Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

The Otherwordly Life

Colossians 2:6-15

Words matter.

A little over four months ago, I stood on the dais of Luminary UMC and used words to join in marriage my oldest child, Pollie, to a young man named Derick. I said some words, they said some words, and their lives were irrevocably transformed, so much so that my daughter now uses the word “Morelock” for her last name instead of “Griffin.”

Pollie and Derick will grow and change, but they can never deny that on March 19, 2016, she began to call Derick “husband” and he began to call her “wife,” bound in a Christian relationship intended to last as long as they both shall live.

Words have great power. Two of the Ten Commandments deal directly with how we use words, one prohibiting the vain use of the Lord’s name and the other prohibiting deceitful words in our dealings with each other. And then there are the words of life, the words that save us from the power of sin, the words putting us in a relationship with Christ forever.

Those of you who are baptized Christians likely answered three questions as part of your faith walk. Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? In the Methodist baptism liturgy, the answers are in the form of the Apostles’ Creed, rooted in truths “contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”

Those answers open you to God’s grace, poured out through Jesus Christ on the cross. Modern medicine doesn’t give eternal life; there is no pill you can swallow and live forever. There is no fountain of youth in Florida—with so many of you vacationing there, I’m sure we would have found it by now. When it comes to living beyond the grave, the world has failed you. Only Christ can save you.

I speak to two groups today, those who call themselves Christian and those who would consider taking on the name. Understand the serious nature of declaring Jesus Christ is Lord. I offer you the same message Paul sent to the church in Colossae in our reading for today. When we call ourselves “Christian,” everything is supposed to change.

This careful, deliberate use of words brings on more than just a shift in worldview. We are to develop an otherworldly view. We escape the ideas of this world, the emphases of this world.

No doubt, it is difficult to make that separation. The Colossians were struggling with the influences of the world around them. They had legalists in their midst. They also had temptations very familiar to us today. Improper sexual desires and greed are specifically listed in Paul’s letter. The world beckoned to them just as it calls us.

Hey, I know how the world comes calling. With digital technology, it walks right into your house and plops down to stay like a friendly dog. I particularly love a story well-told in 30 minutes to an hour. And yet, when I pause to consider the ideas behind some of what I watch, I’m astonished at how out-of-tune the premises and storylines are with what I believe as a Christian. I am constantly challenged to be “in the world and not of it,” to paraphrase John 17:14-15.

But be encouraged. The same media that deliver what can challenge us also offer a continual stream of otherworldliness. We have God’s word available to us in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago. I can read God’s word in paper form, of course. I also can read it on my computer or my Kindle, parsing the words and studying centuries worth of analysis just by touching a screen.

I can have someone read me the recorded word or watch video depictions of important books of the Bible. What a gift digital audio and video represent for people who struggle to read or simply need a little extra stimulation to stay engaged. In medieval times, such people (often, most of the population) had to rely on a preacher and some stained glass. Now the stained glass moves and talks.

Scripture is so ubiquitous we can forget what it represents. We have thousands of years of  encounters with God laid out for us, each one revealing a truth about our creator and his love for us, his plan for us. If we didn’t know such writings existed and then suddenly, we found them, billions would clamor to know what truths they contained.

If you call yourself Christian but don’t know what is in those writings, you owe yourself a lot of otherworldly study time, the kind that will “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported the church financially in any way. Those of us who lead the church don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support the church’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s text, read without much context, sounds like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe¹ and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what drives me to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predates the law—probably the best example is in Genesis 14:17-20, where the future patriarch of God’s chosen people shares a tithe of his possessions with Melchizedek, the mysterious “priest of God Most High.”

Tithing also doesn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly enters the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had, Acts 2:43-47 tells us, having “all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in learning to give to support God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Frank Buck spoke earlier in worship of how the church budget is designed to reach out to the world with the message of Christ. And I hope you got the point—one way or another, all those wonderful accomplishments that occur through worship, nurture and outreach ministries require money. How much money you give sets the thermostat for how hot our ministries can be.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, the average household in this congregation gave about 4 percent of income to the church’s work in 2011. That’s an average covering every active household at Cassidy UMC, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.²

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if we would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our ministry budget would jump by 25 percent—that’s more than $80,000.

And obviously, if we ever were to become a tithing church, with an average near 10 percent, our budget would more than double.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is power in tithing, the kind of power that helps change the world. It’s not about obeying some law; it’s about participating in the work God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However we might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.

¹I should explain what tithing is; it is only in recent years that I’ve discovered a lot of Christians don’t fully understand the word. Tithing is giving 10 percent of your “harvest” toward God’s church. For most of us, our harvest now amounts to cash income from work or investments. Offerings are what we give beyond this basic commitment.

²This average is a little hard to calculate because I don’t know what each Cassidy UMC household earns, so I have to rely on reports of what the median household income for the 37664 zip code is. And that number varies depending on which agency does the reporting. But 4 percent is a reasonable estimate.

New Year’s Commitments

I’m not much into New Year’s resolutions. Even though the concept is rooted in the word “resolve,” it seems that resolutions are made to be broken.

If you don’t believe me, just ask some gym managers to tell you what months their treadmill and weight room usage peaks, and how quickly that usage declines. Resolutions are mostly about us saying, “I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.”

Christian living is about year-round commitment, the kind of wholehearted, “I’m in” attitude that raises our level of joy dramatically. Christian commitment drives Christian ministry, changing the world for the better. And because Christian commitment has a huge spiritual component, it also is sustained by the Holy Spirit, helping us avoid burnout.

All of us in church, myself included, need to take time occasionally to measure our commitment. The first of the year is as good a time as any.

As a starting point, here’s a basic question: How are we responding to the salvation freely given to us by Jesus Christ? Because all Christians are called to spread the good news, I would suggest that our commitment should in some way sustain the church’s primary mission: to offer Christ to those who don’t understand that salvation is available.

When you commit to pray, you are changing the world. Pray for the lost, pray for the hurting, pray for the church to be effective. I’ll admit that how prayer works is often a mystery. Pray anyway. We pray in faith, knowing we’re pushing creation toward full reunion with God.

When you commit to be present in the life of the church, you empower your local congregation to better do God’s work in the local community. You help your church worship well; you help your church serve the world. For example, at Cassidy UMC, you might find yourself feeding the hungry, something this congregation particularly likes to do. Or maybe you’ll help us grow our children and youth into the Christian adults the world so desperately needs. There are lots of opportunities to serve.

When you commit your gifts of money, you make ministry happen. Yes, the church needs your money; every institution in our culture needs money to operate, and in a church run by good stewards, the money is used in holy ways. I feel I’ve been at Cassidy long enough to affirm that buildings and staff are in place so that people may know Christ. Also, Cassidy’s budgets are designed so that others may know Christ through our ministries.

An unfunded church is like a car without gas—it’s going nowhere. Can you commit a percentage of your income in 2012? A church filled with tithers, people who commit 10 percent of their income toward ministry, can do great ministry quickly. Few American churches are full of tithers, nor even committed givers. Too few Christians are carrying the load for others.

When you commit to be a witness, you promise to know the story of Jesus Christ well enough to tell it. Therefore, you also are making a commitment to study. You then find people who need to hear the story, building friendships along the way so you earn the right to tell it.

When Jesus died for our sins, he didn’t do it halfheartedly. The cross took commitment. And in committing to the cross despite his anxiety, best revealed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus became all his Father intended him to be.

For us, too, commitment is not about rules. It is about becoming what God would have us be, in the process helping the world become what God says it will be.