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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Faithful Financial Freedom Part One: God's Perspective

Today we are beginning a four-part series of messages on Faithful Financial Freedom. At the root of this series is this question: “How do you live on the upside when the economy is on the downside?” You are going to learn a lot in this series, so please go ahead and take the sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil. Most of us learn best when we take notes, so write down anything of interest we discuss.

During hard economic times, it’s tough not to focus on getting by with less and waiting for the next bit of bad news. The current financial crisis is affecting every age group. Twenty-five to thirty-four-year-olds have the second highest rate of bankruptcy. Baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s – which should be a critical savings time in preparation for retirement – have, on average, over $40,000 in consumer debt, not including their mortgage. Retirees have seen their incomes plummet with the devaluation of their investment portfolios and retirement plans. Persons who are otherwise eligible for retirement are choosing to work additional years just to make ends meet. Young job-seekers are having more difficulty finding employment than at any time in recent history.

Our response to the current financial crisis tends to be reactive, coming out of the twin emotions of fear and worry. But as Christians, there’s a better way to respond to what’s happening on Wall Street, Main Street, and our street. If we truly desire to build sound financial health, we must begin by building a foundation grounded in God’s perspective on wealth and finances.

Over the next four Sundays, you’re going to learn a lot, and you’re going to be challenged to make a commitment to action based on what you’ve learned. I am convinced that you can live on the upside even in a downside economy by putting your faith into action. And today, it begins with seeking God’s perspective. May we pray.

Money is a serious topic, of course, but sometimes we all take ourselves a little too seriously. So, just to lighten the mood a bit, I’d like to define a few key terms in relation to the stock market and investing.

A bull market is a random upward movement causing an investor to mistake himself for a financial genius. Bull is also what your broker uses to explain why your mutual funds tanked last quarter. Bear: what your wallet and account will be when you take that hot stock tip your secretary gave you. And when does a person decide to become a stockbroker? When he realizes he doesn’t have the charisma needed to succeed as an undertaker.

Understanding the Market

Today, we are talking about finances in light of God’s perspective. What I realized is that most of us have a very small and immediate perspective on finances. Take the stock market, for example. Even if you know that long-range market trends are what’s really important, maybe you’re like me – if the market was up, I think, “Whoo hoo! I made money today!” And when the market’s down, I think, “Dangit! I lost money today!”

But, we need a broader perspective than that. Now, caveat here: I’m not an economist or a financial analyst. But, I am a researcher, and I’m pretty good at putting information together. I also know that the stock market can be intimidating to a lot of people, and one of the premises of this sermon series is that we’re not going to live by fear and worry, because God has better plans for our lives, so I’d like to explain some things about the stock market so that we’re neither fearful of it or worried about it. OK, so here’s a crash course on the stock market.

Here is a graph of the Dow Jones over the last 110 years, from 1900 to 2010. You will note that there are long-term trends in our economy, at least as measured by the Dow Jones as a key indicator. While we focus on day-to-day or even a few years at a time, these trends indicate that there are long periods (8-20 years) of sustained growth and wealth creation followed by long periods (16-21 years) of non-growth, or a flat period.

So, when you look at the chart, would you say we’re generally in a growth period or a flat period? You can see from the graph that we’re in a flat period that began in 2000, meaning we likely have at least another five years before we experience sustained nationwide economic growth again.

By the way, that’s five more years regardless of who ends up in Congress or the White House. Despite what the pundits from FOXNews and MSNBC have been telling us, the political party in office seems to be irrelevant to the health of the economy. Now, I know that both the Republicans and Democrats in the room are going to send me links and articles this week proving to me that one party or the other is better for the overall health of the economy, but to both sides, I’m begging you – don’t! One, I poured through all those same articles during my research this week and I really didn’t find any direct correlation between a particular political party and a healthy economy. Two, you won’t be influencing my vote. I’m an unaffiliated voter – I don’t belong to any political party and that’s a matter of public record, if you want to look it up – and on Tuesday I’ll be voting for both Republicans and Democrats as I have in every election since I became eligible to vote in 1998. Three, I delete all partisan political emails, just to let you know up front.

Now, while politics have little influence on the economy, I did find one place that made me pay attention. Post war times seem to be good for growth of the economy. War times, not so much. War is expensive. How many billion dollars does it cost each month we stay in the Middle East? That would indicate that the sooner we get out of the Middle East, the sooner the economy will start growing again.

Now, given the likelihood that the economy isn’t going to grow significantly for at least another five years, how should we respond? The Bible actually gives us some good direction on this, if we look in the right places, and in so doing, we may just experience the abundant life for which God created us. So let’s look together at a passage from the book of James – a book of practical, applicable faith for hard times. The New Testament churches to whom James wrote were dealing with harsh economic conditions as well as severe persecution. James’ teaching is applicable today in learning how to live above our situations as well. So let’s take a look at James 4:1-6:

Those conflicts & disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you want on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealousy for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Financial freedom begins with knowing who God is. Before we can appropriately respond to God’s perspective on financial matters, we must be sure we have a right understanding of who God is. We must know God’s character in order to trust God; only that trust enables us to put God’s principles into practice. Financial freedom begins with knowing who God is, because financial freedom is based in trusting God’s character and intentions toward us.

Check God’s Character

Many of us struggle when it comes to the subject of God and finances because we do not understand who God truly is. We have a picture of God as a moralistic judge-creator. We think God has sorta set the world in motion, given us to rules to live by, and then at the end of our lives gives us a score based on how well we followed those rules. And since we believe ourselves to be created in the image of God, our faith activity will echo our view of God. So, if we think God is a rule-maker, we’ll spend a lot of time making up and enforcing what we perceive God’s rules to be. If we think God is a judge, we’ll spend a lot of time judging ourselves and others.

Yet, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father . . .” (Matthew 6:9). This opening address of the Disciples’ Prayer is a reminder that God is a powerful parent who actively seeks the well-being of God’s children. Again and again, Jesus reminded us of the fatherly kindness of God. In Matthew 7 we read “Everyone who asks [God] receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (verses 8, 11).

The heart of a loving parent does whatever is required for the sake of the child. Jesus was saying that if we have this kind of love for our children, how much more will our Father in heaven – whose love for us is infinitely greater and purer – give good things to those who ask. The New Testament is filled with similar promises. Philippians 4:19 tells us “My God will meet ALL YOUR NEEDS, according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Isn’t that an amazing Father! Likewise, in Romans 8:32 we find this promise: “He who did not spare his own Son, but GAVE him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously GIVE us all things?”

The reality of God as our loving Father is powerful, which is why Jesus taught us to pray that way. That’s part of the reason we pray the Lord’s Prayer nearly every week in worship – because it reminds us of who God is. Don’t just say the Lord’s Prayer in rote monotone – look at the words, think about them, and realize what we are saying. It’s a powerful prayer that will change our way of seeing God, the world, others, and ourselves. It will change our whole perspective, and give us a glimpse of God’s perspective.

The next words in the prayer are equally powerful: “Our Father in heaven.” “Our Father” reminds us who God is. “In heaven” reminds us not of where God is, but of what God has. To put it another way, God owns the universe. God created the cosmos. All things in heaven and on earth are owned by God. In other words, not only do we have the love of our eternal parent, God has the resources to back all of God’s promises, and right here we find the basis of true financial freedom – trust. Trust in who God is, and trust in God’s resources. When we trust God’s promises, we are able to practice God’s directives.

Check God’s Perspective

The Bible not only tells us who God is; it also gives us the promises and principles of God. It teaches us God’s perspective on everything from morality, salvation, and eternal life to practical matters such as finances. In fact, there are hundreds of financial directives in the Bible. For example, we are told in Proverbs 22:7 that the debtor is always slave to the lender. Debt is not our friend. When you have debt of any kind in your life, you are working today to pay for the past, instead of creating the future. We’ll talk some more about how you can reduce personal debt in the coming weeks, and those of you enrolled in the Financial Peace University class will really be knocking down debt in your lives. But fundamentally, the basis of all financial wisdom and health begins with this essential principle: We are to practice planned giving to God. We will discuss this in greater depth in the coming weeks. For now, we’ll generalize by saying that we must put God first when it comes to our finances.

When we put God first and serve God with our money, money serves us. That is exactly what this verse means: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). “All these things” refers to the physical provision of God on our behalf. We don’t have to worry about multiplying wealth because God has promised that to us. But if we serve money instead of God, we will always be slaves to the past, because we will be working for our possessions instead of working for our Creator. God has promised to supply all we need if we will put God first in our lives.

Check Your Motives

In addition to checking God’s perspective, we must check our own motives. In James 4:3, it says, “You ask and do not receive.” Now wait a minute – I thought that if we ask God for it, God gives it to us! And now it says that we ask and don’t receive? What’s up with that? Well, read the rest of the verse: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you want on your pleasures.” Perhaps the reason we do not receive sometimes is because we ask with wrong motives so that we may spend what we want on our own pleasures. Our motives are the compelling force or energy behind all our actions; our motives drive our actions.

Note the word “pleasures” in this verse. The word in Greek is hedonism. Hedonism is an ancient Greek philosophy that was articulated 400-500 years before the birth of Christ, and it taught that the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate objective in life. Minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure is what life is all about. Sounds pretty good, right? Unless, of course, the cross is the central symbol of your faith. The cross represents the worldview of Jesus Christ. St. Paul expressed it this way in Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings.” Followers of Jesus don’t avoid pain, we willingly take it on.

Now, while we are resurrection people – while new life and the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit are what we’re all about, we also recognize that resurrection is only possible if we face the cross. We are never going to know the power of the resurrection in any dimension of our lives – in our relationships, in our work, or our finances – until we are willing to go through the pain, to experience the discipline. No pain, no gain.

But too many Christians are trying to short-circuit the process: jumping straight to resurrection without the pain, they are trying to avoid pain in order to practice pleasure; in other words, they are actually practicing a form of Christian hedonism. Sometimes people will tell me after worship that they didn’t enjoy worship, or they didn’t get anything out of worship, or they didn’t “feel” anything in worship like they used to. Usually this is because they were seeking a pleasurable experience – a certain feeling – instead of seeking God. So, if you feel like you’re not “getting anything” out of worship, I’d encourage to you check your motives. Are you seeking a pleasurable experience, or are you seeking God?

The motive of hedonism also creates a spirit of coveting. Coveting means to want what we don’t have, which causes us to fail to celebrate the blessings of what we have been given, and it always leads to conflict, brokenness, and debt. In any dimension of our lives, when we fail to see and celebrate the blessings that God has already given us, we inevitably begin to seek satisfaction in other sources. We seek satisfaction from our pleasures and our possessions, and work to please ourselves through these things, taking our focus away from God. The book of James calls us adulterous people when we do this, because when we want what we do not have, we are disloyal toward God.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34-35). Wanting what we don’t have is a matter of our appetite; when we fail to see the blessings of what we have in Jesus Christ and seek satisfaction somewhere else, we are saying that Jesus is not enough.

And I want to be clear here – the idea is not that having money and possessions is bad. It is loving money, or seeking security in money, that we must guard against. A common mistakenly-held belief is that the Bible teaches that money is the root of evil. That’s not what it says! Rather, it says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Likewise, the book of Hebrews instructs, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [Jesus] has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). With that promise, we can truly be content, and that’s a very good place to be.

Check Your Sources

Finally, if we really want to enjoy real financial freedom as God intends, after we have checked God’s character, after we have checked God’s perspective, and after we have checked our motives, we need to check our sources. We need to check who we’re regularly listening to.

I have a friend who is a car salesman – an industry that is really hurting right now – and in preparation for this message, I called him on Thursday. I was hoping he was going to give me some good anecdotal evidence to tell me how hard things were, how he was getting by, and how he was staying grounded. I wasn’t expecting what he told me. Thursday was the 28th – three days before the end of the month. As of Thursday, he had sold 12 cars this month, which would be considered good in a stable economy, and he was turning in those kind of numbers in this economy! Before I could ask him his secret, he volunteered, “My goal each month is fifteen.” How does he do it? His answer was simple. He said, “I don’t listen to the media.”

If you’re trying to sell cars in a tough economy, why would you listen to people in the media who are telling you all the reasons you can’t? If you’re trying to grow a church, why would you listen to people who have never been successful in growing a church and who give you all the reasons why you can’t? Why would their voices be the one with the most influence? I desire fruitfulness in my life, in our church, in my relationships – and I only listen to people who are bearing fruit in these areas. They are my influencers!

There will always be negative voices who don’t even know what they’re talking about, and yet they can have a profound and negative influence on our lives. The same is true of our finances. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to gain financial insights and wisdom. Anyone who desires sound financial health seeks wise counsel. I sought my financial advisor because he’s the best at what he does and knows finances better than I do, and can trust him and lean on his expertise.

Whether a professional or not, who in your life can provide wise financial counsel? What opportunities are available through your financial institution? Talk with people you know and respect who are knowledgeable in the area of finances. Are there books you could read, workshops or seminars you could attend, courses you could take, or Bible study groups you could join that would help you?

Follow the advice of Proverbs 1:5, which says, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance,” and you’ll be on your way to achieving health in all areas of your life – including your finances!

Remember, if you feel defeated in the area of your finances, you don’t have to stay there! Regardless of how far you may be in debt or how bleak your situation may be, God can make the impossible possible. Next week, we’ll talk about rebalancing your life investments so that you’re putting your resources in the places that really matter and are consistent with who you and what you’re trying to accomplish. But before you start to rebalance your life’s investments, let today’s message sink in and spend a little time reflecting on how you can seek God’s perspective.

So now, go ahead and close your eyes and put your hands on your lap, palm side up, in a posture of receptivity.

First, ask yourself if you really trust God – do you really believe that God is a loving parent who wants the best for you? Do you believe that God owns everything? Do you think God has limitless resources to back up God’s promises? Do you really trust God to fulfill God’s promises? If not, ask God for more grace in your life so you can trust and lean more fully on God.

Then, think about the factors that have the most influence in your life. Who do you listen to most? Do they represent God’s perspective? Do they represent what’s best for you? Are they consistent with what God would want for all God’s children? If not, visualize the source of the negative influence. Now reach over and turn the sound off from that influence. Resolve in your mind that you’re not going to listen to their negative influence. Ask God for more grace in your life to avoid falling back under their influence, and ask God to bring people in your life who will direct you faithfully.

God, we thank you that fear and worry are not your plan for our lives. We thank you that this extends to all areas in our lives, including our finances. Before we do anything, we always want to seek your perspective. Pour out your Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that the things that are most important to you will become most important to each of us. Amen.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rearview Mirror (Philippians 3:4b-15)

If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, then this too God will reveal to you.

My brother, David, is 6 years younger than I am, and shortly before his college graduation, he sent me his resume to look over. David was 20 at the time, finishing up a degree in computer science in only three years. I looked over an impressive resume of an eager young man who hoped to land a job in programming or network security. He was not going to have any problem finding a great job.

David is the one in our family who I will never have any worry about. Sure enough, he started a position the Monday after college graduation making about twice what his older brother makes. He called and asked if he needed to figure out how to pay me back for helping him through school for a few semesters when he couldn’t pay his full tuition. I told him not to worry about it, but when he came into his own and his poor older brother called, wanting to use the boat for the weekend, or the house in the Caymans, or the chalet in Aspen, he should remember my kindness and generosity when things were not so good for him. He’s now 24, married, with a child. He has nearly paid off his student loans and those of his wife. Last year, at 23, they bought their first home – 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, on two acres with a few outbuildings.

I like to think he’s where he is because he has a good older brother – one who was willing to help him tweak the resume that opened doors for him, got him noticed, and landed him a good job. But that got me thinking just a little bit about resumes. Resumes are a brag sheet – one piece of paper, preferably – on which you tell a potential employer about every positive experience you’d had, everything of value you’ve done, everything that makes you a vastly superior human being to every other applicant for the job in every way conceivable.

In today’s Scripture, St. Paul whips out his religious resume, and you know what? St. Paul was an egotistical braggart. Even so, his resume is pretty impressive. But even Paul looks at his resume – all his accomplishments, his education, his family background, his practices, his knowledge, all the stuff he’s ever done – he looks at all of it and says, “You know, there’s more to it than all of this.” May we pray.

This morning, I realize that many of you may be like me, in that you have an easier time remembering something if you take the time to write it down. So, let me invite you to take the sermon notes out of your worship bulletin – it’s easy to find, it’s the piece of paper that says “Sermon Notes” across the top – and grab a pen or a pencil so you can jot some notes down.

Today is “Welcome Home” Sunday, basically a new take on Homecoming Sunday. I realize many of you are here today because it’s “Welcome Home Sunday,” and I am so glad you’re all here. If you haven’t been here in awhile, I’m glad we can see your face and hear your story about how you experienced faith through the ministry of this church in years past. And, if you’re relatively new to this church, I’m glad you’re here so you can tell some of these other folks what we’ve been up to lately. You’ll all have a chance to greet each other and spend time doing just that downstairs immediately following worship.

Today, on Welcome Home Sunday, the past, present, and future of St. Paul United Methodist Church meet in a fascinating confluence of forces, an amalgam that is not unlike where we find St. Paul in today’s Scripture reading.

St. Paul opens this passage by outlining his religious resume – all the great and glorious and wonderful religious things he’s done in the past. Some of his opponents want him to prove his qualifications to them. Have you ever noticed that there are always people who oppose religious leaders? For instance, every pastor expects that 10-20% of the congregation, at any given time, are mad at us, upset with us, disappointed with us, or opposed to us. That’s just life, and I’m not going to waste a lot of time worrying about what people think of me – life is too short to get caught up in that game! I’d also suggest that you not get caught up in playing that game either, because some of you have less time than I do, and I wonder if you really want to spend that kind of time on such trivial matters!

The situation wasn’t that different for St. Paul. There were those who opposed his leadership and who didn’t like the direction he was headed. Remember that in those days, there was a very loud and vocal group of Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile converts had to be converted to a Jewish lifestyle to really be authentic followers of Jesus. In other words, there was a certain set of rules they wanted enforced, a code-of-conduct they wanted all the worshipers to follow, and Paul had the nerve to say that all their rules were just man-made injuctions, the sort of thing people come up with to preserve and protect what is important to them, a holier-than-thou way of keeping outsiders outside – exactly where self-righteous religious snobs wanted them to be.

They accuse Paul of coming up with a new, foreign, and strange teaching that isn’t rooted in what they perceive to be the real, true, way of discipleship. In other words, he had changed the church, and the old guard didn’t like it too much. And so the gossip and the accusations and the opposition and a dispute about Paul’s legitimacy started.

And so Paul gets out his resume. Paul whips it out on the table and says, “Beat that!” If anyone has the right to boast in their accomplishments, it’s Paul. He is a true Jew, a true Israelite. Who could beat him in following the law? No one. Who could beat him in his passion and zeal? No one. Who had a better education? No one. Who came from a better family? No one. If they really wanted to play the comparison game about who was the most qualified based on religious activity, no one could beat Paul.

Let’s put this into modern context. Paul pulls out his religious resume, and he shows us all the things he’s done in the church. He’s been an usher, he’s been on the board, he’s chaired the board, he teaches, he memorized Scripture, he taught Sunday School, he came from one of the most important families in the church, he sang in the choir, he served on trustees, he gave great sums of money and his family even donated the land the church was built on.

But then he throws in the twist: all of that, compared to knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, means nothing. It is rubbish. In fact, the Biblical translators were wimps here – if you go back to the Greek, the word that is translated here as “rubbish” would actually be translated as a four-letter word for excrement. Does it shock you to learn that that kind of impolite language is recorded in the Bible?

Paul is basically saying that it’s possible to do all sorts of religious things and miss the point entirely. We can have a very crowded and impressive religious resume and not actually know Christ. Moreover, the very things that appear to be religious success – all those activities, all that service to the church, all those things we’ve done in the past – all those things can be the very barrier to actually knowing Christ. Because sometimes the thing for which we are passionate and working so hard can be the very thing that attacks Christ and Christ’s mission in the world. Can one be a blameless devotee of Scripture and at the same time an enemy of Christ? St. Paul’s answer would be a very definite “yes!” Paul saw such fundamentalism as one of the very things which stood in the way of true faith. Such fundamentalism was one of the very things from which people needed to be liberated.

Fanatical devotion which loses perspective and blindly follows beliefs and maxims, even when they are scriptural, is so often dangerous, because it justifies hate and perpetuates violence in the name of God. Such violence is as much present in Christianity as it is in other religions, wherever human worth and dignity is given second place to some notion of God’s laws, and when we believe that God’s priorities are self-aggrandisement and self-absorbtion, and not love and compassion.

That’s why Paul says he wants to know Christ. He doesn’t want to know things about Christ –he wants to know Christ. Jesus is the embodiment and fullest expression of God as love. Paul wants to know Christ – to know and experience the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, and in that act of self-giving sacrifice, we find the greatest possible expression of love. Paul says, “That’s what this is about.” Self-sacrifice and compassion, love and respect and dignity. It’s not about following a bunch of rules – it’s about being shaped by the cross of Christ, it’s about putting on the character of Christ, it’s about giving ourselves freely as Christ gave himself freely, it’s about surrendering ourselves and our wills and our desires and our religious resumes – it’s about knowing and experiencing the love of Christ in such a way that it flows from our hearts and touches every life with whom we come in contact.

It echoes things we find in other places in Scripture in which people are trying to do all the right things to please God and somehow earn eternal fellowship with God. The rich young man who came to Jesus in Mark 10:17 asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus first addresses the externals – the elements of the man’s religious resume, in other words – and the guy says, “Hey, I’m doing pretty well!” But then Jesus tells his to divest himself of his wealth, realizing that the man’s wealth and possessions were the thing he carried closest to his heart, and that the manner in which he used his wealth in service to others would demonstrate the degree to which the love of God flowed from his heart.

Or, think about the Pharisee and the tax collector who came to the temple and prayed, as recorded in Luke 18:10ff. The Pharisee was quite proud of his religious condition and his prayer is essentially a recitation of his resume. Listen to his prayer, and see if this sounds like prayers you’ve heard or conversations you’ve had: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evil-doers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The description of the Pharisee here indicates that he prayed by himself, about himself, and with himself – an implication that God is not even present or involved in such self-congratulatory religious expression!

The Pharisee considered himself very righteous. He would have felt very justified in telling other people how they were supposed to behave when they came to worship, because he supposed himself to be the self-appointed expert on all matters religious. But where was love in his life? Noticeably absent. The tax collector approaches in humility, he beats his breast, and he begs for forgiveness. Which one went home having actually had an encounter with God?

Or think about 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the love chapter. In that section of Scripture, we are told that we can do all sort of wonderful, marvelous, impressive things – things that fill out our religious resume – but if we don’t have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, all of those things are meaningless.

Paul looks at his own resume – impressive as it is, and says, “That don’t impress me much.” We can get so busy doing all the right church stuff – the activities, the meetings, the commitments, the recognition – without knowing Christ. There’s a warning here – can being a good Christian get in the way of following Jesus? Absolutely. We can do all the right Christian things but know nothing of Christ’s suffering and resurrection. We can follow all the made-up rules of the church club but know nothing of the love of God. We can be good and diligent members who brag about our own status, but know nothing of extending love and grace and forgiveness to others. Our resumes can all be in good order, but our hearts can still be far from God and in desperate need of the Holy Spirit’s transformative touch.

I suppose this is the word of caution for us on a Welcome Home Sunday. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of narcissistic self-congratulation – “wasn’t it good that Jesus died and founded a faith that came to include persons as remarkable as ourselves, and look around, aren’t we jolly good people!” A Welcome Home Sunday can too easily become a celebration of all the things that have happened in the past and the people who have done them – turning the church into some sort of odd religious museum instead of the living, breathing, body of Christ which still has a mission in the world.

It’s tempting to get focused on our past, to get focused on all the things that crowd our collective religious resume as a congregation, and to spend more time reminiscing about those things and preserving those ways than in continuing to engage our mission in the present and in the future. If we’re going to be faithful to our call and to our mission, we need to find a way of looking back and looking forward all at the same time, but more importantly, we need to keep our back-glances and our forward-orientation in proper perspective.

Write this down: the Christian life is best thought of as a journey. That makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re all disciples, and disciple simply means “one who follows.” Well, if we’re following, it must mean we’re going somewhere. So throughout Christian history, there are all sorts of phrases we have used to describe the Christian life that imply we are on a journey of some sort – pilgrims, sojourners, travelers, seekers, climbers – but all the time, we are going somewhere.

Now, when you go on a journey, there are all sorts of ways you can travel. Today, you have no limit to the choices in how you can travel somewhere. If you want to get from here to there, what are some of the options you have?

For Christians, our journey takes place in a very specific vehicle called “the Church.” Jesus founded the Church to be his ongoing presence in the world, to be his hands and feet, if you will, and we have a very specific task – to make disciples. In other words, we invite people to follow, we invite people on the journey.

I like to think of the church as a car. Everyone here familiar with a car? You know what one is, right? OK, so what’s a car’s purpose? What is a car designed to do? A car’s purpose, a car’s design, is to provide transportation. Most basically and fundamentally, a car takes you someplace. So, would it be fair to say that a car’s mission – the reason for a car’s existence – is to take people on a journey? Likewise, the church’s purpose is to help people on their journey of following Jesus.

Yet, there are some cars that do not fulfill their purpose. Some cars are involved in accidents and are no longer in good working condition. Some cars undergo years of neglect and eventually suffer a mechanical breakdown. Some cars become too cumbersome to maintain as they age. Some cars are no longer practical as conditions around them change. And some cars are showpieces – intended to be viewed, but they never actually take people anywhere.

Ever know a church to be like any of those cars? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be part of a church that functions like a car who can’t fulfill its most basic purpose. So if there’s been an accident, let’s fix the damage. If we’ve neglected the church, let’s take good care of it. If our ministry model is out-of-touch and doesn’t reach people like it should or did in days gone by, let’s change it and make it effective again. If we’ve been more interested in preserving the church as a museum or a showpiece or a private members-only clubhouse, let’s worry less about stains in the carpet than we do about the love of God in people’s lives, worry less about preserving and conserving and be willing to take bold risks if it will help us fulfill our mission, and the moment any of thinks we are here to keep ourselves happy, let’s remember that this isn’t a club – it’s a church – an expression of the body of Christ who reaches out selflessly and recklessly so that others might know that God is very much alive in the world, and that God cares about them and loves them no matter who they are, no matter who they love, no matter how they vote, no matter what they do.

It comes back to mission, to understanding why we are here in the first place, and keeping our past and future in proper perspective. Back in today’s Scripture, Paul wrestled at the intersection of his past and his future. Rather than forgetting his past, he simply puts it in proper perspective, saying that the past of his own experiences and accomplishments are nothing when he considers the future he has of knowing Christ. He’s not throwing out the past; he’s simply putting it in perspective.

That’s what we need to do, as well. Go back for a moment and remember our analogy that the church is like a car – the vehicle in which we travel on our journey with Jesus. Between the windshield and the rearview mirror, which one of those represents the past? The rearview mirror. And which represents the future? The windshield. Do you think you should spend more time looking through the windshield or more time looking at the rearview mirror? The windshield, of course. You can stare at the mirror if you want to, but eventually you’re going to crash.

The same is true on our faith journey. We are trying to get somewhere; we aren’t only concerned with where we’ve been. The past is important, and we need to reference it occasionally, but if we obsess over it, we’re going to miss a lot of the good things that God has yet in front of us. And yes, traditions are important – they are like signposts along the road that remind us who we are and where we’re going, they are like postcards that remind us of the places we’ve been. But they need to be kept in perspective. We need to view them through the rearview mirror, while our eyes remain focused on the road ahead, because God calls us to step out in faith and to trust God to lead us.

We need to know where we’re going and why we’re going there. And you know what? Where we’re going hasn’t changed all that much. On this Welcome Home Sunday, I leave you with words of Nell Dick penned only two days before the first worship service in this sanctuary:

“It is the earnest prayer and sincere desire that this church will always be a church in the truest sense of the Christian Mission, always faithful to the preaching, teaching, and healing ministry of Christ, always mediating His love and compassion to the world about us.”

Friends, we are on a journey, and we haven’t reached our destination yet. We haven’t stopped to pick up all our passengers yet. We haven’t finished our work yet. As we press on, driving down that road, we realize that we are on a journey that was started long before we came along, and others will join us on the journey for a time, and they will continue on that journey long after we are gone. And you know what? The quest is still the same. Times may change, styles may change, methodologies may change, but our mission remains the same. Take an occasional look in the rearview mirror if you must, but don’t stare too long – you might just miss the great things beyond the horizon.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Happiness in Six Words (Matthew 5:23-24, Colossians 3:23)

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come back and offer your gift.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

I find that children often give us some of the best wisdom in life, and since we are talking about relationships today, I would like you to hear wisdom on relationships from children.

Alan, age 10, says, “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like that you like sports, and keep the chips and dip coming.”

There are ways for a stranger to tell if two people are partnered. Eddie, age 6, says, “Married people usually look happy to talk to other people.” Derrick, age 8, says, “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”

Kids have some great thoughts on what people do on a date. Lynette, age 8, says, “Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough.” Martin, age 10, says, “On the first date, they just tell each other lies, and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date.”

And how do you make a relationship work? Ricky, age 10, says, “Tell your wife she’s pretty even if she looks like a truck.”

Today, we are talking about relationships. Does anyone here have any relationships with anyone else? I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, though we will certainly talk about our primary partner relationships. If you have to deal with people in any way in any context in any capacity, you have relationships. So, does anyone here have relationships with anyone else? And if you’re like me, those relationships could always be just a little bit better. May we pray.

Many of you have noticed that my fiancĂ©, Ashley, is here today. She got the Sunday off from responsibilities at her church, and she’s here with us, and I have to tell you, it’s a real treat when we are able to be in the same place on a Sunday morning. But, if I’m going to talk about relationships today with her sitting here, it’s going to keep me honest – both now in what I say, and later on, in how well I practice what I say.

Relationships are a mixed blessing, aren’t they? On one hand, they can be a source of great joy, and on the other hand, they can be a source of great frustration. As a pastor, one of the best parts about my job is that I get to work with people. One of the worst parts about my job is that I have to work with people.

Everything in life is about relationships. Relationships are complicated enough, so today’s message is very simple, and I’m going to share with you how, in only six words, you can improve every relationship you have today, and set you up for better relationships in the future. Does that sound good?

Now, just in case you’re like me and can’t trust your own memory to remember something so simple, why don’t you go ahead and get the sermon notes out of your bulletin – it’s easy to find; it’s the piece of paper that says “sermon notes” across the top – and grab a pen or pencil so you can take some notes, because I guarantee there are at least six words you’ll want to remember from today’s message.

These important words come in sets. The first set is three words, and don’t say it just yet, but I want you to start guessing in your mind what three words I am referring to. Let me give you a few hints.

Research indicates that married and partnered couples who use these three words regularly are half as likely to separate as couples who do not use three words. Well, that’s pretty important! The University of Michigan healthcare system trained its medical staff and hospital administrators to begin using these same three words to patients and their families in certain situations where patient care was compromised, and the result of doing this was that in one year’s time, letters of intent to sue for malpractice dropped from 262 to 130 – more than a 50% drop in just one year, and the amount they paid simply in legal fees dropped from $3 million a year to $1 million. That’s also pretty significant, and just from saying three words!

Just three words – do you any idea what those three words are? I AM SORRY. Those three simple words are huge, and if you’re going to succeed in life, these words are going to have to flow regularly from your mouth. A 2005 study conducted by Success-Motivation, Inc. found that one of the most important success factors among the people they studied was a willingness to admit when they were wrong. Successful people regularly apologize when they’ve been wrong, and people who aren’t successful? Rarely do they apologize or admit that they were wrong.

The Bible teaches us the need to be reconciled to each other and to God. The entire Old Testament is largely concerned with how we can be reconciled to God and to each other, how we can make amends when we’ve rebelled against God and how we can make amends with each other. The idea is that before you come to God and ask for forgiveness from God, you first need to ask forgiveness from others for ways you’ve wronged them. Because if you’re going to ask forgiveness from a God you can’t see and perhaps haven’t wronged directly, it’s pretty important to first ask forgiveness for people you can see, who have real flesh and blood, and have wronged directly.

The challenge is that by the New Testament period, people were trying to short-circuit that process. Ever notice that people are always trying to find a shortcuts? It was no different then from now. And so here’s what would happen. People would offend other people and hurt other people, and then they would go and ask for God’s forgiveness, but they wouldn’t ask for forgiveness from the people they had hurt.

Jesus addressed this in his Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, and Jesus said, “Hang on a second there, it doesn’t work that way.” He says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Why do we need to ask for forgiveness from people? Because, when we hurt someone else, we give them baggage. We give them baggage that they’re going to carry around with them, and that’s going to weigh them down. So every time we do something that hurts someone else, we put another burden in their bag, and they’re stuck with it. They’re stuck carrying around that tremendous weight, and every time they look at us or think or us, they are reminded just how heavy those burdens are and how much they resent us for putting them there. And so the things we have done become like a great weight around their heart, and makes it hard to have joy and peace and vitality in their life.

But, when we hurt others and fail to ask for forgiveness, we don’t just weigh others down; we get our own set of baggage, as well. Every time we look at that person, we can tell they’re mad at us. Well, that doesn’t feel very good! That just grows on us. And so we end up with our own baggage, and we’re struggling with it, and we’re trying to pretend like nothing is weighing us down. But we end up with a big giant weight around our hearts as well, and we’re robbed of the abundant life God promises and desires for each of us.

Ethics – how we treat other people – is the other side of the coin of worship. Strained personal relationships negatively affect the authenticity of our worship. Worship and ethics go hand-in-hand. We can treat other people in such a way that it damages their experience in worship and ours as well. Do you want to know how to trainwreck my effectiveness as your pastor? Ask me a question or bring me a complaint about some aspect of church business two minutes before I walk into this sanctuary to lead worship. One, you’re probably going to get a very honest, direct, and blunt answer from me about how I really feel about whatever it is you’ve just brought up. Two, you’ve just vomited something on my lap that often makes it very difficult for me to get my head back into worship.

Has anyone ever done that to you? Or, have you ever done that to someone else? We see someone we need to talk to about something, and we rush over to dump on them. And here’s the thing, it annoys the crap out of me, and I do it too! It was 15 minutes before Randy Walker’s mother’s funeral on Wednesday, and I saw Hans Warren, who chairs our finance committee. There was something I needed to talk to him about, and I said, “Hey, we need to talk shop for a minute, but not here.” And then I proceeded to explain and outline the very thing I had just said I wasn’t going to talk about until later.

There is a direct correlation between our relationships with others and our relationship with God. When we come to worship, we need to be mindful about how we’re treating each other. So here’s what I propose from here on out – no discussion of church business with me or anyone else on Sunday mornings until after worship is over. Not when you first get here, not during Sunday School, not on your way into the sanctuary, not during worship. Is that a deal?

OK, then. Everyone raise your right hand and repeat after me: “I will not ruin worship for other people. I will not talk church business with others before worship. I will respect others. I will always seek to build others up when I am here. I will never tear them down. I will forgive people when they forget and mess up. I’ll ask forgiveness when I do the same.”

Sometimes, we’re just not very considerate. A few months ago, Ashley and I were out by my pool and I had a lot on my plate that week and I was struggling to get the sermon together, and there was a funeral and a wedding and lots of paperwork due in the district office and a function with my Rotary Club and I hadn’t been to the bank and I needed groceries and hadn’t paid bills all week and there was laundry and the car needed an oil change and I was halfway through painting my bathroom and my sister was coming to visit and guess what, I was a little stressed. And Ashley listened for over an hour while I unloaded and processed and thought through so much of that. And when I was done, I put on my sunglasses and picked up the book I wanted to read that afternoon. And Ashley started to tell me about something she was going through and she really just needed a listening ear, and I never even looked up from the book. Caveat here: if you don’t have my attention, I’m not good at hiding that. Ashley said, “You don’t really want to hear this, do you?” and I answered, “No, I really don’t.” I continued my reading for another moment and she was silent, and finally I looked up, and I knew from the look on her face that I had just hurt her deeply. Ever do that? Realize that the person you love the most in all the world is the very one you’ve just severely wounded? And when I looked in her eyes in that moment and saw the pain and frustration there, I felt about *this big,* and I felt this incredible sinking feeling in my chest, as all this baggage was hanging around my heart.

Now, maybe you’re disappointed to find out that your pastor can act this way and if you need a perfect pastor, you’re going to have to find another church, because yours is a real loser sometimes!

And so I put my book down, and I went over and put my arms around her, and kissed her on the top of her head and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for acting like a jerk. Can you please forgive me?” She did, and you know what? That’s life sometimes. That’s how it works. We do things and we say things that hurt each other sometimes, and then we come back and we say, “I am sorry” and we come back together again – that’s how life works. My experience has been that when we apologize, the process of healing and wholeness and restoration can begin.

You know that heavy baggage we saddled someone else with when we wronged them? When we apologize, we lighten that just a little bit. Not only that, but you know your own baggage of guilt and shame that you’ve been feeling, some of that begins to lighten as well – but not all of it, because the rest of it is still in their court. So, when someone else has wronged us and has come and asked for forgiveness and we withhold it, we just keep their baggage and ours weighed down. But when we extend forgiveness, we lighten the load just a little bit.

And that brings us to the next three words that you should remember. What were the first three? I AM SORRY. Then, learn to say, I FORGIVE YOU. Six words used frequently that will change your relationships. Sometimes it takes awhile to forgive. People can withhold forgiveness for years, choosing to carry around bitterness and resentment, and you know what? You’re entitled to that option. I just can’t figure out why you’d want to.

Consider the words of St. Paul in Colossians, words that would be a great foundation to build any relationship on. Would you join in saying these words with me: “Bear with one another, and forgive each other.” As we go through life with other people, they are going to do things that irritate us and annoy us, and we can let those things bother us and weigh us down. Sometimes we want to hang onto those things – I’m not sure why that is – and even when people apologize we respond with “You can stuff your sorrys in a sack, mister,” failing to realize that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s also important to realize that forgiveness and forgetfulness are not the same thing. Our actions always have consequences. You can break the law and the person you’ve wronged can forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean you’re still going to jail. I can tell you something in confidence and you could share it freely, and I may forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean that I stop telling you things. You may betray my trust, and I may forgive you, but the consequences of your actions may mean I don’t trust you again.

Now, what do you do when someone has wronged you, but they haven’t come to ask for your forgiveness? A few options here. You can just keep holding onto the hurt feelings, you can keep that weight around, and refuse to let go of it. Or, you can just let it go. We do this all the time. We realize people didn’t mean anything by it, or you’re never going to see that guy who cut you off in traffic again, or we realize that life’s too short to have all that hanging over us.

Or, you can skillfully and tactfully confront the person who wronged you to let them know they did. A word of caution here: most of us are not very good at doing this without practice. We usually confront people out of our own hurt and disappointment with them, out of our own anger and frustration, and we do so in a way that simply raises their defenses and makes it impossible for them to hear us. So, if you do this, you want to do it in a way that is disarming rather than confrontational. Again, just be careful with that one.

Another option if you’re finding it difficult to forgive someone, and this is honestly the best one. Pray for them. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Just naming them before God, asking God to help us let it go, asking for healing in the fractured relationship, asking God to bless them even when we’re still sort of upset with them is a great step toward being reconciled.

Now, it doesn’t always work instantly. In fact, it often takes months of praying through something or even years. I remember a situation in which someone had wronged me and hurt me deeply and I prayed for them – I prayed for them nearly every day for six months. Then I ran into them several months later and you know what? I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore. Because while I was praying for them, something happened. God did something in my heart, and it took away those feelings of anger and frustration, and I realized I wasn’t mad at them anymore. There was still work to do in fixing that relationship, but at least my walls had finally come down. So if you feel like you’ve got walls constructed between you and other people, whether you built them or the other person built them, start praying for them.

I want you to all have some tools to take home with you so you can practice this stuff. On your way out, I hope you’ll pick up the bright green quarter sheet that has a few things on it to help you in saying I AM SORRY and I FORGIVE YOU. It has the five essential characteristics of a good apology so we can get better at saying I AM SORRY, and then it has a fivefold process for coming to a place where we can genuinely forgive others. On the other side, it lists some of the health benefits of both seeking and extending forgiveness.

So when we say these six words – I AM SORRY and I FORGIVE YOU – when we seek forgiveness and when we extend forgiveness, we lighten that heavy baggage we’ve been carrying around, and our relationships are improved.

Today’s message is simple, and it comes with a simple invitation: to regularly say these six words. What are the first three? I AM SORRY. And the last three? I FORGIVE YOU. And so here’s your homework. I’m guessing that all of us here today have someone in our life we need to apologize to. And, I’m guessing that we each have someone we need to forgive. Today’s a great day to ask for forgiveness, and today’s a great day to forgive someone else.

Would you bow your head and close your eyes?

Think about those people whose forgiveness you need to seek. Right where you are, ask God to help you ask for their forgiveness. And think about those people you need to forgive. Pray for them and ask God to help you forgive them.

God, give us courage and strength to admit when we’re wrong, to realize when we’ve hurt someone else, and simply to say, I am sorry. By your grace, help us demonstrate grace and mercy to others. Help us to forgive others, as you have forgiven us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.