Sunday, May 25, 2014

Faith that's Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker: God needed another angel in heaven? (John 10:7-11)

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.  11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
On your evening news, you may see an interview with someone, and you only see them on screen for a few seconds and hear a few sentences from them.  This is called a “sound byte.”  The person certainly said much more than what we see, but it’s been edited down to the most essential information.  Sound bytes don’t tell the whole story.  I understand the frustration from both sides – the person trying to condense the story accurately, and the one being interviewed, reading the paper the next day going, “That’s not what I said, or at least, it’s certainly not what I meant!”
A short, memorable phrase, when lifted out of context, is easily misunderstood.  If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series on “Faith that’s Bigger than a Bumper Sticker.”  We are looking at popular misconceptions of Faith – they are sound bytes that could also easily fit on a bumper sticker.
Each week we’ve peeled back a different phrase.  You may have noticed that many of these sayings are things that often get said around instances of suffering or tragedy, particularly at times of death.  Both in experience and observation, though these phrases are offered with good intentions as words of meaning or comfort, most of the time, they only add to the pain of those who are already grieving.  And so today, on this Memorial Day weekend, we look at another phrase that gets trotted out in times of death, that “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”  May we pray.
We’re just trying to help
“God needed another angel in heaven.”  Short phrase that says a mouthful.  Since August, my wife and I have lost, between us, three of the remaining five grandparents we had still living.  We lost my mom five years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t still miss her like crazy.  Many of you have lost those closest to you just recently, and nearly all of us have someone we miss, whether they went on to the Church Triumphant recently or long ago.
My wife spent her first year out of seminary working as a chaplain at Duke Hospital, where she worked in the pediatric unit.  In that year, she personally had contact with 30 families whose children died at the hospital.  Those were only the families with whom she had contact; there were countless others.  Should we tell the grieving families, “There, there: God needed another angel in heaven?”  How good or loving is a God who takes the life of a child?  What higher purpose could that serve?  What end could possibly justify an end so cruel and callous?
There are related to corollaries to the phrase:  “Every cloud has a silver lining.  It’s always darkest just before the dawn.  Time heals all wounds.  God knows what he’s doing.  God needed them more than we did.”  I’m often within earshot when these phrases are offered, and I just want to say, “Please don’t.  I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it’s not working.  Because if this person died because God just wanted to add them to his angel collection, then, God sounds like a real jerk.”
Yes, I’m aware these things are said with the best of intentions, and Death makes many of us uncomfortable, we don’t know what to say, and get ourselves into trouble.  Often we don’t speak with God in these times, we speak about God.  We fill the silence with pontifications that begin “I think God this,” and “I think God that,” and what comes next is not true, not helpful, and not healing for the person about to hear it, as we place things in the mouth and mind of God that God never said nor thought.
Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.  Turns out you don’t have to say much to let someone know you care.  Often, a hug, a smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be said.  That’s all you need to do.
God is consistent, not confused
God isn’t a body snatcher, taking people from this life and adding them to his angel collection.  One of the issues with making God the acting agent in death is that this runs counter to what we do know about God’s nature.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that God is the Lord and giver of life.  Not the taker!
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, who came that we might have life, and, indeed, have it to the fullest (John 10:10).  The thief comes to kill and destroy, but not God!  God gives life.  God doesn’t take it.  God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other.  To propose such an arrangement implies a very confused, split personality God, who is inconsistent, can’t make up his mind, who is actually working against himself all the time!
Now yes, people do this, but not God!  We humans are walking inconsistencies – our behavior often works against what we’ve stated as goals.  So, perhaps we say we’d like to be more generous with our money, or have more in savings, but we don’t change our spending habits.  We say we want to lose weight, while we continue to eat as we always have.
Each of us are walking contradictions, saying one thing, and then behaving in a way that works against what we’ve said we want.  Humans have these inconsistencies, but not God.  God doesn’t work against his own interests.  God is Love, steady, consistent, and unwavering.
We sing, “Great is thy Faithfulness,” not, “Great is thy Unreliability.”  The God who is the giver of life, Jesus who came that we would have life and have it abundantly – God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other.  Such a confused, conflicted and inconsistent deity wouldn’t know the difference between helping and harming, and anytime we imply that God is willfully grieving us by taking people away from us, then neither do we.
Death is not part of God’s plan
Death was never part of God’s plan.  God’s plan was for us to enjoy perpetual fellowship with God and each other.  The Westminster Catechism states that “the chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  If you read the story of Eden, that’s what it’s about.  Nowhere is death any part of that plan.  But, when sin entered the world, death came along for the ride.  Death is the other side of the coin of sin; sin is nothing more and nothing less than a condition of separation from God – the very thing that works against God’s intent of uninterrupted fellowship with us.
But, since sin entered the world, God has been working diligently to defeat it.  God has been working overtime to restore our relationship to God so that we can enjoy the communion with God for which we were originally designed.  And so, death was never part of God’s plan, not part of God’s design, nowhere in God’s intent for us, and we, as the people of faith need to stop saying that God is causing and orchestrating death.  God is in the life business.  God is not giving life with one hand and taking it away with the other.
But, though God hasn’t caused death, God can still use it.  Though God doesn’t orchestrate death, God commands death to serve God’s purpose, such that on its other side, we are restored to the full fellowship with God for which we were intended in the first place.
You see, death has already been defeated.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has already declared victory over sin and death, but death hasn’t gotten the message, yet.  It’s akin to what would happen in wars before modern times – the war of 1812, for example.  The war was officially ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December, 1814, but it took months for that news to reach the front.  And so, the Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle of the war, took place in January, a month after the treaty had been signed.  The combatants were fighting a battle in a war that was already decided; they just didn’t know it at the time.
That’s how it is for death in this time since the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Death has already lost; it just doesn’t know it yet.  A day has been promised of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying and pain, where death will be no more, but until then, death refuses to accept its defeat.  And so, the result is that we live in this tenuous time between the times – the “already/not yet” of God’s kingdom – already here because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not yet here in its fullness.
That means that death is still a reality, with all the pain and suffering it brings with it.  It still hurts, we still grieve, we still shed tears for our pain and our loss, and friends, that’s ok – even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus.
But, as people of faith, we do not approach death as those without hope.  Frederick Buechner reminds us that the resurrection is God’s way of letting us know that the worst thing is never the last thing.  God has frustrated death by taking away its sting.  Death does not get the last word.  It’s not final.  Because now, even in death, God’s promise of life prevails.
God doesn’t cause death, but God does redeem it.
So, God doesn’t take people when they die.  But God does receive them.  God doesn’t take; God receives.  Friends, that’s a big difference.  It’s the difference between God rudely snatching and grabbing people from this life, and God graciously welcoming and receiving them with open, loving arms in the life to come.  We don’t have a God who takes us.  We do have a God who receives us and rescues us from death.  Christ is victorious, even when we can’t save each other from death, God still can.
People don’t turn into angels
That clears up one misconception.  But there’s another one here, the idea that people turn into angels when they die.  It’s a popular idea, and I have no idea where it comes from.
There’s no reason to think that people turn into angels at death.  The Christian faith presents a different picture.  We believe that our loved ones have been graciously received into the nearer presence of God, where they are glorifying God and enjoying God in a way we can only faintly glimpse in this life.  The book of Romans says that nothing, not even death itself, shall separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39), and neither shall it separate us from each other.  They aren’t dead and gone; they are alive with Christ, and wherever Christ can be, so can they.
But that doesn’t make them angels.  Like angels, perhaps, but people don’t turn into angels.  The Scriptures speak of angels in two ways: one specific, and one more general.  Specifically, angels are a being altogether different than we are.  Different Scripture passages describe them in a variety of ways, but here’s what we do know: angels are both beautiful and frightening.  Sometimes they are wrapped in light so bright and glorious they shine like the sun, but they are something other than human.  So that’s the specific description.
Now, onto the general.  In Scripture, angels appear as messengers – they have some message from God to deliver.  The word, “angel” comes from the Greek, angelos, and literally means, “messenger.”  And so, in a general sense, an angel is God’s messenger.  Anyone who provides help, or a message, or conveys God’s presence is, in this general sense, an angel.
In this way, anybody can be an angel.  So, people don’t die because God needs angels.  The idea that God needs anything from us is questionable enough to begin with, but really, if God needs messengers anywhere, does God need them more in heaven, or on earth?   Our loved ones who have already died aren’t the angels, the messengers; we are!  We should be less concerned with getting into heaven when we die, than in getting heaven into us while we live.
People don’t die because God needs angels.  God’s message getting out isn’t dependent on death.  God is the giver of life, not its taker.
Death is not the end of the story, neither for our loved one, nor for who they were and what was important to them.  Whatever of them made this life a little better reflection of the kingdom of God in our midst – make room in your life for that to continue to live and grow.  For those close to you who have gone on before us, take a few moments to ask yourself, “What is it about this person that made the world better, more Godly, and how can I make room for it to grow in me?”
Death need not be the end of the story.  Their legacy can live on through us.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: Everything Happens for a Reason? (Genesis 50:20, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28)

You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today.

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series on “Faith that’s Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker.”  We’re taking a look at supposedly “Christian” platitudes and cliches that easily could fit on a bumper sticker, and are both popular and wrong.

Why does it matter?  Why am I putting any effort into debunking these phrases?  What harm do they do?  A lot, actually.  For one thing, I want you to have a faith that’s rooted in the Scripture and the living core of Christian tradition, not some phrase you read on a bumper sticker.  Further, every time we use these phrases, we are saying things about God that aren’t true, which violates at least two of the ten commandments – not taking God’s name in vain, and not lying.  That’s what is at stake, here!  Finally, not only do they present a picture of God that is inaccurate, but also one that causes more harm in God’s name than good.

We’ve debunked several of these sayings over the last several weeks, and today we take on the biggest and most popular whopper of them all – “Everything happens for a reason.”  May we pray.

Did you bring your brain with you this morning?  Never check your brain at the door.  God gave you a brain, and God wants you to use it – not only out there, but in here, in church, too.  There’s an old rabbinic saying that “A shallow mind is a sin against God.”  God gave us brains, and God wants us to use them.

We like answers.  I don’t know that we’re as eager for understanding, however, as we are for answers.  I had a middle school teacher who would give us a quiz every Friday on the chapters in our textbook we had covered that week.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that each quiz, always 20 multiple-choice questions, were taken from the back of the book, where there was also an answer key for each quiz.  To score well on the quiz, you only had to memorize the sequence of letters for the questions.

So, each week, I had all the answers, but that doesn’t mean I understood anything.  Answers always came easily for me.  I skated through school and even finished second in my high school graduating class, and never really had to study the entire time.

The thing about easy answers is that they work really well until they are challenged.  In college, my propensity to get by on easy answers was challenged by one Dr. Berry – my academic advisor and the chair of my major, whose classes I had at least once every semester.  From her, I learned quickly that I was no longer going to get by on easy answers, and I was faced with a choice – either learn how to study and wrestle with tough material, or flunk out.  I learned how to study, and it’s a good thing I did, too.  Grad school was even more challenging, and now in my work as a pastor, I am faced almost daily with situations and circumstances and questions, from the very things happening in your lives, that won’t be satisfied by a stock set of easy answers.

“Everything happens for a reason” is the ultimate easy answer in the life of Faith.  Many belief systems have their own version of “Everything happens for a reason” – astrology?  It’s all because of the alignment of planets and stars.  Karma?  What goes around comes around.  Fate?  It was meant to be.

Depending on your worldview, fate, or karma, or the stars, or “god,” all act about the same, and of course, reach the same conclusion: behind it all, there is meaning.  Again, we like easy answers.  “Everything happens for a reason” is an easy and ultimate explanation for that which is inexplicable.  Easy answers, however, quickly turn into a filter through which all of life is sifted.  If we already have the answer in mind before we ask the questions, we end up with some rather strange explanations.

Consider the pastor who said during the children’s message, “I’m thinking of something that lives in the trees, eats nuts, and has a long, bushy tail.  Anyone know what I’m thinking of?”  One little boy finally put up his hand and said, “Well, it sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me, but I’m sure the answer is Jesus.”

“Everything happens for a reason” is a ready-made easy answer to many of life’s questions, but it’s the wrong answer, and when it’s challenged, it crumbles. Tragedy strikes, and in our search for meaning and comfort, we tell ourselves and one another that God must have some purpose for the suffering.  You know, “God’s ways are not our ways.  God has a plan, even if we don’t understand it.  We can’t see that plan right now, so just trust God.”  Sounds pious, doesn’t it?  Logical, even!  And so, whatever happens to us must be the will of God, right?  Well, not so fast.

Don’t settle for easy answers, especially ones that turn God into some sick monster.  Think about these things.  God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it.

We believe everything happening to us is part of God’s will because of two other things we misunderstand about God: God is in control, and God has a plan.  Hear me carefully: Yes, God is in control, and yes, God does have a plan.  But, those two things are easily misunderstood.  We keep using those words, but they do not mean what we think they mean.

So first, the idea that “God is in control.”  I hear this, and I immediately get an image of God sitting in a giant control booth somewhere, overseeing everything, pushing buttons and pulling levers – orchestrating everything that happens to us.  Got a cold? God did that.  Hurricane?  Yep, that was God, too.  Drunk driver?  Not her fault, but, you guessed it – God!  That’s not what we mean when we say God is in control.  It’s a misunderstanding.

God is in control, but God is not controlling.  God doesn’t control us or manipulate us like puppets on a string.  As we said a few weeks ago, God is not the only force at work in the world.  We are at work, other people are at work, nature is at work, evil is at work.  Sometimes the reason something bad happens to me is that I made a bad decision.  God didn’t do that to me, I did it to myself!  Or, you may run a red light and broadside my car in an intersection.  God didn’t do that to me, you did!

God doesn’t make us do anything, but instead gives us the freedom to choose.  We make good decisions and bad decisions, but those are our decisions to make freely, without any force or coercion from God.  God gave us this freedom because God is Love, and we are made by God in love and for love.  We are created in the image of God; we have the capacity for love, God tells us to love God and our neighbor, but in order for love to be genuine, it must be freely chosen.

You can’t force someone to love you.  God doesn’t force us to love God or anyone else.  God asks us to choose love, which runs the inherent risk that we might choose all sorts of things that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We might make choices that displease God or work against God’s will.  Part of the risk in giving us freedom is that we might and probably will misuse our freedom to do the very things that break God’s heart.

Perhaps we would prefer a God who oversaw the world in such a way that nothing bad ever happened, that nothing outside God’s will ever took place.  That would mean that God would have to take away our free will to ensure that we never make a bad or harmful decision, and the moment that is taken away, we are no longer human, but puppets.  Yes, God could have set up the world in such a way that God retained absolute control over everything, but God didn’t.  In such a world, God would control us as puppets, instead of relate to us as humans.

It doesn’t mean that God’s not Almighty and powerful, but it does mean that God has self-limited some portion of God’s control and power in order for Love to remain supreme.  If you were to place two attributes of God on a scale – love and control – you would see that love outweighs control.  God’s love is a higher priority than God’s control.  God sacrifices control in order to practice love.  The result of that is things happen that grieve and hurt God just as much as they do us.

Those of you who are parents and grandparents know you can’t control your kids.  You couldn’t even if you wanted to!  I’ve known parents who have tried, and the moment their kids leave the house they usually go wild – I’m talking on video on spring break in Cancun, wild.  Your children will be free, they will make their own decisions, you can’t force them to do what’s in their best interest.  At times their decisions will harm them and us, frustrate you, grieve you.  What choice do you, as a parent have?  You tell them, “I love you.  There are consequences to your actions.  But I will always love you.”

So the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” only works if God is manipulating us like puppets on a string.  It breaks down when we realize that we humans have been given a great deal of freedom to make our own choices, and that those choices have real consequences.

So what about God’s plan?  Again, I think we misunderstand the idea of God’s plan.  Maybe we think of God’s plan or God’s will for our lives as this carefully written book, penned before we were born, with everything that will ever happen to us noted ahead of time on its pages, and though we don’t know what’s on the next page, God does, and our story unfolds, in its own way, just as God intended.

That’s called a script, not a plan.   God has a plan, not a script.  God’s plan for us actually has very little to do with whether we eat Cheerios or Corn Flakes tomorrow morning, and more with an overarching concern for our well-being.  God’s plan is less about micromanaging and every choice we make and more an enduring, loving disposition toward us that always has our best interests in mind.

God’s plan for us can be summarized in Jeremiah 29:11: “plans for peace, not disaster; to give us a future filled with hope.”  That’s a good plan!  And it’s also a God-plan.  But, a lot happens to us that works against that plan.  Things that work against peace, that promote disaster, that lead to despair.

That car accident?  Your job loss?  That fight with your spouse?  The 20,000 people who die each day of hunger-related diseases?  The young girl who was raped and murdered on her way home from school – if all of that was part of God’s plan, it means God wrote those events into the lives of all those people, which is not the action of a loving and just God, but a sadistic madman.

None of those things are part of God’s divine plan, but when we fall back on “it happened for a reason, then we’re saying God caused it.  Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with such a god?  It is easy to see why so many people have turned away from God when they have been taught, by Christians, that every disappointment, every loss, every painful tragedy are the will of God.[1]

Friends, that’s not God.  If murders and rape and wars and genocide and terrorist attacks and accidents and disease are part of God’s plan, then I’m not interested in the god with that particular plan.  You shouldn’t be, either, because that’s not who God is.

Personally, I take great comfort in knowing that all of those things aren’t from God, aren’t part of God’s plan or God’s will for me.  It makes it easier for me to turn to God when those things do happen, because I know that God is not the one who put them in my life.

So, where is God when it all hits the fan?  Where is God when our lives crumble to pieces around us?  God is where God has always been – rescuing something good out of the jaws of evil.  Though God doesn’t cause pain, God can still bring healing out of it.  God can bring light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death.  This is called redemption.  God can enter into the worst possible situation, and bring something good out of it.  God doesn’t have to cause it in order to redeem it.  God is in the life business – the abundant life business, the life-out-of-death business.  God didn’t do it.  But God can still use it.

In the life of faith, don’t settle for easy answers.  Don’t be fooled into believing it all happened for a reason.  God gave you a brain, God wants you to use it.

The message of Christianity is not that we will have a life free from tragedy – we should have to look no further than Jesus himself for that to be clear.  But just as important, let’s realize that God is not the one who writes tragedy into our life’s story.  The world does that.  Life does that.  We do it to ourselves and to each other.  But not God.

When we suffer, God suffers.  When we weep, God weeps.  When we are grieved, so is God.  God’s heart breaks right along with ours.

So yes, everything happens, but it’s certainly not for a reason – at least not one that God caused. God is Love, whose will is ever-directed to his children’s good.  God doesn’t introduce unjust suffering into the lives of his children any more than you would torment your children.  But with God, suffering never gets the last word.   God may not have caused it, but if there’s any good to come from it, God will find it and bring it out, and redeem it.

[1] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011. Pp 6-9.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves? (Leviticus 19:9-10, Acts 2:42-47)

When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest.  10 Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a sermon series on “Faith that’s Bigger than a Bumper Sticker.”  We are looking at so-called “Christian” platitudes, axioms, and clich├ęs that can easily fit on a bumper sticker or in a greeting card – easy to memorize and most of us have heard these phrases bandied about our entire lives.  Some may even believe that they are from the Bible or perhaps even the words of Jesus, himself.

And yet, not only are these phrases nowhere to be found in Scripture, but much of bumper sticker theology represents only half-truths about God at best, and at worst, many of these phrases even do more harm in God’s name than they do good.

My goal in this series is for you to have a faith and a theology that is rooted in Scripture and the living core of the Christian tradition, not one inspired by a bumper sticker.  We’ve already challenged the idea that God won’t give you more than you can handle.  We’ve already peeled away the idea that wealth and possessions are a sign of God’s blessing.  Today we’ll shed the notion that God helps those who help themselves.  May we pray.

We human beings can be a very self-centered bunch, can’t we?  That’s a value we don’t have to learn or be taught – it comes naturally to us.  Just watch a couple of two-year-olds playing in a room full of toys.  The second one child reaches for a specific toy, 9 times out of 10, the other child will go into a screaming fit because now, all of a sudden, they want to play with it.  They’ve never showed any interest in it before, but now that someone else has it, well, now that’s a problem.

Adults do it, too.  In fact, the most childish behavior I have ever witnessed wasn’t by children, but adults.  How many times has someone died, and the body is still warm and the family are arguing with each other about who’s going to get what – and no one stops to say, “Hey, is any of this fighting actually worth it?”

Think of the Cinderella story, where she has made her dress for the ball out of the discarded scraps that were no longer wanted by her step-sisters, but as soon as they see her wearing them, they are thrown into a fit of rage and literally shred her dress to pieces.  Why would we rather see something of ours go into the trash when we’re done with it instead of being used by another human being?

It all stems from one word – “mine.”  That one word, “mine,” is quite possibly the most damaging and destructive concept in human history.  Think about it.  Wars have been fought over this word.  Blood spilt.  Families destroyed.  Communities fractured.  Churches split.  Everyone wants as much as possible to be “mine.”

Enter the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.”  That’s just a socially-acceptable way of saying, “I don’t want to give you what is mine.”  I don’t want to share, I don’t want to give, I don’t want you to have what I have, Even though I have plenty and then some, I don’t want to have just a little bit less so that you can have just enough.

 “God helps those who help themselves” is just a pious way of saying “I do what I want, and I don’t really care what happens to you because I don’t care about you.”  I’d rather people leave God out of it altogether, and just call it what it is – selfish, callous, and cruel.

Like so many of the phrases of bumper sticker theology, we see how this phrase does more harm in God’s name than good.

God’s idea is different than helping those who help themselves.  God wants us to help each other.  In the text we read from Leviticus, we hear God’s instruction to the owners of farms and vineyards about how they should harvest.  Don’t harvest the whole field, but leave some at the edges.  Leave some grapes on the vine, don’t gather up what falls on the ground.  Leave it!

The landowners of the day would have been among the wealthy members of society.  These instructions for leaving some of the harvest behind is a way of caring for the poor – those without land, those without work, those who have no harvest to sell.  God is saying, “Leave some behind.  You already have more than enough to turn a good profit.  Rather than adding to your wealth, leave it for those who are barely scraping by.”

You can anticipate the protest from the landowner: “The poor haven’t earned it.  They haven’t worked for it.  They haven’t planted and harvested, they are taking money out of my pocket!  If they want help, they should help themselves!”

Yet God’s directive stands.  “For the wealthy, a few more bucks in your already well-padded pocket is the difference between food and no food in the already empty stomachs of the poor, so leave it.  Ultimately, it means far more to them than it does to you.”

God’s idea is not that God helps those who help themselves.  It’s that we help each other, particularly those who can’t help themselves.

That’s one reason we have the Church.  The Church is not a collection of individuals, but the unified body of Christ.  We are first and foremost the living, breathing, body of Christ – knit together in God’s grace as we grow in God’s love.  We start with the body, and then look at how the parts work together to support and share with each other for the good of the whole.

Bodies are fascinating things – they have the ability to heal themselves.  Say you have an infection somewhere in your body – the entire body responds to fight it.  What if one or more parts of the body said, “I don’t want to help.  I don’t want to share.  There’s an infection in the leg?  That’s the leg’s problem.  I’m not sharing any of my white cells with that leg.  The leg needs to pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  God helps the leg that helps itself.”

Ultimately, who does that hurt?  Everybody.  Thankfully, the whole body gets in on it.  Your temperature will rise, your whole body ramps up white cell production and sends it to the infection site, and you get tired – your body forces you to rest, because your body is putting all of its energy into fighting the infection, and doesn’t want you wasting energy by moving around or going to work or whatever.  The whole body responds.

The same is true for the body of Christ, the Church.  When there is a need somewhere else in the body, we respond.  We make food, we make visits and phone calls, we provide a ride, we paint a house, whatever.  What affects one of us affects all of us.

In the Church, our motto is never “Every man for himself” or any other version of “God helps those who help themselves.”  It is no coincidence that we follow a crucified Christ – the one we worship and follow didn’t simply look out for his own interests and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.  No.  Jesus is the penultimate expression of God’s infinite love and grace – a life lived not for himself but for others, and Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise.”

For me, the remarkable thing is not that Jesus taught us to give of ourselves as he gave for us, but that some have actually done it!  When the people of a church each lay aside their collective individualism and put their energy into loving God and loving their neighbors ahead of each person’s individual desires or opinions, well, the result is something like what is described in what we read from the 2nd chapter of Acts:

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

This passage describes Christian community at its best – a picture of what the Church can, and should, be!  When a church wholeheartedly dedicates itself to loving God and our neighbor, we find a sense of purpose and unity that simply outshines individual opinions, agendas, and desires.  We find ourselves of one heart and mind, that resources are freely and generously shared, and those who give them are glad to do so.

That sharing is rooted in our understanding of God’s grace is that is freely, abundantly, indiscriminately lavished upon all people.  We call this prevenient grace – from the Latin, meaning “to go before.”  God’s grace goes before everyone – before we have done a thing to help ourselves, God has already done more for us than we will ever know, and church becomes a place of glad celebration of all God’s gifts for all God’s people.  Wouldn’t you rather be part of a church like that than one in which people are stingy and ungenerous and hold back from God and one another?  I know I would, and God would rather be there, too.

Communities of faith that are generous and grace-filled, and joyful – the Scriptures say those are the ones God grows.  Adds to their number.  Gives them more people to share God’s love with.  People are naturally-drawn to the places where that is happening, because something about that resonates with people, and they’re able to say, “Yes, this feels right.  This is what it’s about.  I want to be part of something like this” – something that’s bigger than ourselves and connects us with God and God’s people in a way we simply can’t do on our own. 

I think about that at tax season.  Tax season, of all places!  I don’t necessarily enjoy the paperwork of tax season, but what Ashley and I both enjoy is being able to look back and realize that everything we gave away, we didn’t miss.  We don’t have vineyards or farmland, but it’s one way for us to leave something at the edges, so to speak.  And what we gave, we didn’t miss.

I know a man who has spent his entire adult life trying to get rich.  He’s always got an angle, always investing in the newest thing, always scrapping to make a buck.  He’s in his 60s now, had some success in some of his ventures, but he’s still a tightwad, and is more miserable than ever.  He’s 60-something, and all he has to show for his life’s work, is more misery than he’s ever had before.

The description of the Church in Acts says that they all had glad and generous hearts.  Take note of the correlation, here!  Gladness and generosity go hand-in-hand.  Giving makes us happy.

God helps those who help themselves?  Sure, but that’s not the whole story, because God helps everybody.  God also helps those who don’t, or can’t help themselves.  God helps the helpers and the helpless.  God helps those who don’t even want help.  God helps those who don’t believe in God, don’t know God, and have done nothing to earn anything from God.  God’s gifts to us are always greater than our response back to God, and yet God keeps helping us, anyway.  There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves deserving of God’s goodness in our lives.

Thank God, that when it came to sharing God’s goodness and grace in our lives, God didn’t just cross his arms and say, “Mine.”  God didn’t say, “I’m gonna hold onto this grace for myself, thank you very much,” but shares it freely with us.

In the life of faith, sharing what we have needs to become as second nature as our instinct to grasp and scream, “Mine!”  That one doesn’t come naturally; it’s something we need to learn.  There are some things it will take a lifetime and maybe then some for us to learn, and sharing is one of them.  Don’t miss your opportunities to practice.