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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

More Blessed to Give

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Malachi 3:6-10

Common English Bible (CEB)

I am the Lord, and I do not change;
        and you, children of Jacob, have not perished.
Ever since the time of your ancestors,
        you have deviated from my laws
            and have not kept them.
Return to me and I will return to you,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
But you say,
    “How should we return?”
Should a person deceive God?
        Yet you deceive me.
But you say,
    “How have we deceived you?”
With your tenth-part gifts and offerings.
You are being cursed with a curse,
        and you, the entire nation, are robbing me.
10 Bring the whole tenth-part to the storage house so there might be food in my house.
        Please test me in this,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
See whether I do not open all the windows of the heavens for you
        and empty out a blessing until there is enough.[a]

Some of you know that while we lived in Chicago I worked for the Archdiocese there, which is the Catholic church, and I had a co-worker there whose job included calling a lot of different churches to set up appointments and check on different things. And she told me one day that she had called this particular church, said the standard, “hi, this is Regina, how are you?” And to her surprise the woman on the phone without missing a beat said, “I’m blessed and highly favored how are you?”  She really wasn’t sure what the right response to that was so she just said, “ummm good, I guess.” She was really taken aback by this woman’s response and had no idea how to respond, we usually don’t think much about it and just “I’m good, how are you?” So this kind of became a little bit of a joke, I’d ask Regina how she was doing and she shoot back “blessed and highly favored.” I told my husband about it and whenever something good happened to us he’d say  “We are blessed and highly favored!” And although most of the time we were joking, there was at times this sense of surprise at the blessing or gift God was giving to us.
          I thought a lot this week about what it means to be blessed and what it meant when Jesus talked about being blessed. I think we use the term blessed a lot, maybe without thinking deeply about what it means. I feel like being blessed is the new way that people say “lucky.” I don’t think it’s a bad thing because it recognizes that whatever the blessing is, wasn’t pure luck, but somehow connected to God. It acknowledges God’s work in our everyday lives and conveys a deeper sense of gratitude for whatever it is. I see on Facebook daily people saying things like “I’m so blessed to have such a wonderful spouse, he or she did XYZ for me.” Or “We’re so blessed to live in a country where we are free.” Or “The barista at Starbucks accidently gave me a venti when I ordered a tall, I’m feeling blessed!” We feel blessed, we say we’re blessed when good things happen to us, when we’re thankful for things or people or circumstances in our lives. When Josh and I moved back here from Chicago, we really believed we were blessed to both have jobs, and even more that those jobs were close to the house that we already owned, and even more that our house was close to our families. All of those circumstances made us realize that it wasn’t our good fortune or hard work that made those things all happen, but that God was orchestrating all of those things together, to bless us. When we say that we’re blessed, I think most of the time we’re giving credit to and responding to God’s unmerited love and care for us. We see the blessing, not as something we’ve earned or deserved but a gift from God. I think this is a good understanding of being blessed and I want you to keep that understanding in your mind as we talk about how Jesus talked about blessings or being blessed.
          The title of today’s sermon comes from the book of Acts where the disciples quote Jesus as saying “It’s better to give than to receive.” For me this is one of those sayings that I would gladly tell you that I wholeheartedly agree with, I can even give you examples of when this has been true in my life. But if I asked you if you would rather have me give you this $100 bill or pull out your wallet and give me $100, I’m guessing you’d probably rather be on the receiving end, right? You’d at least think pretty hard about it. And if not I’ll be standing at that back of the sanctuary after church collecting your $100 that you really, really want to give to me. It’s not that we don’t agree with Jesus, but we don’t always fully live it out. We might apply it to certain aspects of our lives, but maybe not so much in others. At our church in Chicago, when they would have their new member meetings they would talk about tithing, giving 1/10th of our income to the church and why we as members of the church are expected to do that. And I remember the pastors talking about how they would so often get questions afterwards like “So about that tithe thing, could I just give 10% of my time instead? Does that count?” The truth is that yes 10% of your time should be given to the church, but that’s in addition to your money, in addition to your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness. That’s not a very popular answer, but our commitment to God doesn’t just apply to one area of our lives. When we talk about stewardship we are talking about money, don’t get me wrong, but we’re really talking about all of the resources that God has entrusted you with.
          There’s another place in the Bible where Jesus talks about being blessed. He says “blessed” so many times in this sermon that we call it the Beatitudes. Beatitudes just means “happy” “fortunate” or “blissful” in Latin; so there’s your Latin lesson for the day. And truly I tell you it is better to give a Latin lesson than to receive one. Amen. (just one example!) So anyway in the Beatitudes Jesus outlines who is blessed, and he starts each statement with “Blessed are…” and the gospels each put this a little differently but here’s a summary: Blessed are the poor, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who weep, the meek, those who are hungry, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, when others hate you and he says in Matthew: “Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.” I’m not seeing people on Facebook or in their Christmas cards talking about how blessed they were this year because they mourned, or because they were persecuted or because they were hungry. Most of these things do not give us that sense of being blessed we talked about in the beginning. These things don’t illicit in me that sense of God’s unmerited love and care for us. It would make me feel tired, beaten down, sad and discouraged, maybe even abandoned, but not really blessed. But Jesus says over and over again, “Blessed are… blessed are..”
What Jesus does is he takes what our idea of being blessed looks like and turns it upside down. He was saying "Look, I know that you think that being blessed looks like living a comfortable life, not having problems or heartache or enemies, but that's not really being blessed, that's not what I'm talking about, that's not the real deep, life-giving, faith-strengthening blessing that I have in store for you. The way the world understands being blessed is not how I understand being blessed. It's too shallow, too easily disrupted, too dependent on things outside of you. Being blessed in the kingdom of God is different." 
Thankfully Jesus doesn’t just say all these people are blessed and leave us guessing why. He says things like, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the peacemakers because they will be called children of God.” The blessing isn’t in the circumstance, being poor or grieving or keeping the peace, but in how it helps us to connect to God, to experience God’s love and care for us, to be in a more perfect relationship with God.
This is the same principle when we talk about it being more blessed to give than to receive. It's not the way that the world understands being blessed. Most people equate blessings with receiving, with accumulating, with increasing your wealth, your resources; but I’m not convinced that’s the only type of blessings that God offers to us. This is not how the world experiences or understands being blessed, but it is how Jesus talks about it. And because this is the way that Jesus talks about it, and because we’re followers of Jesus, I believe this is how God wants us to understand being blessed too. There’s a deeper wisdom here. It’s not something that I can logically explain to you, I can’t prove it to you, but I can challenge you to experience it, to live it out and prove it to yourself.
The scripture reading today from Malachi is maybe one you're heard before, maybe not. Malachi was a prophet and prophets tell people what God has to say to them. And in this reading Malachi was telling this community that they've gotten off track, that they're cheating God and one of the main ways that they were cheating God was by not tithing. They had started to withhold a little bit, keep a little more for themselves and God takes note. God sends Malachi to get them back on track because God wants them back, God wants to bless them. So God says to them: Bring the FULL tithe to the storehouse. The FULL tithe. Please test me in this, see if I don't throw open the windows of heaven and empty out blessings until there is enough. Test me, see if I don't make good on my promises. Do you know that this is the only time in the Bible that God tells us to test God? How many times do we hear, “do not test the Lord your God”? Jesus even refuses to test God when being tempted by Satan. But here, here when God is talking about our tithe, not just our money, but our time, our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, our witness: the FULL tithe, God says, "test me, put me to the test, please, I dare you. See if I don't rain down blessings, see if I don't do what I say I'll do." 
I do believe that God blesses us in the ways we understand blessings; by providing us more than what we need, by surprising us with miracles, and even by giving us tangible things that we want or need, but I also believe that God calls us to understand being blessed as more than just those things. God wants us to understand that even when we don’t feel blessed, when we’re poor or mourning or being persecuted, that God is working to bless us in deeper ways those tangible, circumstantial things. Those blessings, the blessings that Jesus calls blessings are the ones that will grow our faith, increase our trust in God and lead us to a better relationship with God.
So I know that I may have scared you off from wanting to be blessed in the way that Jesus talks about it, I know that you probably just want the kind of blessings that the world considers blessings. That’s ok, me too. But when it comes down to it, we, as followers of Jesus need to take it a little further; because God says we’re supposed to; because there’s a very good chance that what God has for us is better than what we have planned for ourselves. So I’m going to challenge us all today, to take God’s words from Malachi very seriously and to test God. To offer our FULL tithe to God, to dare God to prove Godself to us and see if we aren’t more blessed by the giving of our tithe. I want you to seriously consider tithing, even if it’s only for 3 months, just to test God. I want you to take this risk, to go on this adventure of trusting God more and expecting, expecting that God will bless us more than we can imagine.
There are countless stories of people who have begun to tithe, to give to the church, maybe against their better judgment, and have found that God has truly blessed them. I wish I knew all of you better so that I could share your stories today. They might be like the family who was on a tight budget, but took this tithing challenge at their church, and then suddenly their computer crashed. They didn’t have any extra money to fix it or get a new one. And randomly, for no apparent reason, their neighbor came over with an extra computer that he had and just gave it to him. Or the family whose check engine light came on, they figured that it would probably cost $200-300 to fix, just about the tithe for that month. They decided to tithe it and when they took the car into the mechanic he couldn’t find anything wrong with the car. We had a pastor who would tell the story about how his uncle who owned a used car lot was a faith tither, most people wouldn’t expect it of him, but he was. And when he retired and his son took over the business, his son didn't tithe and all sorts of things started to go wrong, so he went to his dad and told him what was going on. His dad asked if he had been tithing, and the son said no, so he told him to find the nearest church and go tithe immediately, he didn’t care which church. Miraculously, he did and things turned around for the business. All of these stories, all of your stories of giving to the church are testaments to God’s love and care for us. And while we wouldn’t hesitate to say that they were blessed by the tangible resources that God provided, I’d argue today that the true blessing was their increased faith, their renewed trust in God and their ability to more fully participate in the ways that God is working in the world. So I invite you, I encourage you today to seriously consider your giving for the next year, I encourage you to put God to the test. I don’t make many guarantees, but I do guarantee if you test God in this, that we’ll be telling your stories next year about how much more blessed you were to give than to receive. Amen.

Jen Hibben, Associate Pastor

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Am a Church Member...Gary


See our other "I Am a Church Member" posts herehere and here

A famous person once said that 80% of success is showing up. In describing what church membership means to me there might be a tendency to reminisce. After all, I received my third grade bible from this church, achieved my Boy Scout God and County Award through this church and went through my 7th Grade confirmation class after which I was confirmed as a member of this church.

I have been and am still on numerous committees and boards. I have sung hundreds of solos and sung with three decades of choirs and small groups, all with this church. I have performed with the Last Supper Drama for 10 years now. I have sung for the women at the Mitchellville prison on behalf of this church.

I have seen major and minor additions, renovations and alterations of the physical appearance and structure of this church since I was a child.

I have taught Sunday school, both for children and adults and lead small groups with this church since 1986. I know of at least two parents out there in the congregation who were in my first 6th Grade Sunday school class.

I have attended a lot of weddings, funerals and baptisms and sung at quite a few, here in this church.

There have been a lot of potlucks, friends Christmases and Easters. I have worked closely many different pastors over the years, who were and are all wonderful people, by the way.

So, I have shown up. I have also lived in other places and have been associated with a few other churches besides WDMUMC over the years. I tried to “show up” there, too. All of this reminiscing is fine, but it really does not define membership or its meaning to me. I hope I am more than the repository of personal and corporate memories, or even more than, perhaps, a source of some maturing wisdom.

These various things about me “showing up” are certainly part of my path with Christ. Being a member is work, it is time, it is sometimes committing resources.

But being a member of this church is not about me or any one of us. Being a member is a chance to be part of something bigger, a legacy, a larger family of millions that started a long time ago and will continue long after we are gone.

We need each other. Jesus knew that. Jesus taught that. The church, as a community in faith, is vital to our world. This church right here is vital to this community and the larger world community. Together we affect the world around us for the better. Day by day, week by week, year by year.

We are all searching, trying to touch the face of God. I have found that I cannot go that journey alone. I have found that I cannot see what it means to follow Christ without you all.
WDMUMC has made a difference in my life to help grow closer to Christ and to further the work of Christ. Being a member has its costs, but, oh, what a return!

Gary Norton, WDMUMC member