Sunday, October 28, 2012

Celebrating the Gifts of God

Mark 10:46-52

        Throughout the month we have received a Minute for Missions from various church committees.  These announcements were given to help you consider your financial pledge to the church this year.  We run a very low key campaign.  I have been instructed by the Stewardship Ministry Group to preach four stewardship sermons a year.  I bet you can’t remember the first three.  This week I have been asked to be a bit more obvious and so I shall try.
        For many of us a stewardship sermon is not necessary.  Our families taught us the importance of giving at an early age.  I got my first allowance when I was in the fourth grade.  Each week my father gave me 60 cents.  To be more exact he gave me 12 nickels.  At the beginning of each month when my father was paid he would get rolls of nickels.  Each Saturday morning my allowance was disbursed.     Fifty cents for me and ten cents for Sunday School.  Dad also gave me a five dollar bill once a month.  That was to be placed in my monthly envelop for the church service.  When I reached the seventh grade Dad gave me $2.40 at the beginning of each month.  Do the math.  It was still 60 cents a week.  He wanted to see if I could be responsible with my allowance over a period longer than one week. In other words he wanted to see if I would put ten cents back for each Sunday. When Deb and I got married over thirty eight years ago, I discovered her father had a similar system.  So there was never any question concerning the importance of our gift to God.  It still remains the first check we write when we pay our bills.
        Not all of you had my experience.  For many of you giving to the church is something new.   Some folks give to the church if all the other bills and expenses are covered. When the purse strings get tight, giving to the church is not a high priority.  Since giving to the church is something I have always done, and something I seldom question, I had to go out and find a resource that addresses many of the questions folks have about giving their hard earned money to the church.
        Presbytery sent out an e-mail suggesting every minister read a book titled, Not Your Parents Offering Plate, a New Vision for Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher.  I purchased it and read it on the plane coming back from Haiti.  It had some interesting suggestions.  Did you know that in America today there are over 1.8 million non profit organizations, each trying to solicit your dollars?  In 1985 religious groups received 55% of all charitable donations.  Last year that number was down to 31%.  Part of the reason for that is the number of non profits over the past twenty five years has risen by 600,000.  There are a lot of folks out there asking for your money and Mr. Christopher says people want to give to something that changes their lives.  I could not agree more.
        Mr. Christopher gives three reasons why folks give.  Number one is that folks have a belief in the mission of the organization.   WHAT IS OUR MISSION AT ROCKFISH PRESBYTERIAN?  I believe it is to change lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Let’s quickly look at who we are and how we are known.  Last year you adopted a motto that declares Rockfish to be a Light in the Valley.  What perfect words for this congregation.  No church in this area does more for the folks of Nelson County than Rockfish.  No church in this area has a more diverse congregation.  No church in this area has a better music program.  Like everyone we have room to improve but from the day I arrived nine months ago I was immediately overwhelmed by the caring, the nurturing, the humor, the generosity that defines Rockfish as a church.  Believe it or not we are known throughout the Presbytery.  Last week, while in Richmond, I told someone I was the minister at Rockfish. The immediate response was, “What a blessing to be there. I hear nothing but good things about your congregation.”  Your contributions allow us to continue to feed souls, feed minds, and feed the hungry.
        Christopher says a second reason people give is because they have a high regard for the leadership.  Truth is you hardly know me.  I have been here less than a year so I am going to suggest you give me a pass and wait till next year to make your evaluation.  Let’s look at you session.  What an honorable group of people.  Look at the back of your bulletin and marvel at the folks you have chosen to lead this congregation.  Look at the folks who lead our worship through the outpouring of music.   Go downstairs and looks at the folks teaching the bible to our children.  Go to Senior Citizen lunches, Habitiat, the Food Pantry, BRIM meetings, CASA meetings, The Wood Ministry, or any other activity serving the folks in Nelson County and you will see your fellow church members.  Who is the leadership of this county?  You are!  Who is the leadership of this church?  You are.  Let me say as someone who has just arrived, you are doing a mighty fine job.
        Finally Christopher says people don’t give to sinking ships.  According to Nancy Neville, and she should know, our membership has reached an all time high.  We have had 17 new folks join us this year.  There are a lot of you who attend regularly but still want to hold on to your love of a former church.  I admire your loyalty.  But I am more thrilled we worship together on Sunday and work together rest of the week.  Your membership might be elsewhere, but in heart and spirit you are part of the Rockfish community. Now a lot of ministers would use this time to tell you how bad things are.  They would try to make you feel guilty.  If I told you something like that I would be lying.  Each morning when I drive into our parking lot, I feel the energy that comes from a vibrant, faithful people, who serve God and who serve the folks in this community.
        I appreciate these insights made by Christopher.  They are excellent points but I have to say Christopher is suggesting nothing new.  I have graduated from one college and three graduate schools.  About this time each year all of them wants to solicit money by informing me of their mission, their leadership and their success.  I fully expect United Way, the Cancer Society, the Heart Fund and a slew of other organizations to send me request for money.  They too will brag about their mission, their leadership and their success.  The formula suggested by Christopher has a good track record in the private sector.  It works for organizations because most folks want to place their money where they know it will be used well. I say AMEN to that.  But the church is and has always been more than an organization.  In fact I might be so bold to say when the church only views itself as an organization it takes a mighty big risk of losing its heart and soul.
        Please pay special attention to this week’s text from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus and the disciples were walking up the road from Jericho.  They were surrounded by a large crowd of people, all trying to figure out who this Jesus of Nazareth might be.  On the side of the road was a beggar named Bartimaeus.  When he heard that Jesus was passing by he exclaimed, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  Folks sternly ordered him to simmer down but he kept crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.”  Jesus stopped turned to the blind man and said, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus replied, “Teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”  Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.
        There are plenty of miracle stories in the gospels but I think this is my favorite.  Thousands of folks, thousands of folks with good eyesight, flocked around Jesus every day.  Yet only this man, this blind man, recognized who Jesus was and what Jesus could do.  To often the work of the church revolves around programs to run, bills to pay and buildings to maintain.  Those things are important, after all we are an institution. When we come to our stewardship campaign we want to impress you with how well we run the programs, pay the bills and maintain the buildings.   But Blind Bartimaeus wasn’t interested in any of that stuff.  He believed in a power that transcended slogans, leadership and good track records.  He wanted, he needed a miracle and the only person capable of giving him sight was standing right in front of him.  Bartimaeus recognized God in Christ.  He knew, he believed, something was about to happen that was beyond the scope of his human imagination.
        A good friend of mine Gary Charles wrote, “What would it mean for the church to trust not in successful stewardship for its future, trust not in the most dynamic preacher for its future, trust not in the most appealing music for its future, trust not even in its spiritual piety for its future but trust first in God, believing God’s mercy and grace will always be with us.”
        That trust is what makes us unique from other institutions.  That trust is what allows me to willingly participate in our stewardship program.  I trust God has plans for us we have not even imagined.  We may not see them with our physical eyes but my spiritual vision tells me God is in the process doing the miraculous here in Rockfish Valley.  How do I know this?  I have witnessed God’s hand in my life for as long as I can remember. I am still that young kid with $2.40 in his hand the first of the month.  By the end of the first Saturday, $2.00 was usually spent on useless stuff.  But I saved the forty cents, and spent it two nickels at a time, one Sunday at a time, because I believed God works miracles……I still do……I suspect I am not alone.    Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Begotten....for you and me

Hebrews 5:5; Mark 10:35-45

Second Service, after the hymn and before the offering, we stand and say the Apostle’s Creed. I suspect sometimes it rolls off your tongue without more than a thought. Some folks hesitate when we say, “He descended into hell”. But for the most part we have no problems. What if I were to ask you to turn to page 15 in your hymnal and recite the Nicene Creed? Many of you are familiar with it. Some of you come from traditions that recite it each Sunday. I have a friend who is Roman Catholic who tells me that Presbyterians have it easy. Memorizing the Nicene Creed is much tougher than the Apostle’s Creed. When we read the Nicene Creed, the one word that stands out is “begotten”. Listen as I refresh your memory. “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.” Why is this one word so critical in our understanding of the God-ness of Christ?

For the first 300 years, Christians struggled mightily just to remain alive. Their religion was considered a threat to the Roman Empire. We are all familiar with tales of persecution and death. In the year 312, control of the Roman Empire was won by Constantine at the battle of Milvian Bridge. Attributing his victory to his new found faith, Constantine’s motto was, “One God, one Lord, one faith, one church, one empire, one emperor.” With Constantine, the age of persecution ended and the age of theological dispute began. Now that Christians were free to travel and openly discover their faith, it was astounding the different questions that arose concerning what Christians actually believed. Constantine’s dream of “one faith and one church” was turning into a nightmare. The major question which divided Christianity was, “Who was Jesus Christ?”

It is hard to imagine that such a question could cause such bitter divisions. Arius, a priest from Alexandria asserted that Christ, through whom all things have their existence, was created by God. Christ was similar to God, but not of the same essence. Another priest, Athanasius, claimed Christ the Son, is of the same substance as the Father. To believe otherwise would be to worship two similar but different Gods. A council was convened at Nicaea in 325 to discuss the matter. The discussion was so hostile that many priest hired armed guards to protect them on their journey to and from the Council. The voices of Athanasius won the day and a creed reflecting the idea that Christ was begotten not made was written. For the next 60 years the two forces continued to argue until a second council met in 381 and adopted the creed now known as the Nicene Creed. Those not adhering to the document were declared heretics and forced to leave the Church. This was the first of a long line of disagreements throughout the history of our faith.

Perhaps I am mistaken but I think many folks still struggle with the question, “Who was Jesus Christ?” We proclaim Jesus as Lord, we claim Christ as our savior, but sometimes I think the road Jesus traveled and the road Christ has asked us to travel is a bit unnerving. The gospel text that we read this morning goes a long way in giving us an answer to this question.

Once again the writer of Mark makes his point by putting the disciples in a less than favorable light. James and John corner Jesus and ask a very presumptuous favor. “Jesus, when you come in all your glory, may we sit on your right and left hand.” Obviously the disciples understood the kingdom of Jesus to be an overthrow of earthly powers. James and John wanted to sit by the throne. They wanted to be the recognized as the architects of the new Kingdom. And obviously they wanted the rights and privileges that came with such fame. When the other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were outraged. Of course their anger was not at the improper behavior of their fellow disciples. They were irritated that they had not thought to take a similar course of action. Jesus answered the disciples with three insightful comments.

First, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Let’s admit it. We all know following Christ is difficult. The disciples had no idea what a full time job being a follower of Christ can be. When someone comes into my office and wants to talk about how complex their life has become, the first discussion we have is an evaluation of their priorities. We talk about job, family, faith and all the other things that complicate our busy lives. We see if there are things that can be dropped to relieve some of the pressure. It is a gut wrenching conversation and often what is discovered makes for difficult decisions. Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “Can you drop everything else and make God’s desires your priority?” That stops us in our tracks. Who among us is able or willing to make that kind of commitment?

Before the disciples could answer Jesus said a second thing to them. “Even if you are willing to make God’s work your priority, I can’t promise you a reserve seat.” Some of the disciples might have thought, “Well that makes sense, there are 12 of us and only two seats.” Other might have thought that the seats of honor were reserved for the likes of Moses or Elijah. Jesus ended the discussion by telling them the seats by the throne of God were not his to offer.

Then Jesus offered an insight into his true identity. “Whoever wishes to be first must be a slave to all. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Of all the statements concerning the meaning of the life and death of Jesus, this one has boldly spoken to Christians throughout the ages. It is this Jesus who came not to be served but to serve. It is this Jesus who has touched each one of us in our hour of need. It is this Jesus who has shown us the real power of God. It is this Jesus that we are asked to follow, and challenged to emulate.

There are two absolutely amazing things about God. When confronted with the problem of death and sin. God did not turn God’s back on our imperfection. When overwhelmed with the reality of human sickness and misery, God did not turn a deaf ear. When perplexed by the human propensity toward disobedience, God did not put us in some kind of cosmic time out. God choose to send a heavenly visitor to come among us.

But even more amazing is who God chose for the visit. Why not choose Gabriel or one of the better known angels? Why not send Elijah or Moses? Perhaps God figured the best had already been sent. Regardless, this time God sent no substitute. God begotten……for you and me. God begotten; to nurse our wounds. God begotten; to overcome our fears. God begotten; to heal our brokenness. God begotten; to sooth our anger. God begotten; to conquer sin. God begotten; to vanquish death.

Through the years John Calvin has kind of gotten a bad name. I think that comes from folks knowing too little about Calvin and therefore assuming the worst. Allow me to share three things that were of primary concern to the great reformer. First, GOD KNOWS US. Calvin believed that God not only knows us by name, each of us has a special place in the heart of God. Second, GOD SAVES US. God is at work in our lives to both reconcile and redeem us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, provisions for our salvation have been made before we were born. Finally, GOD EMPOWERS US. Salvation is the beginning, not the end. We have been chosen by God to live for God and for others. As God in Christ came to us, so we through Christ have been empowered to help others nurse their wounds, overcome their fears, heal their brokenness, sooth their anger, conquer their sins, and even survive death.

If he has lived this week, would have marked the 102 birthday UCLA coaching legend John Wooden. One of his players, Bill Walton said, “Everyone should have the experience of walking into Coach Wooden’s living room. There are no plaques or trophies remembering the glory days or the honors bestowed upon him, only a quote from Mother Theresa stating, “A life not lived for others is a life not lived.”

God begotten knows us.

God begotten saved us.

God begotten empowers us not to be served but to serve others. Who is Jesus Christ? He was and is God begotten, servant of us all. Who are we to be in light of this revelation? Servants of all to the glory of God. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

With God All Things are Possible

Mark 10:17-27

        Knowing that I was going to be in Haiti most of this week, I reached into my barrel of sermons and pulled out one on Mark 10:17-27 that I had preached a few years ago.  I read through it and felt confident it would be well received.  I even tweeked it on the first day or two of my trip.  Day three I threw it into a trash can.  Maybe sometime in the future I will bring it back out and share it with you.  It was a pretty good sermon but it does not really capture what I would like to share with you today.
        This morning’s text is a difficult one to read.  It has a statement or two which we would like to place in a dark corner and forget.  First Jesus said, “Give all your money to the poor and follow me.”  Then a few verses later he exclaimed, “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven.”  It has always been amazing to me that for thirty years folks in the Presbyterian Church have been fighting over differing views on sexual orientation based mainly on a few couple obscure passages in Leviticus and Romans yet when Jesus raises his voice on what is clearly an issue of our economic priorities, we scratch our head and figure Jesus was just talking to one guy and not us.
        Friday morning I pulled into the driveway at about 2:15.  Delays and a couple of mishaps along the way had made our trip from Haiti quite lengthy.   I was anxious for my life to return to a normalcy which included an 8:30 T-time with my regular Friday group.  As I approached the club house, I was informed my group had played the day before and every one was going to a meeting concerning the fate of my golf life as I now know it.   26 hours before I had been sharing breakfast with Haitian orphans.  Now I was listening to questions about 10% discounts on food and clothing items for members of the Wintergreen community.  It just doesn’t get much weirder than that. 
        We all know while Jesus said some things that that give us great comfort, the flip side is he kept coming up with those pithy sayings that sort of stick in our craw.   We can ignore those words, we can claim there is a real separation between our faith and our everyday world, we can even suggest that maybe Jesus was being metaphorical. But the problem is, if you are going to read the gospels, you are going to find out Jesus had some interesting things to say concerning wealth and priorities.  So I have two choices this morning.  I can get real preachy, a habit which tends to make me a bit sanctimonious. Or I can tell you about a person I met in Haiti and hopefully that story will cause you to give thanks that we attend a church which takes the sayings of Jesus seriously even when those texts ask us to risk having our eyes opened to the economic reality of our local and extended neighborhoods.   Those of you who wanted me to rant endlessly and ultimately make you feel guilty can take me out to lunch. We can even go to the Stoney Creek Grill.  I think my 10% discount is still good.
        Before last week I had not thought about Haiti a whole lot.  I tend to be more of a Central America kind of guy.  Haiti always seemed to be a place just waiting for the next disaster to happen.  My nephew, a Captain in the Army, was with the initial group of the 82nd Airborne that landed in Port-au-Prince following the earthquake.  After being there for an extended period his evaluation was that the whole area should just be bulldozed into the ocean.  Many folks agree with my nephew.  After all in a country of approximately 9 million, half of them live in Port-au-Prince.  Two years after the quake, 500,000 men, women and children still reside in tents.  Unemployment in Haiti ranges from 50 to 75 percent depending on who you ask.  Malaria and cholera are wide spread. Why should we pour time and money into a nation which seems doomed to economic and public health catastrophes? 
Those are good questions but before dismissing Haiti, I strongly suggest you read Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, on his understanding of Haiti or you might consider spending time in Haiti forming your own opinion. There are no easy answers. But I do have the story of one man who followed the advice of Jesus and has made a difference.
        Mark Hair, 49 years old, is from Ohio.  He is the son of a Presbyterian minister but did not see seminary in his future.  Mark went to Michigan State and graduated with a degree in agriculture and Public Health.  In the late 1980’s Mark spent a few years in Nicaragua and eventually was invited to be an agricultural missionary for the Presbyterian Church. Currently he works in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and in Haiti.  Mark and his wife Jenny have two small children.  They live in the Dominican Republic where Mark spends two weeks a month.
        When Mark picked us up at the airport in Port-au-Prince, he said, “I am taking you to the mountains.”  He did not lie.  What he forgot to tell us was he was taking us to places where few Haitians and fewer Americans had ever been.  We spent the week with small farmers who are trying to carve out a life for their families in a place in which they have to fight the weather, the soil, and government intervention.  Their plight is pretty much the same plight of any farmer in any part of the world.
        Mark follows the doctrines of two men.  The first and the most obvious is Jesus.  When Mark arrives in those villages he only carried two things; what was in his head and what was in his heart.  His heart was full of a love for a people that have been manipulated and marginalized for the past thirty years.  He continually promises them God has not left.  Instead God walks beside them offering new ideas on how they might create sustainable crops in a way that is not dependent on foreign and domestic intervention. He encourages the farmers that the education of their children is as important as the development of the crops.  He celebrates with them when it rains and he has taught them new means of irrigation when water is scarce.
        Mark has also brought them the gospel of Jean Baptiste Chavannes, a “community organizer” in the purist sense of the word.  Chavannes, a farmer and the son of a farmer, has been organizing farmers since 1976.  He has been teaching them how to fertilize without chemicals and how to grow crops with minimal soil.  Chavannes heads an organization of over 30,000 farmers who don’t own a tractor between them.  He preaches of education in which the  mind is not just something to be filled but rather the learner is a co-creator in the process.  Some of you will recognize that this is borrowed from  Paulo Freier who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Chavannes believes farming in Haiti is only successful when it disregards conventional wisdom and returns to the methods used when the ground was fertile and crops were grown to sustain the local population rather than being exported for international taste.  Chavannes and his organization are inviting the displaced in Port-au-Prince, to come to the mountains and become farmers.  With the help of organizations such as the Presbyterian Church and The Quaker Society, small communities are being built and sustained by local crops.  What this means is your mission dollars are currently going to support an effort to rebuild Haiti, one family at a time, by restoring an ancient skill and offering the education needed to give their children a chance of becoming self-supporting.
        The problems are many.  Will the Haitian government continue to allow Chavannes and his farmers to work independently?  Will the Haitian government resist the urge to bring in new multinational projects that have proved disastrous in the past? Chavannes started this work when he was 23 and is becoming an old man.  Who will succeed him?  Will Haiti be given a break by Mother Nature?  The earthquake had no real effect on the farmers but erosion, created by the eradication of trees over the past 30 years, has taken its toll.  Until those trees can be replaced, each storm is both a blessing and a curse. In addition there is the disease that comes from no sewage or adequate water systems. The problems are immense and yet God is at work.  I witnessed it every moment I was in the mountains.  Through the smile of children, the touch of calloused hands and the joy in their songs I witnessed a people who believe with God all things are possible. It has given them hope, a sense of purpose, and they intend to create a new heaven in a place most folks assume has gone to hell.
        Mark Hair is a big part of that hope.  Your mission dollars are a big part of that hope.  We who are rich have been given the resources, the opportunities, the pleasure of changing lives, even changing nations.  Imagine being part of something in Haiti that actually is working.  Some people would say our involvement would be foolish, even reckless.   But I have seen the mountains with my own eyes.  I have eaten their food.  I have been touched by their stories.  God is there.  Through the work of Mark Hair, we are there.  And one day, I fully believe what is going on in the mountains of Haiti will be exported to the minds and hearts of farmers in America, allowing a new and needed revolution to happen in our own agricultural system. Whoops, I’ve gone to preaching and I promised not to do that.
        Let me end by saying this.  Pray for the people of Haiti. Pray for all people who are poor. Then allow your riches to make those prayers achievable.  This week I have witnessed miracles in a place mere mortals thought nothing was possible.   We so easily forget.  With God, Nothing is Impossible.               Amen.