Since when did Christianity become synonymous with the Republican Party?
In my lifetime, the most devout president was Jimmy Carter and he was a Democrat. From Georgia no less. He was at one time the state’s governor and got elected on a platform of civil rights, affirmative action, and anti-segregation. This progressive-thinking president was also the same man who “prayed several times a day, and professed that Jesus was the driving force of his life.” He still teaches Sunday School at his home church in Plains, GA and serves as a deacon. A devout Baptist, he split from the Southern Baptist Convention because their doctrines did not match with his Christian beliefs and he worked to form a coalition of other Baptists and Baptist leaders who felt the same way including President Clinton. Did I mention he was a Democrat? Yet over the years, the Republican Party has become equated with Christian beliefs. When people hear the word Christian, they picture in their mind someone who is an anti-immigrant, climate-denying, conspiracy theorist who is at best willfully ignorant of the racial injustice in our society. What is worse is we have allowed that to happen. It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, we cannot afford to allow any political party to claim us as their own. If our faith means something to us, it has to be above partisan politics. The choices we make in life should adhere to a higher calling. One that represents love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and diversity.
But like Hester Prynne, wearing a cross around your neck is like wearing a scarlet letter.
In the Bay Area, being called a Christian is like being called an adulterer. I spent a Sunday last year with our youth and in talking to them one of them mentioned how hard it is to admit to being Christian. People make fun of you, jeer or sneer at you, and look down at you as some kind of misguided miscreant. Being Christian is something we should be able to share without first having to explain you’re not one of “those” Christians. Whoever, “those” Christians are. I know people both Republicans and Democrats who are wonderful examples of what it means to be Christian. I also know members of both political parties who claim to be Christian but act and believe in ideas that are far from Christ’s teachings. The ones who are models of Christianity, are also the type of people who put people above party and God above all. When you already believe you are not the one in charge and whatever power you possess trifles in comparison with the one who created the universe, it gives you the freedom to choose according to your conscience rather than out of fear or human greed or pride or self-righteousness.
The term “evangelical Christian” has been corrupted.
The Atlantic ran an article back in 2015 that said depending on how you define “evangelical Christian” anywhere from 7% to 47% of Americans would qualify. A definition that widespread doesn’t seem to be a good definition at all, but the media tends to use it to describe any politically conservative Christian as “evangelical” and discards moderate-leaning conservatives or anyone who would be considered politically progressive. But why? Do people believe you can’t be a person of faith and still have progressive ideas? Because if that’s the case, Jesus would not be an “evangelical Christian.” Jesus told his followers to let go of the idea of an eye for an eye and embrace love and forgiveness instead. Jesus told his followers not to discriminate against others just because society said they were outcast but instead to welcome them and embrace them into the fold. When his disciples told him the people were hungry, he didn’t send them away. Instead he asked the disciples to feed them all. He didn’t charge them money or ask for a donation, he just gave it away for free. He called out the religious leaders of the time for adhering to the letter of the law and not its spirit. And he spent time not with those who would serve his agenda, but with those who needed him the most. Jesus was a radical with progressive ideas and it got him killed. But he was certainly a Christian.
We need to reclaim what it means to be an “evangelical Christian.”
We can’t afford to let the media or politicians or anyone else rob us of the true meaning of those words – one who proclaims Christ as Lord and Savior. We are not some voting block to be swayed or manipulated but people who believe in love as the overarching theme of all of creation. Love created us. Love sacrificed for us. And love holds us together. That should be what defines us. Everyone agrees that church has become irrelevant to a large percentage of Americans. The number of people affiliated with a church has been in decline for a long time and the number of people who actually come to worship has been shrinking too. Part of the problem is this perception of us as judgmental, hypocritical, and too involved in politics. One young man said, “…twenty years ago, when I was looking at evangelical Christianity from the inside, it seemed like a movement bursting with energy to spread good news to people. Looking at it from the outside today, this message seems to have been lost in exchange for an aggressive political strategy that demonizes segments of society.” If all you knew of Christianity is what you see through the eyes of the media, what would you see? Those of us on the inside know that the church is filled with people both good and bad. We know that even within the church there are those who are far from Christ and those who are close. But we also know that most of us are trying. That we want to be better than we are. That’s the message of love and hope that needs to get out into the world. People are constantly testing us, to see if we will live up to the high ideals that Christ taught us and we have to do what we can to make sure we live by those ideals. It was the same for Jesus as we hear in this passage.
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax[b] to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
Jesus seems to be stuck in a Kobayashi Maru.
If you saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you know this is a classic “no-win” situation for Jesus. Should he tell them to pay the tax, the Pharisees can discredit him by claiming he is saying that Rome has greater authority than God! But if he tells them to ignore the tax, the Pharisees can rat on him to the Roman government that Jesus is inciting people to defy the law. Either way he loses. But then Jesus pulls a WOPR. Like the supercomputer from the movie WarGames, he realizes that the only way to win is not to play the game. He tells them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And with that, he not only escapes their trap but elevates his argument by reminding them we answer to a higher calling. That while we are obligated to live by the rules of our society, we have a greater responsibility to live our lives as children of God.
Joe Biden says this year’s presidential election is a Battle for the Soul of the Nation.
And it may very well be. It seems we are at an inflection point, one of those critical junctures in history that can lead us one way or another. As you consider what to do when casting your vote, I hope to encourage you to do three things. One, vote. No matter who you decide to support or what propositions you vote for or what local elected officials get your checkmark on that ballot, please vote. Your voice does make a difference. People are frustrated with the electoral system, and sometimes feel like their vote doesn’t count, but it does in more ways than one. And there’s more at stake than just any one race. Two, sign this online petition asking the media to stop labeling political conservative Christians under one banner. If we can convince the media to stop lumping us together, maybe we have a chance to show those outside our walls that we are more than just some monolithic belief system. And three, cast your ballot for the people and ideas who most exhibit our values as Christians. We’ll talk about that more through the month of October after World Communion Sunday, but in your deliberations, consider not just any one topic when you vote but all of them. Consider the quality of the person you hope to lead us. Consider the life they’ve led. Consider if they exhibit love of neighbor or if they denigrate those around them. Consider if supporting that person or idea will advance love, hope, and light in the world or if it will lead us deeper into isolationism, fear, and hate. For Christ himself said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Let us not forfeit our soul but hold onto it and all we hold dear. My hope and prayer is that we can reclaim what it means to be Christian. That we are known not by the things we oppose but by the things we believe in. And that as Christians, we put our faith first. We let God by our guide. I’m reminded once more of President Carter who said he was greatly influenced by something he heard in a sermon as a young man. The pastor said, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
 UnChristian by David Kinnaman, p.34.
 UnChristian by David Kinnaman, p. 166.
The Land That Time Forgot
That’s what they should call Tomorrowland, because it stopped being about tomorrow a long time ago. Take for instance Autopia. I used to love Autopia. As a kid, it was one of the rides I always wanted to go on when my family went to Disneyland. But it seemed kind of odd even back then that it was in Tomorrowland. When Disneyland opened back in 1955 Autopia was cutting edge stuff. At the time, there was no such thing as an interstate highway system. Hard to believe but its true. People didn’t drive on multi-lane highways that stretched across the country. This idea was so new to America that it made Autopia a natural fit in the land of the future. Today it makes no sense. In fact most of the rides in Tomorrowland make no sense. The monorail is something used regularly like BART in San Francisco and MARTA in Atlanta. Submersible vehicles are not only for military use anymore (although rarely does anyone see talking fish when they dive under the ocean). And the Orbitron is basically a preview of when Space X becomes more common. For a long time, Tomorrowland has become more and more obsolete, and while they have added new attractions like Star Tours, they’ve also let many things become outdated or simply disappear. The Peoplemover track lies empty and has for almost 25 years. The Magic Eye Theater which once housed state-of-the-art movies in 3D with actual physical special effects is now a showcase for Star Wars. And the Autopia? It’s still driving cars on highways from 1955 despite the updates.
The problem is that Tomorrowland stopped being about tomorrow.
It’s still fun, but after Walt passed, they haven’t stayed true to his original vision to keep this area on the cutting edge of innovation, to give guests a glimpse into the future. That’s why you still have gas-powered cars instead of solar cars, electric cars, or self-driving vehicles on the Autopia track. Enough people ride it the way it is so they haven’t felt the need to invest in changing it. They’ve spent tons of money refurbishing it, but little to reimagine it. Because it is doing “good enough.” But that is so short-sighted. When we wait for a need to arise without trying to plan ahead, we are setting ourselves up for failure. When we let “good enough” be the bar, we lose sight of the opportunities that could be. Because someone else will come along and do it better and be five steps ahead of the game. Like the original vision for Tomorrowland, we need to constantly strive toward a better future so we are prepared for what comes ahead. The writer in Hebrews said it so well that’s what we are going to read from this morning. It is important to be future-oriented. Looking forward keeps us focused on how we can make the world a better place. It also drives us from being complacent. And it drives innovation and creativity. I told you the story before about Walt Disney wanting to put in a Christmas parade at Disneyland. His financial advisors told him not to spend the money, that it would cost too much, that nobody would complain because they wouldn’t be expecting it and he said to them, “That’s just the point…We should do the parade precisely because no one’s expecting it. Our goal at Disneyland is to always give the people more than they expect. As long as we keep surprising them, they’ll keep coming back. But if they ever stop coming, it’ll cost us ten times that much to get them to come back.” Give people more than they expect. Don’t just focus on what’s needed now, but plan ahead for the future. And he was right. Don’t settle for “good enough.” Figure out how we can do it better, even when (and maybe especially when) it’s going good.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
They were longing for a better country.
These forefathers of faith trusted in the vision that God had presented to them and did what they knew to be right. And even though they never lived long enough to see it all come to fruition, they trusted that their efforts led them toward a brighter future. The Scripture says to us, “they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” The things God promised to the people of Israel and by extension to all of us was not something they could tangibly touch or experience, but they honored God with their efforts even though they didn’t know how it would all work out and that pleased God. God is future-oriented. Think about it. It was the same in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament. God promised Abraham that his people would spread throughout the Earth and even though as long as Abraham lived he didn’t see it, that promise came true. God promised Moses that he would lead his people to the promised land and even though Moses didn’t live to see it, that promise came true. Jesus promised us that when he returned to Heaven the Holy Spirit would come upon us and fulfill God’s promise to us and when he left that promise came true. God is always looking ahead to the future. Jesus trained up his disciples because he knew one day he would no longer be there. He could have done all the work himself, but instead he trained the disciples to insure the future of the church after he wasn’t with them. He pulled them aside and taught them. He explained the parables to them, because they didn’t understand it any better than anyone else. He had them do the work of passing out bread and fish when he fed the 5,000, even though he could have just made it rain down manna from Heaven because he wanted to train them to do the work and to participate in the miracles themselves. Jesus was constantly working toward a future that he wouldn’t be alive to see.
As a parent, that makes sense to me.
I want to help build a foundation of strength to support Emma her whole life. I want to give Emma the best education possible because a time will come when I am not here and I want her to have as many opportunities to pursue her dreams long after I’m gone. I want to make sure Emma knows how much I love her so that even when I’m not around, she will never doubt that I am still looking after her and sending my love to her even if she can’t touch me or see me. And I want her to be grounded in faith because I want my child to know the love of God for when times get rough (and they will get rough) so that even if I’m not there she will know she can turn to God and trust in him. I try to teach Emma practical things, too. Not that I always get it right myself, but I hope I am helping to build up her future. I hope and pray that I am here for a very long time and will get to see many of these things come to pass, but I am constantly helping to prepare her for whatever comes. My actions today will help build a brighter tomorrow.
That’s why it is so important to keep striving to make things better.
Human beings love the path of least resistance, so it’s tempting to stop when things are just the way we like it. After all, most of have seen what happens when people mess with a good thing. Sometimes it turns out disastrous. Like New Coke. That fear of failure prevents us from doing something amazing. We tend to look at failure as a waste instead of a learning opportunity. But failure is the greatest teacher there is. It’s only when we refuse to learn from the past that we truly fail. But when we succeed! We can make an impact that lasts for generations. The reason Disneyland can afford to keep Tomorrowland around is because it DOES invest heavily in the future. Cars Land and the entire remodel of Disney California Adventure. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. And all of Disneyland Paris were risks that paid off big. By the way, our church was a risk. Ninety plus years ago, the Methodist church decided to invest in reaching out to Japanese immigrants and for over nine decades because of that risk we exist today. That’s why it is so important to continue to work toward the future. The possibilities that come about because of those risks are worth far more than the failures along the way.
There is a grace consequence to the flip side of it all, too.
When we stop becoming oriented to the future, we become oriented to the finish line instead. We go into survival mode. We are constantly trying to extend the time we have instead of working to create a better future. But all that does is delay the inevitable. It’s like a sinking boat. If we only concentrate on bailing out the water, we’ll stop from sinking for a while, but eventually the hole will get bigger and the water will overwhelm us. But if we let in a little water while we fix the boat, we can keep going for untold distances into the future. This pandemic has given us an opportunity to fix the boat. So many churches all across the nation were stuck in the 20th century and suddenly got thrust into the 21st. Online worship, social media, digital outreach are new to so many people. And even though every indication was this was where we were heading, the pandemic pushed us to move forward faster. Will we take this momentum and keep going? Or will we revert to the way we always did things? Looking around at the new faces that have joined us since the pandemic started, going backward hardly seems an option, but can we steel ourselves for a new future?
Jesus was a futurist.
Walt Disney was a futurist. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a futurist. Most of the great leaders and innovators of our nation and our world were futurists. They were always looking ahead to what was possible and trying to work toward THAT. How can the church do anything different? As Robert Kennedy once said (paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw), “Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” What is your why not? What is something you have held back from daring to dream? What is something you would like to accomplish but haven’t done so? Now ask yourself, why not? The Autopia is great. But it’ll never be more than it is unless someone does the work to make it better. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 This section was inspired by Thom Rainer’s book Autopsy of A Deceased Church, Chapter 3.
That’s the world record. 5.53 seconds. At my very best, I could do it in under 30 and that’s when I was in junior high. Today, I’m lucky to solve a Rubik’s Cube in 30 minutes let alone 30 seconds. But the world record holder came in five times faster than me at under six seconds. There’s a great documentary on Netflix called The Speed Cubers. It’s a wonderful story about two of the best competitors out there – Felix Zemdigs, the world record holder in the 3×3 and one of the nicest guys you’ll meet and Max Park, au autistic savant from my hometown of Cerritos, CA who holds the records in the 4×4, 5×5, 6×6, 7×7, and one-handed categories. Yes, one-handed. 9.42 seconds. Behind it all is a very touching story about two friends from different backgrounds who bonded over speed cubing, but what amazed me is the speed at which they can solve this complex puzzle that for most of us is confusing just to look at. There were hundreds of competitors from around the world and they were solving cubes one-handed, with only their feet, BLINDFOLDED, it was dazzling. Max’ dad made a comment that stuck with me as we talk about Wesley’s Third Rule. He said most cubers top out in their 20’s because life gets in the way. The best of them are constantly solving the cube. Every free moment they are working their cube and trying to get faster and faster. It trains their mind to instantly recognize patterns and solutions. And as they get older, other things start to take priority like jobs and relationships and they simply have less time to devote to cubing. Part of being so good at solving the cube is talent, but the other part is practice.
Practice makes perfect.
That philosophy holds true no matter what you’re trying to do. Whether it’s the Rubik’s Cube or chemistry or basketball or playing music you need to practice over and over to improve on your skills. Talent alone only gets you so far. Practice is what takes you over the top. And the same is true for our faith. Practice makes perfect. In our passage this morning, Paul was writing to the church because he was worried they might drift away from their faith. Someone could come along and convince them to turn away from Christ. Not that hard to believe considering the stories they already knew from their own history (like Aaron building the idol when Moses went on the mountaintop to pray). Christianity was in its infancy and they were still trying to figure everything out. False prophets were likely everywhere and it would have been especially hard for Paul to guide them from far away. They didn’t have things like ZOOM worship to rely upon, so Paul wrote this letter to encourage them and to offer them a way to stay grounded in their faith. This is what he shares with the church in our passage this morning.
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.” Please be seated.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe how little we’ve changed.
Human beings that is. Paul had to battle the same concerns we do today and this topic is no different. He was worried people would drift away from Jesus and his teachings. That they would be “wowed” by something more appealing, something that fit their lifestyle better and would abandon everything they were taught. Again, not hard to believe considering we still do this today. We gravitate toward whatever new trend or philosophy lets us do what we want regardless of whether or not we should do it. Human beings love to find ways to beat the system. Kind of like me and the Weight Watchers Fat and Fiber Plan. I was following the traditional Weight Watchers plan for a long time and doing pretty well, when they suddenly offered this new Fat and Fiber Plan that said you could eat whatever you want as long as you stayed below a certain amount of fat per day and above a certain amount of fiber. I could eat half a bag of Snackwell cookies (which still had tons of sugar and carbs and processed ingredients) and as long as I had a bowl of refried beans (super high in fiber), I was good for the day. Seriously. That’s what I did. Even though in my head I KNEW this was too good to be true, I was like, “Trust in the experts.” Especially when it let me eat as many cookies as I wanted. Sure enough, even though I stayed faithful to the plan, I GAINED a ton of weight. Who would have guessed that any eating plan that includes eating half a bag of cookies daily might not be good for you?
Paul had to deal with this basic human frailty.
Finding ways to beat the system. Looking for loopholes instead of long-term benefits. Paul wasn’t there to help them in person, to guide them and remind them on a regular basis, so instead he did the only thing he could do. He encouraged them to remember the teachings, to be “rooted” in Christ, to build each other up and strengthen each other’s faith, to remind one another of the truths they had been taught and believed. In essence Paul was trying to teach them to “stay in love with God,” Wesley’s Third Rule. Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. For John Wesley, who taught these three rules as the foundation of Methodism, staying in love with God was vital to our faith. If “do no harm” is preventative and “do good” is proactive, then “staying in love with God” requires practice. Like Paul, John Wesley taught this same basic principle. To draw closer to Christ and to maintain your faith, John told those who became part of the Methodist societies they needed to regularly attend to all the ordinances of God. By that he meant they needed to do those everyday things, those regular things, over and over again to infuse God into their lives. That when God became an integral part of who we are, our faith would have a firm foundation. Wesley told them they needed to pray. They needed to read their Bibles. They needed to be in small groups together. They needed to take communion. They needed to go to worship. It’s those everyday routines Wesley felt were most important to keep us connected to God and to one another, and Paul in this passage stresses the same thing. Paul encourages the church to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
Science backs them up.
Their assumption that maintaining these patterns of behavior would help to make God a part of our everyday lives is true. In different studies, it has been shown that through consistency and repetition over a period of time we can form new ways of doing things. But it takes time. You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but the truth is it takes much longer. Studies show it takes an average of 66 days. 66 days and that’s just an average. It can take as long as 8 or 9 months. But it can be done. If you want to get in the habit of relying on God, if you want to learn to put your faith and trust in him, you have to make God a part of your everyday life. Things like praying and reading the Bible and going to worship need to be more than a chore but a way of life that you embrace and then it will take hold in you in a deep and meaningful way. And once you have this foundation at your core, you will be open to an even deeper relationship with God. One that opens you up to that “peace that passes all understanding” Paul promises we can have. Staying in love with God, or as Wesley put it, “attending to all the ordinances of God,” takes time but the investment is well worth it.
When I first started praying with others, I hated it.
Not because I didn’t think it was important and not because I didn’t think it was helpful. But because I felt so inadequate about it. It seemed everyone I knew could pray better than I could. But after my Walk to Emmaus, I joined a Day Four group and we’d meet once a week and took turns praying for each other. They were SO eloquent with their prayers. Thoughtful. Not the kind where they just repeat the word “Lord” 40 times in one sentence, but from the heart, sincere, deep prayer. By comparison, I felt my prayers were more along the lines of “God is great, God is good, thank you God for this food.” But they encouraged me regularly and gave me confidence as I kept working on it. And as I kept it up, I felt more comfortable. I was less self-conscious. I worried less about doing a “good” prayer and came to realize it’s not about how fancy my words were or how articulate I was or whether or not I repeated myself a dozen times. It was all about my heart for the Lord. That’s all God really cares about. And at least in that, I am confident. To do anything well takes practice. Like with the Rubik’s Cube, the more we work at it, the better we will be. In our marriages, in our work, as parents – even in our faith. Practice makes perfect. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We LOVE justice. At least when it happens to other people. The idea, “What goes around comes around,” allows us to take comfort there is justice in the world. The Japanese have a more crude way of saying the same thing: “Bachigatata” or “Bachi” for short. Even Christians echo these thoughts: “A man reaps what he sows.” which comes from our passage this morning. We love justice. But what Paul is talking about isn’t about retribution, it’s about making the most out of life. Whatever effort we put into something, the effort we make, is what we can expect to get out of it. If we pour ourselves into something it’s more likely we’ll get good returns. But if we put little effort, or bad effort or no effort at all, we can only expect what we put into it. So here’s the passage from the Bible.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
“Doing good” is part of what it means to be a Methodist.
We don’t believe people go to Heaven because they do good stuff. But we do believe doing good is evidence of God in your life, and we believe that doing good draws us closer to Christ. There’s a famous quote often attributed to John Wesley that says, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” While no one can find this to be a literal quote from John, it certainly reflects his beliefs. In his sermon “The Use of Money” he said, “employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all men!” And when he wrote up the three General Rules that formed the Methodist classes and later all of us, he included it there, too. Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. “Do no harm” (the first rule) is preventative. It encourages us to be thoughtful, to take time out to ponder our words, to think through a situation. But it’s a rule that is meant to prevent us from doing something hurtful. If “do no harm” is preventative, “do good” is proactive. More than just making sure we aren’t hurting people, we’re supposed to make the world a better place. As Paul wrote, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
But how do we “do good?”
It seems like an obvious question. You just DO GOOD. But if you’re like Dan in the TV show SportsNight, you want to try to figure out how to do the MOST good. Dan gets flooded with a stack of solicitation letters and doesn’t know what to do. He tells his friend and co-anchor, Casey, “I’m on a mailing list to end all mailing lists…I’d love to give money to all these people, but then I’d have no money and I’d need somebody’s mailing list just to pay rent.” You’ve probably felt like this before. Too many worthwhile causes and not enough money or time to go around. We feel that personally and as a church. It can be overwhelming when you think of how many worthy causes are out there. Dan and Casey go back and forth until Casey finally says, “You know, while we’ve been having this conversation, a couple people have probably died from something you could have cured.”
Dan starts to ask around.
He goes up to his friend Natalie and asks what she would do and she says she gives what she can to an AIDS group. Dan thinks that’s great, but asks her what about breast cancer and diabetes and leukemia? Don’t they deserve funding also? Dan is struggling to figure out who is the MOST deserving. Where should he invest his money? So he asks his boss, Isaac. Isaac will know. Isaac is smart, respected, and Dan looks up to him like a father. Isaac tells him, “Danny, every morning I leave an acre and a half of the most beautiful property in New Canaan, get on a train and come to work in a 54-story glass hi-rise. In between, I step over bodies to get here – 20, 30, 50 of them a day. So as I’m stepping over them, I reach into my pocket and give them whatever I’ve got.” Dan asks, “You’re not afraid they’re going to spend it on booze?” And that’s the heart of Dan’s problem, and ours a lot of the time. We worry so much about what might happen with what we give, whether it’s money or time or talent, that we end up holding back giving at all, or we give cautiously when we could be giving more. But that’s not how Jesus envisioned us helping one another. Remember the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus how he could have eternal life? Jesus told him to give his wealth to the poor. He didn’t put conditions on it. He didn’t warn him what the poor would do with his money. Because it’s really about our heart for giving. It’s about being abundantly generous and not worrying where it goes once we give it. That doesn’t mean God wants us to be foolish with our time or money or talent, but he wants us to be more actively engaged in the world. If we spend more time worrying about what other people are going to do with “our” money, we’re missing the point. God wants us to have a heart for giving – giving money, giving time, giving talents, giving a kind word, giving our sympathy, giving our love. He wants us to have a giving attitude. Let God worry about where it goes.
At the end of the show, Dan and Casey wrap things up.
Casey asks him if he’s solved the problem of who to give to, and Dan says, “It’s easier being a miser.” And Casey responds, “Can I say something? You’re not going to solve everybody’s problems. In fact, you’re not going to solve anybody’s problems, so you know what you should do? Anything. As much of it and as often as you can.” Anything. As much of it and as often as you can. Casey was echoing exactly what John Wesley and Paul have been trying to tell us. Give anything, as much of it and as often as you can. God wants us to be proactive. He wants us to get into the habit of being giving people, trying to make a difference in the world. Sure, we want to try to do the most good for the most people, but if we worry so much about where it’s going or if it will be put to good use we might end up like the guy in Jesus’ story about the bags of gold where the one guy ends up burying it in the ground instead of doing something with it. We don’t want to be THAT guy. We want to be responsible. We want to be good stewards. But we don’t want to get to the point where we are paralyzed from doing ANYTHING! Along the way, we might make some missteps, but the important thing is the state of our heart. Are we operating out of fear or out of love? Which one will rule our heart?
Our faith is empty without good deeds.
James, the brother of Jesus wrote about this extensively in his letter. He said, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26).” That’s because a person who says he believes in Jesus but does nothing to help his fellow human being does not really have faith. They have faith in themselves or faith in their money, but not faith in Christ to do what is needed. James also wrote (James 2:15-17), “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” And while I think James intended for that to be a statement against Christians who call themselves believers and do nothing to help others, it’s also a prescription for ourselves. Our faith is brought to life, both in other people AND in ourselves, when we live it out.
Have you heard of the term GIGO?
It’s a computing term, but you might be familiar with it anyway. GIGO. GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out and refers to the idea that bad programming will lead to bad results. Basically, you get out what you put in. And that’s true for every aspect of our lives. Our friendships, our family, our marriages, our jobs, our hobbies, our passions and our relationship with God. You get out what you put in. So if you spend your life trying to put in good to the world, there might be some garbage from time-to-time, but overall you’ll get even more out of life. Better relationships with others. Better relationship with God. A better world to live in. And after all, isn’t that what we all want? If it’s true that “A man reaps what he sows” and “What goes around comes around” then we need to put as much good out there in the world as we can. Let go of our fears. Trust in God. Devote yourself to doing good and not worry about what they do with our gifts, but instead be dedicated to a heart for generosity. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What does it mean to be Berkeley Methodist United Church?
The church part is obvious. We believe in Jesus Christ and in the ideas he challenges us to live up to everyday. Ideas like mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, and compassion. “Berkeley” because our roots are here. We have been part of this community since the church began. When we first started, this area was racially segregated. Developers and real estate agents refused to show homes to non-White people outside of the area south of Dwight Way and west of what was then called Grove Street but we know now as Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. It only made sense when it came time to build a church to do it in the heart of the Japanese community since we began as a Japanese-speaking, immigrant church. Today, our neighborhood has changed drastically and our congregation has, too. But we remain in the heart of the Berkeley community. “United” came about because back in 1929 we joined together with the Japanese Christian Church from the Disciples of Christ and ever since, the word “united” has been part of our identity. But what does it mean to be Methodist? Lots of people have no idea what it means to be Methodist, even if they’ve been part of the church most of their lives. But it is an important part of our history and the foundation of our beliefs as a church. Once in a while, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves what we believe in, why we are gathering, and what it’s all about. With that in mind, we’re going to share from Matthew 26:47-54. Now this passage takes place right after Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and after the Last Supper. We’re nearing the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. He’s about to be betrayed by one of those closest to him, a man who sold him out for money. Judas has arranged for Jesus’ capture by an angry mob and as these events play out, pay close attention to what Jesus does.
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
Primum non nocere
That’s a Latin phrase meaning, “First, do no harm.” Every medical professional in the world is familiar with that tenet, so it’s kind of weird it is also the first rule of Methodism. Or is it weird? Maybe it’s the most important rule of all. When we think of great leaders who preached about non-violent social change, some amazing people come to mind like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. Although one was a Baptist minister and one was a Hindu lawyer, both found inspiration in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught and lived the principles of non-violence as we read about in this passage. Even though he knows, HE KNOWS, he is about to be taken to his death, he stops Peter from defending him and says, “…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” In this one moment, Jesus makes crystal clear that the people of God must live by higher ideals. As he taught the disciples elsewhere, it isn’t enough to offer an eye for an eye, you have to go beyond that. You have to turn the other cheek. When you offer forgiveness, it isn’t just once or twice, but seventy times seven times! Because if we are really going to be the people of God, if we are going to show the love of Christ to a hurting world, we have to be the first ones to offer forgiveness. We have to be the first ones to come to the table. We have to be the first ones to show there is a better way. We must resist the temptation to return tit for tat, violence for violence because that is the trap that leads us away from God.
The foundation of the entire United Methodist Church is found in three simple rules.
Do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Bishop Reuben Job said it, “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” When John Wesley formed the first Methodist small groups (or “classes” as he called them), this was how they agreed to live. To show the sincerity of their faith and their desire to live a Christ-like life, they committed themselves to these three rules – do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. It sounds simplistic because it is, yet still so hard to do. That’s why these small groups would meet every week, to help keep each other accountable; to remind each other of their promise to live this kind of life. Because even though in our heads we know what we SHOULD do, we are not immune to the impulses of our human nature. We all need reminders of our potential, not to condemn one another but to support one another. And to give us a quick kick in the rear when we need it, too. But for Wesley, “do no harm” meant more than just not kicking puppies (who would do that?!). Wesley wants us to consider the broader implications of what that means.
“Do no harm” is a broader idea than most of us really consider.
Wesley wanted to make it clear so he explained in some detail exactly what he meant. When he wrote the General Rules for those small group classes, of course, he included things you would expect. No fighting, no quarreling, no brawling. I’m not sure why John felt the need to call out brawling separate from fighting but he did. And then he put in other stuff. No getting drunk. No suing your brother. No cheating the system. No working on the Sabbath. Mostly stuff you and I would agree with. My favorite, of course, is not saying anything bad about your pastor. Seriously. He put that in there. Then he added stuff to the list we might not immediately think of as “doing harm” – wearing gold or fancy clothes, needless self-indulgence (as opposed to self-indulgence we need), and singing songs which do not tend to the knowledge and love of God. Does that mean no more One Direction songs? We could argue about some of these all day, but that would be missing the point. The point Wesley was trying to get to is to challenge us to go beyond thinking of harm as something physical and force us to take a step back and think, “Am I doing something to hurt someone else?” Sometimes that hurt can be completely unintentional.
At one of the churches I used to serve, they had a strong youth group.
But before my time, there was a pretty big clique amongst some of the kids. Without realizing it and unintentionally, they started to exclude those who didn’t fit in with them, and slowly but surely some of the kids, the ones who didn’t fit in, dropped away. Nobody even noticed because it was still a large group, but the parents of those kids knew. I happened to talk to one of those parents after I had become the pastor. She told me how alone and isolated it made her daughter feel to never really be included. Her daughter wasn’t asked to help or invited to be part of the group. She wasn’t often invited to be involved in their activities. She told me how her daughter tried to fit in, but just couldn’t crack that shell. And how eventually she told her mom she needed to find another church. As a fellow parent, that made me so sad. Of all places, you would think a church would be the one place where everyone was welcome, but that isn’t always true. These kids weren’t intentionally mean, just thoughtless as we all can be from time to time. So focused on ourselves that we neglect to see what should have been obvious. Everyone does this. Kids and adults alike. The trick is to be mindful in what you do and what you say. Train yourself to consider others and not just yourself. We can avoid a great deal of the world’s problems if we learn to have an eye beyond what we want and what we like.
I think that’s it in a nutshell. Be thoughtful. Consider others before yourself. Think about how your actions AND your words will hurt others. Take time to pause before uttering something painful. Maybe the person you’re talking to said something hurtful or painful or plain stupid and you are so tempted to lash out, but consider before speaking, because the other person probably didn’t. I’ve found in my own life and in the experiences of others, that when people say hurtful things, it’s rarely with careful planning that they do it. Usually, they react because they are angry, mad, or hurt. And we can probably all agree that’s not the best place to react from. Sometimes, stepping back from a situation and taking two seconds before reacting is the best possible medicine. I’ve never forgotten the advice Emma gave me one day. I was upset about something and Emma looked at me and said, “Daddy, my teacher told me that when we’re upset we should take three deep breaths and count to ten.” Of course I followed her advice, and by golly it worked. Will that solve every problem? No. I’m sure it won’t. But it probably will avoid a good many more. Of course there will be times when harm seems inevitable. But in those instances, wouldn’t it be best to be thoughtful – to be intentional about how to do the least amount of harm? I was thinking about the Hippocratic Oath and how part of it is to always remember “warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” Sometimes we need those things more than anything else: warmth, sympathy, and understanding. Consider others before yourself and we can turn the world into the kind of place God would be proud of. Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
 Robert Yamada, The Japanese-American Experience: The Berkeley Legacy, 1895-1995, Berkeley Historical Society, 1995, p.34
 From Toshi Tekawa’s article, “A Summarized History of Berkeley Methodist United Church” published in the 75th and 90th anniversary celebration booklets for BMUC.
 As he summarized in his book Three Simple Rules.
What a deal. Kalua pork is ridiculously simple to make but it’s taste depends mostly on how you cook it and the ingredients you use. This is one of my favorites to make because of its taste and utility. Then you can use the leftovers in egg drop soup! Which tastes great by the way. The saltiness of the kalua pork adds some depth to the soup beyond what is already there and turns it into a meal. I also love using it to make omelettes! The saltiness again adds some OOMPH to the dish.
Kalua Pork Three Ingredients:
Putting it together:
We have probably all asked that question at some time during the last five months. It’s natural to wonder how things might have turned out if only we had done something different. And not just during the pandemic. What if you went to a different college? What if you had moved to a different city? What if you turned left instead of right? Our life is filled with choices and each one makes a difference. Growing up, one of my favorite comic books was titled “What If?” and every month they would explore this idea about how the choices we make can affect our lives. Sometimes the differences were huge. Sometimes the differences were small but meaningful. Sometimes the differences were just…different. It was always interesting to explore new possibilities, but was also a reminder that every day of our lives are important. What we do and say MATTERS! God has given us, but we only get to do it once so how can we make the most it?
God wants us to be BOLD in life!
Nowhere in the Bible is there a story about a guy who played it safe and was told by Christ, “Good job! Who needs to take risks? Play it safe.” Instead, it’s quite the opposite. In the story of the Parable of the Talents, God rewards those who have taken a chance with the gifts they are given and punishes the guy who plays it safe. In the book of Acts, we read about Ananias and Sapphira who withhold a portion of their profits for themselves instead of giving it to God and they die on the spot! Not that God would literally kill us for playing it safe, but instead a part of us dies when we hold back. A part of our ability to trust withers away. We were put on Earth to serve God in BOLD ways, to dare to make this world a better place. And that takes BOLD people. There was a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society that reminds me of God’s call to boldness. In it, Mr. Keating is teaching his students about poetry, and the kids are used to studying about rhyme and meter and iambic pentameter – all the forms and functions of poetry. But Mr. Keating wants to inspire them, to go beyond just studying about it and understanding it and he says to his students, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: ‘O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life?’ Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” What will YOUR verse be?
God is never short of inspiration either.
There’s a great passage in Malachi that I want to share with you today. Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. It was written to the Jews who had returned from Babylon after the temple had been rebuilt. The people had become spiritually apathetic. They didn’t turn to false gods or other deities, but were “disillusioned about their future and skeptical of God’s promises.” They had the form and function of a church, but really had turned into nothing more than a country club for Jewish people. They stopped being a church. And in the beginning of this chapter, Malachi foretells the coming of Christ and asks the important question, “…who can endure the day of his coming? (Malachi 3:2)” Who can endure the day of his coming? And he follows it up with the section we are about to read this morning.
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the LORD Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty. – Malachi 3:8-12
Test me in this!
“Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it…” Are you willing to take God up on that offer? All we need is two things – faith and trust. When we have faith in God’s promise and trust him to be faithful to us, he promises a flood of blessings. Instead, we often choose to rob God of what is already rightfully his. God doesn’t ask you to give everything you have (even though he could). He only asks for your trust enough that you would give at least 10% of what you earn to help what God is doing in the world. When we fail to give that to God, we are not only robbing God, but robbing ourselves of this opportunity to experience God’s blessing in our lives. Now, you might be tempted to get this image of a mighty God holding back this wonderful blessing as a punishment for our failure to be more faithful or trusting. But the curse we are under is one we’ve made ourselves, not one that God wants for us. It’s just that when we hold back from giving all we can, we are also holding back the chance for God to work in our lives in the most powerful of ways. God WANTS to do this for us. He invites us to “test him,” but that requires us to have faith in God’s promise.
How many of you have ever played “penny roulette” in Vegas?
Don’t be shy. No one is going to condemn you for gambling. But if you’ve ever played penny roulette in Vegas it’s pretty fun. For about a dollar, you can play for hours on end. The first time I went to Vegas was right when I turned 21. Living in Southern California, it’s just a day trip to the Strip and what better way to express your newfound freedom than to test your boundaries. So my friends and I went to Vegas and in about two minutes, lost nearly all the money I had set aside for gambling. Blackjack is a cruel and harsh game. So with limited funds and a whole lot of time left, I found penny roulette. I turned in a dollar and after playing for about three hours, I walked away with a fortune. Five whole dollars. I was good. You’ve all heard of saying, “you’ve got to bet big to win big,” or “you’ve got to spend money to make money.” It’s true. It was easy to bet “big” when you’re only playing for pennies, but you have to really have faith to go all in. God wants you to go “all in.” It’s only when we allow ourselves to be that open to God’s blessing that we can really receive it.
So the big “What If?” I have for our church is what if we didn’t need fundraisers?
What if we didn’t need fundraisers? Or special giving? What if instead of giving to get, we were giving to give? Instead of giving by buying a bento box or buying cookies from the bake sale or giving to buy some cool arts and crafts, we were giving just to give and trusting that God could do some mighty things with our giving. We give a LOT every year in memorials, holiday donations, and church fundraisers. And this year more than most is teaching us how tenuous that can be. So what if instead of giving to get stuff from the church, we dedicated ourselves to giving just for the sake of giving? What if we increased our giving even just by the amount we typically spend on fundraisers and bento boxes and everything else? Then when we do a fundraiser, we could dedicate that money directly to things we believe in to show the love of Christ.
That’s my big “What if?”
Could we challenge ourselves to make this shift in the time of the pandemic? Think about what we could do instead! The lives we could change and the faith we could grow if we were able to dedicate every fundraiser to a cause we believed in. We could provide computers to kids who need them. We could feed the hunger and the homeless for months. We could support different Black-owned businesses in the community every month. We could send our own kids and adults on international mission trips. And people would give. People love giving to things they think are worthy. Our fundraisers would be even more successful than ever before. We could do some wildly creative outreach events and make our presence felt deeply in our community. I think of the words of Bobby Kennedy when he said, “There are those who look at the way things are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” “There are those who look at the way things are and ask why? I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”
Fundraising should be about above and beyond giving.
But to be able to do that, we have to fund ministry ourselves. We have to stretch ourselves to give enough to be able to do these amazing things. But how fulfilling would it be to know that our efforts have gone to save lives, to change how someone connects to God, to give a child the chance to know Jesus Christ? These are the fruits of our giving. These are the types of things that we can do when we give ourselves to God. “Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it…” We have to have faith and trust to really give what we can to God. And when we do those things, we can help to bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth. Let us be BOLD. Let us ask the big “What if?” Let us truly go all in for Christ. And ask yourself this, “What will your verse be?” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Some of this section is taken from The Archeological Study Bible, “Introduction to Malachi,” p. 1545.
I love a good dip. Mom’s classic French Onion Dip made with sour cream and some old-fashioned Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix was always a staple. Something about that combination of savory onion flavor with cool, smooth sour cream on top of a crisp salty chip was tantalizing. I could eat that by the pound (I’m afraid). I think it was that combination of textures and flavors that was so appealing. Mixing multiple things into one scrumptious bite was fun, and when it worked, was the best.
You can imagine how Seven-Layer Dip was something that would grab my attention. Not only did it mix the crispness of a tortilla chip with the soft flavors of a dip, but the dip itself had multiple textures and flavors on its own! Over the years, I’ve worked hard to craft it to my liking and so far its a hit at church potlucks, but you can be the judge. Obviously the fun is creating your own mix of seven layers (or more). I would love to try yours!
Anyway, my seven layers are (in order from bottom to top):
Once upon a time, there was a preacher.
A real radical, hard-line, fundamentalist type. An adult video store was opening up in town and he was determined to stop it. He rallied the congregation. He preached on the sins that would come from this place. He even started a prayer group just for this purpose and asked God to strike down this establishment before it could be built. Lo and behold, about two weeks before it was about to open, lightning struck the store and it burned to the ground. The pastor was pretty pleased with himself as was the whole church until they were served with a notice that they were being sued by the owner of the video store on grounds that they were responsible, either directly or indirectly, for the demolishment of the building. The church denied all responsibility or any connection to its destruction and as the case made its way into court, the judge had a real puzzled look on his face. He looked up at the two groups and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case. From the paperwork, it looks like I’ve got a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer and an entire church that does not.”
Do you “Put your money where your mouth is?”
These people didn’t. Even though they had evidence of God’s power right before their eyes, they chose their pocketbook over God. You’ve heard it said, “Money is the root of all evil,” but the actual quote from the Bible is “The LOVE of money is A root of all KINDS of evil.” And there’s a difference. It’s not money itself that is evil. It’s our elevation of it. It’s putting the pursuit of it above everything else. That’s what gets us into trouble, when we elevate the material and downplay the spiritual. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you go to 1 Timothy 6:17. We’re going to hear the rest of the story. This letter is from a group of letters in the Bible from the apostle Paul called the “Pastoral Letters” because each one is written by Paul to help Timothy and Titus lead their churches. And in this first letter to Timothy, Paul gives advice on a wide number of topics. It’s kind of like a mini booklet on “How to Run A Church.” He talks about everything from worship to qualifications for being a deacon to how to treat the elderly, but today we’re going to focus on his teachings giving. In this passage, Paul is offering advice to Timothy on how to preach about “true wealth” and how we confuse material wealth and spiritual wealth. As you read this passage, listen for how that challenge speaks to you.
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19
Have you ever found yourself saying, “If I had a million dollars?”
What would you do with it? We’ve all probably daydreamed like that before. In fact, there’s a whole song on it by the group Barenaked Ladies called, “If I Had A Million Dollars,” and it’s one of their most popular songs. It’s basically just a list of things they would buy, but my favorites are a llama or an emu, a K-car (a nice reliant automobile), and really expensive ketchup to go with their Kraft dinners. Like the band, most of us would not only buy things for ourselves, but we would do nice things for other people, too. There’s nothing wrong with daydreaming about what we would do with a windfall of money or even splurging on ourselves once in a while. The danger, as Paul writes to Timothy, is to put our hope in wealth (or anything else for that matter) over God. It’s to make the mistake in thinking that a car or a title or a hot-looking spouse will bring you long-lasting happiness. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice car or being rewarded for hard work with a good job or having a hot-looking spouse for that matter. But if your end goal is to achieve happiness through those things, you’ll end up being disappointed, because none of it lasts. Someone always has more. Someone has a better job, a better car, a better everything! You simply can’t keep up with the Joneses, because the Joneses always have more.
But you already know this.
In your head, you know this to be true. It’s logical and from experience you have seen it for yourself. And yet we keep making these mistakes. We’re not talking about this today because you need to know this. We’re talking about it because in the hustle and bustle of life we often forget. Worshiping together is about being the community of Christ in the world and the family of Christ for one another. We need to take time once in a while to remind ourselves of what is truly important. In these crazy, wacky, and wild days, I keep hearing stories on the news of pastors and churches who are a constant embarrassment to all that it means to be the church today. People insisting on worshiping in person, accusing those who don’t agree with lacking faith, acting recklessly and without thought, and then saying they trust God as the reason for their actions. Do these people think God really is the one telling them that we need to sing in church, in front of a crowd of people, or it isn’t church? Or is that just something personal? Do you think God is saying we have to worship in person because otherwise it doesn’t count? Or is that the short-sightedness of people who can’t adapt to a changing world? Why couldn’t God be speaking through our local health officials to offer us protection and advice to keep us safe? Instead, health officials are quitting because their lives are being threatened for trying to do what’s right. Sometimes we bring up topics in worship that should be no-brainers, because sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes we forget. And with so much added stress because of the pandemic, it’s natural for us to shift priorities, but I hope you will keep in mind the one priority God asks of us all. “Love God, Love Your Neighbor.” As Jesus himself told the law expert, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Everything rests on how we do these two things – loving God and loving our neighbor.
No amount of money, power, or fame will bring you peace.
It’s about how we use what we have that makes a difference. No matter how much or how little of it we have, it’s how we use it that will change the world. I’m hoping we will really pray about how we can use the resources we have, both individually and as a church, to make an impact on our community, our neighbors, and everyone we meet. For some who have lost jobs, who are having to take a cut in pay, who are having to worry about critical needs, by all means take care of those things first, and leave it to those who can to take this opportunity to do more. And if you are in that category of people who can do more, I hope you will pray about it. Not just for our church, and not just through money, but with your time, your talents, and your service. You don’t have to be rich to make a difference. I have some friends who are taking time to volunteer as polling place workers. I know Julia’s mom has been making masks for those in need especially early in the pandemic. She even gave a bunch to the church which we sent out to those who might need it. On our Wednesday Night Social Hour, Andy was telling us about how his wife Naomi was helping out with the Bay District’s Virtual Choir and creating sound tracks for the musicians who will be taking part. We can all find ways to love God and love our neighbor. As a church, we are very well off. We don’t have a mortgage. We don’t have any loans. And we have a very nice nest egg saved up of over $400,000. I mentioned in our monthly newsletter and in one of our sermons last month that I would like us as a church to do more. With our resources, we could certainly think of ways to make a difference in our community, to truly love our neighbor. But how else might we creatively help one another? Cassie thought it would be a great idea to have one of those neighborhood pantries. Not a full food distribution, but like a little library but for canned goods and dry sealed products. All it would take is a little space and a little bit of maintenance. I love this idea. What are some other ways we could creatively use our resources, not just our finances, to love our neighbor?
In these troubled times, it would be easy to hunker down and hole up.
During a crisis, people have a tendency to go into a hoard mentality and turtle up. They withdraw and tend to be more fearful about giving and being generous. And while we should be physically keeping our distance and wearing masks, that doesn’t mean we have to stop being the church. There’s a whole world out there that needs Christ, especially during this time. As we talk about giving, I know it’s a challenge, but now more than ever is when we should be generous. Now more than ever is when we need to challenge the status quo. Because now more than ever is our chance to truly be the hands and feet of Christ. That doesn’t mean you should give up food and rent. It means that if you have the means (and not all of us do), then this is the rainy day we keep waiting for. I had a cousin Matthew (second cousin actually) who had every economic advantage in the world. His family was pretty well off so when he turned sixteen, they bought him a new car. When he graduated from high school, they paid for him to go backpacking across Europe. My uncle even bought a camper just to take Matthew and his friends to concerts all over the country. But maybe when he started collecting guns was when someone should have noticed. I remember his parents talking proudly about Matthew’s gun collection. But for me, it seemed odd for a 21-year old to have that much of a fascination with guns. One day, the neighbors heard gunshots coming from Matthew’s apartment and called the police. When they came to the door, Matthew walked out with two loaded weapons and when the police told him to put the weapons down, he instead raised them toward the police and was shot down dead. “Suicide by cop” as they called it. Intentionally creating a situation where you would be killed. We tend to think having money solves all of our problems. Or fame. Or influence. But it doesn’t. I don’t know if Matthew having a church community who loved him would have made a difference, but I do know that having money didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. Money. Influence. Fame. These are not the things that will bring you deep and lasting happiness. Invest in those things that truly make a difference. Faith. Family. Friends. Make sure you keep in mind what really matters in life.
If you love God, raise your hand.
Nobody’s watching but the millions of people on Facebook, so go ahead. If you love God, raise your hand. Now, raise it a bit higher. REALLY show the world that you love God! So, why didn’t you do that in the first place? Why not thrust your hand in the air the first time? There’s a part of us that holds back out of fear. Fear of being made a fool. Fear of being used. Fear of the consequences. We are too often fueled by fear. We don’t have enough trust in one another or, let’s face it, trust in God, to whole-heartedly let go and have the kind of faith God is hoping for. That’s especially true when it comes to the topic of giving. We have trouble with giving. And again, trust and fear are tightly interwoven into that conversation. Most of us are challenged by it. We ALREADY know we should give more and we ALREADY feel guilty about it, so why rub it in? It’s like rubbing salt into an old wound. But this is one of the most important topics in the Bible if for no other reason than to dismiss the notion that the church is about money. As a pastor, you hear quite often that the church is always asking for more money. But giving is really about your trust and faith in God. It’s about priorities and bringing God’s vision into reality, but it has very little to do with money. Because God doesn’t need your money. It’s all his anyway. Psalm 24:1-2 – “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.” Giving is about faith and trust.
Let’s get rid of another myth: Pastors preach about money because they want more of it.
If that were true, I would have stayed in the marketing field. When I started on this journey 15 years ago, I was already making more money then than I am now. At our first gathering after becoming a provisional elder, our District Superintendents told us that if there was something else we would rather do, we should be doing that. There are easier jobs that make a lot more money than being a pastor. So when we preach about giving, it’s not because we want more; it’s because it’s important. We preach about it because it’s one of the most difficult things we are challenged by, and I mean ALL of us – myself included. Money is a physical symbol of all that roots us in THIS world and we need to continually challenge ourselves not to let that get in the way of our relationship with God. I know some of you hate hearing the pastor preach about giving. It has that nasty, slimy feel to it. Or you feel like the pastor is sitting on the street corner with his tin cup, begging for a scrap of something more like a homeless person on the street. But it’s because we care about developing people in their faith. Giving is such an important part of trusting in God and letting go of the things that hold us back from being all we can be, how could we not talk about it?
Even the apostle Paul taught on giving.
In one of his letters to the church at Corinth, he was hoping they would give him a donation so he could build more churches and help more people come to faith in Christ. I don’t know if this was the first sermon on giving outside of Jesus, but there is no doubt that was Paul’s goal. He wanted to convince the Corinthians to challenge themselves in giving. In chapter 8, verse 7-9 he writes this, “But since you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you — see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Sounds like a guilt trip, right? Maybe it was a little bit. But Paul was earnest in his desire to challenge the congregation through giving. See what he says right there in verse 8. “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” And he makes it clear in later verses that it’s not the amount they give, but whether or not they are faithful in giving. Much like the Parable of the Widow’s Mite, the amount matters very little. It’s the attitude of faith and trust that is the most important thing. Which leads us to our passage this morning.
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.”[a]
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
I think we are all challenged to be “cheerful givers.”
I don’t know of many people who give the way Paul challenges us to give. He says in verse 7, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” But there IS a part of us that is reluctant to give. Part of that is because plain and simple, we’re selfish. We earned this money. We worked hard to get it and we want to spend it on ourselves. The other part is that even when we want to give, we don’t always trust the people we’re giving it to. We’ve seen too often people abusing the money they’ve been given. Forget about politics. I think we can all agree that the $436 the Navy spent on a hammer was a pretty big abuse of the country’s money. Which of course ranks right up there with the $7,622 coffee brewer that the Air Force bought. But it doesn’t even have to be on that scale. Have you ever questioned the way your spouse spent your money? Have you ever found yourself saying, “You bought WHAT?” “But honey, I NEEDED that Daiwa Saltiga SA-Z Dog Fight Spinning Reel. What if one day I want to catch a marlin? And it was a bargain at only $1000.” “It’s a FISHING REEL.” Right? Haven’t we even questioned how those closest to us spend their money? So it’s hard to just be a cheerful giver because once we give it, we don’t have a lot of say in how it’s spent. We just have to have faith and trust that it will be used for the best.
And that’s what the challenge is for us – to have faith and trust in God as we give.
Whether that’s to the church or to the government or to a private charity, having faith and trust in God in our giving is a huge challenge for us. I think we confuse faith and trust in God with how our money is being spent. I would guess that God wants us to invest our resources in ways that make the Earth a better place, that bring us one step closer to Heaven on Earth. Fighting disease, poverty, hunger – these are all worthwhile endeavors. But faith and trust come not on the outcome of our giving, but on our giving itself. So we have to ask ourselves – are we giving to give or are we giving to get? Are we giving to give or are we giving to get? By that I mean are we giving cheerfully or are we giving conditionally? Are we so focused on the outcome of our giving that we are missing the greater transformation of our beings into generous people? Because the truth is being a cheerful giver is part of our developing relationship with God, the building of our faith and trust. Look at the rest of the passage from Paul’s letter, verses 12-15. “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” Did you hear that? Giving isn’t just about helping others’ physical needs, but it is a way of saying thanks to God for the gifts you have been blessed with. It’s a way of witnessing to others your love for Jesus Christ. And in your spirit of giving, you will be blessed in return. Giving is about the building up of faith and trust in God. And so when we withhold our gifts and graces, when we fail to offer ourselves into God’s service, we are cheating God.
When we focus only on the outcome of our giving, we become line item givers.
We want to pick and choose the outcome of our giving like the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. If you remember, Congress passed a law giving the President the authority to veto portions of the federal budget without having to veto the whole thing. But the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional because it circumvented the system of checks and balances. In essence, it broke with the intended way the system was set up. And the same is true about our giving. Our failure to surrender control to a higher authority is our own lack of faith and trust in God. I think we should be careful with who and what we give our money to, but once we give it, we have to let it go. Will some people spend that money poorly? Yes. Will some people abuse the gift they’ve been given? Yes. But if we live our lives constantly worrying about how other people are use THEIR gifts, we miss out on what God wants for our lives. We will miss out on the opportunity to develop this way of living, of being a generous and loving people. Because if we keep worrying about what’s going to happen to “our” money, when it isn’t even ours to begin with, we end up forgetting what it means to be a generous people.
There are two passages I want you to remember as we close for today.
Luke 6:38 and Proverbs 11:24. They’re in your bulletins so you can write down these fill in the blanks. Luke 6:38 says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” For the measure you use, it will be measured to you. And Proverbs 11:24 says, “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.” One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. This is what we have been talking about today. When you give freely, you gain something greater – a heart for living that will bring you peace and freedom from anxiety. When you withhold, you come to a poverty of spirit and a poverty of friendship, trust, love, and other things that God wants to bless you with. So reflect today about how you will approach your heart for giving. Whether you give to the church or to your kids or to your spouse or to your alma mater. In whatever ways you give, reflect today on your heart for giving.