Monday, September 27, 2010

Fight - To Be A Giver

Sermon from September 26, 2010
(Pentecost 18 – Year C)
1 Timothy 6: 6-19
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

Last weekend was Homecoming weekend at Midway High School.
At Midway High School, it is a tradition on the Thursday night before the football game, to have a giant carnival.
Then everyone goes into the stadium for a pep rally of sorts, where the Midway band plays and the Homecoming court is introduced.
The evening is capped off with a big fireworks display.

I took our son, John, to the Homecoming festivities.
And on the way home in the car, I found myself humming the Midway High School fight song.
I asked John:
“Do you know the words to your school fight song?”
In response, he began to sing the words.

Then John asked me:
“Dad, do you remember the words to your high school’s fight song?
And out from the fog of my middle-aged memory, the words and tune to the Memorial High School fight song came pouring out of the recesses of my brain:

Fight, Mustangs, fight with all your might.
For the red and white
Fight, onward, to vict’ry
And we’ll win this game tonight!

The Apostle Paul remembered the words his fight song, a fight song that he teaches to young Timothy, in his First Letter to Timothy.
The Apostle Paul is a mentor to Timothy as Paul teaches this fight song:

Fight the good fight with all your might.
Fight the good fight to take hold of real life, a life that is not defined by money or possessions.
Fight the good fight to give, to be generous, to give away your money.
Fight – to be a giver.

Now most human beings believe that giving is a good thing.
We give presents at birthday parties.
We wrap up gifts with bows and put them around the Christmas tree.
We might give to United Way through our offices or we put a dollar or two in the collection plate at church.
We might think that there is no resistance at all to giving.

Yet when we try to give away too much, when we go overboard, or when we are foolish with our giving,
Then, there is resistance.

And in order to combat this resistance to give abundantly,
In order to give with foolish extravagance,
In order to give like God gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

As many of you know, the scriptures that we read in church are on a three-year cycle.
This means that the scriptures that we just read a few minutes ago are the same scriptures that we read three years ago, the same scriptures that deal mainly with money and wealth and giving.

Three years ago, I preached on these scriptures.
And I told this congregation back then that Susan and I were in the midst of contemplating how much money we were going to give back to God in the form of a financial pledge to St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
In that sermon, I told you all about the struggle that Susan and I have with giving.

You see, even three years ago, Susan wanted to rip up the carpet in our home and put in hard wood floors.
Yet when we got the bid proposal on how much it would cost us to put in hardwood floors, the cost was just about the same amount of money that we give away to God through the work of St. Alban’s.

Through much discussion and struggle, we finally decided to go ahead and give the money away, rather than to get hardwood floors.
Susan and I decided to give sacrificially.
And every time that we wrote a check to St. Alban’s, we knew very clearly what it was that we were giving up, in order to be a giver.

After I delivered that sermon three years ago, where I described our struggle, I must say that I was quite surprised by the reaction from some people in this congregation.
Most of the feedback that I received from that sermon about sacrificial giving was from well-meaning people who scolded me for giving so much away.
I received emails from people telling me that I should just go ahead and buy those wood floors for Susan.
I received comments from people telling me that I already give enough to the church and that I should not deny Susan the pleasure of the floors that she has always wanted.

And I thought to myself:
Good grief, now I have to fight the members of my own congregation to be a giver?!

For in order to give abundantly,
In order to give with foolish extravagance,
In order to give like God gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

Now Susan and I are certainly not perfect givers.
And within Jeff Fisher’s heart, I encounter the resistance to give, every day.
I have a kid in college and a house with a mortgage and four drivers on my auto insurance policy.
The temptation is great for me to hold on tightly to my money and my things.
Every day I feel the resistance to giving with open hands and with extravagant foolishness.

Yet it helps me to know that Jesus understands our resistance to giving.
It helps me to know that Jesus understands that we must fight to be a foolish giver.

During the last months of Jesus’ life, Jesus tells his good friend, Peter, what it will mean for Jesus to give away everything.
Jesus tells Peter that he must go to Jerusalem, where Jesus says that he will be killed.
But a well-meaning Peter resists this idea of this extravagant and foolish giving,
And Peter takes Jesus aside to scold him, saying:
“Jesus, are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!

In response, Jesus uses some of the strongest language that he ever uses in the Gospels as he wheels around and screams at Peter:
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are holding onto things, instead of fighting to be a giver.”

You see, Jesus is the ultimate giver, in that he gives away everything.
For Jesus knows that those who lose their life, who give it all away, will find the only life that really matters.
And Jesus knows that
In order to combat our resistance to give abundantly,
In order to give foolishly,
In order to give like Jesus gives,
We must fight – to be a giver.

So my friends, fight the good fight –
And when you discover that a co-worker or a friend is having a hard time making ends meet,
Write them a big, fat check.
Give away so much that your friends will scold you saying:
“Are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!”

Fight the good fight –
And when the collection plate comes around this morning,
Empty out your purse or wallet.
Give away so much that your friends will scold you saying:
“Are you crazy?
You don’t have to give away everything!”

Because, almost two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to young Timothy, teaching Timothy the words to our fight song.
And this morning, the Apostle Paul teaches us that

In order to give foolishly,
In order to give like God gives,
In order to take hold of the only life that really matters:

Fight the good fight with all your might.
Fight - to be a giver.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fight the Good Fight

In our worship services, we sing hymns. I hope that you pay close attention to the words of these hymns. The words of our hymns contribute to our worship of God in much the same ways that the prayers and scripture readings do.

This Sunday morning, our Sequence Hymn (the hymn that is sung right after we read the Epistle) is a perfect example of a hymn text that further illumines a scripture text, the First Epistle to Timothy (6:12). The hymn sings:

Fight the good fight with all thy might,
Christ is thy strength and Christ thy right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

As I listen to First Timothy, and as I sing this hymn, I wonder:

What fight are you and I fighting?
What life are you and I laying hold of?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hearing William Willimon Preach

Waco is full of unexpected blessings. We tend to forget that Truett Seminary is here. Although it is an officially "Baptist" seminary, I have found the people at Truett to be very open to Episcopalians and to liturgy, especially of the Episcopal variety.

For their Fall Preaching Conference, Truett Seminary invited Dr. William Willimon to campus to speak and to teach. For the past 2 days, I took the opportunity to hear Willimon, who gained renown as a preacher when he was at Duke and who is now a Methodist bishop in Alabama. Everytime that Willimon writes in The Christian Century magazine, I have resonated with his earthy style and straight-forward faith.

And I learned a few things from hearing Willimon preach yesterday and today -things that I gleaned from hearing a master preach:

* Preaching, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is about letting the resurrected Jesus walk around in the room.

* God tears the heavens open so that Jesus can get to us freely; now no one is safe.

* It is okay -and actually quite effective - to say "umm" during a sermon, collecting your thoughts before making your next point.

* As I have always suspected, the most powerful parts of the sermon are the stories and illustrations, not the theological discourses.

* Not everyone needs to be "born again/from above." Only Nicodemus, the "church elite/leadership," need to be ripped apart and turned upside down by a birthing from above.

* Do not apologize for the things that Jesus said, things that you repeat/expound upon from the pulpit. Jesus does not need us to protect him.

It was good to be fed and watered at Truett Seminary these past 2 days.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Losing, Searching, Finding, Celebrating

At St. Alban’s on Sundays, we always share bread and wine as we continually become the Body of Christ. The worship service is called: The Holy Eucharist. Actually, if you look on page 315 of The Book of Common Prayer, the full title of the service is: “The Holy Eucharist: The Liturgy for the Proclamation of the Word of God and the Celebration of the Holy Communion.” What we do each week is a celebration.

In the 15th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we hear several stories about losing, searching, finding and celebrating. A shepherd loses one of his sheep; he searches the wilderness until he finds it; then he celebrates. A woman loses a valuable coin; she sweeps the house until she finds it; then she celebrates.

We are the one lost sheep. We are the one lost coin. And God searches for us until God finds us. Then God throws a huge celebration, shouting: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost; I have found my coin that was lost.”

Every Sunday, we gather as the lost who have been found, in a celebration of bread and wine. So rejoice with me that you and I have been found – and let’s celebrate.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Sermon from September 5, 2010
(Pentecost 15 – Year C)
Luke 14: 25-33
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas

When I was a student in the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas, I took a variety of classes to prepare me for the business world.
In the Business School at UT, we were taught how to make decisions, decisions that would have financial ramifications.
One of the methods that I learned to use in making business decisions is to run a cost-benefit analysis.

A cost-benefit analysis is actually quite simple.
Essentially, you make two columns on a piece of paper.
In the left hand column, you write down all the costs associated with a decision, and in the right hand column you list all the benefits of that decision.

For example, if you are contemplating opening up a hamburger joint, on the cost side you would list the estimated costs of renting a space in a shopping center, the cost of kitchen equipment and dining room furnishings, the cost of food, the cost of hiring employees as cooks and wait-staff.
And in the benefit column, you would estimate the price you would charge your customers for hamburgers and how many hamburgers you think you could sell.
Then you add up all the estimated costs.
You add up all the estimated benefits.
And if the costs are greater than the benefits, then it is a bad decision.
But if the benefits are greater than the costs, then it is a good business decision.

Now I have looked carefully in my Bible.
However, I have not found any evidence that Jesus attended the School of Business at the University of Texas.
Yet I do see evidence in Scripture that Jesus understands the importance of running a cost-benefit analysis when making important decisions.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a comprehensive list of the costs that we must include in our analysis.
Jesus gives us a list of costs that we must not underestimate.

Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us the love and inclusion of those in our very own families:
Because father and mother, wife and husband, brother and sister, all of these relationships become secondary when our relationship with God becomes primary.
Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us our money and our possessions.
Because when we leave behind our stuff, then there is more room for God to fill our hearts.
Jesus warns us that when we follow him, our discipleship could cost us our very own lives, as we voluntarily take up the cross.
Because when we open our hearts to die, then we are born to eternal life.

As Jesus walks toward his own Cross, Jesus warns us that we should not underestimate the costs of following him.
Yet the timing of our cost-benefit analysis is also a key component in our decision about whether we should follow Jesus - or not.

Soon after Susan and I got married, just like many couples, in our minds, we ran a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not we should have children.
Yet the timing on when this analysis is performed can make a huge difference as to the results.

When running a cost-benefit analysis for having children, the costs must be estimated for diapers and baby clothes and new furniture for the nursery.
And if the couple is having difficulty conceiving, costs for in-vitro fertilization and/or adoption costs must be estimated, as well.
Not to mention the costs for ballet lessons and soccer uniforms and college tuition and new clothing every year that reflects the latest trends.
Before becoming a parent, from a purely economic standpoint, the costs of having a child far outweigh the benefits.

Yet, if you were to re-run your cost-benefit analysis at a different time, when your baby looks sweetly into your face and says “Da-Da” for the very first time,
Suddenly the equation changes and the benefits at that moment certainly outweigh the costs.

And if you were to re-run your analysis for having children at an even different time, when your orthodontist breaks the news about the cost of a complete set of braces on your teenager’s teeth, then the cost of having children, at that moment, seems to outweigh the benefits.

And if you were to re-run your cost-benefit analysis at yet an even different time, when your adult child is all grown up – and when he calls or texts you and says:
“Hey, Dad, I just wanted to tell you that I love you,”
Then suddenly all the costs seem to melt away and the intangible benefits become priceless.

You see, while it is important to never underestimate the costs, the timing of when we do our cost-benefit analysis is also important.

For the timing of Jesus’ difficult words that we hear this morning, detailing the impossible costs of following him, are spoken before his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter.
Jesus’ hard words on discipleship are spoken before we are able to estimate the innumerable benefits of a post-Easter faith.

The Apostle Peter, who was one of Jesus’ most passionate followers, ran several different cost-benefit analyses.
Peter paid a heavy cost, leaving behind family and possessions to follow Jesus.
Yet when Jesus tells Peter that being a disciple means that you must die, Peter protests, thinking that the cost is too big.
So, using a very good business decision-making model, on the night before Good Friday, Peter distances himself from Jesus;
And Peter winds up denying even knowing Jesus, three times around the campfire.
Yet when Peter re-ran the cost-benefit analysis again, after Easter, the intangible benefits far outweigh the costs, as Jesus forgives Peter for all of his sins.

Judas, who was the follower of Jesus who betrayed him, never got the chance to re-run a cost-benefit analysis after Easter.
Instead, Judas counts the impossible costs and views the Cross of Jesus as a colossal business failure.
So Judas hangs himself for his perceived failure in underestimating the costs, before he could re-run his analysis and see the benefits of forgiveness that Easter would bring.

And even Jesus himself, on the night before he died for us, ran a cost-benefit analysis.
On the night before Good Friday, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
The cost of his painful Cross seems impossible, as Jesus prays in agony:
“Father, please let this cup pass from me.”
Yet when Jesus re-ran the cost-benefit analysis after Easter, the intangible benefits far exceeded the costs.
And today, the resurrected Jesus has defeated the power of death and is seated at the right hand of his Father.

This morning, when you and I decide if we should follow Jesus, we now have an advantage in our timing.
We have an advantage in our timing in that we can run our cost-benefit analysis by factoring in the benefits of a post-Easter world.
Therefore, while separation from family and friends is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we receive a new and larger family of love: the rag-tag, riff-raff family of God.
While giving our money and our possessions away is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we receive freedom, freedom from the things of this world.
While being crucified with Christ is a cost of following Jesus,
The benefit, post-Easter, is that we are raised with Christ through Baptism into a new life of forgiveness and grace.

You see, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree in business administration to run a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not you should follow Jesus.
Just gaze at the Cross of Jesus Christ - do not underestimate the costs.
Then look into the Empty Tomb and re-run your analysis, factoring in your resurrection to eternal life.

Add up those two columns and you will see:
The costs of following Jesus are huge,
But the eternal benefits - far exceed the cost.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Honey, Vinegar & Philemon

This Sunday in worship, we will read the majority of the Letter of Paul to Philemon, only omitting the last 4 verses of the letter. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the New Testament. Yet, despite its brevity, the Letter to Philemon displays the Apostle Paul’s mastery at persuasion, all cloaked in the authentic garb of love.

In the letter, Onesimus is a slave, who has obviously run away from his master, Philemon. Onesimus, the runaway slave, is now with Paul, who is writing from prison. Paul appeals to Philemon, on the basis of love, to take back his runaway slave and to welcome his slave home as “a beloved brother.”

A wise mentor once repeated the adage to me: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.“ The language and rhetoric that Paul uses in this Letter to Philemon are extraordinary, as he persuades Philemon with honey, rather than with vinegar.

As we live our Monday through Friday lives, listen to yourself. Are you complaining and negative and demeaning to others, using vinegar to try to catch flies? Or do you respect others and have a positive attitude and love people with authenticity, using honey, rather than vinegar?