Tuesday, November 20, 2018

How To Invest Your Life

How to Invest Your Life         Nov. 17, 2018
Matthew 25: 14-30

            Today we’re continuing our sermon series called “In God We Trust: Biblical Perspectives on Money.” We’ll be considering how God invites each of us to invest our lives in His Kingdom. Would you read with me?

            There aren’t too many things that surprise me anymore, but there is something from this passage that I find fascinating. I find it absolutely fascinating that God trusts us. Shocking might be a better word. In the world of faith we usually talk about trusting in God, but this is quite the reversal. God places trust in us! I don’t know what’s going through your mind right now, but I can think of a million different reasons why this isn’t a good idea. I mean, has God taken a good look at us lately? We can’t figure out our politics, we can’t figure out our economics, we can’t even figure out our families most of the time. Even the global Church has been rocked recently by sexual abuse cover-ups. But yet, for some reason, God trusts us and places some of His most precious resources in our hands.   

            Matthew calls them talents, but we could easily insert a whole host of other words. Gifts, maybe? Or passions? We could even throw money in there, or children or churches or jobs…and the meaning of this parable wouldn’t change. Although it’s never spelled out, there’s an implication that we’re supposed to do something with these resources, whatever they might be, and we’re supposed to do that something until the owner comes back. And so as the parable goes, the owner walks away, fully trusting the servants to do what he expects them to do. And it’s up to the servants to make the next move.  

            The servants had been in this game long enough to know what was supposed to happen: They were supposed to carry out the owner’s wishes. They didn’t need him to spell it out for them. They knew what they were supposed to do. Now they just had to do it. The servants have worked for the owner long enough to know the organization’s mission and vision; they’ve spent enough time around the man to know that “status quo” isn’t going to fly; they know his tendencies and his goals and they know what’s expected of them. And they also knew that simply showing up wasn’t going to cut it.

In 1969, a significant shift happened in the Pittsburgh region. And it had to do with just “showing up.” After 30 plus years of losing, with only one playoff appearance, Steelers President Dan Rooney had seen enough of players just “showing up.” Rooney believed the hardworking people of Pittsburgh deserved better. They needed a team to inspire them after a long week in the steel mills; they needed a team that could bring hope to a region that was slowly losing its economic identity. And so he took a gamble and hired a young up and coming coach named Chuck Noll. And for 23 years, Chuck Noll shepherded Rooney’s Steelers into an organization that had one overarching goal: Bring home a championship. In his biography, Noll said there was a sentiment around the organization that respectability would’ve been a sufficient goal. But that was never the ultimate hope. That was never going to cut it. The goal was to win, not just put on the pads and show up. And little by little, Chuck Noll took what had been entrusted to him and built a dynasty.

It’s not a dynasty Jesus is after, but a Kingdom. That’s his goal, the very mission for which he died, the very mission he has trusted into our hands. Make Disciples. Preach Good News. Advance the Kingdom. During his time on earth, Jesus invested every day of his life to this mission. He was devoted to it. Sometimes it looked like a quiet conversation late at night, inviting a man named Nicodemus to be born “from above.” Sometimes it looked like 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish multiplied to feed the thousands. And sometimes it looked like a towel and a basin, kneeling down to do the dirty work nobody else wanted to do, reminding his followers that humility and love are the hallmarks of the Jesus way. And little by little, Jesus instilled this vision, this hope in his team. Make Disciples. Preach Good News. Advance the Kingdom.

There are a ton of different ways you can spend your life. You can chase after money, fame or success. You could settle for a pursuit of happiness or maybe try to live a life of ease. You can work hard now in order to sail off into the sunset later. And none of those are necessarily wrong or inherently bad. But when it comes to Jesus, those ways of living are a lot like settling for fielding a respectable team instead of winning championships. They leave a lot to be desired. Football season would be really boring around here if there were no championship expectations. I know a lot of people who tune out their favorite teams because they don’t win. That’s because our teams are expected to produce wins! And our lives are meant for far more than just existence. In the parable for today, the owner divides up his wealth (somewhere along the lines of $2 million in today’s figures) to three of his trusted servants. The moment he walked away, all three had to decide what to do with what they’d been given. The moment he left, all three had to answer the question, “What does the owner expect me to do with this?” And it really came down to two options: invest or maintain.

I was halfway through my seminary career when I enrolled in a missiology class- the study of missions. Our professor was top notch, a man who loved the Lord and lived his life strictly for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. And he was serious about his life’s work. I’ll never forget the first day of class when he boldly told us that if we didn’t lead a single person to Christ during our three years of seminary we were wasting our time, and God’s time as well. I was stunned. I loved feeding my mind with knowledge! I yearned for the next spiritual high! I couldn’t wait for the next class, the next conference, the next discussion group, the next concert. But in the end, he was right. All our learning was meant to produce something. It was meant to make disciples, preach the Good News and advance the Kingdom, and if we didn’t do any of that, even if we had all the right tools and training available, we would’ve missed the point. If we had kept all of our study, all of our knowledge and all of our personal spiritual growth to ourselves, we would’ve been much closer to the third servant who buried the owner’s resources so as not to lose. And not losing is not to be confused with winning.

God has given us a clear and compelling vision for our world. To make things on earth as they are in heaven. That’s a pretty bold vision, one Jesus felt deserved his best in life, even to the point of death. And I get it. When I see young children starving to death across our world, God’s vision of an eternal banquet table seems about right. When I see abuse that robs people of innocence and forces them into a lifetime of shame, God’s vision of shalom makes perfect sense. When I see division caused by hate and hurt across political and racial lines, the self-giving love that’s so prominent in the realm of God is, for me, a compelling hope. And here’s the beauty of God’s vision: we’ve been invited to make it our own. With talents and gifts and resources. We’ve been invited to make this vision come alive in our corner of the world, to invest in it by making God’s vision for the world the mantra of our lives. And just like those servants in the parable, the next move is ours. What will I do with this vision entrusted to me? What will I do with this hope God has placed in my hands?

I don’t have any fancy secrets or keys for investing your life in God’s purposes, except to say this: If you want to make disciples, preach the good news and advance the Kingdom, a good place to start is to love God and love neighbor. That’s what it means to invest your life in God’s purposes. I really do think it’s that simple. That stuff that God placed in the Bible? Yeah, he meant for us to do those things. And those two commands alone have the capacity to change the world and fashion our broken existence into something more like how it is in heaven. Now we just have to do it, invest in it, treat it like it’s the most precious thing in the world. Like any good investment, we have to commit to that way of love for the long haul and take some calculated risks from time to time. As Frederick Buechner once said, “The life you hoard, guard and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself; only a life given away for love’s sake is a life worth living.”

There will be a day, Matthew writes, when the owner will come home from his long journey. When that day comes is anyone’s best guess, but on that day, we’ll be asked to reveal what we’ve done with the resources entrusted to us. We’ll be asked to give a report on we stewarded a vision of new creation for our world. On that day, we’ll be asked to share the story of how we spent our lives. And although there could be a million responses, the best answer we could possibly give is this: I gave it all away in love.

Monday, November 12, 2018

In God We Trust: Our Best And All

Our Best and All
John 6: 1-13

We’re headed into week 2 of our stewardship sermon series called In God We Trust, and today we’re going to talk about giving our best and all. There’s a great story from the Bible that illustrates how one little boy helps us understand what it means to give God our very best. And my hope is that this little boy’s story will inspire us to take our next right step of faith. Would you read with me?

I’ve never met anyone in the church who didn’t think helping out here and there was a good idea. Outside the church is another story. But we’re not talking about conversations that go on outside the church; we’re talking about people who have chosen to follow Jesus and are now his disciples. And to my knowledge, I’ve never met a disciple who didn’t contribute financially to the work of God and his kingdom. How much one should give, however, has always been up for debate. If you want to put the brakes on a really good conversation, start talking about how much one should give. I can pretty much guarantee that will be the most uncomfortable conversation you’ll ever have.

There was a young man who once had just that type of uncomfortable conversation and left feeling very disappointed. He was really interested in Jesus, really intrigued by what he was learning, and was just about ready to make the jump into a full faith commitment. He was a young man full of promise and full of resources…the type of person you’d want to come to your church. If he had been asked to come to Bible study, to volunteer at the next event or to simply follow the rules, maybe the conversation would’ve gone differently. But then he heard these words that made him turn around and go home: “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, then come and follow me.”

The challenge with giving our best and all is just that: it includes the words best and all. And those are words we usually reserve for things like our career (I’ll give you my best), our family (I’ll love you with all my heart) and our favorite football teams (They better give 100% or I’m never watching them again).  But when we choose to follow Jesus, we’re invited to make God one of the recipients of our best and all. And here’s the thing: it’s expected. God expects our best and all, and God expects nothing less than our best and all, because we’ve been created to reflect his character in the world. This is one of the reasons God was so upset with His people in our reading from Malachi. They weren’t giving their best. They offered to God out of obligation, and what they offered was a second-rate offering. But that’s not the type of God we serve. We don’t serve a second-rate God who sends us his leftovers. We don’t serve a God who keeps the best and gives us the rest. We serve a God who gives out of his first pocket because he’s driven by love. True generosity is ALWAYS driven by love.

 Out of a deep love and commitment to us, God chose to give his best (His Son) and his all (His one and only Son) so that the riches of the Kingdom could be ours. And as people created in God’s image, we have been set apart to be his “icons,” to be portraits of God wherever the Spirit takes us. Which is why the story of the little boy is so important to our spiritual growth.

The first sermon I ever preached was on this story. I was a young youth pastor at a small church in my hometown, and a miracle story seemed to be a good selection for that day. We had a bit of a negative “disciple complex” in that small church. Do you know what that is? We talked a lot about faith, but we weren’t quite sure it all worked out the way the Bible portrays. And I mean that not as a criticism, but as a picture of our reality. We truly didn’t know what do with Scriptures like Psalm 24: 1, which says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Our hardworking congregation struggled with that. Now, there were a few precious saints who “held the fort,” but for the bulk of the congregation, we looked eerily similar to the disciples who saw a big crowd with a big problem and had absolutely no idea what to do about it. We needed a little boy with five loaves of bread and two small fish to show us the way. We needed to know what it meant to give our best and our all.

Giving your best and your all to God doesn’t mean you literally have to sell everything you have and give to the poor. In the case of the rich young man, he was so attached to his stuff that devoting his life to Jesus was not going to happen until he made some radical changes. But Jesus doesn’t command every person who wants to be a disciple to sell off everything he or she owns. Jesus does, however, invite each one of us into a new way of living and giving, where faith and not sight is our primary framework. So here are three ways one little boy teaches us to give our best and our all.

First, giving our best and our all means that we give in a manner that changes us. I don’t know what happens to this little boy over the remainder of his life, but if I had to guess, my guess is that this story impacted the way he lived. When you give generously, something comes alive inside of you. And it only happens through generosity. Let me give you an example. Think of a time you bought a gift for a loved one and the joy you experienced when they opened your gift. That joy is contagious! If we could find a way to bottle that joy, we’d be the wealthiest people on the planet. But here’s the secret: we’ve already discovered it. Generosity is the pathway to a joy-filled life. When we give, we’re changed. When we give, we become like the One from whom all blessings flows. But we have to give in order to change. Sometimes I’ll hear people say they’ll give generously once their lives change, but it usually doesn’t work that way. The truth is that if we wait for life to change, we could be waiting for a really long time. What if things never get better? Or the promotion never comes? Or we’re never presented the big opportunity? What if we don’t place our loves and fishes in Jesus’ hands when we have the chance? We might never become the people we want to become. If John Wesley were alive today, he would probably tell us to give until we’re generous people, and then give because we’re generous. (Tell Wesley’s story )

The second lesson we learn from the little boy is to give until it changes others. Early in the Book of Acts, these same disciples who we read about earlier have gathered for church and it’s interesting how their church is described. The Word says that each one shared for the common good and they sold possessions and property and gave to anyone who had need. You ever stop to think where they learned this? I have a theory. Obviously they learned it from Jesus, but I wonder if that little boy impressed something wonderful in them. I think they were changed the moment they saw one little boy push through the crowd and offer up his dinner. That single act of faith must have been a gut check moment, a “come to Jesus” moment for all those on the hillside that day. One little boy taught every person there that impossible challenges are no match for Jesus. One little boy gave all he had -which didn’t look like much- and 5,000 people ate that day. That’s the kind of generosity that changes people. That’s the kind of generosity that inspires hope in a broken world. To give your best and all, give until it changes others.

Finally, the last lesson we learn from the little boy is to give until the “wow” happens. In other words, our goal should be to give in a way that allows God to show off a little. (Tell CCR Baptism story) God isn’t impressed with how much the little boy gives; he’s impressed by something that compels the boy to place his offerings in the hands of Jesus. To be honest, I don’t know what that “something” was for the little boy, but whatever “it” was, it led to a miracle. Whatever “it” was, it became a means of grace so that 5,000 people could experience the love and power of Jesus Christ. That’s what really lies at the heart of giving, and that’s why this story is so important. It’s not just about an act of tremendous faith, which it is; and it’s not just a tremendous demonstration of God’s power, which it is. This story is about an act of giving that opens the door for God to move in a grace-filled way. It starts with a small gift and ends with a bang. But in between is a testimony of a little boy who helps others begin to see the presence of God in their midst. And when our giving is connected to our faith, when our giving is a witness to the hope we’ve placed in Jesus Christ, God’s grace will be multiplied in ways we cannot even begin to fathom.

You see, giving your best and all isn’t really about what you have. It’s about you. And it’s about the manner in which you trust God with your life. Because when you trust God with your life, the conversations about “how much” aren’t quite as significant anymore. With God, there will always be enough. With God, there will always be a way. Are you inspired by the faith of this little boy? I am. Because that’s how I want my life to shape out. I want the sermon of my life to tell the story of extravagant generosity formed out of grace-sized hope. And that can happen, and will happen, when I give the best of me and all of me to Him. And it can happen for you as well. Let’s give Jesus our best today. And let’s give Jesus our all. Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2018

For All God Has Given

In God We Trust: For All God Has Given
Psalm 116: 1-14, James 1: 16-18

There’s a story that plays out almost every week in our family (and I’m guessing it happens in your family, too), but it’s at least once a week in the Dinger household. Someone will leave a plate of leftovers in the fridge, or a half-finished bottle of root beer, or two lonely little chicken nuggets from the night before…and someone will catch me trying to finish them off. And as they slap my hand away, one of my girls will begin to sternly announce an all-too familiar refrain, “Daaaadddy! Those are MINE!” Most of those moments are funny and playful, but every so often they annoy me. I catch myself thinking, “These girls don’t know how much I’ve done for them. They’ve forgotten that I was the one to buy those chicken nuggets. And besides, I wasn’t asking for the whole box, just for one! And that’s about the time when a conviction stirs in my spirit and I hear a still small voice whisper:  Sometimes you act the same way toward God, Brett, especially when it comes to money. Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “In God We Trust: Biblical Perspectives on Money.” Throughout the month of November, we’ll be considering how a healthy view of money is essential to a healthy life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Would you read with me?

In the 14th Century author Geoffrey Chaucer’s wrote a story called The Pardoner’s Tale. It’s a story of three young rebellious men set out on a mission to become the master of death. On their quest to defeat death, they run into an old man who tells them exactly where to find the enemy they’ve been looking for: at the root of a certain tree. So they go looking for the tree, and upon arriving at the tree, they’re surprised to find something else: gold. And lots of it. All of the sudden, conquering death wasn’t nearly as important to the three men. Soon they forget about their plan to find death and begin to scheme how they live their dream with their newfound fortune. But the only problem was how to get the gold home. They decided to wait until nightfall, so as not to look suspicious. But something funny happened as the night wore on. The men couldn’t resist the pull of those riches. And one by one, they were overtaken by greed, fighting each other to the very death, the same death they had set out to defeat.

Money has a certain pull over us, doesn’t it? Maybe influence is a better word. It can make us work more hours than we should. It can rip apart our families. And it can cause us to lose sleep. In a recent poll reported by Moneyish, 65% of Americans reported they often lose sleep because of financial stress.[1] I’m guessing that’s why there was so much buzz last week about the Mega Millions drawing. Many of us, including me, thought about the endless opportunities afforded by millions, and sometimes, billions of dollars. I thought about paying off the remainder of our student loan debt, buying a piece of hunting property and helping some friends find a home. But sometimes the love of money, and the dreams that go with it, can be too much. I stumbled across an article last week on CNN titled, “Pray That You Don’t Win the Billion Dollar Lottery,” and the title caught my attention.[2] Why wouldn’t you want to win a billion dollars, I thought? Because, the article explained, having more can sometimes lead to unintended problems. The article went on to share story after story about life-threatening and sometimes life-ending situations, mostly born out of hearts that got all tangled up in the lust of money. And as I read that article, I found myself thinking that Jesus has something to say about all this. Mostly, he has something to say about our hearts.

“For where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also.” That little line from the Gospel of Matthew always cuts right through me. It convicts me to my core every time I start to worry about my todays and tomorrows; but it also helps me remember that Jesus cares deeply about me, so deeply that he’ll gracefully warn me to pay attention to my heart. The heart is the “wellspring of life,” as Proverbs calls it, the secret chamber where our inner life is formed. But it’s also the realm where we learn about our potential for harm and evil. In the heart we choose to love or hurt, to bless or curse and to seek holiness or to seek selfishness. And Jesus surprises us by making the case that what happens inside our hearts is often directly influenced by an outward treasure. And that’s why teachings on money are never just about money; they’re also about the heart.

Although he says some challenging words at times, Jesus understands the complex games we often play when it comes to our needs. As one who walked in our shoes, Jesus understands the worries and anxieties that keep us up at night. In the Gospels, he acknowledges that we need clothes to wear and food to eat, but he tells us to not worry, because the Father knows that we need them. But Jesus doesn’t just say things because they sound good; he says things because he really believes it and he’s lived through his own experiences. Now, Jesus didn’t have to worry about things like car payments, job security or student debt, but the possibilities of wealth were never far from him. You might remember the story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil with riches and power one can only dream of! And all he had to do was say “yes.” With a simple yes, Jesus could’ve “quick-fixed” his way through the struggle of the next three years and avoided the cross. With a simple yes, Jesus could’ve guaranteed a stress-free, worry-free life. But instead, Jesus chose to trust the Father’s good plan. Instead of letting his circumstances direct his response, Jesus chose to believe that the Father would not let him down. What Jesus believed about God mattered.

Friends, what you believe about God matters a great deal. And I’m not talking about going to heaven some day. I’m talking about the way you live your life. You see, your beliefs will largely shape your responses to the ups and downs of daily life, including the worries that keep you up at night. Our beliefs drive our behavior. They lie behind every decision we make, every dollar we spend, every choice we ponder. What you believe is important. But what’s even more significant is this: God cares about what you believe about God! He has a reputation to hold up, a reputation of being good and faithful, loving and trustworthy. And that reputation is at stake when tragedies like mass shootings take place at synagogues, when the stock market crumbles, when loved ones die, and even when your tempted with quick fixes.  That’s why God cares so much about what you believe. He loves to prove time and again that He is everything we proclaim him to be.

I saw this firsthand this year while we celebrated our first ever Global Impact Celebration, which a wonderful event that got us all fired up for missions. During the event, we were invited to make a financial pledge, called a Faith Promise, toward missions. For many of us, including me, the whole notion of a faith promise was a fairly new one. The idea of making a pledge based on faith, and not on what we could reasonably justify, runs counter to the way we generally operate. For Joanna, and me that conversation was a bit unnerving. Instead of asking “What can we afford to give without sacrificing what we need,” we had to start with a different sort of question- “What is God asking of us and do we trust God enough to provide?” With a leap and a prayer, we nervously turned in our pledge, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable. Today we stand only $45 short of our original goal, and very little of our lives has changed since making that pledge. As a Parish, we are well on our way to our $30,000 commitment, and it’s all because we’ve given God space to be who God says He is.

James tells us where these remarkable blessings come from. They come “from above,” from a God who is unchanging and eternal and good. Every good and perfect gift, says James, comes down from the One who has given us gifts like birth and truth, from one who loves us more than we could ever imagine. And this truth makes all the difference in the world. It made all the difference for a sneaky tax collector named Zaccheus. He was a man who stole from vulnerable citizens by charging more than what they owed, but as soon as he trusted the words of Jesus, as soon as his beliefs were shaped “from above,” his life become a generous one. It made all the difference for Abraham, who left the comforts of home and family to follow a promise “from above” that he would be the “father of many nations.” And it made all the difference to Mary, who answered “Yes” to God’s good and perfect gift of a baby “from above,” even though it signaled a dramatic new direction for her life. These decisions --to cheat or bless, to give or take, to stay or go, to trust or refuse—were all made in response to a faith-defining question, “Do I believe God is faithful- and do I believe he’ll be faithful to me?”

Friends, that’s the invitation I offer you today. It’s not about manipulating you to give more money or to spend less, but rather, to approach your life, including the way your treasures (whatever the might be), “from above.” I don’t know the last time you took a “from above” approach to your finances…maybe it’s been awhile, or maybe it’s a completely new concept for you. But trusting God to be God, and trusting God to be faithful is at the root of what it means to be a disciple. What we believe matters, because what we believe will influence what we do. And in a world where it seems like every week we deal with a new tragedy, a new threat and a new problem, I can’t think of a stronger need than for people of faith to declare with every decision we make what is silently etched into every dollar and every coin in our country: “In God we trust.” Today I invite you to put your trust in God. Remember who God is. Remember what God has given. May God be the treasure your heart desires above all else. Amen.

[1] https://nypost.com/2017/04/20/this-is-whats-keeping-americans-up-at-night/
[2] https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/22/opinions/is-lottery-win-worth-it-maltby/index.html