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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Into the Neighborhood - John 1:1-5,14 Candlelight Christmas Eve


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.


The issue of who is moving into the neighborhood stirs up a lot of interest, doesn’t it? A crew from Andrew Roby begins construction on a new home or renovation on an existing home, or a SOLD sign goes across the realtor’s sign in the yard across the street from you. What happens? One of the first questions you hear (or ask) is, “I wonder . . .” I wonder who is moving in? I wonder what they’re like? Do they have children? Pets? Teenagers? I wonder if they’re going to change the front of the house. I wonder if they’re going to be good neighbors. I wonder how much they paid for that house.

I moved in June. I looked at condos all over Charlotte – South Park, NoDa, South End, Dilworth, Monroe Road, Eastover. I wasn’t only looking at the condo, I was also assessing the neighborhood. Is it a good neighborhood? Will I like it? Does it have a pool? Who lives here? Upon arriving at each property, I surveyed the cars in the parking lot. Seeing a bunch of white Buicks and burgundy Cadillacs, I was far too young to buy in some communities.

Since I have moved, I have to confess that I have been almost obsessed with real estate transactions in my community. This may surprise some of you, but I have a teensy little competitive streak in me, and I want to know that no one who has closed on their condo with the same floorplan as mine got it for less than I did. So far, so good.

John’s Gospel speaks of God moving into our neighborhood. Perhaps you have never thought of it in these terms, but listen again to these words: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In the most profound way, we can say God has moved into our neighborhood, and this is an amazing, unique thing. It is an event so powerful that it has the potential to bring new life, hope, and joy to all who embrace it. May we pray.

When you love someone, you try to find ways to make that love known. You may find out about their favorite things and give those things to them. You may spend quality time with them doing things you both enjoy. You may enjoy the closeness of each other’s presence and a warm embrace. You may find joy in doing things for them, or in giving them compliments. These things all describe our love languages, ways that we show and receive love.

The entire Old Testament is a story about a relationship. It is the story about a relationship between a people and their God, and the ways they try to show love to each other.

One realizes several things in reading the story about this relationship. One, it would seem that God and the people of earth do not always speak the same love language. Two, it would seem that a great gulf exists between their worlds. Three, it would seem that nothing ever stops God from trying to cross that gulf and reveal God’s self to humanity in ways our feeble minds can understand.

My grandparents own a farm in Western Pennsylvania, exactly halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. Growing up, we would always explore all over the farm, and I can remember finding some of the biggest anthills you’ve ever seen. There must have been thousands of little creatures swarming all over that hill, busy with their tasks doing whatever it is that ants do. Some years later, I got to thinking about what those ants must think of me. If they were aware of my presence lurking over their complex little world, they didn’t show it. If I wanted to interact with these ants, I would have to figure out a way to get down to their level. If I had the power to somehow become an ant and yet take with me all the experiences and knowledge I possess as a human, something like what Rick Moranis did in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, I could cross the separation between our worlds from my side. In other words, perhaps the ant would be able to understand the human in ways they never could before.

But then, the great void that exists between the world of the human and the world of the ant is nothing to compare to the separation that exists between a human being and a wonderful, gracious, mysterious reality who gives us life. As difficult as it must, on its own, for an ant to figure out what we humans are like, how much greater it must be for us humans to figure out what God is like. If we are ever to figure out what God is like, then God would have to cross that divide from God’s side. God would have to move into our neighborhood.

And God did, on that first Christmas.

God, for us humans and our salvation, in order that we might have a relationship with God, chose to put God’s self into an image we could understand. God took on visibility, God took on humanness, God translated God’s very self into something – someone – who is accessible to our human ways of knowing. This means that we are now given a glimpse into the mystery of God, not because of our own powers, but because of the gift that God chooses to reveal God’s self to us in a child who is born in Bethlehem.

The birth of Jesus, the incarnation, this act of God buying real estate in our neighborhood did not come as many would predict. People in Jesus’ day were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up in this way – a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably within their tradition, but the idea of God in decisive human form would not. The proclamation that God became flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other human was to them beyond strange. So we find ourselves face to face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.

The story is told of a 50-year-old woman who had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. She had a near-death experience in which she came face-to-face with God. She asked, “Is this it?” God consulted the calendar and said, “No, you’ve got another 36 years.” She recovered, but before she even left the hospital, she walked down to plastic surgery and said “I want the works.” She figured if she had another 36 years, she was going to look as good as possible. She had a tummy tuck, facelift, liposuction, bust enhancement, and even had her hair color changed. She walked out of the hospital and was flattened by a speeding ambulance. Back in heaven, she said to God, “I thought you said I had another 36 years!” God said, “Sorry, I didn’t recognize you.”

That first Christmas, God moved in all right, and the people of Jesus’ day were watching and waiting, but they failed to recognize God. How many of us would have missed it because God did not look the way we expected?

The very event was wrapped in scandal and intrigue. Imagine the conditions under which the child who was also God was born. Born to an unwed teenage mother engaged to a blue collar laborer. Born in the cold barn out back, with an ox and ass as nursemaids. Born during great civil unrest, in the most backwater territory in the entire empire, in the town that no Methodist pastor ever wanted to be appointed to. And as soon as he was born, his family became political refugees, forced to flee the country for their very lives, and the mysterious visitors from the East – whether we call them wise men, astrologers, or magicians – wouldn’t even find him for another two years. Perhaps God needs to hire a publicist, for this is no way for God – the creator of all that ever was and ever will be – to make an entrance on the stage in our short little play, but this is precisely how God enters, and it means something to each of us.

It means that God cares not only for the wealthy but the poor and the downtrodden, the cold, and the hungry. God cares for those who find themselves outcasts in polite society. God is friend to the friendless, refuge to those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. God welcomes people whose lifestyles and beliefs and practices seem just a little strange to us. God is glad to see even those we think are late to the party. Thanks be to God, for perhaps this God might even care for the likes of people like you, and people like me.

God moved into our neighborhood. God became what we are in order that we might know God. If we can know and see Jesus, we can know and see God.

Jesus gives us tangible, visible ways of experiencing a God who is intangible and invisible. God became what we are so we could have a better glimpse, even through our own dim eyesight, into what God is. And thus, the question that has haunted humanity from the very beginning, namely, “What is God like?” is answered. The Christmas story reminds us, “God is like Jesus, because miracle of miracles, wonder of wonders, the man who walks the pages of the New Testament, that man is God, God come to us, God in a form we can understand, God accessible to our limited ways of knowing and experiencing and believing.” Therefore, to believe that at Christmas this really did happen is a way of coming to see that we have been given a vision of God that we could never have earned, could never have come to on our own. It is a gift. It is the very essence of grace.

John’s Gospel is different from the others. John offers no details of how and where. There is no manger scene, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East, just the incredible announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that that we can become like God. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see. It is very important for us to keep our eyes on Jesus when we want to know what God is like.

In Christ there is opened to us a whole new enlightened understanding of God. Imagine the incredibly joyful surprise it must have been for those first disciples to hear Jesus say, “Those who have seen me have seen God.” No longer is God a disembodied voice from some distant place, but God has entered into our humanity with the fullness of divinity. All that we know and experience and feel, God knows and experiences and feels with us. See now, the dwelling of God is with men and women. God has made God’s dwelling with us, God lives among us as one of us, and this is the great mystery of Christmas.

The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus, and always been. We need not try to get into heaven, for in Jesus, heaven has come to us.

Friends, hear the good news this Christmas Eve: In the birth of Jesus, heaven has come to us. In the birth of Jesus, we have come face to face with the holy. In the birth of Jesus, God has become like us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. In the birth of Jesus, God has moved into our neighborhood, and our world has been changed forever.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come. O come, let us adore him!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who's Your Daddy? - Matthew 1:18-25


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


In 1968, The Zombies recorded “Time of the Season.” The most memorable lines from that song is, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” According to the online source of all things reliable and true, Wikipedia.org, use of the phrase, “Who’s your Daddy,” enjoyed popularity among radio shock jocks in the late 1980s, but gained widespread use during the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, it is “a slang expression that enjoys the form of a rhetorical question. Use of the phrase implies a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. One variant commonly aimed at residents of Indiana is ‘Hoosier Daddy.’”

When you all get a chance to meet my dad, there is no denying the family resemblance. It is very clear, just in looking at the two of us, that I am my father’s son. In fact, you could look at photos of us taken at the same ages, and they look like the same person.

Whenever I would leave the house, my parents reminded me, “Remember who are.” Rightly or wrongly, people will make judgments about us based on who our family is, or where we come from. By knowing the answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”, people will know who we are. Knowing our origins can tell others a lot about ourselves, and it’s also interesting to know where we, ourselves, have come from.

Who’s your Daddy? It’s a question that brings us around to Joseph. This morning, we look at the events of the Christmas story through his eyes. May we pray.

Wedding plans
The wedding planning was already well underway. Joseph and Mary were engaged to be married. The wedding wouldn’t be fancy, but it still promised to be a wonderful celebration.

However, over the last couple of months, Joseph had noticed a change coming over Mary. She had always been somewhat shy, but now she seemed standoffish. Joseph couldn’t put his finger on it, but it seemed like Mary was carrying some burden. He was well aware of the difference in their ages – Mary was a young girl, 14 or 15, at best, and he was pretty old in comparison. Joseph wondered if Mary might be embarrassed to be seen with him, or ashamed of him, or utterly repulsed by him, this old carpenter her father had arranged for her to marry. Joseph didn’t really understand women anyway, which, I suppose, makes him a lot like many of the men in this room, myself included. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Women.”

One evening as he was cleaning up the shop, Mary came by. “Joseph, we need to talk.” I assume “We need to talk” meant the same thing in the ancient world as it does today. It’s what employers say to someone who is about to be terminated. It’s what someone says when they’re about to end a relationship. “We need to talk” is always a precursor of serious news.

“Joseph, we need to talk. I don’t really know how to tell you this.” “Go ahead, Mary. You know you can tell me anything.” “Well . . . this is so hard . . . . I’m pregnant.” There was a long silence, a truly pregnant pause. And then it hit him. “But Mary – we haven’t even . . . you know. Mary, who is the father of that baby?”

Nothing gets by Joseph here. If the woman to whom you’re engaged is pregnant and you haven’t had relations with her, then someone else did. The punishment for such an indiscretion would have been death by stoning. As an unwed, pregnant teenager, Mary would have been on one of the lowest rungs in her society.

Any publicist will tell you this is not the way to bring a savior into the world. Think about it. An unplanned pregnancy of an unwed mother engaged to a blue collar Galilean without the means or connections to arrange a birthing suite! "Lord," the publicity person would protest, "This simply won't fly – no one will believe it. Messiah born in a barn? To a woman pregnant before her marriage? This will never do!"

A side note here. I think society – then and now, has been particularly hard on this particular indiscretion. Yes, I understand the seriousness of pregnancy. I’m well aware of how this complicates and changes lives. I’m aware that teenage pregnancy isn’t really a good thing. But too many times, when confronted with these prickly and delicate situations, I think the church has responded poorly. Too often, we have shunned the persons involved, and been heavy on judgment and light on compassion. In the text, it says Joseph was unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and historically, that is exactly what the church has tended to do to persons who find themselves unmarried and pregnant. At times in their lives when people need the love and support of a Christian community the most, we have tended to expel them from our midst. I’d ask us to look at how Jesus treated people. Tax collectors and prostitutes – two of the worst category of sinner in Jesus’ day – were people that he hung out with and loved and toward whom he showed compassion. I guess if I have to err one way or the other, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.

Deep within our hearts there sometimes lingers a sense that we might not be acceptable to a holy, almighty, righteous God. But a God who comes to a stable and chooses humble folk like Mary and Joseph to be parents of the Messiah – well such a God just might care for the likes of me!

If Messiah had been born in a castle, to a royal family in the midst of all the splendor this world can offer – he could not be my Messiah – for I am none of those things. No, God wrapped his great gift of love in the simplest way and presented it through the most humble parents and thus made it possible for any of us, from the greatest to the least to reach out and receive God's gift!

Mary knew how precarious her situation was, and she knew that Joseph was within his rights to divorce her, to file charges against her, and even have her stoned to death. Nevertheless, she continued to outline the story. “It wasn’t another man, Joseph. The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.” “Sure Mary. Of course that’s what happened.”

The text says Joseph resolved to dismiss her quietly and divorce her. He didn’t believe her! But being a compassionate man as well as a righteous man, he didn’t want Mary to be disgraced; he chose not to file charges against her. Perhaps he hoped to shame the real father into marrying her and taking responsibility for the baby. Who knows? Maybe he assumed Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby. At the very least, perhaps the real father would face the consequences of his actions, and the child in Mary’s womb would have a shot at a stable, so-called normal home.

But then, Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It was astounding. God would enter the world. God would be born to his wife, as crazy as that was to understand. Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do! But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

Joseph puts aside any notion of dismissing or divorcing Mary. He takes her as his wife, and knowing full well that the child she carries is not his, willingly takes responsibility to be the baby’s father.

I sometimes wonder why we get so hung up on the biology of all this. Fatherhood takes many forms. Biology is not what determines whether someone is a father-figure in our life. Fathers come in many forms. In fact, many of us can probably point to multiple figures in our lives who have been like fathers to us. Being a father is more about relationships and level of investment in one’s life than it is in biology. Was Joseph Jesus’ father? Well, yes, he was certainly one of them.

A man of faith
In these events, Joseph is portrayed as a down-to-earth real man with real struggles and real questions and real fears and real doubts, but who wrestles with what it will mean to be faithful to the promises of God. Joseph shows us that the co-existence of faith and doubt is not only possible, but indeed, probable.

Faith, Joseph shows us, is not simply believing the right things about the right issues. Faith is not arguing our own point and putting down the perspective of others. Faith is not about proving ourselves right and other people wrong. Faith is not the eradication of questions and doubts. Faith is not having an understanding of everything we’re going through. In other words, faith is not a purely intellectual exercise.

Joseph shows us that faith draws us into a personal experience of the mystery of God. Faith does not try to dismiss the mysterious, or provide a logical explanation for it. Rather, faith lives into the mysterious. Faith brings us face to face with the mystery of God, and we find that mystery to be pregnant with the possibility of God’s future. It takes an imaginative leap to live into that future, and that’s what Joseph provides for us.

What Joseph can teach us
Through Joseph, who believed that with God all things are possible, we find ourselves swept up in a story that is loaded down with courage, dreams, and nerve. May it be so that we would have that kind of faith! Joseph dares to take responsibility for what the Holy Spirit has already started. And when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty good definition of faith. He shows us a faith that keeps hope alive, and finds himself at the extreme center of divine mystery. He came face to face with the Holy and was utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. “Joseph faced the skepticism of his neighbors in calm faith in the God who was beyond his human comprehension. Joseph had the faith to see in this impossible situation the improbable work of God. He had just enough faith to believe that this improbably conceived infant might in fact be Emmanuel, God with us” (Jim Harnish).

We tend to treat Joseph as a surrogate father, a character who fades into the background and doesn’t really influence the story line. But remember this: Joseph is the man God trusted to raise Jesus. He wasn’t just “some guy” who happened to be engaged and then married to the girl who carried the Messiah in her womb.

He is the man who trusted God, and he is the man God trusted. He shows us that faith isn’t blind; it’s visionary. That is, faith sees things that can’t be seen with our own senses. Faith, rather than denying the improbable, hopes for the impossible. Faith keeps hope alive because it can see things other people cannot see. Joseph was a man of extreme faith, hope, and love, and I know it influenced Jesus. Later, when Jesus saw ordinary fishermen and called them to be fishers of people, or when he saw a tax collector and called him to be a disciple, or when he saw people who sinners of every sort and, like Joseph, was unwilling to expose them to public disgrace, or when he saw a dying thief on a cross and promised that he would be with him in paradise, I believe he was living out of a faith he had seen in Joseph, a faith that was not afraid to believe that improbable, even impossible things, might actually come true.

There is something vitally important happening in this story, but it’s easy for us to miss it. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, of the partying and planning, of the gift buying, the “Ho-ho-ho”ing, the overindulging, the decorating, the lighting, and the merry-making. It’s about Joseph, and without it, the whole project of God coming into the world through the person of Jesus might have placed in jeopardy. Do you know what it is? Can you see it, in the midst of the activity, and the commotion, and all the hustle? Do you know what Joseph did?

Joseph rested.

Joseph rested, and he went to sleep, and he had a dream. When Joseph stopped to rest, he took a break from trying to figure out the solution to the situation in which he now found himself. Joseph went to sleep, and he had a dream. And in his dream, an angel—a divine messenger—spoke to him and brought him wonderful news that the improbably conceived infant in Mary’s womb really was Emmanuel, God-with-us, God come to earth, God who makes his dwelling among us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Joseph had a dream about the salvation of the world.

When I am up front, there is a little game I like to play as I look over the congregation. It’s called, “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping.” The next time the person next to you falls asleep in worship, you might want to think twice about waking them up. God has a history of speaking to people through dreams. In fact, people used to go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep in the hopes that God would speak to them through their dreams. So, when I look across the congregation and see people sleeping, I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.

Joseph rested and he had a dream. When he dreamed, whether he meant to or not, he gave up control of the situation and allowed God to do whatever it was that God would do. And the world was changed forever.

You need to rest because you need to dream.

Friends, in these days of the Advent season before Christmas bursts in upon us, we find our imaginations pregnant with the promise of God’s possibilities – possibilities that bring in a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy. The carol enjoins us to rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

Right now, we are all being asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” I hope there is one thing we all want: a dream. I hope, like Joseph, we all want a dream of extraordinary and improbable and impossible things being brought to pass. A dream of God’s desire to do incredible things through each of our lives and through us together as a church. A dream of the fullness of God’s presence making itself right at home in, and among, and through us. I hope that we all want a dream.

But then, what will you give this Christmas? The greatest gift we can give is to believe in the dreams of those around us, for it is just possible that God is speaking through their dreams as surely as God spoke in Joseph’s. This year, believe in the dreams of those around you.

Believe in the dreams of your partner. Believe in the dreams of your children. Believe in the dreams of your parents. Believe in the dreams of your friends and neighbors. Believe in the dreams of your hero. Believe in the dreams of your enemy. Have faith in them, support them, encourage them, nurture them. Give a great gift this year, and believe in the dreams of those around you.

Joseph had a dream, and the presence of God was born into his life. Joseph had a dream, and a kingdom of hope, peace, and joy began. Joseph had a dream, and the best was yet to come.

Joseph had a dream, and the world was changed forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Grace Reborn - Luke 1:39-45


In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.

In the first week of my first pastoral appointment, I was asked to make a hospital visit. Being the eager, young, go-getter I was, I jumped at the opportunity. The lady in the hospital was the elderly mother of one of our church members, and while they were not members of the congregation, they worshiped with us via television every week from their living room, and considered themselves part of our church family.

I walked into a hospital room where she was enjoying a sunny afternoon surrounded by her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, her grandson, and her grandson’s fiancĂ©e. We visited for a little while – she was feeling pretty good and would probably go home the next day – and had been there long enough that she was definitely sick of hospital food. I got ready to leave, and offered to pray with them. Everyone stood, joined hands, and bowed their heads, and just as I said, “Gracious God,” her husband let one rip. This was no little squeaker, either. This was full-blown, sustained, gasto-intestinal assault. We’re all standing there, holding hands around the hospital bed, shaking uncontrollably with repressed laughter. I finished the prayer, and he looked across the circle at me and said, “Saved that one for ya, preacher.”

Of course, that brings me back to today’s text. This morning, we’re talking about visitation. Our Scripture today is about Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist being visited by her relative Mary, the mother of Jesus. From the earliest times, the people of God have visited one another as a way of expressing their love and concern for each other, and also as a way of taking the presence of God with them. And when Mary visited Elizabeth, that’s exactly what happened. May we pray.

By the time we meet up with Mary and Elizabeth in this morning’s reading, some extraordinary things have already happened to both of them. Elizabeth, already an old woman and believed to be barren, is with child. An angel appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and given him the message that the son to be born to them will be a prophet, one who will speak for God.

Now, it seems that Mary is also pregnant. She was young, perhaps 12 or 13, and she was unmarried. An angel had visited her and given this extraordinary news: the one who would be born would be the Son of God.

Both women were carrying very special babies, but both women would also face ridicule and social isolation. Can’t you just hear the gossip now? “Hey, did you hear that Elizabeth is pregnant?” “Who, the old priest’s wife?” “Isn’t she a little OLD to have a baby?” Or, “Hey, did you hear that Mary is pregnant?” “Who, the young girl engaged to the carpenter?” “I know – shameful, really.”

Both women were greeted as highly favored, and both women were carrying special babies who would play central roles in the story of God’s salvation of the world. Perhaps the tongues were wagging, but Mary and Elizabeth don’t seem to be bothered. In fact, they carry on with the genuine excitement and vivacity that happens among pregnant women talking to one another. Despite the differences in their ages, in their life circumstances, and in the role their two babies will play in God’s salvation drama, Mary and Elizabeth chatter with a joy outside themselves.

There is something that happens in a visit. In the Bible we often read of God coming into someone's life through a visit of an angel or of a human being. The Gospel of Luke begins with an angel visiting Zechariah and another visiting Mary to bring them the news of the extraordinary conception of their children, John and Jesus, respectively. Zechariah declares in his canticle "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel because he has visited his people and set them free." More than half of the Gospel of St Luke is telling about Jesus visiting people, having meals with them, and then something happens. Visits are signs of love. One wants to visit the person one loves. Very often something happens in a visit. A new relationship is set up. A new plan is hatched, a problem is solved. We find Jesus curing the lepers as he visits a town. As he visits Capernaum he cures the centurion's servant and at Nain he brings the son of the widow back to life. He scandalizes the Pharisees by often eating at the homes of people who, to them, were sinners.

The people of God visit one another. It is how we show our love and concern and care for each other. It is one of the things we pastors do. We’re even given special parking spaces at the hospital because we visit. And every time we visit, somehow, we hope to be used of God to bring his presence and his light into the places we are called to go.

Back in May, when it was announced that I was going to be appointed as your pastor, I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee for a sort of “Get to Know Each Other” meeting. Betty Davidson asked, “Are you a visiting pastor?” I try to be. I never visit as much as I’d like to. No pastor I know does. I could spend my entire 60-hour work week doing nothing but visiting, and I still wouldn’t be able to visit enough. I also wouldn’t be a very adept at preaching, administration, evangelism, outreach, community relations and responsibilities, overseeing staff, leading worship, spiritual renewal and self-care and the whole host of other duties that I have as this church’s pastor.

The story is told of a young pastor who went to visit a homebound member of his congregation. There was a bowl of nuts on the table, and as he visited, he would absentmindedly take a few nuts and eat them. He was rather embarrassed when he looked down and realized he had eaten the entire bowl of nuts. He apologized, but the woman he was visiting told him not to worry. She said, “Since I lost my teeth, all I can do is suck the chocolate off them, anyway.”

Visiting is important – it is something that the people of God do to take the presence of God and church to each other and into the world. I know of some churches that expect their pastor to do all the visiting. Unless the pastor visits, it doesn’t count. Even in some churches with several thousand members and multiple pastors, there is the perception that unless the senior pastor has made the visit herself or himself, it doesn’t count.

This is unfortunate. The perception is that the minister is a sort of paid professional, for whom a congregation has contracted to provide certain professional services. These services might loosely be described as “ministry.” In our context, then, a minister is a paid professional who does ministry.

Yet, we understand all Christians to be ministers. All Christians are members of the body, all Christians have a role to play. God is surely present whether a visit is performed by a member of the clergy or by a layperson. Whether lay or clergy, the church has visited, because I am the church, and you are the church, and we are the church together. Whatever you do, the church does, whatever I do, the church does. And it takes all of us.

We all have a role to play. God gifts us each according to the role God desires for us to play. It doesn’t all fall on one person. One person doesn’t have to have the whole picture, because we all work on different aspects of it. Too many churches are relying on their pastor to do everything, and too many others are waiting for permission from their pastors. If God has placed something within you to do, please just do it. Ministry is not just the pastor’s job. It’s for everyone, and it’s not a spectator sport. To help you consider how you’ll be involved in ministry, there’s an insert in your bulletin that says, “YES! I want to get involved!” at the top. Fill that out and drop it in the offering plate when it comes by – these are real concrete things you can do that will help you grow in your faith and help the church fulfill its ministry in the world. Everything on there is something you can do to take the presence of God into someone else’s life.

Friends, if we’re not about bringing the presence of God into people’s lives, I don’t know why we’re here. If that is not the driving force behind everything we do, we may as well lock our doors and go out of business. Everything we do needs to be about announcing and bringing the presence of God, and if we’re not doing that, I don’t know why we’re doing anything at all. We should be about the business of carrying God into the world.

Which brings us back to Mary and Elizabeth. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she took the presence of God. There is a Greek word that has been used to describe Mary for centuries. She is the Theotokos – literally, the “God-bearer.” Mary is the one who bears God. The baby she carries, the one who will be named Jesus, is none other than God-come-to-Earth, he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And Jesus is the good news. Jesus is the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of God come to earth. It is about God reconciling all things to God’s very self, about God restoring all that has ever been marred, about righting every wrong, about turning the kingdoms of the world upside down and ushering in a new kingdom of peace. Attempts to make the Gospel any other thing will succeed only to sell it short.

The Gospel is not a story about Jesus. The Gospel is Jesus. When Mary carried Jesus, she was the first one to carry the Gospel. She carried the good news that God has come to earth, and through her, all people on earth continue to be blessed.

We Protestants have not really known what to do with Mary. Many of you probably remember times of great suspicion and animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and no doubt, a lot of it centered around Mary. We are reluctant to call her “Blessed” for fear of elevating her to too high a level of prominence. But right here in today’s text, Elizabeth greets Mary as “Blessed among women.” Indeed, Mary is blessed, and we would do well to pay her the honor she is due.

Growing up on the schoolyard, we all knew that one line of taunting was crossing the line, and that was talking bad about someone’s mama. While we all had a full arsenal of “Your mama’s so fat” and “Your mama’s so ugly” jokes, they were only used sparingly. Talking about someone’s mama was declaring war.

We Protestants should be careful about talking bad about Jesus’ mama. The son of Mary is also the son of God, God who dwells among us, God who pitches his tent with us, God who moves into our neighborhood. Mary is blessed among women, she is even, as the text reminds us, favored. I fear that anytime we diminish the role of Mary, we diminish the role of her son. However, honoring the mother leads us to exalting the son of God, and then we can join Mary in singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

Mary went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, and in so doing, she carried the very presence of God into her life. The text tells us that the child within Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy upon hearing Mary’s voice. These two women found their lives pregnant with God’s possibilities, and the result of that pregnancy was the rebirth of grace. And every time we, like these two, dare to imagine that with God nothing will be impossible, grace is reborn in our midst. Every time we find ourselves caught up in a kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love – the very things for which the candles in this advent wreath stand – grace is re-born. Every time we work for the furtherance of these values in places where they seem foreign, grace is re-born.

As we celebrate this Advent season, as we prepare for all the comings of Christ, let us commit ourselves to being harbingers and messengers of his kingdom. The birth of Jesus marks the beginning of a new kingdom, a kingdom for which weekly we pray. This happens when God’s people do the things God would have us do. It is not something for which we sit idly by and pray happens, for we are the hands and feet of Christ upon the earth. It is the reality for which we earnestly pray, but it is also the reality for which we diligently work.

I am asking each of you to do something tangible this Christmas. Our society teaches us that Christmas is like your birthday – more about the presents and the parties than about the inbreaking of God’s presence into the world. But friends, Christmas is not our birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday. Do something for Jesus this year.

Jesus came to heal the brokenness in our lives. This was his aim – to fix the broken relationship between humanity and God. That broken relationship always manifested itself in a broken relationship between people, as well. We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere – war, violence, abuse, enslavement, poverty– and a whole host of social ills. Jesus came to do something about these; this Christmas, as we remember his birth, let’s do something about them as well.

This Christmas, I invite you to join me in a conspiracy. I invite you to join me in spending half of what you had planned to on Christmas presents for your friends and family. Enjoy the additional time with those who are closest to you instead of waiting in line at the mall. If you were planning to spend $1000 on Christmas gifts, try spending just $500. If you were planning to spend $100, try spending just $50.

But then, join me in donating that other half to bringing healing in the places of the worst human brokenness in the world. Through December, whatever you spend on Christmas gifts, bring an equal amount to worship. Let’s send our money to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for their ongoing work in the Darfur region of Sudan, named by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet today. There’s information in your bulletin that you can read further on this. Place your “conspiracy offering” in an envelope and mark it UMCOR. You can make this offering any Sunday in December, and our entire Christmas Eve offering will also be designated to this purpose.

We gather here in December, on this second Sunday of Advent, with stories of expectant virgins and angelic choirs, of babies who leap in their mothers’ wombs. We come to hear these familiar stories, not because we need to be reminded of their details, but because they stir the hope within us yet again, because we need to believe that with God, all things will be possible, because we need grace to be re-born in our midst.

The pregnant Mary visited the pregnant Elizabeth, and the fullness of God’s presence dwelt among them. God is coming into the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and I hope and pray that something within each of us jumps for joy at his presence. And when something within us leaps because of God’s presence, we find our lives impregnated with purpose – to proclaim the kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love through all the earth.

May we be those who take the presence of God into the world. Like Mary, may we carry the Gospel, and may we see grace born and re-born all around us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where Was (and Who is) God? - John 9:1-7

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back and was able to see.

Jesus and his disciples were walking down the road. His disciples asked him a question. Spotting a man born blind, the wheels in their heads start turning. In their worldview, hardships are the result of sin. In fact, they are the direct result of sin. That is, some specific sin causes each specific hardship. It would be only logical, therefore, that the man’s blindness is the direct result of some specific sin.

The disciples question represents one end of the spectrum, in which we humans chart the course of our own destiny. Good things happen when we act righteously, bad things happen when we act sinfully. It’s a sort of a “What goes around comes around” flavor of theology.

At the other end of the spectrum is a theology in which God dictates the results of our lives. That is, God sets forces in motion and orders the world in such a way that only the results God desires actually happen. Indeed, St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” This premise is easily misinterpreted, however. We often hear that all things that happen to us are good, or that all things have a good in them. We can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering.

It was June. June 13, 2000. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was a communication major with a strong business emphasis, and was discovering my love for marketing and public relations. I was still working for the same regional food store company I had worked for in high school. Because of my competence and dedication, company executives had placed me on their fast track, and I was now an assistant manager at the largest and highest volume store in the company. They were grooming me for the executive office, and predicting I would be the executive vice president of marketing operations by the time I was 35, which seemed a lot further away then than it does now.

It was one of those warm, still June nights that come to Western New York when the breezes stop blowing in off the lake. My parents came by the store on their way home from dinner to pick up some ice cream. It was their anniversary, after all, and after a nice dinner, they were going to have some ice cream and a movie at home. As the manager-on-duty, I had my nightly routine down pretty well, and while things had been steady all night, they hadn’t gotten out of control. I had some time to chat with the regular customers about the things we always chatted about. I poked my head into the walk-in cooler where Matt was replenishing the supply of beer. Matt had been my best friend since his family moved to town right before second grade and we ended up in the same class. He was home from college for the summer as well, and I got him on at the store a few nights a week in addition to his full-time summer job. I went back up toward the front end and talked with Regina, the last cashier on duty who was responsible for closing up with me that night. She was 72. She had taken this job a few months earlier because her husband was ill at home, and she was trying to make a little extra money to buy groceries with. I emptied the drop safe and headed up to the office around 11, doing the final nightly paperwork so that when we closed at midnight, the only thing left to do would be to balance Regina’s drawer.

Around 11:30, I heard a knock on the door that I recognized by now as Regina’s. Without looking up from the books, I told her I would be down in a minute. She simply said, “A.J., would you please come down here now.” I looked up at the security monitor whose camera was trained right outside my office door, to see Regina standing there, but she was not alone. A man with a ski mask was holding a gun to the side of her head right outside my office.

I opened the door, he waved the gun in my face, and told me to open the safe in the office. He followed me upstairs, and as I knelt on the tile floor in front of that safe, spinning the dial desperately trying to remember the combination, I felt the unmistakable feel of cold steel pressed into the back of my neck. Somehow, the safe popped open, he took the cashbox, and fled without harming anyone.

And so here, I invite the disciples back into the discussion with the question they asked Jesus in the text just read. “Why did this happen? What good was God trying to work out of this situation?” The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, why did this happen?” and we find ourselves asking the exact same question.

It was June. June 10, 2004. My mom called after an appointment with an oncologist. Her mammogram had shown some irregularities. The oncologist confirmed it. Cancer. Aggressive. Early stage 4. Treatable; not curable. Angry, so many questions swirled through my head. But at their root, they all had the same curiosity. “Why?” “Why did this happen?”

People offered explanations. I wish they’d have kept their opinions to themselves. Mom kept a journal all through her illness, and toyed with turning it into a book to help other families going through the same process. One of the chapters in that book was going to be “Stupid Things Not to Say When You Find Out Someone Has Cancer.” Well-intentioned people said some of the most hurtful things as they tried to answer the “Why” question. Some of my favorites: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” “All things happen for a reason.” “I’m sure God knows what he’s doing.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this!” And if God did, then that’s a god I want nothing to do with.

I need to push back against this. We find ourselves here for a Thanksgiving service, but it’s awfully hard to give thanks to God in all situations if this is our view of God. It’s awfully hard to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude if we believe the one whom we thank is the author of suffering in our lives, no matter how redemptive that suffering may be. Quite frankly, if this were my view of God, I would have stopped believing in God a long time ago.

The theologian William Barclay lost his 20-year-old daughter in a horrible boating accident. Years later, he received an anonymous letter. “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.” “I wanted to write a letter back,” said Barclay. “Not in anger and fury, because that came and went in a flash. I wanted to write back in pity telling whomever ‘Your God is my devil. Your God is the God I don’t believe in.’”

Or, think about what gets said around other tragedies in which people specifically make God the author of suffering, always for some divine purpose. When a child dies, someone will inevitably say, “I guess God just needed another cherub in heaven.” Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in. How many Christians divide and separate, and sing wonderful songs of praise to God, yet bar from their pews anyone unlike them? Theirs is the God I don’t believe in.

God doesn’t give people cancer. God doesn’t cause traffic fatalities. God doesn’t inflict illness upon children. God doesn’t do to his children what we wouldn’t do to our children.

The scriptures tell us that God is kind. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. These things describe God’s nature. God does things that are consistent with these particular characteristics. Anything that falls outside the purview of love, or mercy, or compassion are not the work of God. God can still work in the midst of the greatest tragedy, but God has not caused them. God can still redeem good out of the jaws of the most tragic circumstance, but God did not commit the tragedy.

It was June. June 7, 2008. I knelt in the middle of the stage of Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska. Bishop Lawrence McClesky put his hands on my head and invoked the work of the Holy Spirit in my ordination as an elder. My dad – who was my pastor until I was 18 – was among those with their hands on my shoulders, representing the great cloud of the ordained who had gone before. My mom was in the congregation, proud to see a day her doctors had told her she would not live to see.

The day was, in many ways, the culmination of a series of events that started in motion on another night in June 2000. The night the store was robbed was my last night there, and began an intense discernment process trying to determine what God would have me do with my life. Several months later, I was finally able to recognize and accept my call from God into the ordained ministry.

Did God cause the store to get robbed? Did God place it within the heart of the robber to hold up the store that night? Of course not. That is not consistent with God’s character; that is not who God is. Nevertheless, God was still able to use the situation. Though the powers of the world intended that situation for evil, God was able to use it for good. God was able to stare the powers of evil right in the face and say, “You shall not have the last word. I am still God, and I am still good.”

Back in our text, why was the man born blind? Jesus tells us it was not because of anyone’s sin. He was not born blind as an object lesson. He was not born blind in order to teach us something. He was not born blind in order to be given sight.

Where was God? God was being glorified. Whether the rain falls or the sun shines, whether the wind blows or the sky is calm, God is being glorified. Whether we are born blind or with sight, God is being glorified. Whether we suffer with cancer or live a long and healthy life, God is being glorified.

If we understand who God is, we have no choice but to be grateful. Gratefulness is a state of being that springs from deep within the heart, and while it related to Thanksgiving, it is something altogether different. Thanksgiving is an act – it is something we do. We give thanks and we name the blessings in our lives. But gratefulness is an attitude, it is the disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. Thanksgiving is something we do, but gratitude is a state of being. Thanksgiving is an act, but gratitude is an attitude – it is the disposition that leads us to give thanks in all circumstances, even those situations for which it seems we have nothing for which to give thanks.

Gratitude is a pattern. One of the saints says that gratitude is the memory of the heart. The heart gives life by gathering in and then sending forth, so too does gratitude give life by taking in the goodness of God and then sending us forth to share that goodness of God with the world. We gather to worship, we depart to serve. We enter to be transformed, we go forth to transform the world. Gratitude works its way into our hearts, and we carry that with us. We bask in the radiance of God’s goodness, and we carry that goodness into the world, to people whose situations in life are anything but good. And the more we proclaim the good news of this God who places gratitude deep within our hearts, we find ourselves made all the more grateful in the process.

Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after the rain. Should not humans be allowed to delight in whatever sunshine remains in their lives?”

How can we not be grateful? God walks with us and will not let us go. God doesn’t do bad things to God’s children. God is our rock and refuge. And in the midst of suffering, we have an outlook on our suffering that says, “God, do something good with this. Help me to count my blessings and savor the joy I have each day.” Finally, we rest in God’s arms, knowing that we have a Father who loves us more than we could imagine or believe. As people of faith, that’s how we’re called to face those darkest and stormiest moments in our lives.

In our text, the man’s blindness and healing was not the point. The point was that God is be glorified, that we are to give thanks to God, that we are to be grateful in the midst of every circumstance.

It was June. June 7, 2009. Exactly one year after my ordination, my family gathered in the foyer of St. James United Methodist Church, and took a long walk down the center aisle of a sanctuary packed with friends and family who had all come to celebrate my mom’s life and mark her transfer of membership to the Church Triumphant. Oddly enough, I found myself grateful. Grateful for the full and wonderful life she lived. Grateful for her faith. Grateful for her example. Grateful for her love. Grateful for the time we spent together as we knew that her life on this side of the resurrection was ending.

I was grateful, grateful that she chose not to be a victim to cancer, because by focusing on the particular storms of life, we do not see God. However, throughout her life and especially in her last months, Mom said, “I am going to enjoy the people and the things in my life that bring me joy.” She saw God all around – in her friendships and family relationships, in the beauty of creation, in the laughter of her grandchildren. As a family, the moments we shared together became all the more precious, and we recognized every additional day with her on this earth as a unique and precious blessing from God. Through it all, she taught us all about gratitude. Not once did anyone in our family give thanks for cancer. We learned to give thanks in the midst of cancer. This Thanksgiving season, there will be empty chairs at many of our dining tables, and even as we grieve the loss of those who have been dear to us, God is still God – holding us and our suffering close, reminding us who we are and whose we are. Even in the midst of grief, we can be grateful.

Perhaps the question to be considered this evening is not, “Where is God?” but rather, “Who is God?” I cannot believe in the God who loves pain. I shall never believe in the God who does not know how to hope. I cannot believe in the God who only cares about souls and not people, who is unmoved by human suffering or thinks it’s simply people getting their just desserts. I cannot believe in a God who is incapable of making all things new, who never weeps, who has no mystery, and is nothing more than a little more powerful, vindictive version of ourselves. I cannot believe in a God who is not love and does not transform everything he touches.

I believe in a different God. I believe in one who knows our suffering and enters into it with us. I believe in one who can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful situations for good. I believe in one who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death and teaches us not to fear evil. I believe in one who sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, who calls us to a table, and who promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of bread and receiving from a cup, who invites us to a feast and gives himself to us as the Bread of Life.

Friends, for this we give thanks. But more than this, we are grateful. Gratitude is a golden thread that runs through everything we do as Christ-followers. This year, I will not wish you a happy Thanksgiving, because thanksgiving is not a noun. I hope and pray that Thanksgiving will not be just a day on the calendar, a day of football and feasting, the start of the holiday season, or the prelude to a retail high and holy day. Thanksgiving is a verb. May we practice it not only in this season, but may the gratitude in our hearts show itself in a lifestyle of thanksgiving, and may the Giver of every good and perfect gift receive all the glory, the honor, and praise.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Defined by Generosity

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been talking about financial management according to God’s principles. Including today, we will have spent four Sundays working our way through a sermon series entitled Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. We’ve explored several themes over these past several weeks. We talked about how many in our nation, including many of us, have spent money we didn’t have to buy things we didn’t need. We’ve addressed our temptation to accumulate debt through credit cards and other means, and the real cost we pay for things when we use credit. We’ve talked about being wise managers of the financial resources God has given us. We’ve looked at how we change our appetites to make our lives simpler, allowing us to live healthier and more-balanced lives.

Today is the final message in this series. Today, we’re talking about what it means to be defined by generosity. In case you haven’t figured it out, this series of sermons is actually a stewardship series. That’s right, we’ve been talking about money. And today we’re going to talk about giving.

Now, listen carefully, and let me put your minds at ease. Let me tell you some of the horror stories I have heard about pastors and churches about how they’ve treated money, and at the same time, I promise I am not going to do nothing of the sort.

I am not going to stand in the pulpit and arrange for the lights to suddenly go out and say, “Unless you pay your tithe, it could happen.”

I am not going to pull out a $15,000 Rolex and tell you that God sent it to me mysteriously in the mail the day after I started tithing, and that if you’ll do the same thing, God will send you a Rolex as well.

I am not going to visit the homebound member of your family with the primary interest of collecting their monthly contribution to the church.

Today, we are going to talk about giving, but I have no stunts, scare tactics, tricks, or guilt. We’ve been talking about money, and yes, this is a stewardship series, but this has nothing to do with the church’s need for money or figuring out how we can get more money out of you. It does, however, have to do with discipleship, and so today we will be talking about the generosity of God in our lives and our appropriate response to it as we grow in faith. May we pray.

We are created in the image of God. From the tale of creation as recorded in the first book of the Bible, we believe ourselves to have been created in the image of God. There is a little reflection of the divine within each of us; we each bear some family resemblance to God. Among the most compelling of God’s character traits is God’s generosity. God is a generous God, giving freely and abundantly to us, his creatures. Indeed, the world in which we live is a gift from God, given to us that we might glorify God through our enjoyment of God’s many and wonderful gifts to us. The earth and all it contains belong to God, yet God shares freely and abundantly from the bounty of all that ever has been and ever will be.

Because God is generous, and because we are created in the image of God, we are created to be generous. You know that feeling you get when you help someone, or when you find the perfect gift for that special someone, or you find great joy in making someone else happy? You are created to have that feeling! God gave you that feeling! It feels good to help and to give because God created us with the willingness and the desire to give—to God and to others. This design is part of our makeup, we actually have the need to be generous. Yet, in our world, there are two voices that war against our God-given impulse toward generosity, tempting us to keep or hoard what we have.

The first is the voice of fear. We’re all afraid of something. People are afraid of all sorts of things – heights, spiders, public speaking, water – all sorts of things that people are afraid of! If you want to know the technical names for some of these fears, go to phobialist.com to find out. It’s very important to be precise in naming these fears, however.

For example, geniophobia is the fear of chins. It would be awfully embarrassing to confuse this with genuphobia, which is the fear of knees, or genophobia, which is the fear of sex.

But when it comes to the things that hold us back from being the generous people we were created to be, fear is at the root of so much of it. We fear what might happen to us, along with a misplaced idea about the true source of our security, and we’re kept from being generous. Instead, we hoard what we have. Here’s the truth: hoarding offers us no real security in this world.

The second voice that wars against our God-given impulse toward generosity is the voice of self-gratification.

Our culture tells us that our lives consist in the abundance of our possessions, even though Jesus tells us they do not in Luke 12:15. Yet, we live in a mindset of scarcity. There’s only so much to go around, after all. And so we find ourselves thinking, “If I give, there won’t be enough left for me.”

Those of you who have been to my house may know that I love cereal. I love those cereals that are bad for you, too – the ones that are loaded down with way too much sugar. Right now on top of my refrigerator, you will find a box of Cocoa Pebbles, Reeses’ Peanut Butter Puffs, and Corn Pops. Growing up, my mom never bought these cereals, at least not in the quantity I wanted, which is precisely why I buy them now. With four kids in our house, it was not uncommon to go through 7 or 8 boxes of cereal a week, and of those, one or MAYBE two was one of these were the sugary cereals we loved.

Grocery day was Monday, which meant on Tuesday morning, it was a mad dash to the kitchen to get some Cocoa Pebbles before they were all gone. And there were more Tuesday mornings than I care to count that my sister would eat four or five bowls of cereal just to make sure the rest of us got none. She ate so much cereal she made herself sick, but she did it because of the two voices we’ve just named – fear (of running out of cereal) and self-gratification.

And this is what the world teaches – to look out for #1 – and if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.

But, thanks be to God, these voices can be defeated. When we give our lives to Christ, invite him to be our Lord, and allow the Holy Spirit to begin changing us from the inside out, we find that our fears begin to dissipate and our aim in life shifts from seeking personal pleasure to pleasing God and caring for others. Although we still may wrestle with the voices from time to time, we are able to silence them more readily and effectively the more we grow in Christ. And the more we grow in Christ, realizing that our lives belong to him, the more generous we become. Stinginess is a fruit of stunted spirituality. Generosity, however, is a fruit of spiritual growth.

The Bible gives us several reasons to give to God and to others. In Acts 20:35, we find more joy in doing things for other people and for God than we ever did in doing things for ourselves. In Matthew 16:25, in the very act of losing our lives, we find life. In Psalm 24, life is a gift, and everything belongs to God.

The Bible gives us guidelines for giving. From the early days of the Old Testament, God’s people observed the practice of giving some portion of the best of what they had to God. A gift offered to God was called the first fruits or the tithe, and it equaled one-tenth of one’s flocks or crops or income. Abraham was the first to give a tithe or tenth, and God’s people have been giving 10 % as a gift of thanks to God for all that God has done ever since.

Perhaps you’ll remind me that’s the Old Testament, and we Christians live under the new covenant. True enough, but Jesus also did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Most Christians agree that the tithe is a good guideline for our lives, and one that is pleasing to God. That tenth goes to accomplish the work of God’s kingdom through the church. And the church, then, is responsible for praying and discerning. Our finance committee and treasurer have a tremendous responsibility; they’re responsible to ask not “How can we keep spending to a bare minimum?” but to ask, “What does God want to do through us in the next year, through the resources that this congregation have committed to God? Yet, even though we think the tithe is a good guide, it’s still a challenge.

The idea of tithing is a stretch for many of us, especially when you first start becoming a Christian and you’re having those impulses, that war that’s going on inside you between fear and the desire for pleasure. Give 10%? You’ve got to be kidding. But, I wanted to find a way to illustrate it the way God sees it. (Go into 10 apples demonstration.) God sees your wealth and your income sort of like these ten apples in front of me. God says nine of these are yours. Use them to take care of your family, to clothe yourselves, use them for food and for shelter and set some aside for retirement, give some away to your friends and family, give some to the poor, and take a vacation and have fun with some of them.

You’ve got nine of these apples. But the Lord says, “One of them is mine. And it’s meant to be used, first of all, as a way for you to express your praise and your love for me. But then, after you give it back to me, I’m going to use it to accomplish my purposes in the world.”

But here’s what many of us find. Many of us find—because the society is pulling us in so many directions—that nine apples aren’t enough anymore. I mean, they really aren’t. How can we do all the fun stuff and the cool stuff and the stuff we need to do and pay the bills and everything on just nine apples? And so we think, “You know, the Lord’s not going to mind if we just take a little bit. There’s that trip we’ve been wanting to take, and it’s a special trip, and the Lord will understand. And then it’s Christmas and we didn’t set anything aside for all those Christmas presents, and well, it’s sort of giving – not to God, but to other people. It’s to our children and friends, and God will understand.”

And then it’s time to start saving for retirement. It’s coming up sooner than you think! I should be setting aside more, and I can’t afford to take it from these apples, so, I’m sure the Lord will understand. And then, it’s time to get a new car. I mean, God doesn’t want his children riding around in a broken-down hoopty. And ACC basketball is coming up, and HD TVs are on sale at Best Buy this week, and then there’s that new house because our old house just doesn’t satisfy us anymore. And pretty soon, there’s not much left, I mean, not from the Lord’s apple. And finally we say, “Well Lord, this is your part. I am going to give this part to you.”

Now, I realize that this concept of tithing – of giving 10% of our income to the Lord’s work – is a stretch for many of us. Perhaps you are new in your faith, or giving at a level that you feel you can manage, and you look at this goal of 10%, and think, “There’s no way,” or “That’s only for rich people, not ordinary people like me,” or whole host of other thoughts. Yet, tithing is possible at virtually every income level. If it’s too much of a jump for you, take a step in that direction. Perhaps you look at your finances, and you give 2% of your income to God, or 5%, or 7%. For next year, set a goal for yourself to increase your giving by at least 1% until you reach the goal. That’s how most people begin to tithe. It’s something we do as we grow in our faith, and as we grow in our Christian living, we find ourselves blessed as we grow in our Christian giving, as well.

But friends, tithing is a floor, not a ceiling. Anything beyond the tithe is an offering. God calls us to keep growing in our living and to keep growing in our giving. We should strive to set aside an additional percentage of our income as offerings for other things that are important to us, such as mission projects, schools, church building funds, the benevolence fund to help our members in difficulty, and other worthwhile charities and non-profit organizations.

Our giving affects God; our giving means something to God. From the earliest Biblical times, the way people worshiped God was by building an altar and offering the fruit of one’s labors upon it to God. They would burn the sacrifice of an animal or grain as a way of expressing their gratitude, devotion, and desire to honor God. The scent of the burnt offering was said to be pleasing to God. It wasn’t that God loved the smell of burnt meat and grain. Rather, God saw the people’s heart by which they gave a gift that expressed love, faith, and the desire to please and honor God; and this moved God’s heart. When given in this spirit, regardless of the amount, our giving blesses the Lord.

How does God respond? In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Or, when you get home this afternoon, read the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. This story Jesus told tells us clearly how God feels about those who hoard or sit on their resources, and those who use them wisely for the work God intends.

But friends, giving not only affects God, it affects us as well. When we give generously, our hearts are changed. When we are generous—to God and to our families, friends, neighbors and others who are in need—our hearts are filled with joy. They are enlarged by the very act of giving. When we give generously, we become more generous. Think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. When he learned how to give, his heart grew how many sizes? And so it is with us.

And when we give, in our giving we find the blessing of God. In Malachi 3:10, we are invited to test God’s willingness to bless our tithe. The prophet says that when we bring 10% into God’s storehouse, God will throw open the windows of heaven and pour out such blessings that we will not have baskets or containers big enough to contain it all.

Giving is a matter of the heart – it’s not some carefully calculated formula, it’s not some sort of heavenly checklist – it’s a response to the goodness of God who is the biggest giver we will ever know. I’ve been asked a few times if we are supposed to tithe from the net or gross of our income. First, if we’re even asking that question in the first place, let me suggest that our hearts probably are not fully in the act of giving as God wants them to be. But second, I suppose it depends on whether you want a net blessing or a gross blessing.

Now friends, many Christians have it wrong. They say that if you give, then God will give more back to you. They say that you have to get the engine going by putting the fuel in, so if you want to be blessed, you need to start giving. But that’s not how it works. We are already blessed beyond measure, and giving is simply something we do to express our gratitude. We do not give to God so that we can get something in return. The amazing thing is that when we give to God and to others, the blessings just seem to come back to us, and those blessings are not necessarily monetary. Of course, there is no guarantee that if you tithe you will never lose your job or never have other bad things happen to you.

Nevertheless, when we give generously, the unmistakable blessings of God flow into our lives.

This week, all members and regular attenders will receive a mailing inviting you to share some information with the church. Part of that mailing will be an estimate of giving card for what you intend to give to God through the ministries of St. Paul United Methodist Church in 2010. Prayerfully consider what you will give. Then, on the following two Sundays, November 29 and December 6, place your card in an envelope and bring it to worship. This estimate of giving card is confidential and will only be seen by our financial secretary.

The card is simply an estimate. You can change your commitment at any time as your financial situation changes. You will never receive a “bill” asking you to pay your commitment, though you will receive periodic statements of our financial secretary’s record of your giving, but this is for your information only.

And hear me carefully. Your acceptance in this church is not tied to your ability to give. We don’t cow tow to the high dollar givers; we don’t sleight the low dollar givers. This is a Christian community where all people are valued, and I value each and every person here equally. Everyone is an equally important part of this church – longtime members and new visitors, young and old, wealthy or not, white, black, green, or purple.

I also recognize that it may be a very difficult time in many of your lives. You may be struggling financially because of employment or healthcare or other issues. Please let me know if there is any place you need help, and know that you have the love, prayers, support, and acceptance of this congregation regardless of your giving.

In your bulletin, you will each find an insert that says “Personal Goals and Commitment” at the top. On it, there are five measurable goals for you to increase your commitment to God by placing God in higher priority in your living over the next year. Don’t fill out this sheet right now, and don’t turn it in. This is for you to place in your Bible or other safe place to reference over the next year as you actively work toward each of these five goals. Over the next few moments will be a time of silent prayer, and you may wish to come to the altar to thank God for the blessings in your life and how you will respond through these commitments, or you may wish to remain in your seats and do the same thing.

Consider the goodness of God, who gives more than we can ever repay. My prayer for each of us is that we will be blessed to find the contentment and true joy that comes through simplicity and generosity, and that each us will continue to grow deeper in our faith.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cultivating Contentment

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15)

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)

Every year in California, the brush dries out and the Santa Ana winds begin to blow, and every year, we find stories on the nightly news about wildfires burning their way through neighborhoods filled with multi-million dollar homes. When I see these stories, my heart is somewhat torn between two extremes – on the one hand, devastated for the loss of everything these people own; on the other hand, not feeling too bad because people who can afford to live in multi-million dollar homes are usually heavily insured and are going to come out just fine once the insurance claims are settled.

These disasters force us to wrestle with the question, “What is really important in life?” Many of the interviews with the people who have fled their neighborhoods center around their discussions of what they took out with them in the few minutes they had to evacuate. I saw one interview with a man whose family’s home was lost. They lost the house and its contents, but the firefighters managed to save his Porsche in the driveway. He said, “I wish they could have saved my daughters stuffed animals, instead.”

What’s important in life? Family, friendships, relationships, of course. The rest is just stuff. And yet, once the fires are gone, we know these neighborhoods will be rebuilt with bigger and grander homes, filled with more stuff than was in them before.

Today’s sermon is the third in our series Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how our pursuit of stuff has led many of us into upside-down living where we are living off credit and spending money we don’t have for stuff we don’t need. Last week, we looked at good principles of financial management according to what God desires. If you didn’t get your cling of “Six Key Financial Principles,” you can pick one up off the table in the narthex. Today, we’re talking about changing our appetites so we’re able to cultivate contentment.

We are reminded that everything in the world is temporary. This is why we say with Jesus, “My life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Yet the culture is shouting that it’s not true. The result is a wrestling in our hearts. Despite the fact that we say we believe Jesus’ words, we still find ourselves devoting a great deal of our time, talents, and resources to the acquisition of more stuff. We say that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but we live as if they do. May we pray.

Perhaps you’ve heard of restless leg syndrome, a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. Restless Heart Syndrome (RHS) works in a similar way, but in the heart—or soul. Its primary symptom is discontent. We find that we are never satisfied with anything. The moment we acquire something, we scarcely take time to enjoy it before we want something else. We are perennially discontent.

Sometimes, discontent is a virtue. There is a certain discontent that God intended us to have. God actually wired our hearts so that they would discontent with certain things, causing us to seek the only One who can fully satisfy us. St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” meaning we are intended to desire God. We are meant to yearn to know God more, to cultivate a deeper prayer life, to pursue justice and holiness with increasing fervor, to love others more, and to grow in grace and character and wisdom with each passing day, and we should be discontent so long as we have not fully embodied these.

Many times, however, discontent destroys. Many of you are probably familiar with the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has been turned into several movies. One of the characters is an obnoxious spoiled little girl named Veruca Salt. Even when she gets everything she wants from her weak-willed and wealthy father, she responds by demanding more. She sings a song right before meeting an unfortunate demise in the chocolate factory, and that song tells us about her attitude toward life and discontent with what she already has. The girl who already has everything handed to her on a silver platter signs these lines. “I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket, it’s my bar of chocolate, give it to me now! I want a party with rooms full of laughter. 10,000 tons of ice cream. And if I don't get the things I am after, I'm going to scream!”

The problem is that those things we should be content with are the very things we find ourselves hopelessly discontented with. For example, we find ourselves discontented with our stuff, our jobs, our churches, our children, and our spouses. God must look down on us and feel the way we feel when we give someone we really care for a special gift and then or she asks for the gift receipt. It’s as if we’re saying to God, “I don’t like what you have given me, God; and I want to trade it in and get something better than what you gave me.”

St. Paul – that is, the guy for whom this church is named – is an excellent example of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote of the “secret” to his contentment. I have learned to be content with what I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13). Like St. Paul, we can learn to be content in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. Four keys, which include the “secret” Paul referred to in his letter, can help us to do that.

Here’s the first key. John Ortberg, pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says there are four words we should say whenever we find ourselves discontented with something or someone: “It could be worse.” This is essentially the practice of looking on the bright side or finding the silver lining.

Many of you know that back in August, I had a little car trouble. A series of unfortunate and undetected events took place that led my engine to seize up while I was flying—driving responsibly—up I-77 toward Statesville. It was not a good day. But, I chose to look on the bright side. The car gave me the first sign of trouble right at an exit. The car died on the exit ramp and came to a stop at the bottom. Right at the bottom of the ramp, however was a truck stop. The towing company happened to be on site because the driver was getting a cup of coffee. The friend who I was meeting in Statesville came a few exits south and waited with me, and then was kind enough to drive me back to Charlotte. A member of this congregation had a vehicle waiting for me when I arrived in Charlotte only an hour and a half after the car died. Some of you generously helped me pay for the repair so I could get the car back. Now, am I happy I had to go through that? Not really. But, it could’ve been worse. No matter what we may not like about a person or thing or circumstance, we can always find something good to focus on if only we will choose to do so.

The second key involves asking one question: For how long will this make me happy? So often we buy something, thinking it will make us happy, only to find that the happiness lasts about as long as it takes to open the box. There is a moment of satisfaction when we make the purchase, but the item does not continue to bring satisfaction over a period of time. Many of the things we buy are simply not worth the expense. This is why it is a good idea to try before you buy.

The third key is developing a grateful heart. Gratitude is essential if we are going to be content. St. Paul said that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). A grateful heart recognizes that all of life is a gift. Contentment comes when we spend more time giving thanks for what we have than thinking about what’s missing or wrong in our lives.

The fourth key is again the answer to a question: Where does your soul find true satisfaction? The world answers this question by telling us that we find satisfaction in ease and luxury and comfort and money. The Bible, however, answers this question very differently. From Genesis to Revelation—and this is the fourth key, by the way—it tells us that we find our satisfaction in God alone.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you . . . My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night (Psalm 63:1,6).

Whatever my eyes desired, I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).

Jesus said the two most important things we must do are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 39). If we keep our focus on these two things, we will find satisfaction for our souls and lasting contentment. There are so many things we can go after and try to fill the empty places in our lives with, but our focus must remain on living out the greatest commandment, to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Contentment is part of it. But in addition to cultivating contentment, we need to cultivate simplicity. Contentment and simplicity go hand-in-hand. There are five steps for simplifying your life I’d like everyone to consider. These will not only help simplify your spending, they will also allow you to spend time with the people who matter most in your life, doing things that matter. In many ways, these things will help contribute toward a better life all the way around – your finances will be simpler, you’ll be spending more quality time with your family, you’ll even find yourself healthier.

First, set a goal of reducing your consumption and living below your means. Set a tangible goal to reduce your own personal consumption and the production of waste in your life. For example, use canvas bags when you go grocery shopping and refuse any extra packaging. I always have the canvas bags in the car, but I usually forget to take them inside, so try to do better than that.

Stop buying bottled water and start using a BRITA filter or pitcher at home instead. Don’t buy individual cans or bottles of your favorite soft drink, buy in the large bottle and drink from a glass at home.

Whenever you are making purchases, look at the mid-grade instead of the absolute top-of-the-line product. If you are buying a new car, aim to improve the fuel economy over your existing car by at least 10%.

During temperate seasons, don’t run your heating or cooling system if you don’t need to. I switched my air conditioning off at the end of September and haven’t turned my heat on yet. Sure, a couple nights I’ve had to put extra blankets on my bed and there were some chilly mornings of getting dressed, but you should see how much my electric bill went down. Program your thermostat to use less energy during times you’re away or sleeping.

Switch to water at restaurants.

Clip coupons, shop specials, and take advantage of double- and triple-coupon opportunities.

Give up a habit that’s probably not good for you anyway. A mocha latte plus tax is over three dollars. A carton of cigarettes are anywhere between $20 and $50.

You can see that many of these reductions in spending will also be good for your health. What’s good for your wallet is good for your health and relationships, too.

The second step in simplifying your life involves asking yet more questions. For every purchase, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” These questions will help you to determine the true motivation of your desired purchase. Four and a half years ago, when I moved to Boone, I was driving a 1992 Saturn coupe. It was small, had some miles on it, and had some, shall we say, “cosmetic imperfections.” The best things it had going for it was that it ran, was reliable, and was paid for. Members of the congregation were concerned that I was driving such a small, high-mileage vehicle without four-wheel drive in the mountains, and so I bought the car I’m driving now – mainly because it was newer, lower miles, larger, and had all-wheel drive. I made payments on that car for the next 36 months, during which time I saw my old Saturn around town at least once a month. I had paid thousands of dollars for a car to replace one that was perfectly fine. Moreover, this car had worse mileage, was more expensive to maintain, attracted the attention of cops – that had nothing to do with the person driving it, by the way – and has been involved in three separate accidents in the time I’ve been driving it. Basically, I bought something to replace something that was working just fine because I allowed myself to believe that I really needed it. At this point, I leave it unlocked with the keys in it in bad neighborhoods overnight, just hoping it will be stolen and I’ll get reimbursed from the insurance company. A few weeks ago, when stopped at an intersection on South Boulevard, I almost got rear-ended by an inattentive driver and was disappointed the car didn’t get hit.

Before I bought that car, I should have asked myself two questions. “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” Is it a need, a self-esteem issue, or something else? You may find yourself wrestling with your true motive and decide that your reason for purchasing the item is not a good one.

Third step: use something up before buying something new. This would have been a good principle in my car decision, as well. Take good care of the things you buy and use them until they are empty, broken, or worn out. Buy things that are made to last – just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good value. I find churches are notorious about this. We buy things that are cheap because we’re concerned about cost, but end up spending a fortune in the long run replacing them more often or paying expensive maintenance bills to keep them going.

Fourth, plan low-cost entertainment that enriches. When it comes to choosing entertainment for your family or friends, plan things that are simple and cheap. A few years ago, my parents were down visiting from New York, and I planned a special day trip for us to North Carolina’s favorite attraction – we went to Asheville and went to the Biltmore. I was planning to pay. My dad, whose sensibilities are naturally more frugal than my own, hit the roof when he saw that each ticket was over $40. My dad doesn’t pay $40 for anything, and he was appalled that I was about to. As it turned out, he just didn’t want to see the Biltmore. So, I was willing to pay more money than he was comfortable with to get into something he wasn’t interested in seeing. He would have been perfectly happy to pack a sack lunch and spend the day driving and hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which would have been both less expensive and more enjoyable for all of us. You’ll be amazed at how much pleasure can be derived from simple, low-cost activities.

Fifth, ask yourself, “Are there major changes that would allow me to simplify my life?” Consider selling a car and buying one you pay for in full, downsizing your home, or getting rid of a club membership you don’t use. Do you need as many HD channels as you’re currently paying for? Are you using the boat or RV enough to justify the insurance, maintenance, and storage expenses? Ask yourself questions related to your home, possessions, job, and activities to identify some significant changes that will simplify your life. If you are unable to do the things God is calling you to do because you don’t have the resources of time or money, you need to simplify. It’s not good enough to say, “God, I’ll do that in 15 years or so when I’m in better financial standing and can afford to do that” or “God, I’ll be happy to do that when I just have just a little bit more.” That attitude only feeds the cycle, and we can watch a lifetime go by waiting for “just a little bit more” before we are truly free to do the things God calls us to do. If you’re unable to find joy in life, if your heart is restless, perhaps it’s time to simply in some major ways.

Simplifying your life requires the practice of self-control. Solomon wrote, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). In the ancient world, a city’s walls were its best defense against enemies; when it’s walls were broken down, an enemy could march right in and destroy it. There is no longer any protection. Likewise, self-control is a wall around your heart and life that protects you from yourself, from temptation, and from sins that are deadly and can ultimately destroy you. Self-control comes down to making a choice between satisfying an impulse to gain instant gratification and choosing not to act upon the opportunity for instant gratification by stopping to think about the answers to three questions:

What are the long-term consequences of this action?

Is there a higher good or a better outcome if I used this resource of time, money, or energy in another way?

Will this action honor God?

Envision how much better our decision-making would be if we asked those three questions about everything.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who went to the doctor complaining of recurring alternating dreams. “One night I dream I’m a tipi; the next night, I’m a big top. Tipi; big top. Tipi, big top. On and on it goes.” The doctor looked at him and said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”

This morning, you have a choice between two tents. Will you live in discontent, or will you live in contentment? You and you alone determine which “tent” will be yours. Today is the day to stop waffling between two opinions. You choose the tent in which you live in large part by deciding what life is about. If you decide, as one of our Scripture readings for today says, that “life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions,” then you are choosing contentment. Choosing contentment means we look to God as our Source, giving thanks for what we have; we ask God to give us the right perspective on money and possessions and to change our hearts each day. We decide to live simpler lives, wasting less and conserving more, and we choose to give more generously, because we are created in the image of God, and no giver is more generous than God.

I invite you to place your hands on your lap, palm side up. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Pray with me:

Lord, cure me of Restless Heart Syndrome. I’m sorry for times I’ve been ungrateful, unsatisfied with people you entrust to my care, unsatisfied with my loved ones, unsatisfied with my possessions. Forgive me for being discontent. Help me cultivate contentment. Help me to end the cycle of discontent. I choose contentment. I choose contentment in you alone.

Help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.