Sunday, November 18, 2018

How Knowing the World is a Garden Changes Everything

Ever since I saw it, it’s been bothering me.  It’s the contradiction of it all.  I’m talking about that amazing prayer in your bulletin?  I put it there last week too for Veteran’s Day.   You don’t have to look for it.  I’ll just read it to you.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

I love that prayer.  No great theologian or pastor wrote it.  A regular soldier did, one whose name we don’t even know.   Yet, the prayer gives profound perspective on life.   But what bothers me is that as insightful as this soldier was, he was fighting on the wrong side of an awful war.  He died defending slavery of all things.  But I shouldn’t be surprised.

Everyone has blind spots.   Great spiritual leaders have them.  I love the prayers of the monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  I use them in worship.  The guy wrote beautiful prayers.  But he also delivered powerful sermons promoting the Crusades, of all things.  

And don’t think you and I have any room to get morally superior.  A hundred years from now, people will look at some of the things we thought or did and be appalled.  Still, just as in that prayer, life does have certain truths, certain realities that stand the test of time.  They held true a hundred years ago. They’ll hold true a hundred years from now.  Yet, even so, you can miss them.   And the truth that you’re about to hear, one the Bible goes back to again and again, many people miss.  But when you get it, it changes everything.   What is it?  Listen and find out.

Do you see the truth here, the truth that so many miss?  God tells you this truth again and again.   Yet, still you can miss it.   And when you do, you miss so much.   And here in Paul’s words, God tells you this time one more time.   God says.  Don’t you get it.  I’ve created a garden.  This reality, this world you see has limitless potential.  And only as you realize that, will you discover the vibrant, dynamic life God yearns you to have.

That’s how Paul can make such bold claims to this church in Corinth.   You see.  Paul is writing a fund-raising letter to these Christians.  He is calling on them to give money for a special collection for believers in Jerusalem who are facing a famine.  And what does he tell them about their gifts?   He says.  If you give generously, you will reap generously.  He tells them.  Think of the money as seeds.   These seeds will reproduce.  They will return to you blessings far more abundant than anything you give.   So, let’s get this straight.  Paul is telling them.  Whatever you give, you will get back way more.  That’s a pretty stunning claim to make.   So how can Paul make it?

He knows.  God created a garden.  You see.   You can look at the world the way a gardener does or the way a butcher does.   If you look at the world as a butcher, then you think, ok.  I’ve got this one cow, and that’s all I got.  So, if my expenses go up, I’ve got to shave the meat a little thinner. And I can’t give anything away.  That would be crazy.  I’ve got to hold on to the cow no matter what.   But if you look at the world as a gardener, you think, hey, I’m almost out of tomatoes.   No worries.  I’ll grow some more.   You don’t worry about giving tomatoes away either.  You know.   You can just grow more.   In fact, with one seed, you can grow limitless amounts of tomatoes. 

I first heard it put that way by a guy named Tim Sanders.  And off that insight, which Tim would readily admit comes from the Bible, he’s made a nice career.  He’s done more speaking and consulting for more Fortune 500 companies than I could name.   Basically, he’s told them this key truth.  Don’t look at the world as a butcher.  Look at the world as a gardener.  Why?   That’s what the world is, a garden.

RobertoGoizueta got that too.  He said.  The secret isn’t counting the beans.  It’s growing more beans.   And when he led Coca-Cola, he applied that truth pretty well.  When he became President in 1981, Coco-Cola was worth a little over 4 billion.  When he died in 1997, still serving as President, Coca-Cola had become worth over 150 billion dollars.   Just this year, his foundation gave away over 44 million dollars, 21 years after the guy died.  That’s some beans.   

But, let’s make it clear, God isn’t telling you when you give money, you’ll get more money back.   That’s why God leads Paul to words like blessings or fruits of righteousness.   God knows.  What makes life worthwhile goes far beyond money.   Money can’t buy you friends or love or even security.   But Paul is saying this.  When you give generously, including financially, you sow seed into the world that I, God will multiply in your life.   And if you don’t give, you miss the opportunity for that to happen.  Why?  Because God is a gardener.  The whole story of the Bible begins in a garden.  

God is a gardener.  And the more seed you give God to work with, the more blessing God brings in your life.  That’s true of how you spend your time.  That’s true of how you spend your money.   Yes, this church needs financial support to continue its witness to the gospel.  But your gifts do more than simply keep the lights on.   As you give, as you take risks in your giving, you open yourself to richer blessing from God.   Whatever you shovel towards God, God shovels back.  And God has a bigger shovel.  Yet every year, I see people hold back, not give what they could, because they don’t believe this.  They don’t believe that what God is telling them again and again is true.   And that’s tragic. It’s why when someone sent me this clip earlier this week, I knew, it’s because God wanted me to use it here.

Now, look.   God isn’t asking you to lift up a star fighter with your mind.   But God is asking you to believe that you can give more than you think to God and to what God values.    God is asking you to believe more by giving more, trusting that God will provide for your needs, trusting that in your giving, God will bring you more blessing.   As the preacher and leadership guru John Maxwell put it.  So why not try abundance?  At best, you’ll experience abundance.  At worst, you’ll get the scarcity you’ve already been experiencing.   And how do you know, you’ll experience abundance?  Because, God is a gardener.   Just look at Jesus.

Do you know how Jesus described his death on the cross?  He called it a seed, that like any seed, could only bring life if it gave up its life.    Where did Jesus pray before he died.  He prayed in a garden.  And after he died, where did his friends bury him.  They buried him in a garden.  And when he rose again, when Mary saw the resurrected Jesus, who did she think Jesus was.  She thought Jesus was a gardener.   And in a profound way, she was right.   In his death, Jesus planted a seed that bears limitless fruit to this day.   So, plant your seed. Give generously to others with your time, your talents, and yes your finances.  And then wait and see what God will do, what fruit, what blessing, God will bring.  After all, God is a gardener. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

How Can You Know the Money You Have Doesn't Have You?

I gotta admit.  Some of the stuff this guy does with kids seem a little cruel.  Years ago, he challenged parents to pretend they had eaten all their kid’s Halloween candy, and then record their reactions and send it in.   Boy, that seems like a twisted trick to play on a kid.  Still, Jimmy Kimmel, the late show TV host, does some things with kids that aren’t simply funny, they go deeper than you’d think.  And when I saw this video…well, why don’t you watch it for yourself (at least the first part - that's the part that got me not the hair cutting stuff.)

Many years ago, the preacher Tim Keller was talking to his son about sex. His son asked him.  So, which is it, dad?   Is sex good or bad?  And Keller said.  It all depends.  Is fire good or bad?   It’s good if it’s in the fireplace.  But if it’s on the carpet in the living room, not so much.  And what Keller said about sex holds true for money.  If you keep money in its proper place, it’s good, even necessary.    But if it gets out of the fireplace, so to speak, it will burn you.  It will rob you of what life is meant to be.   And money has lots of sneaky ways of getting out of the fireplace without you even knowing it, even as it was in that kid’s relationship with his uncle.

So how do you keep your money in the fireplace?  How do you keep it from burning you, from robbing you of life?   In these words, part of an ancient fundraising letter, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

You gotta have money, right?   And money does a lot of good.  More than that, when you have money, it does you good.  But your money can do you wrong.  It can hijack your life.  It can rob you of life.  So, how do you keep money doing what money does best?  How do you keep it in its proper place?   Here in Paul’s words, God tells you.  You realize who really owns your wealth, and how he gave his wealth up for you. 

But before you can understand who really owns what you have, you need to understand how money does you good, and how money messes you up.   To understand that, you need to understand what money gives you.  Money gives you power.  Power simply means you have the freedom to act, to do things.   Let’s say, you’re hungry.  Well, your money determines how you can address that need.   If you have lots of money you have lots of choices.  And if you don’t, that limits your choices.

Recently we had an election.  Were you aware of that?   In those elections, candidates spent a lot of money.   In fact, commentators talked about the money race, how the candidates with the most money up their chances of winning.   Why does that increase their chances?  They can do more stuff.  They can put out more ads.  They can hire more staff to get people to the polls.  The money gives them freedom to act, to do things.   

And when you don’t have money, you don’t have that freedom.  That can be a deeply painful thing.  On election day, I spent some time driving people to the polls, including a homeless couple, who had ended up at the wrong voting site.   The man told how they were living in a tent, and how they yearned just to have a night or two in a place with a shower, where they could get cleaned up.   I did what I could to help, took their number to stay in touch, but can you imagine how that felt.   Without money, they had no options, no ability to act, to do hardly anything.   And that can be an awful thing. 

Many years ago, I was watching Oprah talk about poverty on her show.  Someone mentioned how she was struggling with credit card debt.   Now Oprah expressed sympathy.  But she also said, “If you’re poor, you don’t even have credit to begin with.”  You don’t have that option.   You have such limited ability to act.  And that can be so painful.

Money, with the choices it brings, the freedom, it dignifies you.  Everybody needs to feel they have some choices, some freedom to do things for themselves, for their family, for others.  And money brings that.  It dignifies you.  But while money can dignify you, it can’t define you.  It can’t determine your worth as a person.

Yet money often does.   If you don’t have a lot of money, you can feel less worthy, as if somehow you are broken or defective.  And if you have a lot of money, you can feel superior, even morally better.   But money doesn’t determine any of those things.   And if you let money do that, then you don’t have money.   No, your money has you.

So, how do you appreciate the dignity that money gives you, without letting that same money define you?  How do you distinguish your net worth from your true worth?

You realize. Whatever you have doesn’t really belong to you.  It never did. It never will.   Sure, you can think.   The money I have I earned.  Nobody gave me what I have.   Ok.  But who gave you your body?   Who gave you the air you’re breathing right now?  Who gave you the planet you live on?   You didn’t earn any of that.   No, all that was given to you.  It’s still being given to you right now.  You may have done good things with what you were given.  But that doesn’t change the fact that you were given it.   You did not get it.  Someone, someone you can call God, gave it to you.   No, what the Bible tells you goes further.  God didn’t give it to you.   God entrusted it to you.   It still belongs to God.  God is simply letting you use it for a bit.   In the end, it still belongs to God.   And that implies a responsibility. 

Many years ago, when they were filming Miami Vice here in South Florida, the producers wanted to use a certain house for a location.  They knocked on the door.  When the guy opened it up, they offered him money to use the house, and voila, they had a location.  But the guy who opened the door didn’t own the house.  And when the owner showed up and saw cameras and cables all over his front lawn, it didn’t go that well.

When you realize whatever you have doesn’t belong to you, it shifts your perspective.  You start asking yourself.  Am I using what God entrusted to me as God intends?  Am I a good trustee or not?  More than that, it liberates you.   It liberates you from anxiety about your money.  After all, it doesn’t belong to you anyway.   And in that freedom, you begin thinking about what the owner would want you to do with that money in the first place.  That’s what happened with the Macedonians that Paul talks about in this letter.

Paul is writing to a church in Corinth to ask them for money to care for victims of a famine in Jerusalem.  And as Paul knows this church well, he knows they have money to give.   So, to inspire them, he tells them about the Christians in Macedonia, followers of Jesus who had hardly anything to spare.   Yet even so, they joyfully, sacrificially gave to help the needy in Jerusalem.   And as Paul talks about that giving, he says something a little weird. 

Paul writes.  They gave themselves first to God, then to us by God’s will.  Why is that weird?  Well, hadn’t they already given themselves to God?  Isn’t that what becoming a Christian means, giving your life to God.  So, if they had already done that, what is Paul telling you.  He is telling you what the Christian reformer, Martin Luther, put another way. Luther said.  There are three conversions in the life of a Christian, conversion of the mind, conversion of the heart and conversion of the purse.  You see.  The Macedonians got it. Whatever they had, already belonged to God anyway.  And now just as they had placed their hearts and minds in God’s hands, they were doing it with their purses.    And once they did, they had no issues with saying yes, to Paul’s ask, to giving joyfully to this need in Jerusalem.

But then Paul goes beyond the Macedonians.  He points to Jesus himself.   Why did the Macedonians give so generously?  They realized.   God had already given first.   In Jesus, God not only gave up the wealth of heaven, for the poverty of life living among the poor in Palestine.  No, In Jesus, God gave up everything, even his very life for them, for us, for you.   And when you realize how radically God has already sacrificed for you, to bring you home, to set you free, it sets you free.  It sets you free from ever doubting your worth.  After all, the God of all creation gave up everything for you.  And more than that.  You realize.  How can I not give after what God has given for me?    

And here’s the kicker.  When you give to what God values, when you give to help people in need, to help others know of God’s love, that investment never goes away.  It lasts forever.  If you give to a political candidate, even if they win, they won’t be there forever.   If you invest in some company, that won’t be forever.  But when you invest in what God values, you invest in what matters eternally, what will never ever go away.

George, this very wealthy guy died and went to heaven.  As George arrived, one of the angels arrived to escort him to his new home.  And as he went, he saw his old gardener sitting in front of this magnificent home.    He said to the angel. “Hey, that’s my gardener, Bob.”  Oh yes, the angel said.  “Bob loved so generously.  He gave sacrificially to his church, to the poor, to neighbors in need.  He did so much with the little he had.”    As they keep walking, he sees a woman who attended his church.  “She also has a beautiful home.”  He mentions her to the angel.  “Oh yes, that’s Minerva’s home.  She gave generously to children, served and provided for them in her church, was there for her neighbors in need.”   Now George is getting excited.  If Minerva and Bob have homes like these, what is he going to get?”    They turn the corner. He sees a shabby little shack, with a few chairs inside.   The angel smiles and says, “George, welcome to heaven.”   George is appalled.  He cries out!  “This is my house!  How can this be my house?”   The angel, a little embarrassed, says, “Gosh, George, we did the best we could with what you sent us.”  A cute joke, but it presents the question.  What are you sending?  What are you doing with what God has entrusted to you?  What are you giving to this God who in Jesus has already given everything for you?    Take a look at your calendar and checkbook, it will tell you all you need to know.   

Sunday, November 4, 2018

How are Religion and the Message of Jesus Two Radically Different Things? Here's How

Dum da dum dum dum dum – Dum da dum dum dum dum -Dum da dum dum dum dum!....It’s the Polar Express.    It goes something like that.   That tune is always bouncing around my head and not because I love the movie, the Polar Express.   That song bounces around my head because I have a son that loves the Polar Express.   He cannot get enough of it.

I don’t blame him.  Hasn’t everyone had something they can’t get enough of.  Maybe as a kid, you loved a certain book or cartoon character.  You couldn’t get enough.  Or today, you have an author, a performer, maybe a song you never get tired of.  And every time I see this video on You Tube, it still gets me.  It gets me not because it’s clever, though it is.  It gets me because it’s true.  And yet still so many, including so many religious people don’t get it.  What is the truth it’s trying to tell you?   Well, listen and tell me what you think.

What you just heard in that video, Jesus tells you here, and in a way even more powerful and disturbing.   How do you get the difference between Jesus and religion?  In these words, Jesus shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

How do you know the difference between getting Jesus’ message, and being religious?  Is there a difference?  Yes. But what is it?  It’s the difference between blackmail and belief.   What do I mean?
Before you get there, do you see how seriously Jesus takes this difference between what he is saying, and what many mean by religion.   These words end Jesus’ most famous talk, the Sermon on the Mount.  And all through that ending, heck, all through the sermon, Jesus hammers home the same point.   You can be good, even religious, and miss everything.   

That’s what Jesus means by two roads.   Jesus is saying everyone is traveling somewhere.   Everyone finds some way to give their life meaning or purpose.   But every one of those ways, all move on the same broad path, a path that leads you nowhere you need to be.   But the way that does, Jesus says, that leads to life doesn’t look like it takes you anywhere at all. 

But then Jesus goes further.  Jesus says. This broad way that leads nowhere, even includes religion.  Religion may look like a different path.  It’s not.  It’s the same path.  It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.   That’s the problem.  It looks so much like the real deal it’s hard to tell the two apart.  

To show that, Jesus tells you the same thing three different ways.  First, he tells you about two trees.  One produces fruit that nourishes and one that poisons.  But on the outside, the trees look the same.  Then Jesus takes it further.   He says.  You will have people that call on my name, even passionately do that.  But they still don’t get it.    Then he goes further.  Jesus says.  These people might even deliver powerful messages, do great acts in my name, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got it.  The whole time they didn’t know me at all.  

So, what’s the difference?   If these folks look the same, have the same passion for God, even do the same great acts for God, how do you know the difference between the real and the fake?
The difference lies in one word that Jesus uses, one word that has driven translators nuts, because it makes no sense.   Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you garbed as sheep, but who are ravenous wolves within.”   Do you see that word “ravenous?”   Everywhere else that word gets used in the Bible, it doesn’t mean ravenous.  It means what it typically meant to anyone who knew the word.  It means extortioner or blackmailer.  But you see the translator’s problem.   “Beware of false prophets, who come to you garbed as sheep, but who are blackmailing wolves within.”   Does that make any sense?   What is Jesus telling you?

Jesus is getting here to the heart of the difference.   On the outside, a religious person is doing great things, even wonderful things, but inside, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  They’re doing it to blackmail God, to extort something from God.   They’re thinking.  If I passionately pray, then God will hear me.   If I do these wonderful deeds for God, God will like me.   I’ll have God’s approval, God’s love.  Then I’ll know.  I’ll know.  I am valued.  I am approved.  I am accepted.  

Now, you don’t need to be religious to do the same thing.  You can be doing it other ways.  If this person loves me, then I’m ok.  If I have success or other people’s approval or a great family or whatever you name it, then I’ll know.  I am good.  I am accepted.  My life means something. 

But Jesus presents a radically different way.   Jesus tells you.  You can do nothing to get what you yearn from for God.  Nothing you do will get it.  You can’t extort God. But here’s the point.  You don’t need to.  What you yearn to have, God has already given.   You have God’s love.  You have God’s approval.  You have God’s acceptance.   And none of that has anything to do with anything you’ve done or not done.  And this can be hard to accept.

It’s a crazy thing with my kid.  He doesn’t have to do anything to make my day.  His simple existence gives me happiness.   But I know.  He gets fearful, insecure. If I get upset with him, I gotta remind him it never changes my love for him, my delight in him.   And all human-beings carry that same fearfulness, that same insecurity.   A voice speaks within and says.  “I know who you are.  I know your screw-ups, your twisted thoughts, your pettiness.  I know you’re not good.”  And two ways exist to quiet that voice.  You can scramble to prove it wrong, to show that you are better than the voice says you are.   And that way leads you nowhere.   One day, a storm will hit and will knock those defenses away, and it will take you with it.

Or you can admit.  “Yep, that may all be true. I am a hopeless moral failure.   I am so not good.   But I don’t need to be.”  The creator, the force behind all reality loves me, delights in me.  In Jesus this God gave up everything for me so that I might know God’s love and delight forever.   And I did nothing to get any of that.  And when you know that love and acceptance, that alone leads you to life.  And when the storms hit, you don’t collapse.  Why?  You know.  Your value, your acceptance, your worth isn’t grounded in you.  It’s grounded in what can never be shaken, a God who loves you more than life itself.  That is the path this table proclaims. It is the only path that will lead you to life.  So, believe it.  Trust in it.    And discover just how good, this good news called the gospel really is.