abundance of our pledges amidst the cornucopia upon this festive altar.
This psalm, Psalm 95, the Word that kindles the fire of our week of thanks, has been used as a call to worship for nearly 3,000 years. These ancient words were used by the Israelites as part of worship in the temple:
“O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods,”
They sang these words as a processional to herald in the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival lasting seven days in which they give thanks for that year’s fruit harvest and this familiar psalm continues to serve as invitation for our giving thanks to God for the harvest in our lives.
Though, for many the harvest in our lives is not so easily recognizable as the Israelites’ fruit on a vine or the fields of corn and squash that the Pilgrims celebrated at the first Thanksgiving. It takes attention and mindfulness to recognize how God is working in our lives and most of us stumble in here on Sunday mornings, slightly off-balance and seeking the strength to make a joyful noise to the Lord despite the recent loss of a friend, the bleak diagnosis of a loved one, an aging spouse, a depressed economy, or battling depression ourselves.
Around this time last year, I observed my grandmother attempting to regain her mobility after hip replacement surgery. She stood, looking a mixture of fear and determination that she would attribute to her strong German stock, I’m sure; the physical therapist supporting her from behind, hands grasping her walker, appearing ready to make a break for it down the long hallway of the rehab center and out into the streets. But, the progress was slow, one foot slowly reaching out into the unknown, tentative and measured, until she was sure that her foot would meet solid ground. She stepped. Then, she began the same process all over again with the other foot. In many ways, this is the life of faith, exploratory, gradual, and sometimes even a bit awkward.
I feel I have been on such a journey with you all over the course of the past month or so as we have stepped out in faith together to talk about money and we have introduced this idea that our giving is a response to God’s grace in our lives. According to our psalmist, we are to make a joyful noise to the Lord in response to the grace we have each been given. Yet, as I have been thinking about this idea of responding to God’s grace, I have realized that there is an element that must precede our response to God’s grace and that is our recognition of God’s grace; we must plow through the fields of our life and lift up before God the particular presence and persistence of grace that we discover in order to offer adequate response in return.
John Calvin wrote that we are in fact so close to God our Creator that our awareness of the divine is a natural, innate quality that is woven into the very fabric of our being when we are born. But as time goes on, he says, as we grow and learn and are exposed to culture, ideas, and ideologies, we fall away from this intrinsic awareness of God and we are no longer able to so easily discern God’s presence in our lives. Despite the five hundred years standing in between Calvin, our reformer brother, and us, it remains the case that it is difficult to discern true grace in our lives because there are so many facets of our culture that attract our attention and appeal to our desires; there are so many false gods to worship, to which we are tempted to offer our song, our praise, our thanksgiving.
False grace lurks in shopping malls, cell phones and on the Internet, in political authorities and the media, in our homes and cars, we pour our sacred trust into all of these things that they will lead us to joy and fulfillment. Devilishly they beckon to us that they will set our paths straight, that they will fill our hunger.
As the country singer Johnny Lee heartbreakingly sang about true love, perhaps the same can be intoned about our quest for true grace,
“Well, I spent a lifetime lookin' for you
Single bars and good time lovers were never true
Playin' a fools game, hopin' to win
Tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places”
Otherwise easily caught up in a fools game, we have stumbled to this place on this day to recognize and give thanks for true grace in our lives, seeking to know, once again, the hand that formed us and carried us into this world; the God above all gods.
It takes but a moment to recognize our God that the psalmist proclaims, just one moment of grace to shock us into its Truth and urge our thanksgiving to the God that is above all gods.
One of the greatest joys of parish ministry is the proximity to grace that the office allows, for the church can be and ought to be and is a place where people are touched by the grace of God. Ours is the church where a bereaved family gathers out of respect for the dead and unexpectedly finds a healing word of everlasting life that they never knew mattered. Stumbling into this sanctuary, unsure of their footing, touched but by the grace of God.
Ours is the church where a homeless teenager quietly wanders in on a cold fall night, seeking a place to stay to be met with the compassionate and outstretched hand of one of our very own. Offering a phone, a ride, some bus fare. Stumbling into the doors of this building, unsure of his footing, touched by grace.
Ours is the church that provides local teenagers a village by the lakeside at summer camp, a safe place where they can lead with their truth, lay down their burdens, be who God made them to be. In this haven, each one is touched by the grace of God.
Ours is the church that solicits and hand delivers frozen, heavy turkeys each November to Interfaith Social Services so that families in need will enjoy a similar feast to ours on Thanksgiving day. Grace.
Instances of grace exist in equal measure outside of the church; for the lifelong addict who gets sober at 36, meets the love of her life, has children in her 40’s, and has the family she always dreamed of but never believed to be a possibility. But for the grace of God.
For the black man with a young daughter who is incarcerated at 22 for dealing drugs, so lost that he finds prison a relief from the destructive distractions that existed for him in the free world. Yet a few years after his release, he is offered a job at the Boston Workers Alliance and now works to help young black men become wage-earning fathers in the home. But for the grace of God.
For, even when we’re playing a fools game, stumbling around in the dark, Calvin and Paul promise that we will find grace – or it will find us – one way or another. The question is how will we respond? Without a response, the grace we receive is cheaply earned as Bonheoffer coined and, as Paul warns in 2 Corinthians, we will have accepted the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1).
This time of year I often wonder where the thanks falls for those who don’t recognize God at work in their lives. People are thankful for their family, for their health, for their jobs, and belongings, perhaps. But as they pass the turkey and stuffing, where do they direct their thanks for the grace and blessings in their lives if not to God? Like a lit candle, I imagine their gratitude gradually burns down on one end and evaporates like smoke into thin air on the other. A fleeting moment of thanks.
Psalm 95 summons our response, inviting us to come, sing to the Lord, make a joyful noise, bring our thanksgiving, for the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. Through our giving thanks, we will be filled. This morning’s pledge dedication is this community’s recognition and response to God’s grace in our lives, for those moments when we have stepped out into the unknown, unsteady, tentative, and fearful, and somehow our feet have met solid ground. But for the grace of God.
This morning our thanks falls fully on God.
November 13, 2011
Scripture: Luke 12: 13-21
Rich Toward God,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
I remember the first time I saw Joel Osteen on television. It was a Saturday morning and I woke up to find Bill drinking his coffee and completely engrossed in a televangelist program. Now, I can assure you, this is not a regular occurrence (the televangelist program part, that is). “This guy’s great!” Bill exclaimed. Curious, and to be honest a bit concerned about this new lapse in character, I sat down next to him on the couch and watched.
Have any of you listened to Joel Osteen? How many of you have heard of Joel Osteen?
I’ll never forget that in this particular segment that we were watching, he told a story of a “hillbilly family” as he referred to them, a family that had never left their small town, they had never watched television or listened to the radio, and they decided to take a vacation to New York City. The first day they were there the father took his son to see a famous skyscraper. They were so impressed, they were especially intrigued by the elevator. This very old woman came along and pressed a button and then the walls opened up right in front of them. She stepped into a room and then the walls closed back up. They sat there contemplating what they had just seen. About that time the walls opened back up and out stepped a beautiful, 24-year old woman. In disbelief, the son said, “Dad, what just happened?”
The dad said, “I don’t know son, but get your mother.”
And the audience in the stadium of oh, I don’t know, probably several thousand there that day roared in laughter at this punch line.
Mr. Osteen, or simply Joel as his mega church followers call him, was preaching on John 15: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in Me, you will bear much fruit and your fruit will remain.” Joel’s interpretation of this passage goes something like this: If you are a good person and if you believe in God, then God will eventually reward you with the fruits of happiness and stability in your life – you will be successful, wealthy, and prosperous – the walls of opportunity will open before you and you will be pleased to find both youth and beauty waiting for you on the other side.
Now, I’ll give it to him, he was funny and engaging. He was charismatic. He was inspiring. And, his message was feel-good.
Joel Osteen is not the first to preach the Prosperity Gospel. His is not a theology that fell from the sky. There have been many variations of American Christianity, particularly throughout the 20th century, from strains of the New Thought movement to “Thinkonomics,” that perpetuate this notion that belief in God and giving to the Church will result in the fruits of our own wealth and material benefit.
In the 1970s, Rev. Ike, pastor of a large, 5,000 member church in New York City, would often tell his congregation to, “Close your eyes and see green.” There’s no way you can equate God with poverty, he preached, pointing out that biblical images of Heaven feature streets of gold and other signs of luxury. And he handed out money sheets. Sheets of paper with a picture of $100 bills on it, telling people to hold the piece of paper in their right hand and pray, and then send money back to him in an envelope.
I can’t help but think how easy my job would be if I could just get up here and preach that if you give the church your money, you will be guaranteed a rate of return that will be paid back to you in immense wealth and prosperity. And, really, how easy your job would be if this were the message we’re to receive because it would mean that our faith is completely self-serving and not so counter-cultural after all. But, we know this is not the gospel that Jesus preaches. Rather, this is the gospel of greed that paints the glory and beauty of our lives with the amount of money in our bank account and the abundance of our possessions.
In fact, in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus speaks directly against such an ideology; telling the man in the crowd who wants his brother to divide his family inheritance with him, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15).
Yet, this consumerist faith that glorifies greed is what sells in our culture. While many true gospel churches are shutting their doors, the churches that preach the Prosperity Gospel are mega. They have multiple campuses with coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants inside. People across the country readily buy into the packaging of Christian life as a consumer commodity, as a customizable experience or a promise of salvific riches.
What I find so fascinating is that despite the consumer-driven, materialistic culture we live in, we are still so hesitant to talk about money on a personal level, not only in our churches but also in every arena of our lives. I imagine that the people in Rev. Ike’s congregation can readily hold pieces of paper and pray for a windfall, but not so readily admit their debt to a friend over coffee or share financial anxieties with someone as close as a parent or a spouse. Why are we so uncomfortable talking about money? To do so is like airing our dirty laundry in public.
As part of our coursework in my UCC polity class in Divinity School we took a trip to the Mass Conference Center in Framingham and we met with the Conference staff. During our conversation about Stewardship Minister and President, Jim Antal shared the story of when he was serving a small church in Connecticut and he had preached several times on the topic of money. After one service he received an anonymous note from a parishioner that read, “Pastor, Please stop talking about money! It’s so crass.”
The very next Sunday, when he got up to preach, he took with him a bible out of which he had taken a pair of scissors and cut all of the passages that talk about money. The book looked as if it had been absolutely decimated. What was left were some sad looking sheets of paper between two covers. He held up this bible before his congregation and told them that this is what the Bible would look like if we took out all the places where Jesus and Paul and the Prophets and God teach and talk about money.
And for those of you who are sitting there worrying and wondering…uh oh, is she going to talk about money every week? No, I will not be talking about money every week or even every other. But, every now and then not only during the annual Stewardship Campaign, but also throughout the year, I will preach on the topic of money, possessions, and giving.
I will do this not because it is easy for me to talk about money, because I can assure you it’s not. But I am making a commitment to do this as your pastor because money matters to Jesus and so it should matter to us. Jesus talks an awful lot about money. Jesus talks about money in the gospels more than anything else: more than love, more than healing, more than forgiveness and sin. As Rev. Jean Lenk reminded us when she was here, the only thing that Jesus talks about more than money is the kingdom of God. But, believe it or not, Jesus did not talk about money so much because he wanted every church for generations to come to have a balanced budget or a successful stewardship campaign.
Jesus talked about money because in doing so he wanted to expose the natural propensity toward greed and selfishness that each one of us possesses. Perhaps nowhere is he more direct on the matter than in this morning’s gospel lesson of the parable of the rich fool. Jesus tells the story of a man whose land produced an abundant crop one season and instead of rejoicing in God for blessing him with this abundance, the man complains about not having enough room to store all of his extra grain and goods. The man’s solution: build several larger barns so that he can store all that he has and be set for many years to come. Jesus tells us that God calls this rich man a fool and ends the parable by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Lk 12:21).
Jesus talked about money because he wants us to be rich toward God, generous in spirit and abounding in faith. Jesus talked about money because our attitude toward and treatment of money is a part and parcel of our discipleship. Taking a portion of what we earn, of what is ours, and giving it away to someone or something else is a spiritual practice. And we do so without the promise that it will come back to us in a financial windfall.
You may have noticed that during our Sunday morning worship service there is a time when the offering plates are passed around the congregation. Now, the purpose of this practice is not to put money in the church’s pocket. I can assure you that the church is not going to get rich off of the loose offering. The purpose of this time during worship is the same as that of our time of Scripture reading and prayer: it is a faith practice that works to deepen our relationship with God. Passing the offering plate is a moment each week in which we have the opportunity to heed Jesus’ warning, “To be on our guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
This year we have added an offering to the Children’s Message as well. Just as we talk about Scripture, pray, and sing with the children, we also ask them to give a portion of what they have away. We do this to teach our children the power of generosity and the reality that all of our good blessings come from God.
Making a financial commitment to the church through an annual pledge is another opportunity for us to confront our human greed, to begin to liberate ourselves from the secrecy and shame surrounding money in our lives, and to help us to grow in our relationship to God and our discipleship to Christ.
Next Sunday, during our Thanksgiving service, I invite you to join Carl and Diane Francis, to join Lorraine and Don Young, who spoke so eloquently last week about his faith practice of giving to the church, to join me and Bill and to join Marcia and Craig Barnes who have committed to matching mine and Bill’s pledge increase of 20% in the coming year, and to join a number of others who have shared with me that they will be increasing their pledge this year to bring your pledges with you to worship and to place them on the altar as a visible sign of our recognition of God’s grace in our lives and our commitment to growing deeper in discipleship through giving. Let it be our prayer on this day that in giving away a portion of what is ours, may we become rich toward God.
 McDonald, G. Jeffrey, Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, New York, NY: Basic Books (2010)
November 6, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 6:19-24
Show and Tell,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
Her hair was short and spiked and I found myself uncomfortably distracted by this woman’s multiple face piercings. I wondered what the metal ball that protruded from just below her bottom lip attached to on the other side. Didn’t that hurt her teeth when she smiled? Maybe she didn’t smile a lot, I thought, as I observed her serious expression.
We sat, side by side, on the metal bench waiting for our respective appointments at Father Bill’s homeless shelter in Quincy. Mine with a volunteer coordinator and hers with a case manager. We sat, side by side, on the metal bench, my hands quietly resting on my lap, hers busily fidgeting with the hem of her baggy jeans covering her small frame.
“When are you due?” She suddenly broke the silence.
“February, February 7th,” I responded.
“Enjoy it,” she said.
“I’m trying, it’s going by fast,” I said.
“No, I mean, enjoy that moment when you first hear your baby cry, when the doctor puts him on your chest. You feel like you’re heart’s going to explode.”
A part of me couldn’t believe that this woman was a mother. She didn’t look like most mothers I knew. I couldn’t exactly picture her baking brownies, knitting a sweater, or driving a minivan.
“Do you have children?”
“Yes,” her entire face lit up and suddenly she did look like most mothers I knew. “I have a beautiful baby boy…well, not so much a baby anymore, I guess - he’s 28. I had a near death experience last year. I was in the hospital in pretty rough shape. He came to visit me and the first thing he did after he came in the room was give me a big hug. It was like that very first moment in the hospital when the doctor put him on my chest. That feeling never goes away. Never. He was the greatest gift I could have ever received.”
At that point, the woman who I had come to meet walked toward us from a back office. I stood up from the bench to greet her.
“Enjoy it,” the mother offered me as we parted ways.
We began to walk the grounds of the soup kitchen and shelter. The volunteer coordinator described Father Bill’s mission to work to provide permanent solutions to systemic homelessness. She showed me their facilities and services. The men’s quarters, full of bunk bed cots, resembled something out of the military quarters inspection scene in a Few Good Men. Each cot was perfectly made, sheets and blankets pulled tight around the mattress and I noticed that two bags neatly rested on top of each bed. “Why are there only two bags on each bed?” I asked.
“They are only allowed to bring two bags into the shelter. We just don’t have the space to accommodate more than two bags per person. In almost every case, these two bags contain all of their belongings. Usually these men loose their jobs and then their homes and when they find themselves in need of shelter, they have to leave all that they have and pack just a few small bags to take with them,” She explained.
I thought about all of my belongings. I thought about all of the stuff that I have. I use two closets because all of my clothes and shoes don’t fit into just the one. I thought of my many scarves, bags, and jewelry. I thought of the boxes of photos and old albums, the family heirloom china, Bill’s old law school books, and furniture that we couldn’t find a place for in the new house that occupy nearly our entire basement. I thought of the linen closet, lined with toiletries, hair dryers and straighteners, cotton balls and Q-tips, extra sheets and blankets. I thought of our TV and computer, our blue-ray player. I thought of our beautiful wine glasses that I just love and the kitchen appliances, the food processer that we had received as a wedding gift, the mixer, and salad spinner.
How would I fit all of my belongings into two small bags? What would I bring? What would I leave behind?
* * * *
When Jesus saw the crowds gathering, he climbed a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee and he began to speak the greatest sermon ever preached,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…”
And he went on to preach about a wide range of topics, in metaphor and parable, through invitation and instruction, he addressed the issues where he saw the most need for ethical and spiritual guidance, where he saw the most need for the gospel in his day. But, the beatitudes in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is rightfully the greatest sermon ever preached because in it Jesus not only addresses the issues of his day, but ours as well.
Jesus’ sermon preached from the hilltops of Galilee resonates among us still in 2011, particularly where he speaks on possessions and wealth, for he says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21).
Jesus is saying, all of this stuff that you have, all of these possessions that you accumulate in this world are transitory, temporary, and fleeting. Invest in what’s real, what lasts, matters, and counts and that’s our relationship to God, it’s the love that we share with others, and the service that we offer to our neighbor.
And, goes on to add, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He’s saying: show me your money – where it is and where it goes - and I’ll tell you the truth about what you really care about, not what you say you care about, but what you actually care about.
Money. It was as much a dirty, secretive, shame-filled word in Jesus’ day as it is in ours because money is so deeply revealing. The amount of money we are able to accumulate reflects our ability, status, and worth. At the same time, the way we spend our money reflects our goals, our values, and our character. It is deeply revealing. Jesus is not saying that money is a bad thing, but that God takes a vested interest in what we choose to do with our money, for “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Notice, Jesus does not say, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”
Giving to the church is a faith practice that leads us to into deeper discipleship, trusting in Jesus that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Giving forces us to look at our earnings, savings, and expenditures through God’s eyes. Asking, what would Jesus see if he looked at our checkbook today? What would he see that we value and that we love?
The truth is that our need to give is far greater than the church’s need to receive, failed boiler and all. Giving forces us to ask ourselves how we would fit our lives into two small bags. To consider what we would take and what we would leave behind. Giving requires us to think and talk about that dirty, secretive, shame-filled word: money. Giving compels us to imitate the very nature of God, for, as we will sing in just moments: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” In giving we move into deeper discipleship.
Giving brings us back to the true treasure that God has given each and every one of us. It brings us back to those first moments when Jesus was there, upon each one of our births, blessing us with new life as we cried out to the world in our purest state, reminding our parents and the world of the purest of God’s gifts, of the life that is truly life; of the love that makes us feel as if our heart is going to explode.
Even and especially with a child on the way, Bill and I have discussed it and we decided to increase our pledge to the church by 20% this coming year. We have made this decision because we want our child to grow up in a community of faith where he can develop his relationship with God, with others, and with his community.
We have decided to increase our pledge by 20% because we want our child to be a part of a community of faith where he can learn to live his life in response to God’s grace, where he can begin to understand that his very life is a precious gift from God, where he can learn to live his life by the Word of God rather than the word we are fed by the media and culture.
We have decided to increase our pledge by 20% this coming year because we want our child to be a part of this community of faith where he can learn to live his life by the example of Christ, where he can learn to enjoy the life that is truly life amidst all of the clutter, the stuff, and the belongings that set out to consume our hearts in this world.
What would increasing your pledge by 10% feel like this year? What would 20% feel like? What about 40 or 50%? What would it feel like to pledge to the church for the very first time? Jesus promises that you would feel deeply rewarded, beyond all words or measure, as your heart would follow your treasure.