This is an ugly chair.
It’s okay. You can say it. This is an ugly chair. But I keep it for that very reason, to remind myself that we don’t always see the ugly chairs in our lives. This chair wasn’t always ugly. Back in the 70’s when my parents bought it, this was a very cool chair. It was considered “contemporary” and “stylish.” It used to have armrest covers and a little cover for the top where your head leaned against it. The colors were much brighter of course. I remember it having bright, thin streaks of red mixed in with the orange. It stayed in our family living room for decades, even long after it had gone out of style, long after the colors started to fade, and long after the armrests disappeared. Eventually, my mom convinced my dad to move it into their bedroom, out of sight of the rest of the world. But get rid of it? Never. My dad loved this chair and would fall asleep in it nearly every night. After a very long while, it even got too ugly for their bedroom and made its way to the garage where it still had a place of honor. My dad would sometimes just sit in it and watch the world go by. He’d be fiddling with something in the garage and just sit in that old chair. Even though the rest of us saw it as a beat up, ugly old chair that had served its purpose, my dad looked on it as a treasured possession. It wasn’t until 45 years later that they let me take it with me. For this very purpose. To show you an ugly chair.
I’m betting most of us have an ugly chair in our homes.
Maybe not like this, but something that’s hard to get rid of. Something we don’t want to part with even though it’s long outlived its purpose. Something that’s important to us because of its meaning or the memories it stirs up inside of us. But to the rest of the world, they see it for what it is – an ugly chair. Churches do this, too. It may not be a chair or even a physical object, but there are things we have a hard time letting go of even if they don’t work anymore. It could be the way we do worship, the way we do fellowship, the way we do Sunday School. It’s part of “what we do,” and to us it makes church seem like church – but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. For us it makes church seem like “church,” but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. Let me give you an example. Dressing up for church used to be a thing. In some places it still is. And if you didn’t come in your Sunday finest, people would look at you with either scorn or pity. Scorn for your disrespect for God or pity that you didn’t have better clothes. But where did that belief come from? How did we equate dressing nicely with respect for God? That idea came from a minister named Horace Bushnell in 1843. He wrote an article called “Taste and Fashion” where he said, “sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.” Maybe he was a minister that had absolutely no training or ever studied the Bible because that idea runs completely counter to what James wrote in James 2:1-5:
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
Dressing up isn’t Biblical and nowhere does the Bible imply that the clothes a man wears brings him any closer to God. In fact, the clothes of the disciples and Jesus himself were likely dirty from the ground and the dust they kicked up while walking. Yet, I’m pretty sure God loved them anyway. But one guy writes an article about dressing up for God and it somehow becomes part of “what we do” and it remains that way for over 100 years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with coming to church looking nice. In fact, it’s probably how some of you ended up with your spouse. But as times change and expectations change and the world around us changes, we have to be willing to change, too. We have to recognize when “what we do” does the opposite of what we want it to do. And then be willing to part with it.
What we need is a fresh perspective.
We have to take a step back and look at ourselves honestly – from top to bottom. Do we have ugly chairs in our lives? In our church? In our businesses? Because if we do, we need to get rid of them. This idea of needing to get rid of something bothers us because we often take it personally. It’s like telling us that everything we’ve done is wrong. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong. It’s a matter of doing what works. For example, our mission as a church is to bring people closer to Christ, but if we’re not doing that and we’re not connecting people to God in a meaningful way, then what we’re doing just isn’t working the way we want it to. Paul’s words this morning will remind us of exactly what our mission is supposed to be.
8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. – Romans 13:8-10
Love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul writes about it so simply I think sometimes we forget it. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Not anything else. Just love. But over time, we become rigid in our thinking about church and we forget this simple axiom. We get caught up in routines and traditions we don’t realize they are not working like they used to. Like the Pharisees and the church elders back in the early first century, we get so caught up keeping church going the way we are use to, we forget the mission to love our neighbor. But Paul reminds us, it’s about the love of others. When we make the love of others our priority, we are doing exactly what God wants us to do.
Which brings us back to the ugly chair.
Andy Stanley, senior pastor at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, once put it like this. Keeping an old chair or couch in your home is fine. Nothing wrong with holding on to memories of the way things used to be. But holding on to old chairs in church life is deadly. Because to an outsider, they see it for what it is.  An ugly piece of furniture. Something that needs to go in the trash bin. And they don’t understand why in the world we would hold onto it. But to us…to us they are filled with memories…because that’s the way we did it and that’s the way my parents did it and by golly that’s the way my children will do it. But your kids are thinking, “Really?” And honestly, weren’t there some things your parents did when you were growing up that you just didn’t understand? But when you’re in it, you don’t see it that way. Our memories cloud our vision and these couches, these things that define church for us, become so draped in memories we don’t see them anymore for what they are; old, ugly chairs that need to be let go. If we want people to know the living God, he can’t be draped in dead things.
The challenge is recognizing what those ugly chairs are.
We have to be willing to really examine everything we do. Odds are there will be stuff we don’t even realize are ugly chairs. Most churches today have some of these lying around. The trick is to recognize them for what they are and then do something about it. And remember, it’s not about casting blame or that we’ve done something wrong. It’s about building a better mousetrap. It’s just about doing things BETTER. The same is true for other aspects in our lives. Is your marriage stale? Are there fewer customers coming to your business? Maybe you have some ugly chairs lying around you just haven’t seen. So we need to open our eyes. We need to be willing to look hard into that mirror and see what might be holding us back. Pray about that this week. Pray for God to help reveal to us what the ugly chairs are in our lives and see them for what they are.
 Barna p. 147.
 Paraphrase from the talk “Don’t Be That Couch” from Catalyst One Day in Atlanta 2009.
Did you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?
Yes, I fell for that one. I was in 7th grade at Whitney High when an upper classman told me that with a completely straight face, and then promptly laughed when I said “Really?” A little bit of my trust was peeled away that day. My birthday is on March 31st, same as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Ewan McGregor, former Vice President Al Gore, and hockey legend Gordie Howe. I wonder if any of them got a fake present for their birthday? I was about six years old and someone thought it would be funny to give me one of those box-in-a-box-in-a-box presents, but after opening the last box there was nothing inside. I can’t remember who gave it to me, but I do remember their words, “Early April Fools!” Except it wasn’t funny. I was so disappointed. More of that built-in trust eroded. In high school, we used to play basketball together every Friday. I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed hanging out with my friends. That is until the day they told me to go to the wrong park. I suspected what was going on because I rode my bike over to the other park we play at and sure enough they were there. All of them. They saw me. I saw them. Only one of them called out to me. The only one I’m still friends with by the way. Again, and again, and again. Trust broken.
It’s sad, but it’s far from unique.
We have all suffered disappointment in our lives one way or another. It’s what changes us from innocent children to the less innocent and somewhat less trusting individuals we are today. How jaded we become depends on many things, but we all seem to lose that veil of innocence. Maybe that’s why it’s hard sometimes for people to believe in God. He just seems to good to be true and we all know if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. At least, that’s what the world pounds into us. It seems the longer a child goes without knowing God they are less and less likely to be connected to a church later in life. Studies show that 61% of adults who went regularly as kids still attend today compared to only 22% of adults who didn’t go regularly as kids. 61% versus 22%. Children are far more open to the idea of God than adults, because as we get older, we become more cynical and it becomes harder to believe in the things we can’t see or touch. We become rooted in the material instead of the spiritual and our hearts become hardened. Whether that’s from watching television or watching our parents or from school kids who tell us “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary, we gain a more critical eye and a more cynical heart. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It means we have a harder time recognizing God even when He is the most active in our lives.
Jesus knew this. Most of his adult life was spent dealing with people who didn’t believe.
He even tells us in Matthew 13 that people don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear. And he wasn’t just talking about the people who kept persecuting, harassing, and trying to set him up. There were thousands of his followers who were struggling to get an understanding of who he was and what he was trying to tell them. Even his disciples had trouble believing he was truly the promised Messiah. Now when we come upon this reading, Jesus has just been resurrected. Mary Magdalene and most of the apostles have witnessed him alive, but for some reason Thomas wasn’t there for any of it. I don’t know if he was out buying milk, baking some bread, shepherding a couple of goats or whatever, but he wasn’t there. And that’s where we pick up the narrative. Thomas comes into the room just after Jesus has left and all the apostles are like, “You just missed him!” And this is what happens.
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:24-31
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands…I will not believe it.”
Sounds like something any one of us might have said. It’s hard to fault Thomas for being skeptical. We’re often skeptical about things far less out there than a man coming back from the dead. And Thomas KNOWS Jesus is dead. He may not have been there to see it, but he knows the people who were. You can understand how tough it must have been to wrap his mind around Jesus NOT being dead. No one doubted Jesus died on the cross. They were in mourning over it. They were hiding from those who wanted to persecute his followers. So, when they tell Thomas that Jesus is alive, he must have been mad. That’s what I imagine he would have sounded like when he responded. Mad. Mad that the other followers would play such a cruel joke on him and mad they would take Jesus’ death so lightly. He tells them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” But when Jesus comes back, Jesus shows him exactly what Thomas wants to see and Jesus tells him, “Put your finger here; see my hands…stop doubting and believe.” And then Jesus says the most profound words of all. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” That is the very definition of faith. The Bible tells us later in Hebrews 11:1 that faith “is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure of what we hope for and CERTAIN of what we do not see.
But that can be hard for us sometimes – believing in things we cannot see.
Sometimes people take it to extremes. Have you heard the term “flat-earther”? It’s used for people who believe in outdated ideas, who can’t let go of their old preconception of things and hold on to the past. But it also comes from a very real group of people called the Flat Earth Society who literally think the earth is flat. They believe the Earth is shaped like a disc similar to a big Frisbee or a chocolate chip cookie and they think the edges are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Really. That’s what they believe. That the edges of the world are surrounded by a wall of ice that today we call Antarctica. Never mind the mountain of evidence against them – the pictures, the theories, the scientific data, the observations of others. They believe all of it was either made up or built on faulty premises. Funny as it is, this group has been around officially since 1956. And after over all of these years of evidence, these people still can’t accept the truth because to them it just doesn’t make sense. They haven’t learned that the reality of something doesn’t depend on our perception of it.
Just because we can’t see a thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Frances Church, the editor of the New York Sun back in the early 1900’s, had an answer for this that touches my heart and rings true. He was answering a letter from a little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon who wrote to him explaining, “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in the Sun, it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” And Mr. Church responded with elegance as he wrote.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds… Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist… Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence… The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see… Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
The most real things in the world are those that we cannot see.
How true that is. When we reflect on our lives we find that the most important things in life, the most valuable things are those we cannot see. Love. Life. God. These are the things that are important. These are the things that make the world a very real place. And we can’t see them directly. But it doesn’t make them any less real. Is the love you have for family and friends any less real because you can’t touch or see this thing called love? No, of course not. Because it IS real. Just because we can’t see it with our eyes or touch it with our hands doesn’t take away the reality of its existence. Indeed, the things we CANNOT see are the most real things in the world. In those moments when you are inclined to doubt, allow for the possibility that there is something greater in this crazy universe that loves and cares about you. Open yourself up to that childhood innocence that got buried under the dirt of disappointment and allow it to come to the surface again. Yes, the world can harden us and make us more cynical, but hold on to the hope that Christ gave you now and always.
How do you see God at work in the world? If you’re a Christian, there’s a reason you believe Jesus is your Lord and Savior. You didn’t just come up with it out of nowhere. And it’s more than just because it’s in a book. At some point in your life, for whatever reason, your faith became REAL. You found a reason to believe. For me, it was a slow burn rather than any single event. It was the culmination of God working through many people in my life to help me understand who Jesus is. For you, it could be different. And odds are there are as many reasons to believe as there are people because God works in our lives in different ways. But it seems harder and harder to help people cross that line from disbelief to belief and that’s because more than ever we are living in an age of disbelief and distrust. You only have to turn on the news to see this is true. It’s mind boggling we live in a country where one event will produce completely opposite interpretations of what happened depending on which news channel you follow. How many of you have friends or family members you just can’t talk to because of their outlook on the world?
That level of disbelief and distrust bleeds over to the church as well.
It’s why so many people don’t come to church. Why bother with religion? They’re all a bunch of hypocrites anyway. I felt like that at one time, so I understand it when people tell me that’s why they don’t feel compelled to be here. It’s not that most people object to the idea of God or Jesus, they just don’t have a reason to believe. They don’t have a reason to think coming to church will make a difference in their life. They’re not actually anti-religion. They just don’t know what they don’t know. It’s kind of like Cassie and refried beans.
When I first moved to Atlanta, I was desperate to find Rosarita refried beans.
Rosarita refried beans are, by far, the best canned refried beans ever, but they were nowhere to be found. Believe me, I looked. Finally, I called Cub Foods, and they had ONE store 45 minutes away that carried it. Cassie and I had just started dating and I wanted to cook a Mexican dinner for her so I decided to make the journey for these refried beans to round out our meal. Cassie volunteered to go with me, not realizing how far away it was and after about 30 minutes, and having passed about a dozen grocery stores, she asked me why we couldn’t have stopped at any of those other stores and just pick up a different brand. After all, canned refried beans are all the same. I assured her they were not, but it wasn’t until she tasted them that she believed me. “These are the best refried beans I’ve ever had,” she said and a smile crossed my face. The trip had been worth it. Until you experience something for yourself, it’s hard to understand what the big deal is. Whether that’s refried beans or Jesus Christ, simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know.
But we can help people know why Jesus is so important; why the church is so important.
And the good news is anyone can do it. I know you’ve heard me say it before, but you don’t need a seminary degree or any special training to help people understand why our faith is important. You don’t need a sandwich board or a megaphone or a stack of Bibles to hand out either. In fact, all you need…is YOU! For the most part, this section of Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae is about living a Christian life. But it’s the last bit of advice he gives that is going to be our focus today. The formula for success at showing people the love of Christ resides in you and Paul shares with us exactly what we need.
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. – Colossians 4:2-6
Paul gives new meaning to the phrase “being full of it.””
He wants us to be prayerful, watchful, and thankful. When we’re “full” of those things, we can really make a difference in someone’s faith journey. There’s a beautiful passage of Scripture in Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples, “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Being prayerful, watchful, and thankful give us eyes and ears that are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and helps us notice opportunities to share our faith that might otherwise go by. Prayerfulness centers us in God’s will. When we learn to pray, we learn to trust and rely on God. Thankfulness creates in us a heart for God. It helps us to be aware of our blessings and encourages us to show our appreciation by sharing our love with others. And both of these help us to be watchful. We develop what Jesus calls eyes that see and ears to hear. It’s like those Magic Eye images that used to be super popular, the ones where there is a hidden 3D image within the picture? Once you find the image, it’s so much easier to see it again and again, but until you do it can be pretty tough. Finding opportunities to share your faith is like that. Once you train your mind to look for those opportunities, it becomes easier and easier for us to do.
Paul cautions us to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.”
And by outsiders he meant those who were not Christian. Paul believed our actions are a reflection of our faith. Fair or not, what we do and what we say impacts how others perceive our beliefs. When Jesus told us to love one another, it was not only the right thing to do, but it was evidence of our faith. It showed the world what it meant to be a Christian. And when we don’t love our neighbor, that is also evidence of our faith. We live in a skeptical world, one that struggles with accepting facts let alone something as intangible as God. And the church hasn’t done much to help its own cause. We are in the news far more for what’s not good about us than for what we are doing well. Stories about scandal, abuse, and hypocrisy are in the public eye much more than stories about disaster relief, helping the homeless, or funding college education. It’s no wonder people have doubts about what the church promises. To them it could be just another scam to get their money. I’ve had friends who have said as much. They feel like worship is just a means to separate people from their money. If we have any hope of reaching into the hearts and minds of people who don’t believe in Christ, we have to act with love and grace. We don’t need to know all the answers. We don’t need to be perfect, we just need to point to the one who is.
The world around us is growing increasingly non-Christian.
Spirituality is as strong as ever, but there is a growing trend away from faith in Christ. The number of people who don’t belong to a church or any religion keeps growing. In a study done in the US from 2007 to 2021, the number of those people went from 16% of the population to 29%. At the same time, the number of people who identified as Christian went down the same percentage – from 78% to 63%. And while the majority of people still identify as Christian, it would be wise to assume many of them do not actively practice their faith. More likely they identify as Christian in name only. At the same time, it is more and more important to BE Christian in the world today. The world needs the radical love of Jesus Christ. The world needs the peace that a life in Christ can bring. And the world desperate needs the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that Christ offers – not only to us, but the love, grace, mercy and forgiveness we can offer one another. This week as we continue our time of waiting, pray for those who don’t know Christ, who have drifted away, or who don’t see the importance of their faith. Think of at least one person who needs that prayer and focus on them. Be watchful for an opportunity to share your faith or invite them to church. And be thankful that Christ is in your life. When we have an attitude of gratitude we become more inviting to those around us. So be prayerful, be watchful, be thankful. Do you believe Jesus has made a difference in your life? Then make sure you let it show.
The pain was excruciating.
That’s pretty much the only way I know to describe the feeling in my arm when it broke during judo practice. I must have been about ten at the time and pretty busy doing various sports (none of which I was very good at, but enjoyed nonetheless). I was playing baseball, basketball, and taking judo at the Norwalk Judo Dojo. On this one particular night, I was practicing with a guy about four times my age and almost twice my height. He could literally pick me up onto his back. As he was throwing me to the floor, he was supposed to let go of my right arm so it could absorb the impact from the fall, but he let go of the wrong one. My arm snapped back and POP! CRACK! Everyone in the dojo came up to me immediately as I was clutching my arm. I was trying hard not to let it show how much it hurt, but when they asked me to move it, I shouted through clenched teeth, “I CAN’T!” and my dad helped me up and took me to the hospital. The whole time in the car all I could feel was the searing pain as every bump on the road reminded me how bad it hurt. Sure enough, after doing x-rays they told us it was broken and put a temporary cast on it until I could get a full cast the next day. I think I wore that cast for something like three months. That part is a bit hazy. But I remember when they took it off how completely different it looked from the other arm. It was like having a space alien arm on one side and a normal arm on the other. The skin was a different color and the muscles looked so small. The doctor said that was normal. But it sure didn’t look like it.
Our faith is like that.
Faith is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it grows weak and becomes harder and harder to move. And if enough time goes by, it eventually becomes useless. Like your appendix, which I no longer have. Since as far back as I can remember, people have wondered what in the world the appendix was good for. It didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than randomly exploding inside your body. It was like carrying around a ticking time bomb. But researchers believe at one time it might have been a storehouse for helpful bacteria the body needed. When you suffered from something that emptied you of all those good bacteria, they think the appendix would release its store back into your body to help you recover more quickly. As we evolved it became less and less useful to the point where, as far as we know, it isn’t an essential part of the body anymore. After so many centuries of not functioning, it just sits there useless. Like any other part of your body, if you don’t use it, it eventually stops working. And that axiom is true for things outside of your body also. Think about anything in your house with a motor – cars, lawnmowers, even your garbage disposal. If you don’t use it at least once in a while, eventually it breaks down. Faith is like that, too. When you don’t use it, it begins to atrophy and eventually becomes useless. So ask yourself, how often do you exercise your faith?
Can you really call yourself a Christian if you don’t practice your faith?
I heard this saying once and it’s stuck with me, “Being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car.” How we spend our time matters. We can say we believe in Christ all we want, but it has to be more than just lip service. In one of his letters to the church, the apostle John wrote, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).” Doing is more important than saying. It’s easy for us to say we are Christian, but is there evidence of it in our lives? God warns us about being idle, of doing nothing when we could be doing something. In the case of our passage this morning, the people at the church of Thessalonica were literally doing nothing. It wasn’t a metaphor for lazy spiritual behavior. They were literally sitting around, waiting for the world to end. It was common during this time to believe that the end times were near, that Jesus would return any day to take believers up to Heaven. So there was a group who sat around, just waiting. And Paul writes this warning to the church.
Now we commend you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
This was taking “waiting” to a whole new level.
These people were not doing anything. I imagine they were sponging off their family and friends, letting their farms go to waste or just not showing up for work. I mean if the end times are near, why waste it working? But Paul’s letter makes it clear that it’s important what you do with the time you’re given. Whether it’s a minute or a lifetime, we must make good use of the time we have. If we truly love the Lord, we need to do more than just wait. We need to use the time to our advantage. We need to live a life worth imitating so that others can see how Christ has changed who we are. That passage we read in the Bible about being a light on a hill (Matthew 5:14-16) was meant to remind us that we have a responsibility not just to ourselves but to God and to those around us to set an example for how we want the world to be, and that’s what Paul is talking about here. He tells the church that the disciples work hard, not because they have to (there are plenty of people who would help them out), but “in order to give you an example to imitate.” Our actions are not only meant to build up our own faith but the faith of those around us as well.
What kind of example are you setting?
For your kids, your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, do they see evidence of Christ working in your life? About 83% of people tell pollsters they are Christian, yet only about 18% ACTUALLY attend church services on any given week. Now attendance isn’t the only measure of what it means to be Christian, but if we take the Bible seriously, it’s clear God wants us to be involved in a community of believers; to learn, to grow in our faith, to encourage others. So if 75% of “Christians” aren’t in church, how are they engaging in the type of community God is calling us to live? The truth is most aren’t. In a study from 2016 they found that among those who used to go to church more often, about half said they are “too busy,” “too lazy,” or just “don’t care” about it as much as other things. And of the about 33% of Americans who call themselves Christians but rarely or never go to church, most never have. How do you know if you are Christian if you don’t take the time to find out what it’s about? Just the fact that you’re here, now, and listening to these words means you care; that for you faith is more than just a check box on a sheet of things to do. But if you don’t come regularly, either in person or online, I want to encourage you to do so. I want to ask you to give faith a chance.
I read something very interesting.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers and in this book he talks about how to become what the world would call successful. And the interesting thing he found was that the most committed people were also the most likely to succeed. Not necessarily the most talented, but the most committed. Now, there are other factors involved too and he goes into all of them. Status, wealth, position, opportunity, etc. But the one thing that differentiated the mediocre from the exceptional in nearly every instance was what he called the 10,000 Hour Rule. It was the 10,000 Hour Rule that separated the average from the exceptional. He found 10,000 hours of honing your craft – whatever it is – seems to be the key to success.He talks about the Beatles and Bill Gates, two completely different success stories in two completely different fields and how the one thing they had in common other than natural talent was that each completed 10,000 hours of honing their skills at a relatively young age. What Gladwell says is that practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good. Practice isn’t the thing you do ONCE you’re good. It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good. Do you show that kind of dedication to your faith?
Coming out of that cast, my arm was a pitiful sight.
Having not used it for only three months, it looked pale and weak. Just putting my two arms side-by-side, it was easy to tell which one had been used and which had not. Don’t let your faith get pale and weak. Don’t let your faith go by the wayside. In our busy lives it’s all too easy to let God slip by the wayside. It’s ironic, but especially during the Christmas season, when we’re running around trying to clean our houses, wrap our gifts, shop for our relatives, bake cookies for the church potluck, we can so easily forget what is truly important. Make a commitment, not just now but for always to put your faith in the forefront of your life and watch how God will increase the abundance of blessing in your life.
 Church attendance: https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575-7-startling-facts-an-up-close-look-at-church-attendance-in-america.html ; % Christian: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90356&page=1
Waiting for anything is tough.
But CHRISTMAS waiting has got to be the hardest of all. My mom had a hard and fast rule about NOT getting up before 10am on Christmas morning. When you’re a kid and all of Santa’s presents are just sitting there on the coffee table in the front room, 10am seems like an eternity. My sister, Karen, and I would get up extra early on Christmas morning. We would sneak into the living room and gaze longingly at our presents. We weren’t allowed to touch them (a lesson we learned the hard way one year), but we were allowed to look. So we did. We’d circle around the living room table like vultures stalking their prey, trying to angle our heads to peek into the stockings to see what was in there, too. Then after THOSE 5 minutes were up…we’d sit there and wait. And wait. And wait some more. 5:06am. 4 hours and 54 minutes to go. The agony of WAITING – that was the worst.
And we’re not very good at it.
Human beings hate waiting. In fact, we hate it so much, we’ve invented stuff so we don’t have to wait – or at least not for very long. Processed food, fast-food restaurants, microwave ovens, and bottled water just to name a few. But faster isn’t always better. We often have to sacrifice something to get what we want. When I was in marketing, my graphic designer told me, “Everyone wants it cheaper, faster, and better. I can give you two. I can make it cheaper and faster, but it won’t be better. I can make it faster and better, but it won’t be cheap. Or I can make it cheaper and better, but it won’t be fast. You can have two but not all three.” And for the most part, we’ve chosen faster. But like my graphic designer said there are consequences. For a long time, people thought the obesity epidemic was caused by a lack of access to healthy food. But a study from the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC showed that the main factor in obesity wasn’t access at all. It was convenience, or perceived convenience. Most people who were obese were actually not poor and had access to healthier food. In fact, it was middle-income people who were the most overweight. Eighty percent of low-income people actually cook at home five times a week. People were choosing convenience over health. Same thing with bottled water. We love our bottled water. Human beings consume a million bottles of the stuff every minute. But not only does it take more water to produce a water bottle than what’s inside it, the plastic it’s made out of has been linked to a number of diseases like prostate and breast cancer. The bottles themselves are bad for the environment. More than 90% of people don’t recycle their plastic bottles and it ends up in landfills and oceans all over the world. None of this information is new, but we either bury it (like the plastic bottles we enjoy so much), ignore it, or justify it in some way because that’s how impatient human beings are. We hate waiting so much we devise ways around it.
But sometimes waiting is precisely what we should be doing.
Sometimes being patient is what’s needed. And sometimes the results are worth the wait. If you’ve ever read the Bible, you know that God teaches about patience ALL the time. Today we’re going to read a passage that talks about it in a way you probably haven’t thought of before. If you have your Bibles, would you please turn to 1 Corinthians 13 beginning with verse 4. 1 Corinthians 13:4. You might think this passage is a little weird to talk about patience since this is the famous “love” passage from the Bible. But even though patience is only one aspect of how love is described, it is at the root of God’s very being. So, if we are called upon by God to live a Christ-like life, we must INCLUDE patience as part of that life. Look at all the people in the Bible who had to be patient. Noah was on that boat for 150 days. Can you imagine what that must have smelled like. In my head, I keep thinking it was just 40 days, mostly due to that Schoolhouse Rock song. But that’s just how long it rained. Noah and his family were trapped on that boat with two of every animal for 150 days. They must have wondered when it would come to an end. Abraham and Sarah were hoping for a child all of their married lives, but it wasn’t until he was 99 years old that he had a son. And of course there was the time when the people of Israel were sent out into the desert for 40 years. 40 YEARS! God brought his people out of Egypt and when their hearts started to become filled with doubt, he made them wander for 40 years to think about it.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Patience is love. Patience is godly.
Love according to Paul in this letter to the church at Corinth is characterized by only two qualities – patience and kindness. Patience and kindness. Verses 5 and 6 tell us what love is NOT and verse 7 shows us what love does, but only two qualities – patience and kindness – describe the character of love. And since we know God is love from John’s first letter to the church it only makes sense that God is also patient. In math we call that the transitive property of equality. But you don’t have to have a degree in mathematics to figure that out, just open up your Bibles to Peter’s second letter. In chapter 3 he writes, “8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God understands patience. He has been patient with us for thousands of years, waiting for us to get this right, to live a life of love. His patience is an expression of his love for us and that’s why we cherish those who are patient with us. Because it is an expression of love.
But sometimes we give in to our impatience in hurtful ways.
We lash out at loved ones. We say or do things we don’t mean. Our impatience clouds our judgment and makes us do things that are harmful. Not just polluting the environment or polluting our bodies, but actually hurting one another. An MIT professor, Dr. Richard Larson has been studying the science of waiting in line and found that people can get so mad they actually turn violent. He calls it “Queue Rage.” Q-U-E-U-E. Queue rage. People can become so impatient they turn into the worst versions of themselves. One woman, Ruth Driscoll-Dunn, tried to run two women over with her jeep because she thought they cut in front of her in line at McDonald’s. Can you imagine that? Over an Egg McMuffin? But we can’t avoid waiting. It’s a part of life. On average two full days out of every year are spent waiting. Considering the amount of time in our life we will spend doing nothing but wait, we need to consider the importance of patience.
Advent is a time of waiting.
The word Advent itself comes from the Latin for adventus which means “coming,” and this season of our Christian year is about waiting for the coming of Christ, both as a remembrance of the past and a promise for the future. We are a people who are waiting. And if we truly are the people of God, we live through this time of waiting with patience. Not with violence, not with anger, not with frustration, but with patience. We’re often looking for the quick and easy way of doing things, but to really maximize the most out of life, we have to learn to be patient. I’m reminded of something that they would say on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. As people were waiting in line to get on the ride one of the skippers would say, “Who would like to see the line move faster? If you would like to see the line move faster, please raise your hand.” And or course at least half the crowd would raise their hands. Then he would continue, “Great! All those of you with your hands raised would you step aside and let everyone else pass? That way you can see the line move faster. Thank you.” We are in such a rush, especially during the holidays, that it can be so easy to lose our patience – with one another, with our neighbors, and with God. But take a moment every day to simply WAIT! To be alive in the waiting. To stop from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially during the holidays, and simply enjoy life as it is, right here, right now. As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
 Op Cit. Forbes, million plastic bottles
 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/04/09/earlyshow/contributors/susankoeppen/main2663189.shtml Brian Dakss, “Companies Heeding Gripes About Long Lines,” CBS, 2/11/2009
 http://onlineathens.com/stories/081606/uganews_20060816074.shtml “Student Arrested in Fast Food Attack,” Athens Banner-Herald (online edition), 8/16/2006.
How many of you like meatloaf?
Meatloaf is one of my favorite foods to eat. And of course, no one makes it like my mom. My mom’s version is the gold standard of meatloaf. When I order it from a restaurant, I can’t help but compare it to hers. But you know what’s even better than my mom’s meatloaf? Mom’s meatloaf leftovers. As a kid, my favorite lunch was bringing a meatloaf sandwich to school. Put a big chunk of it in-between two slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and that was heaven. Yum. But as much as I like leftover meatloaf, it’s not something I’d serve to someone else no matter how good it was. Not because I’m hoarding it for myself (which I might very well be doing), but because it’s a leftover. Leftovers are fine for us, but you wouldn’t serve it to someone you were trying to impress. There’s a connotation of the word “leftover” that says, “you’re not worthy of my time.” Think about it. Leftovers go in the “doggy bag.” The idea for the doggy bag was that these were scraps only worthy of your dog. Before the invention of the doggy bag, most people wouldn’t even THINK to take leftover food home. It was considered in poor taste even as late as the 1970’s. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love leftovers. Most of you probably do too, but (right or wrong) there is something about them people associate with unworthiness. So, the question needs to be asked, “Are you giving God your leftovers?”
Before you answer, think about it.
When you go to make your budget every month, you set aside money for the gas bill, the power bill, the water bill, gas for the car, food for your stomach, the rent or mortgage to pay for the roof over your head, do you also put aside money for God? Or does God come AFTER paying the bills? Is God simply getting your leftovers? Let’s face it, God doesn’t need the money. He made the whole world. But giving to God FIRST is a sign of your obedience to God. It’s an indication of where your heart is. Because as we mentioned before, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” You might be thinking to yourself, well what is it I’m supposed to give to God?
As you might expect we can find the answer in Scripture.
Let me give you some background before we get into the Scripture. In this part of the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the chief priests are all ganging up on Jesus. The funny thing is these groups (other than the chief priests) are all political rivals like Democrats and Republicans. Normally, they would never work together! It would have to take something HUGE for them to put aside their differences. It would have to be a threat so large it affected them all. And to them, that threat was Jesus. They were all afraid of him, including the chief priests. Not because Jesus was going to beat them up after school on the playground, but because he speaks with such authority and conviction he is convincing people to his way of thinking, and he is gathering more and more followers every day. So, in public these groups try to trick Jesus into saying something they could use to discredit him, to ruin his reputation, but Jesus is way too smart for that and avoids their traps. And with every failure, Jesus keeps gathering new followers. Where we pick up in the Scriptures this morning, the Sadducees have just asked him a question about the resurrection and Jesus answers it and throws their knowledge of Scripture right back in their face and apparently, he does so with such conviction that a teacher of the law comes forth and asks Jesus a serious question.
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. – Mark 12:28-34
When you first hear this passage, it doesn’t seem obvious what it has to do with giving.
Jesus tells us the most important commandment is to love the Lord God with ALL your heart and will ALL your soul and with ALL your mind and with ALL your strength. ALL – that’s the key word in this passage. Give it ALL to God. Because God already gave it all to us. Life. Hope. Salvation through Jesus. That doesn’t mean God wants you to starve. God doesn’t want you to give up your home. God simply wants those intangible things that make up the backbone of any good relationship. Your heart, your soul, your mind. And this teacher of the law in our passage says it just right, “To love him with all your heart…is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” What’s amazing about what he said is that it comes from a teacher of the law. This was a man who made a living from burnt offerings and sacrifices. To the Hebrew people, these sacrifices were meant as an offering of duty, devotion, and love and this teacher says it’s not the things you bring to the table that are important – it’s all about why you do it.
When we give, we are supposed to give FIRST to God.
Not that God needs your money or your burnt offerings and sacrifices. But because God wants your heart. Are you putting God first in your life? Or are you giving God your “leftovers?” Is God a priority in your life? If so, then think about how that’s reflected in what you do. Not just in what you give out of your wallet, but of your time and talent and witness. As John wrote in one of his letters to the church, “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18). It’s so easy to put God off. He’s such an understanding guy. And we tend to put off anything that doesn’t demand our attention. But God doesn’t want you to give out of duty or obligation. He doesn’t want you to give because you think you’ll earn a spot in Heaven. He wants you to give from the heart. Do you have a heart for God? Challenge yourself to give more this year in whatever way you are able – more of your time, more of your talents, more of your gifts, and see if that doesn’t bring you closer to God.
How poor do I have to be?
Certain passages in the Bible are challenging – not just to Christians but anyone considering becoming one. This is one of those passages. What we are about to read seems to imply that you can’t get to Heaven if you’re rich. If that’s the case, then what constitutes being rich and how poor do we have to be? Do we have to live in squalor or is it okay to have a nice home? Because most of us have a home of some sort – whether it’s an apartment or a condo or a single-family home. This guy comes up to Jesus one day and asks him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. The man replies that he has and asks, “What do I still lack?” We hear Jesus’ answer in our reading this morning.
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:21-26
Sounds like the rich young man just get the short end of the stick.
It’s easy to read this and think maybe Jesus was kind of tough on the guy. I mean this young man Matthew describes as being rich seems to be an okay dude. He doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal. He honors his parents. As far as we know, he loves his neighbor and NOT in an adulterous sort of way. But still, he wonders what does he need to do to guarantee eternal life? There’s something in him that feels empty inside despite what he has. There’s still a hole in his gut he doesn’t know how to fill. So, he goes to Jesus and after telling Jesus he has kept the commandments he asks, “What do I still lack?” And Jesus responds, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Sounds like Jesus is telling him that to get into heaven he needs to get rid of all of his stuff doesn’t it? But is that what he said? If you really look at it, Jesus doesn’t ACTUALLY answer his question. Jesus’ response isn’t, “You lack the faith that only comes with poverty.” He says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” which begs the question, can any of us BE perfect? The answer of course is “no” so why does Jesus answer this way?
Jesus is forcing him to go deeper.
He wants the young man to consider that it’s more than just a set of rules that get you into Heaven. He wants the young man to consider that his wealth is getting in the way of a closer relationship with God. It’s why Jesus tells his disciples it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are shocked at Jesus’ answer because they don’t catch on right away where Jesus is going with this. If this guy, who by all accounts is a good guy can’t get in, then who can? And Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” That gap between where we are and where we need to be is one made possible by relying on God. All of that stuff gets in the way of going deeper with God, of learning to rely on God for the peace we seek. It’s hard for us to realize how much we need God when have so much. And the more a person has, the harder it is to see how deeply we really need God. We start believing we can do it ourselves. That’s what was going on with the rich young man. Think about the question the rich young man asked, “What do I need to do to gain eternal life?” He didn’t ask, “What can I do to please God?” or “How can I serve God better?” He was asking what HE could do to earn salvation. And that’s why Jesus responds the way he does. “If you want to be perfect…” he starts out, because only the perfect person can earn their way into heaven and at our core we are imperfect people. No amount of money can change or overcome that basic flaw we carry with us. The key, the answer, is to put ourselves and our salvation in God’s hands.
John Wesley came up with a three-step approach to wealth management.
He summed it up this way: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can. For John, there was nothing wrong with earning all the money you can if you did it in a way that honored God. Then he proposed we save all we can. That doesn’t mean stuffing our bank accounts. He meant we shouldn’t squander our earnings. We shouldn’t spend it frivolously. We should be good stewards of God’s blessing. And finally, we should give all we can. It was this third part that was the key to the other two. There was nothing wrong with being wealthy, but there was something wrong with being frivolous, or being stingy, or being greedy. We are supposed to use what we have in the service of others. No matter how much or how little, we do what we can. Warren Buffett might have been a fan of John Wesley’s because he and Bill and Melinda Gates began an exclusive club for billionaires called The Giving Pledge. As reported on 60 Minutes, there are only two requirements to join – you have to have a net worth over $1 billion when you join and you pledge to give away at least half of it through charitable donations over the course of your lifetime. Bill and Melinda have already pledged to donate 95% of their good fortune away and Warren Buffett has pledged 99% of his. Asked what he thought about leaving his fortune to his kids, he said, “I don’t really think that, as a society, we want to confer blessings on generation after generation who contribute nothing to society, simply because somebody in the far distant past happened to amass a great sum of wealth.” Giving away vast sums of money when you have vast sums of money seems to be a no-brainer. Who couldn’t live off that much wealth? But Buffett explains that not everyone he talks to is on board. In the interview he said, “I’ve gotten a lot of yeses when I’ve called people. But I’ve gotten a lot of no’s, too. And I am tempted, because I’ve been calling people with a billion dollars or more, I’ve been tempted to think that if they can’t sign up for 50 percent, maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there’s a lot of people that don’t really know how to do it.”
Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said wealth gets in the way of our relationship with God.
These are BILLIONAIRES who are worried they don’t have enough. Money causes us to do some irrational things. We want to hold on to it. We’re fearful of letting it go. We worry what might happen if we don’t have it. And so it dominates our lives. Jesus even warned us about the effects money could have in our relationship with God. He said in Matthew 6, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And then in what are perhaps the most famous verses on money, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Timothy 6:10).” So, it’s not that God wants us to be poor. It’s our love of money, our desire to be self-reliant to the point of not needing God, is what can separate us from God. And it doesn’t have to be money. It could be anything we have an abundance of – fame, power, Pokemon cards – it doesn’t matter. When we live in abundance, we can become arrogant, self-righteous, and proud – and that leads us to have less reliance on God.
To avoid this temptation, we need to follow Uncle Ben’s advice.
Not the guy who makes instant rice, but Uncle Ben from the Spider Man comics. Ben tells a young Peter Parker, Spider Man’s alter ego, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ben’s advice is similar to the words of John Wesley who modeled his words after Jesus who said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” The concept is simple. Those who have an abundance owe it to those who do not to be good stewards of it. To share it, to give it, to use it responsibly. That is how we keep from letting our abundance get in the way of God, by remembering that it all belongs to Him and that we are simply caretakers of it.
Poor and rich are relative terms.
We can be exceptionally wealthy and poor in spirit or vice versa. Having one doesn’t mean having the other. Only a fool believes he is poor in the face of an abundance of God’s blessings or rich in the absence of God’s presence in his life. What we need to remember is that only one lasts forever. The other is gone the moment we die. The truth is God wants everyone to be rich, but rich in what matters most – our relationship with Him.
 Uncle Ben wasn’t the first to coin the phrase but it is often credited to him
Is greed good?
The short answer is no. The long answer is…no. If you’ve seen the movie Wall Street and maybe even if you haven’t, you know that Gordon Gecko, played by Michael Douglas gives this impassioned speech to a room full of stockholders where he bodly proclaims that “Greed is good.” But the truth is greed isn’t good. Greed sucks away at your soul. Greed turns us against each other. And greed hurts us, not only as individuals, but as a society. At the beginning of the pandemic, people were hoarding the weirdest things like toilet paper and Pokemon cards. But there was one product everyone needed – hand sanitizer. Everyone was looking for it and nobody had it. Except the Colvin brothers. They wanted to get in on the ground floor and cash in on other people’s desperation in the middle of a pandemic. They bought nearly 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer – basically wiping out the entire area where they lived around Tennessee and Kentucky and then reselling them for between $8 and $70 a bottle! And it worked! They were making a killing! At least until Amazon cracked down and the Attorney General threatened them for price gouging during a national emergency. Only then did they decide to do the “right thing.” When they got caught. Otherwise they felt fine charging $70 a bottle and putting a normal priced item out of reach for many people. During a pandemic. Where people were dying by the millions. Where is the “good” in that?
The truth is giving, for lack of a better word, is good.
Giving is right. Giving works. Giving in all of its forms, giving of our time, our talents, and our gifts, is what has proven to be successful in our society. Just as science has backed up our claim that prayer is good and church is good, science again helps us explain why giving is good. It doesn’t just psychologically makes us happier people, but it does so biologically as well. The very act of giving has been “linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone…that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.” Giving is good for our health in other ways, too. It’s associated with lower blood pressure, less depression, increased self-esteem, lower stress, and longer life. Who doesn’t want that? And better marriages. Couples who do small acts of generosity for one another on a regular basis are happier than those who don’t. Not only that but giving is contagious! Studies have found that “altruism can spread by three degrees.” Meaning you’re not only giving to your friend but their friends and their friends and their friends by your one act of kindness.
But God already knew all of this.
Paul wrote about it in the Bible. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you go to 2 Corinthians 9 beginning with verse 6. 2 Corinthians 9:6. God is awfully concerned about our giving. And not because he needs money. Why would God need money? But because giving has such a profound effect on our lives. It not only has tangible health and social benefits but spiritual as well as Paul writes about to the church at Corinth. In this part of the letter, Paul is asking the church to continue to give to the ministry he is involved in so that they can “complete the work (2 Cor 8:11)” they have already started. He mentions the church at Corinth was the first to give and the first to openly support him, but that the work is not yet done. What’s important in this passage is to keep focused on Paul’s argument about WHY you should give. Paul never asks for a specific amount of money. He doesn’t talk about tithing or about how much a “good Christian” gives. His entire argument is about a person’s relationship with God through giving. About how our relationship grows as we give. About our attitude of giving. And about how giving helps others to see the love of God.
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.”
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
Giving is a matter of the heart not your pocketbook.
It isn’t a duty but a discipline. Giving trains us to be more like God who gave his only Son for us. God doesn’t require of us any more than he has already done himself. But how we give is as important as the act itself. If we feel forced to help rather than giving help freely, it just isn’t as satisfying. And that goes back to why God loves a cheerful giver. The attitude you have in the act of giving is as important as the gift itself. If your gift is given with reluctance or resentment, then is it really a gift? Can you receive the benefits of giving if you didn’t want to do it in the first place? As C.S. Lewis wrote in his famous book Mere Christianity, “Right actions done for the wrong reason do not help build the internal quality or character…We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” God doesn’t want our obedience. God wants us to be of good character. A cheerful giver is one who does it out of love and out of a desire to help and do good. A reluctant giver thinks his money could be better spent elsewhere. A cheerful giver understands it’s about the act of giving God wants to mold and shape in us. A reluctant giver is weighed down by the results.
Sometimes we focus on the wrong thing.
It seems a no-brainer God wants us to do the most good for the most people. But if we use that as an excuse not to give at all, then we are really missing the point. There’s a scene in the TV show Sports Night where Dan is wondering who he should give money to. He spends pretty much the whole episode trying to figure out what to do, pondering which group is most deserving and how should he decide that and who isn’t getting enough. His friend Casey tells him, “You know, while we’ve been having this conversation a couple of people have probably died from something you could have cured.” After struggling with it even more, Casey looks at Dan and says, “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.” As human beings, we want to focus on results, but sometimes its as simple as helping the person right in front of you. We can’t help everyone. We can’t even help everyone who “deserves” it. All we can do is all we can do. If we spend all of our time worrying about whether or not that person or those people or that group or this organization “deserves” it, we’ll never do anything. Instead, God is looking for people of a certain character. And that’s a person with a giving attitude.
As it says in the passage, giving has its own rewards.
Beyond what we give materially, the act itself is a witness to God’s love in us and for us. It’s a way for us to express our love of God and our appreciation for what God has done in our lives. Paul never once writes about material results. Instead, he writes about what the ACT of giving does for us and for our community. He writes in verses 12 and 13, “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.” When we act with a generous heart, people see God in us and will praise God because of us and at the same time we are performing an act of gratitude for God because of what God has done in us. Are there benefits to giving? Sure, but those are perks to the real reason we give – God. Through our giving we are sharing God’s love with the world and giving thanks for that love in return.
When Emma was two she LOVED M&Ms.
The chocolate ones of course. And it was hilarious to watch her eat them because they are supposed to melt in your mouth and not in your hands, right? Well, somehow Emma would find a way to get it all over herself. I mean they would end up on her hands, her shirt, her face, and then she gets this little chocolate stain all over her mouth. It used to be so funny, but that’s just how much she enjoyed it. One day, I had given her a small snack bag of M&M’s and she starts plugging them in her mouth like usual, when she looked up at me and looked at her bag of M&M’s and as if she realized that I didn’t have anything to eat, she gave me the rest of her bag and said, “Here, Daddy.” There’s only one reason she gave me that bag, and that’s out of love. And if a two-year old little girl can give away her favorite thing to her Daddy just because she loves him, then can’t we give more of ourselves out of love for our Father in Heaven? Our God wants us to give with the cheerfulness of a little child, not because of what we get out of it, but because we love him and want to show that love to the world.
 The Quality of Mercy at 29K,” Sports Night
Imagine getting asked the same question over and over 100 times a day. As a cast member at Disneyland it happens. Every. Single. Day. “Where’s the bathroom?” “Where’s Mickey?” “How do I find Space Mountain?” But my favorite of all time is this. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” I kid you not. Not once but many times a day I would get asked that very question. And it’s hard – I mean REALLY hard – not to get sarcastic. The answer isn’t just obvious, but they said it themselves. “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” Disney believes how you answer THAT question will determine not only your character, but how successful you are.
The key to Disney’s success is radical hospitality.
It’s anticipating the needs of others and seeking to fill those needs even before they ask. And part of that process is to humble yourself. It’s to assume other people aren’t idiots, but instead trying to tell us something. So we have to learn to listen. One of my favorite stories about this happened when Disneyland first opened. They had installed these flower beds and grassy areas along the walkways of the hub – that central circular area in front of the castle – because they wanted it to look nice, but people were walking through them in a rush to get to Tomorrowland and Frontierland to ride these new rides they had heard about. In their excitement, the newly sodded areas were getting stomped on and Walt asked his team what they should do about it. One guy said they needed to build fences around the flower beds so people wouldn’t step on them. Another said they should put up big signs saying “Don’t walk on the grass.” And Walt said they should rip out the flower beds and newly sodded grass and instead put in new walkways. He told his team, “People are showing us what they want and it’s up to us to give it to them.” Meet the needs of others.
Jesus gave us a similar example.
Think about the story in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats where Jesus is telling his disciples a story about a day when everyone will be judged by what they’ve done in life and he starts separating people into two groups, one on his right and one on his left. He says to the group on his right, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” We may not realize it, but how we treat others says more about us than about them.
Peter offers us some advice in this department.
When this letter was written, it was a time of persecution for the Christian community. By that I don’t mean they were worried about “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” They were being imprisoned, stoned, and killed for their beliefs. So this letter was written to not only give Christian followers hope, but to inspire them to courageous action through love and great hospitality as we are about to read.
7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. – 1 Peter 4:7-11
Peter challenges us to take hospitality to the next level!
To really go above and beyond what’s expected and to do the extraordinary. He doesn’t tell the church to put up with one another or to respect one another. Peter tells them they need to LOVE one another, and not just love one another, but love one another DEEPLY. How many of you love your neighbor deeply? How many of you love your spouse DEEPLY? I’m sure all of you, but do we always show it? It’s hard to love one another when we’re annoyed or when we feel put out. But Peter challenges us to do just that, to put negative feelings aside, justified or not, and to find it in your heart to love the other person. Then he wants you to go one more step, and be more than just hospitable, but to do it without grumbling. We’ve probably all been told at least once in our life, “Say it like you mean it.” And that’s what Peter is calling on us to do – not just to say the words but to follow up as if you mean it. And the one that really emphasizes how radical Peter is calling upon the church to act is he says, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” That’s the kind of thoughtfulness we need to have when we speak to one another. Words have power. The power to hurt, the power to heal, the power to convince, so choose your words wisely as if you are speaking on God’s behalf, because you are.
Did you know a person decides in the first seven minutes if they are coming back?
When visiting a church, a person decides within the first seven minutes if they are coming back. They haven’t heard a sermon, sang a song, or bowed a head in prayer and already they’ve decided if they’re coming back. Of course, the rest of the service matters too. It can make or break if a person decides to stay long-term. But those first seven minutes are crucial in making a good first impression. And we all know how important it is to make a good first impression. It can make or break a relationship. And visitors notice EVERYTHING! From how well you keep up your property to how clean the pews are to how nice the bulletin looks, it all matters because it says something about who we are and what we value. But what makes the biggest difference is how we welcome people – not only one another but people we don’t yet know. Imagine going to a dinner party at someone’s home you don’t know very well. For many of us, that kind of situation is pretty intimidating. You might feel awkward. You might feel anxiety about meeting new people. You might worry about sticking out or not fitting in, like wearing sweats to a formal dinner party or a tux to a backyard BBQ. All of these nervous feelings might be stirring inside of you, but when you feel welcome, when you are made to feel like part of the group, your mind starts to relax and you can really take everything in. Visitors to our church are often feeling those same things so what we do next in helping them to feel welcome and part of the group is the first and biggest hurdle to overcome.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone walking into a church for the first time.
Or at least the first time in a long time. It takes a lot of courage to walk in those doors not knowing what kind of church this is. Churches have a reputation for being judgmental and unwelcoming, plus someone new has no idea about our traditions, our worship style, or what to expect. So helping them to feel at ease is incredibly important. Are they greeted when they walk in? Are they invited to come and sit with someone? Are they introduced to others? These are all hallmarks of the kind of hospitality Jesus calls on the church to make. I know that makes some of you uncomfortable because it makes ME uncomfortable, but think about what a difference it can make.
Let’s go back to our first question and why Disney’s key to success is in how we answer it.
“What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” It might seem like a dumb question, but if that’s how you approach it, then that’s the attitude that will come forth. And who wants to be part of a group that thinks you’re dumb? Where is the hospitality in that? Instead, we need to consider what they need. What are they really after? Because most of the time, what seems like a dumb question isn’t dumb at all. They just don’t know how to ask for the answers they’re seeking. When people ask, “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” they’re really asking, “What time will the parade get HERE?” If you’ve seen a parade at Disneyland, you know the 3 o’clock parade STARTS at 3 o’clock SOMEWHERE, but from one end to the other it can be half an hour or later before it gets to where you are sitting. Maybe they want to know if they have time to grab a bite to eat. Or go to the restroom. Or change their kid’s diaper. There’s a lot hidden behind an innocent question and the trick is to figure out what the real question is and answer THAT. It’s not always easy, but it starts by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It starts by looking for the needs of others. The same is true for the church. We might know what to expect in worship. We might know communion is always on the 1st Sunday and what we do with the bread and wine. We might know we stand up to sing at the beginning of worship and at the end. But a newcomer doesn’t know those things. They are nervous. They are anxious. And it took every ounce of courage they had to step into this place today. So it’s up to us to treat them as guests in our home. To help them feel at ease. And most importantly to welcome them in the name of Jesus Christ. So I want to challenge you today and all this month, if you see someone you don’t know, go up and say “hi.” Introduce yourself and invite them to come sit with you. You can talk to your friends outside of church, but this might be the only opportunity you have to make a good first impression. Take it. You never know what kind of a difference it might make.
I’ve been into comics since I was about six or seven years old. My dad would bring me issues of the Incredible Hulk and I loved them. I didn’t have a lot – just whatever my dad would give me – but I treasured them and read them over and over. To this day, I collect the Hulk. It still reminds me of my dad. I started to really get into the stories. I would borrow the collected editions from the library. I’d read them when we went to get an eye exam because our optometrist had a huge selection. And then somewhere around junior high, I went from being an occasional reader to a comic book collector. I can even pinpoint what book kicked it off for me – Uncanny X-Men #147, “Rogue Storm”. I was fascinated by the X-Men so slowly I began collecting older issues, trading with friends, and then becoming a regular at my local comic book store where my dad or mom would take me every week. I was definitely in it for the stories, but I noticed there was another type of collector who frequented my local store. The SPECULATOR! (Duh-duh-duh). These people thought of comics solely as an investment. They would come into the store and walk down the new comic book aisle, picking up one of every issue, two if it was a first issue, and immediately place them into plastic bags and put them into a storage box. And there they would sit. They wouldn’t even read them because that would make them less pristine. Instead, they sat in a bag, in a box, on a shelf. Never fulfilling their intended use. In that way, our faith is like comic book collecting. We can either enjoy it as it was intended, or we can put it on a shelf, condemned to never live out its true purpose. The love of God is meant to be cherished. Our faith is meant to be explored. Our hope in Christ is meant to be shared. It isn’t supposed to be hidden away.
We often feel unprepared, unworthy, and ill equipped to do the work God has called us to do.
But that’s usually a lack of confidence in ourselves instead of an actual inability to do God’s will. You have the tools you need to share your faith and the love of God, because the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude. Like so many things, the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude. Jesus talks about this in the parable we are going to share this morning. This story we are about to hear from Jesus is known as the Parable of the Sower. Now, you could read it from two different perspectives – either as the seed or the sower. As the seed, Jesus is calling on us to be responsive to his Word; to be planted in good soil and produce a crop, but as the sower we have a different perspective. As we read the passage, I want you to picture yourself in the story as the sower that Jesus talks about, and picture in your mind that this is a task God empowers us to do.
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” 9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” – Mark 4:1-9
You are the sower.
YOU are the sower. The seeds God is referring to are the bits of knowledge and wisdom we have gained from our own experience with Jesus. They are part of the fruit he produces in us. And now it’s our turn to use those seeds to grow new fruit, which will produce even more of a harvest for God. But without us spreading his seeds, it’s so much harder for new fruit to grow. We are important to God’s plan. You might be timid about it. You might worry about wasting your time, energy, and effort if you can’t produce results. You don’t want people to think you’re foolish. You might be embarrassed to share your faith. All of these thoughts play into our decision as we think about becoming the kind of farmers God wants us to be. But in this parable, Jesus is encouraging us to plant everywhere. We cannot become better harvesters if we don’t ever attempt to do what needs to be done. We can’t tell what will work and what won’t unless we try. We learn best by DOING. The point Jesus is making here is about our faithfulness to the planting process. When we do what we are supposed to, not every seed we plant in someone’s heart will take root. Not every effort we make will bear fruit. But when it does, it is worth it.
The PROCESS is important.
The act of planting seeds in people’s hearts is vital to growing our collective faith. And that’s because people who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were a Christian.” “If I were Christian, my whole life would be better!” “If only someone would show me how to BE a Christian!” No. Most people are not simply one step away from accepting Christ. Most people don’t know they need Jesus in their life and certainly aren’t looking for someone to show them the way. For the most part, they’re walking around thinking life is pretty good – or not. Some are happy, some are sad, but they don’t KNOW that there’s another kind of life waiting for them. They don’t know there is a whole different kind of existence when you have Christ in your life. They don’t know how GOOD it can be! It’s like Indian food. There’s nothing like a good bowl of dal or a good pot of butter chicken and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa. But before I TRIED Indian food, I never knew what I was missing. I could take it or leave it, and honestly I preferred to leave it. I never had it, never saw it, never smelled it, and frankly never wanted it. I was happy enough in my life without it and I wasn’t all that interested in trying something new, but when Cassie asked me to I loved it! I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try it, and I always encourage people to eat it. If you like Chinese food or just kind of spicy food, you’ll love the flavors of Indian food. But had Cassie not come along and invited me to try it, I would have lived life perfectly happy, not knowing what I was missing. Christianity is like that. It’s this awesome, incredible, wonderful part of life that makes everything more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to share our faith instead if hiding it away on a shelf.
Because we have the power to change lives. Through God’s grace and God’s love, we have the power to change lives. And it doesn’t take any more knowledge or power than what God has already given you. Think about the ways in which God has changed your life. Think about the difference God has made in the way you live. Think about how you approach life differently because God is a part of it. Those are the seeds you have to share. Biblical knowledge is great and you should be encouraged to grow deeper in your faith with it, but if you’re waiting to know “enough” about the Bible to answer every question or counter every argument, you’ll be waiting your whole life. Our quest to learn about God never ends. You won’t graduate in this life. But you have enough to share your faith, whether you believe it or not. You are enough. The seeds God has put in your pouch are enough. Now who are you going to share them with?
I know fear is a big part of why we don’t share our faith.
Fear of failure, fear of being inadequate, fear of your own lack of knowledge – but fear should never stop you from planting seeds. In fact, it should do just the opposite. It should inspire you and encourage you and motivate you to go out there anyway. Fear of the number of lives you fail to change because you chose NOT to share your faith. Fear of what God will say when you die and he asks you what you did with your faith. Fear of knowing you had the power to change people’s lives and didn’t do it. I was visiting with a woman at one of the churches I served, and I’ll never forget the story she told me. She said that although she went to church every week and it was important to her, she didn’t want to force her faith on her children. She wanted them to choose for themselves what path they would follow. So after they reached a certain age, she didn’t encourage them to come to church. She let them choose. Naturally, they chose to stay home. They chose to go out with friends. They chose a life away from God. And they often floundered in life, struggling with fear, worry, anxiety, and insecurity. Later in life, her daughter started to come to church again. In it, she found many of the answers that had eluded her for so long. One day, she asked her mother why it was she never shared her faith. When her mother told her she wanted her to find out for herself, the daughter said, “I wish you had told me all of this years ago. You should have told me why you believed. If it was that important to you and to me, you should have told me why you believed. It would have saved me years of pain and frustration.” Her story really touched my heart. While I do believe ultimately we have to choose whether or not to follow God, how can we choose when we don’t even know what the choices are? Is our lack of faith that profound that we can’t even share it with those closest to us? Don’t let fear hold you back. Instead use it as a motivation to share the love of God with those around you.
Be bold in your faith.
You may not have all the answers, but no one does. Not me, not you, not any one except God. So if you’re waiting to be “ready” you’ll never get there. Like riding a bike, like learning to walk, like planting seeds, like anything in life we gain knowledge in the doing. Some of our seeds may land on infertile ground, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds may start to bloom and then wither under the weeds, but we learn from it. Some of our seeds might get taken away, and in each instance we learn how to be better at sharing our faith. We learn what works for us and what doesn’t. If fear is holding you back, it’s because you don’t fear the consequences enough to do something about it. And if you feel like you’ve tried and failed, just remember, the one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. The one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them. Don’t be frustrated in your attempts. Don’t worry that you don’t see fruit right away. There are plants that take years to harvest. The fig trees that Jesus always seems to be talking about take anywhere from three to five years to produce any figs. A traditional apple tree can take anywhere from six to seven years to give any fruit. And olive trees can give fruit as early as three and sometimes as late as 12 years. You might be the one to plant the seed, but it might take a team of people to finally harvest it. So do not be discouraged by a lack of results, but instead be faithful to the planting process. It’s the planting of the seeds that honors God. If we don’t share our faith, it’s like putting a comic book into a bag without ever reading it. An unread comic is a wasted comic. An unsowed seed is a wasted seed. And a life without Christ is a mere shadow of what it could be.