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06.04.17 Only Together Can We Grow Ephesians 4:1-16 Sermon Summary

Ephesians is my favorite book on ecclesiology, which means how to be the church. I could pick a number of single verses from this letter to build an ecclesiology, but on this Pentecost I want to focus on this one: “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

When the author speaks of the “unity of the Spirit” he’s not referring to an esprit de corps, but rather is indicating something that only God can do. In fact, in Ephesians, God has already done it. God has made us one in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

But when the author refers to the “bond of peace,” that is something that we maintain. Whereas God effects the unity of the Spirit, we maintain the bond of peace. In the words of the Belhar Confession of 1986: “We believe unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought.”

Unity is accomplished by the Spirit of God, but it is still our choice. What a great mystery. How do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”? According to Ephesians, it is through the diversity of gifts we receive from Christ through the Spirit.

This diversity includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, according to the list in Ephesians. But it also includes people especially gifted for encouragement, administration, hospitality and generosity. And many more.

Ephesians says all these gifts come from one source—the Spirit, and move toward one end—maturity in Christ. And the common aspect of this movement—from one Spirit, through many gifts, to one Christ—is love. The Body of Christ, the church, “builds itself up in love.”

This should not surprise us. In John 13 Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and says, “As I have done to you, so you should do to one another. As I have loved you, so you ought to love one another. The world will know you are my disciples by your love.”

This is actually the purpose of the gifts, and one role of the Spirit. These gifts of the Spirit are our abilities, but they are also our opportunities. And when we take our abilities and offer them in various opportunities out of love, we recognize the unity of Spirit. And it establishes peace. It also makes Christ present to us and to each other.

As individuals and as the church, we only grow as each of us uses our gifts of abilities and opportunities to serve in love. And so this passage asks each of us two questions. The first is, How has the Spirit gifted us—what abilities do we have, and what opportunities can we engage? The second is, How can we love one another and the world better?

As we answer these two questions, we will grow as individuals, and we will grow as the church, for by the Spirit’s power, and only together, can we grow as the Body of Christ.

05.28.17 Faithful Remembrance Hebrews 11:1-10, 13-16 Sermon Outline

On Memorial Day it is appropriate to remember everyone who has sacrificed in faith for the good of others.

I’ve heard it said that Hebrews 11 is “The Hall of Fame of Faith.” In a cascade, it moves from Abel through Noah and Abraham and Sarah to countless unnamed saints. All these endured this life’s hardships and still await the fulfillment of God’s promises. Why are they still waiting? Hebrews says it’s because “they are not, apart from us, made perfect.”

In other words, their faith awaits our faith. It is now our time to be faithful, and they inspire and encourage us, the next chapter says, as a “great cloud of witnesses.” On Memorial Day, when we remember the faithfulness of others to our country, it is appropriate to remember also these faithful.

We remember Abel who was murdered by his brother Cain. His blood cried out to God from the ground, and Hebrews says he “still speaks to us through his faith.” His faith was that he offered himself to God and accepted God’s approval. May we also accept God’s approval.

We remember Enoch whose faith “pleased God” not just because he believed in the existence of God, but that God would reward him if he sought him. Later Jeremiah would promise that if we “seek God with our hearts, we will find him.” (Jeremiah 29:13) Jesus also promised his disciples that when we seek, we shall find. (Matthew 7:7) May we seek God with all our hearts.

Last Thursday morning I was working on renewing my passport. As I held it in my hand I thought about the security, safety, assurance, and pride of being a U.S. citizen. I thought about my homeland compared to other countries I’ve visited. These reflections of my “homeland” dissipated instantaneously when my phone rang and interrupted me, informing me that my wife had been in a car accident.

In that moment I had a glimpse of our true homeland which Hebrews reminds us is not of this world. Our true homeland is resting in God with all the saints, enduring faithfully through this life and through this world until we do.

It helps to remember Abraham and Sarah whose faith started with a promise and journeyed through the unknown. And even after they had arrived at what was promised them, their faith compelled them to continue seeking.

Our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt bear testimony to this. Like Abel’s blood, this morning their faith speaks to us. They had just set out for prayer at a monastery last Friday when they were martyred and joined the list of Hebrews 11. But the reality of Egypt’s Coptic Christians is the truth of all Christians, only pushed to the extreme.

We have not arrived. Like Abraham and Sarah we are strangers and foreigners on the earth. Our homeland is beyond borders of this country. God has prepared a city for us.

So let us remember and give thanks for the faithful of Hebrews 11 and the faithful who have served the United States with their lives. And let us honor the sacrifices all these have made by keeping our sights on the heavenly home that God has prepared for all nations. And let us honor them by enduring faithfully the hardships of this life until we rest with all God’s people.

05.21.17 Giving God our Hearts Through Money 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 with Luke 21:1-4 Sermon Summary

We’ve had some problems with water at the church recently. It’s a reminder of what God calls us to be and do.

Summary Points

  • The metaphor of the water
  • A review of percentage living through prayer, worship and Sabbath, and service
  • How percentage giving moves our hearts closer to God
  • The Circles of Faithful Influence and the consecration of our lives
  • Jesus, the Widow, and percentage living
  • Excelling in the ministry of the saints and to the saints

Through some clogged up downspouts and inwardly slopped walkways, the recent rain and snow storms caused water to seep into the church. It’s supposed to flow away towards the neighborhood. If we don’t fix this, the inward seeping water will cause our building to deteriorate and require extra maintenance. This will naturally limit our ability to do ministry.

The same can be said of our streams of financial revenue. They’re not supposed to remain in the church. They’re supposed to flow through our congregation and overflow into our surroundings. Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians offers guidance on how we do that.

The past four weeks we’ve been talking about “percentage living” based on Paul’s testimony that the Macedonian church, “Gave themselves first to God, and, by the will of God, to us.” We started by facilitating giving God a percentage of our day in prayer.

Then we talked about giving a percentage of the week through worship and Sabbath. We noted that work and sleep constitute about 30% of our week each, and that Sabbath and worship together equal about 15%.

Next we talked about giving a percentage of our lives in service to others. Through Faith Church, that service looks like hosting homeless families, leading worship through music, serving as elders and deacons, providing meals for homeless youth, and leading other congregational ministries.

More routine service includes attending the nursery, assisting in worship, and being a greeter or usher. If just a handful of those of us who are not already serving signed up for one or two Sundays a year, they would discover their faith life deepening, it would build relationships and diversify our leadership, and we could redirect our energies from recruiting for these services to a new ministry. Just a thought.

Finally this week, we’re talking about how we give God all of our heart through a percentage of our money. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches that we ought not put our treasures in places subject to loss and deterioration, but rather to invest them in heaven where such things do not occur. “For wherever your treasure is,” he says, “there will your heart be also.”

Percentage giving is like percentage living. It starts by prayerfully deciding in advance what to give, and deciding where to give. A faithful investment (“in heaven”) promotes the Kingdom of God and its values in the world. To help think through the distribution and reach of your charitable giving, consider the Circles of Faithful Influence brochure.

Then, as in percentage living, when we practice percentage giving, we look for and discover God’s delight throughout the rest of our lives.

“Isn’t percentage living and giving a copout? Isn’t it an unholy compromise?” some will ask. In fact it’s just the opposite.

No one, except (maybe) an anchoritic monk, can give 100% to God. We have to acknowledge that reality. So what we do is give a percentage. All of us who give are already giving percentages whether we have intended to or not. Percentage living and giving simply brings the practice to conscious deliberation. We start with a manageable percentage, and God works with that and eventually increases it through the influence of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Paul says of the Macedonians first that, “they gave according to their means”: That’s the manageable percent. Then he adds, “and even beyond their means”: That’s the Spirit-directed increase.

Percentage living and giving is not an unholy compromise, but a holy sanctification. It takes the guilt out of not living and giving to God, or feeling like we’re not living and giving enough, and instead provides a step by step consecration of our lives.

I suspect Jesus himself practiced percentage living. The accounts of his life come from the Gospels which were written to inspire faithfulness. They include only the highlights of Jesus’ life of faith as examples to us. They cover only the last one to three years of his life, with the exception of the birth narratives and his Passover celebration at age twelve.

What was he doing the rest of his life? Even if we want to believe that Jesus gave 100% to God the last years of his life, he probably worked up to that by percentage living. I wonder if the widow’s offering was his final inspiration. Approaching his last Passover celebration, Jesus watches her give her two copper coins, “all she has,” and finds in it an example of what he must do. After a life of practicing percentage living, he was prepared to follow the widow’s example and offer 100% to God.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to participate in the “generous undertaking” of providing for the impoverished Jerusalem church. He invites them to participate in ministry of the saints—percentage living in service to others as the Macedonians have done; and in ministry to the saints—percentage giving in the offering for Jerusalem.

Paul was bold to ask because the Corinthians already excelled “in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness, and love.” He will boast of these excellences to the Macedonians in next chapter. As the Macedonians excel in giving, Paul urges the Corinthians to excel here also.

Likewise, Faith Church excels in many areas. Examples of these are included in our narrative budget. My prayer is that we may excel in giving also—to expand the reach of our narrative budget and your Circles of Faithful Influence. I hope we will increase our participation in the ministry of the saints, and in the ministry to the saints, through percentage living and giving.

Please return your percentage living card and percentage giving card to the church by Pentecost Sunday, June 4, or any time the Spirit moves you.

Faithfulness through Percentage Living

“Percentage living” refers to dedicating a portion of something to God, such that the whole thing is made holy. Remember the mini-parable Jesus told about the woman who leavens a whole batch of dough with just a little yeast? That’s the concept of percentage living.

Two things make percentage living a faithful spiritual practice. The first is that we are responsible for determining the actual percentage. What percentage of your life—each day, each week, each year—will you dedicate to God?

The second is that whatever percentage we dedicate to God, that offering occurs before anything else. Giving ourselves to God first ensures that nothing else will interfere with our intention to live in the presence of God.

When we determine in advance what we will dedicate to God, and offer ourselves to God before anything else, our whole lives are “leavened” and become sacred.

Think about how the concept of percentage living applies to your day, your week, your energies, and your finances. So for example, spending a percentage of your day in prayer sanctifies the whole day. Dedicating one day a week to rest and thanksgiving (as the 4th Commandment directs us) sanctifies the whole week.

You can apply the idea of percentage living to any aspect of your life and enjoy the benefits it provides. Percentage living is

  • God’s way of allowing us to participate in the spiritual life
  • Gives us something to actually do
  • Makes our spiritual life more manageable
  • Relieves some of the guilt so many of us feel that we’re “not doing enough” for God

To begin applying percentage living to your life, simply reflect on your life’s resources—time, skills, opportunities, responsibilities, interests, etc.—and prayerfully dedicate a percentage of those resources to God. Figure out what that looks like, and schedule a time when you’ll offer that percentage to God. For example, I have an interest in music. I am dedicating a performance of music to God by playing something in worship this summer. Now all my music playing is sanctified by this gift.

05.14.17 Giving God our Lives through Service Luke 10:25-37 Sermon Summary

What if Jesus isn’t the Good Samaritan in the parable known by that name?

Summary Points

  • The power of Jesus’ parables
  • The surprising place of Jesus in the Good Samaritan parable
  • How service saves our faith and gives us life
  • The “spiritual gifts” and the Samaritan way
  • Helpful guidance in discernment and decision to serve

Jesus loved to teach in parables, sometimes using words, sometimes using actions. One of his most famous active parables was when he washed the disciples’ feet. After doing so, he said, “As I have done to you, so you should do to one another.”

Sometimes we recognize Jesus in his parables, like in the depiction of the woman who turns her house upside down to find one lost coin out of ten. Jesus is that woman, turning the world upside down to find those who are lost.

How about in the parable of Good Samaritan? Perhaps Jesus is the Samaritan, the socially outcast individual who saves victims of the violence of sin. See here for a sermon from that perspective. Or perhaps he is one of the other characters in the parable.

What if we saw Jesus as the man traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he would bring sight to the blind, and call Zacchaeus the Tax Collector to follow him? What if Jesus was the one who walked through that stretch of road between Jerusalem to Jericho called the “valley of the shadow of death?”

What if Jesus is the man who fell into the hands of robbers, who was stripped of his clothing, beaten, and left for dead? What if it is Jesus laying on the side of the road, unrecognized by the Priest and Levite, ignored and avoided by the religious leaders, waiting for someone to love not only God but to love their neighbor as well?

It isn’t too difficult to imagine Jesus this way given another of his parables—the one about the sheep and the goats. There Jesus depicts a final judgement scene where those who are invited to enter God’s Kingdom are the ones who have been living it all along—by caring for those in need. Jesus says to both the sheep and goats that, “Whatever you did for the least of these members of my family, you did it for me.”

Now we can see how the needy person on the side of the road is actually Jesus. And Jesus’ words to the Lawyer are his words to us. “Do you know your Bible?” Jesus asks him. And of course the Lawyer does. But then, “Do you live your Bible?”

And now Micah’s words to the Southern Kingdom are words addressed to us: Does your religion pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

It isn’t enough to know the Bible and participate in religious observance. If we only know the faith, but don’t live the faith, our faith will die. It dies because it is only an intellectual experience, not a heart, soul, and body experience also. It turns out, that loving our neighbor in service saves our faith. It is the key to the “abundant life” Jesus promised. It is the path to the “eternal life” the Lawyer wanted.

But you may ask, “How do I know where to serve?” Or in the words of the Lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” Some people look at the lists of “spiritual gifts” and try to discern where they should serve. They prayerfully weigh each one and consult close friends and family for insight. This discernment can be helpful but it has some problems.

One problem is that people figure if they don’t have the “gift of mercy” or of “generosity,” they’re not called to be merciful or generous. But another problem is that all this spiritual discerning can get in the way of actual doing. I imagine the Priest and the Levite, being professional religious folk (like I am), were well practiced in discernment.

The more immediate way to determine where we can serve is to seize an opportunity that is right in front of us. This is the Samaritan’s way. In truth, when we take time to both discern and respond to immediate service opportunities, the way of love and life will open up to us.

This week and next I invite you to both a time of discernment and a time of decision. To help you in this process, I suggest to you to the following aids:

This discernment and decision is important not only because service is the path to abundant and eternal life, but also because the church and the world need us to serve. God has called us to walk with the Samaritan from Jerusalem—the place where we worship—to Jericho—the place where we serve. For the Jesus who is on the side of the road is waiting for us to stop and help.

05.07.17 Giving God our Selves Through Worship Hebrews 10:19-25 Sermon Outline

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The Kentucky Derby put 9:2 odds on the winner. God guarantees 7:1 odds on Sabbath and worship.

Summary Points

  • Nature and worship
  • The “two days” of Christ: Priestly mediation and rest
  • Two reminders until we rest: Sabbath and worship
  • How God makes the most of our Sabbath and worship
  • Applying the perspective during Communion

Wisdom Spirituality looks to nature for evidence of God’s presence and guidance in our lives. “Consider the birds of the air,” Jesus preached. Psalm 84 says, “even the sparrow finds a home.” Wisdom Spirituality is valuable because it is the nature of creation to worship its Creator, and that includes us: It is our nature to worship.

For this reason Psalm 84 says, “Happy are those who live in God’s house,” and “It is better to be a doorkeeper at God’s house than a homeowner among sinners.” Thanks to Jesus, we have an opportunity to be more than a doorkeeper. Jesus invites us not just to pray outside the sanctuary, but to enter in, to rest a while, and to worship God up close.

The book of Hebrews is really more of a sermon. It’s about how Jesus is the new, great, and final high priest over God’s household, and thus it essentially about worship. It contrasts two eras, which it calls “days”: The day of Christ’s priestly ministry, and the day of Christ’s rest.

The day of Christ’s priestly ministry began in his lifetime, was marked by his death, but continues among us as “the priesthood of all believers.” The day of Christ’s rest, when his priestly ministry ceases, has yet to arrive.

To symbolize all this, Hebrews refers to the curtain in the Temple which separated the high priest from the worshippers. This curtain was ripped in half at Christ’s death, allowing us to enter into the sanctuary and creating the priesthood of all believers.

Such exceptional opportunities humble us, so Hebrews urges us to, “approach the sanctuary with a true heart,” not one falsified by ego-posturing. Hebrews urges us to a “full assurance of faith” in Christ’s work, washing us clean, because “he who has promised is faithful.”

Our eligibility, or qualifications, or the necessity of our earning or deserving access to God doesn’t depend on us. We have only to enter. “The cover” collected at the door has been paid. We just present the invitation by Christ and the door opens.

This is the perspective we are to have when we gather for worship week after week. It’s helpful to meet regularly to encourage one another, Hebrews says, because we can become discouraged or neglectful.

But we also need to continue in worship together because a day is approaching when the ministry of Christ will cease, when we will no longer need his prayers and the world will no longer need his priesthood or ours. There will come a day, Hebrews says, when God’s covenant will be written on our hearts and minds, and we will no longer need a mediator because we will be one with God.

Until that day, God has given us two reminders: The Sabbath and worship. It is appropriate to combine Sabbath and worship, but it’s important not to confuse them. But they may also be separated, as is necessary for those of us for whom worship is also our profession.

What does it look like to rest on the Sabbath and to give thanks in worship each week? A week has 168 hours. If you have a 50 hour work week that is 30% of your week. If you enjoy 8 hours of sleep each day that is 33% of your week. If you spend 2 hours watching a screen every day it is 8% of your week.

One Sabbath day is 14% of our week. And spending 2 hours in worship is another 1%. How does God make the most of that 14-15 percent?

Psalm 84 helps us to know. They were on a pilgrimage to Zion to worship God, and they were 100% into their worship. The song leader says things like, “How lovely is your dwelling place,” and “My soul longs and even faints for your presence.” When the author says “A day in God’s presence is better than 1000 elsewhere,” he’s saying that God’s presence is 99.9% better than anywhere else you’d like to be.

Psalm 84 exemplifies that we can make a decision to be 100% in regarding worship and regarding Sabbath. It’s a choice; it’s an attitude. And when we give 100% of ourselves to God in Sabbath and worship, God uses that 14-15% to sanctify the rest of our week. That’s a 7:1 return, and it’s guaranteed because the one who promised is faithful.

This is what Jesus made possible to those who respond to the invitation. Give God 100% of yourself for 14-15% of your week in Sabbath and worship, and discover God’s presence and activity through 100% of your week. This is how the exuberance for God in Psalm 84 is available to us. This is why it says, “Happy are those who live in God’s house.”

Think about this the next time you receive Holy Communion. Hebrews says the access to God’s sanctuary is through, “the new and living way opened to us by Christ.” It is new and living because the old way of animal sacrifice is over. It is now a living sacrifice because it is the resurrected Christ who invites us. It is now a living sacrifice because it is we offering ourselves as Christ did—by loving God and loving our neighbors.

When we come to the Table, Christ invites us to remember and to be fed, to receive his priestly ministry and to join his priestly ministry. Christ invites us to receive him 100% in this act of worship, even as we offer ourselves 100%. And by God’s blessing, the divine presence we receive in this hour will accompany us through the rest of the week.

 

04.30.17 Giving God our Day through Prayer 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 Sermon Summary

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We can all be grateful to the Reformation for the discovery that one doesn’t have to be a monk to live each day in God’s presence.

Summary Points

  • A formula of joy from Psalm 1 and the churches of Macedonia
  • The concept of “percentage giving”
  • The SOAP method of praying with the Bible
  • Three more forms of prayers for the day

This is the first of four messages around the theme: Giving of Ourselves, Growing our Faith. Our faith grows as we give of ourselves, in accordance with one of Jesus’ fundamental teachings that the way we find our lives is by losing them first.

Jesus depicted this truth in the mini-parable about the seed which must die before it can bear fruit. (John 12:24) Paul picks up this image and expands it to the resurrection, reminding us that the tree which results looks nothing like the seed which produced it. As counter-intuitive and counter-cultural as it is, the spiritual truth of Easter is that as we give of ourselves, our faith grows.

The churches of Macedonia understood this, and Paul lifts up their example to the rest of the churches. He writes that while they were enduring a “severe ordeal of affliction,” they nevertheless showed “overflowing generosity” with “abundant joy”—and this despite the fact that they were “extremely poor.”

What was the reason for their joyful generosity? Paul’s explanation is that they “gave themselves first to the Lord.” He is describing in practice what Psalm 1 calls us to. Psalm 1 gives us the metaphor of a tree which extends its roots to nearby water and is able to bear much fruit. The water is God’s Word and we are that tree. The Psalm promises that as we meditate on God’s Word, we will avoid a spiritual drought and instead enjoy more abundant life.

There is something of a formula for joy in Paul’s explanation of the Macedonians’ example and the metaphor of the tree in Psalm 1. It is that when we experience a trial, we can surrender ourselves to God’s Word, show generosity to others, and experience joy despite the trial. Trial + surrender + generosity = joy.

After giving themselves first to the Lord, Paul says the Macedonians gave themselves to him. He’s referring to the relief effort for the Jerusalem churches to which the Macedonians contributed. Paul says they gave “according to their means.” Here is another key to the Macedonians’ spiritual vitality called “percentage giving.”

Throughout the Bible we are taught that God deserves all of our lives. This comes through clearly especially after someone has been delivered from a terrible fate. But how do we do this practically, when there are so many other demands upon us? Is faithful living possible only in monastic communities? Were the Macedonians less faithful for only giving according to their means instead of giving everything?

The idea of percentage giving is faithful because of the intention and the timing. The Macedonians gave themselves first to God—that’s the intention part. Then they gave to Paul according to their means. This implies that they determined what they needed, and were generous with the rest. By contrast, many of us give of ourselves only after our needs and our wants are satisfied. This is the timing part.

Paul praises the Macedonians’ generosity because it arose from their “God-first” intention and from their “others-first” timing. They didn’t give 100%, but they gave according to their means. Still, that lower percentage gift made them holy nonetheless.

We can apply these lessons from Psalm 1 and the Macedonians to our own spiritual lives by offering to God a percentage of our day through prayer. When we give ourselves first to God in prayer, that offering of a small percentage of our day will carry us through whatever trials might come and allow us to be joyful and generous towards others.

One way of giving God our day through prayer is by praying the scriptures through the acronym SOAP. Start by reading a portion of scripture, only a paragraph or two. Listen for the verse or phrase that speaks to you particularly and write it down (S). Then record your observations (O) about it—why this particular verse; what is it saying to you personally? Then identify an action or application (A) that you can take in response to this. Finally, offer a prayer (P) in accordance with the scripture and your intention to respond.

Another way of giving God our day through prayer is by praying at various times of the day. The Christian tradition has developed several ways to organize our day around prayer. The three most common are morning and evening prayers, prayers before meals, and moments of silent meditation.

In morning and evening prayer, the typical pattern is one that flows from thanksgiving to intercession. In the morning we thank God for delivering us through the night, for our restoration, and for the opportunity to live with God another day. We thank God for the good things we can anticipate in the day ahead, and we ask God’s blessing upon our cares and concerns and those of the world.

In the evening we thank God for delivering us through the day and for the opportunity to rest in God’s care through the night. We thank God for the surprising ways he blessed us through the day, and we entrust into God’s care our concerns and those of the world.

Before meals, we thank God for his providence, including the animal and plant lives that were sacrificed for our nourishment. We thank God for those whose labors made the meal possible, including growers, harvesters, transporters, and preparers. We also pray for those who do not have enough food, and for just societies that would provide for them more adequately. And we can offer a prayer for those with whom we are sharing the meal.

Throughout the day we can pause for silent meditation. We may take a short walk, find a quiet place to sit, or simply stop what we’re doing for a moment. In these moments we take deep breaths, listen for sounds of life around us, enjoy peaceful quiet, or recite a passage, a poem, or a song in our heads.

In truth there are countless ways to offer God our day through prayer. The point is to follow the example of the Macedonians and Psalm 1: give ourselves first to God, and give according to our means. When we do this, the whole day is consecrated to God.