gifts

Show and Tell

It’s the end of the Pentecost story that intrigues me. Any preacher would like to see 3,000 give their lives to Christ following a sermon.

What led to that astonishing response remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see a model for evangelism so simple a kindergartener should be able to grasp it.

God led the way, of course, and God still leads the way today. Pentecost began with Jesus’ followers waiting and praying, just as Jesus had told them to do before he ascended into heaven. God arrived as the Holy Spirit in wind and something that looked like flame, and the earliest church members received a power they did not have before. Specifically, they were able to declare Jesus as Lord and Savior and be understood regardless of the audience’s language.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Maybe, just maybe, this Pentecost model I think I see is simple enough to undo some of that fear.

The model in the Pentecost story is as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

First, God showed the early church in tangible ways the Holy Spirit was with them. Wind and fire. Supernatural gifts. How could they doubt?

In their excitement, they showed others what they could do; they demonstrated the changes in their lives.

That should be easy enough for us to do today. Our faith should make us different in ways people can spot. We should show more love, grace and forgiveness than we would without Christ in our lives. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

If we don’t have much to show—if we’re not different than before our conversion—we need to re-examine our relationship with God. Maybe ideas like love, forgiveness and grace really haven’t sunk in.

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by your actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what you have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw; some will always sneer. Peter just used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.
Show and tell. Try it. You might be surprised who watches and listens.

Jesus’ Wish List

Fourth in a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas”

When it comes to Christmas presents, is there someone you really want to shop for, but you cannot figure out what to buy the person?

For years, I had trouble finding a present for my grandfather around Christmas or his birthday. As he got into his 80s and 90s, he had few real needs or wants that a present could cover. We still had that urge to give him something, however, if only to let him know how important he was to us. The last few years of his life, we focused on simple gifts, mostly the kind Connie could make in the kitchen. He seemed to genuinely appreciate her cakes and cookies more than anything we could have bought him in a store.

Why did he like them? Well, these gifts were sweet, and he liked sweets, particularly pineapple upside-down cake. I’m sure there was another reason, though. Connie’s work in the kitchen was a simple act of love. And as I dwell on that other reason, my mind also goes to the Christ child, and how we respond to the coming of Christ into this world.

If people are serious practitioners of Christianity, they know the incarnation is an astonishing event, the beginning of a chain of world-changing events spanning less than four decades. The birth of Jesus marked the arrival of God among us in the flesh, God experiencing creation from our point of view. From there, God grew into a man, taught us lessons about himself, and died on a cross to release us from the power of sin. Christ’s resurrection marked the defeat of sin and death, in the process giving us hope when we deserve nothing but despair.

It’s a series of life-giving actions crying out for a response. If Christmas marks Jesus’ birthday, doesn’t he most of all deserve a gift?

Obviously, it’s difficult to buy something for the one through whom all things were created. We’re blessed, however, with a simple wish list left by Jesus, one expressed very clearly throughout the New Testament.

As we package Jesus’ gift, I imagine it going inside one those big gift bags. You know how people pack big gift bags; sometimes there is more than one item inside. I see three items in Jesus’ bag, all related to the love and gratitude we feel.

The first gift is our love for God. Again, if you call yourself Christian, you understand what God has done for all of us. If true belief has washed over you, this gift is easy to give. Your awareness of eternal life should cause you to race toward your prayer and worship times with thankful arms held high.

The second gift is one easy to skip over. It’s subtle but important, like a pair of socks in the bag. Let’s slow down a minute and think about the second gift.

Our Scripture text today, 1 John 3:14-18, talks about the second gift. Once we’ve experienced that overwhelming love for God, we are told that we should next feel a similar love for those who share our belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. It is clear that the author of 1 John is talking about those within the church loving one another. He even positions our ability to love one another as a test of our faith, a determination of whether we are believers or “murderers,” people who abide in death.

As I meditated on this text, I began to wonder if this is the real point of struggle for the modern church. Maybe it always has been; the letter of 1 John was written for a reason. Within the church, starting at the level of a local congregation, have we achieved the kind of mutual love described in these verses? Do we love each other to the point of being willing to lay down our lives for one another? We’re always going to have disagreements, but do we hear each other with patience, forgiveness, and openness to the influence of the Holy Spirit? These are questions that any group of church leaders should always be considering.

That sort of internal, brotherly and sisterly love within the church is necessary if we are to offer the third gift to our Savior, love for those who do not yet know Christ. When we show that kind of love, our love is as Christ-like as humanly possible. It is love offered to people despite their sin and brokenness, just as it was first offered to us.

This third gift carries with it the overwhelming smell of forgiveness and grace. When we give it, we have re-gifted to Jesus what he first gave to us.

I don’t know what all of you have planned for Christmas. Some of you may have piles of presents on hand; some of you may have just a few. I ask only this—be sure these three gifts of love are part of your ongoing birthday present for your Savior.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Gifts

The third mast of our Lenten ship brings us to the subject of gifts.

We have many gifts to offer God; certainly, we’re giving gifts back to God and our neighbors when we use our time and talents to spread the love of Jesus Christ. Those gifts tie more directly to the idea of service, however, and we’ll talk about service next week.

Today, I want us to return to a topic we discussed in January, our financial gifts. By the way, I should once again say thanks. We’ve started off the year on a positive financial note, with your tithes and offerings exceeding your expenditures by about $5,000 so far. If the trend continues through the rest of the year, it’s going to be much easier to expand our outreach to people who need to know Christ.

I don’t want us having an extended conversation about numbers today, however. During this Lenten season, as we talk about prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, we’re talking about matters of the heart, or perhaps “habits of the heart” would be a better phrase, if I can borrow a title from an important book published in 1985.

In our Scripture reading today, Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out the very heart of giving by showing us a poor widow making her offering at Jerusalem’s temple. Specifically, she was in the part of the temple known as the treasury, located in the Women’s Court, as deep into the temple as women were allowed to go.

Here, rich and poor men and women mingled, making their offerings by pouring them into what looked like 13 brass trumpets, their bells upturned like funnels. The handfuls of valuable Jewish silver shekels from the rich would have rattled mightily going in, drawing attention to the wealthy givers.

In contrast, the copper clink of the widow’s two almost worthless coins would have been either lost in the din or perhaps even laughable to some, if she were unfortunate enough to drop them in during a moment of quiet.

And yet Jesus told his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Clearly, when we talk about gifts, it’s not just about the number of digits following a dollar sign. The widow’s gift is a financial expression of deep love for God regardless of her particular situation. (I wonder what her mansion in heaven must look like; surely it is one of the biggest ones on the highest hill.)

In an ideal world, the widow who gave her all would have had nothing to worry about. At the foundations of Jewish society was the principle that the least in society—the orphans, the widows, the landless wanderers, the poor—were to receive care from those more blessed. In particular, the people in charge of the temple system, making proper use of the resources flowing through it, should have guaranteed this woman had nothing to fear.

We do not live in an ideal world, however. Back up a few verses in Mark, and you can see the problem in Jesus’ day. In Mark 12:38-40, Jesus denounces the scribes, lawyer-like bureaucrats who worked the religious system to their advantage. In particular, Jesus noted, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

For a modern analogy, think of silk-suited televangelists who pick and choose Bible verses to build a convincing argument that the elderly poor and others should write checks to them.¹ Scribes used Jewish law in a similar way, selectively choosing and interpreting rules to tell widows the additional burdens they needed to bear. Those brass funnels in the treasury turned into black holes, with bureaucrats on the receiving end sucking up the money so it never emerged to help those in need.

The system could have worked if those with plenty had maintained hearts for those without. Instead, the rich used religion to show off.

The system could have worked if those running it had stayed true to their calling, remembering that the core of Jewish law was to love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and to love your neighbors as yourself.

These principles for giving and using gifts wisely remain the same today. I asked you in January to make percentage pledges based on how you felt God was leading you, using pledge cards that you took home. If you’re still considering that pledge or want to reconsider it, I’ll give you another piece of guidance.

Make your giving decisions when your heart is full of love for God. That may be during a particularly fulfilling moment in worship or in prayer, or simply at a time when you feel blessed. It even could be during a low moment—I know that might sound strange, but it often is in our lowest moments when we’re most sensitive to how much God loves us.

Remember what Christ has done to relieve us of the burden of sin. Like the widow he watched in the treasury, Jesus gave his all. Don’t give because I say so; I’m just Chuck. Give because you truly understand who God is and what God is doing in the world.

I’ll also tell you when not to give. If you ever think this church has stopped doing Christ’s work, don’t give it another penny. I don’t think anyone can legitimately make that complaint right now, though; there’s just too much good being done here in Christ’s name. We may disagree on strategies and priorities from time to time, but the leadership of this church, and most of its membership, I dare say, understand why we exist.

If you give with loving hearts, and if the church continues to use those gifts to reach out with loving hearts, the Kingdom of God will expand because of the people at Cassidy UMC.

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¹I had a fascinating experience while writing this sermon. I needed to get away somewhere quiet, so I went down the street to Warriors Path State Park and wound up sitting in the grill at the marina. While there, two middle-aged women and a much younger woman began talking rather loudly about their opinion of preachers. (I was not dressed like the stereotype of a preacher, instead wearing hiking pants and a baseball jersey.)

“I just don’t trust them,” one of the older ladies said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

A big part of her complaint was that she thought preachers were too well-off, citing one she knew “living in the big house with the rich people.” (Even as grateful as I am for the house this church provides its pastor, I don’t think she was describing the Cassidy UMC parsonage.)

Apparently, we all need to spend more time at the grill, and I look forward to getting to know these ladies better.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Prayers

To move more swiftly as a church, we need to better understand the commitments we made when joining Cassidy UMC. You may recall pledging your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and, if you joined in recent years, your witness.

Think of a five-masted sailing ship. Each mast represents one part of our pledge, and we don’t want to let the sails on any of those masts go slack through inattention. If we do, we miss our opportunity to catch the wind that is always blowing, the Holy Spirit.

This week, I want us to focus on our pledge to pray. Few Christians would openly decline to call prayer important, but I’m also very aware of the large number of Christians who struggle with what prayer really means, how it works, or why it’s important.

Jesus, of course, taught us to pray. The classic example is where he said, “Pray then in this way,” and then taught us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus also showed us how to pray while he was in more difficult situations, and I think it would be instructive for us to look at what may have been his lowest moment on earth.

I’m working from Mark 14:32-36; there are similar passages in Matthew and Luke. I say Jesus was at his lowest point here because the full reality of his impending torture and crucifixion had settled on him, but he had yet to find solace and strength from God the Father.

“In effect, Jesus stepped beyond the circle of light cast by God’s presence into pitch blackness in the jungle of evil,” writes biblical scholar and preacher David L. McKenna. “Before this moment, He had theoretically accepted the responsibility for bearing the sins of the whole world. Now, terror tells Him what it really means.”

Jesus’ humanity was on full display; he described himself to his disciples as “deeply grieved, even to death.” With no alternate routes around the cross visible, Jesus threw himself on the ground and began to pray, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Even in his perfection Jesus did not want to face his terrible suffering to come. He prayed earnestly and in very personal terms to Father God, using the Aramaic word for “Dad,” the same word Jewish children might use in speaking in a familiar way to their fathers.

It was Jesus’ hope that God the Father, who retained full divine knowledge and understanding, perhaps knew a less painful solution hidden from the Son, who also was fully God but limited in knowledge by his temporal flesh.

In the prayer, however, there also was recognition that the cross very likely was the only way for the Father’s will to come to fruition. God’s will ultimately is a positive, wonderful result for all humanity. God wills that we do not suffer for our sins.

Only Jesus in his suffering and death could make fulfillment of God’s will possible, however, and his “not what I want, but what you want” shows us the deepest goal of prayer. Prayer should lead us to put aside our will, our desires, and replace all of that with God’s will in every circumstance.

This is a very Methodist concept. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wanted people to understand the need for “sanctification,” that process Christians undergo after turning their lives over to Christ. It largely is a process of becoming more Christlike in our thoughts and actions, learning to love others as Christ has loved the world.

When we love in such a way, our will becomes more and more conformed to God’s will.

For those of you who want to pursue sanctification by deepening your prayer lives, I’ll offer just a couple of brief ideas. We can better develop these ideas in other settings, such as Sunday school or in prayer groups.

There are lots of ways to pray, ranging from highly formal to very informal. As we’re a supposedly busy people, I’ll group them broadly according to time commitments.

It is very healthy for any Christian to learn to commit a block of time to prayer each day. If you’re just starting to pray in an organized, committed way, it may be that 15 minutes will seem like a long time to you. Commit at least to that; in that time, find how you best commune with God, remembering that the goal is to understand and follow God’s will. If you want to discuss the “hows” of such prayer further, I’m always happy to have that conversation.

I also find it useful to try to lift up little prayers throughout the day. For example, if you see a person in need of prayer, pray then and there, even if it is with your eyes open, going about your business. Such prayers, I think, keep us constantly seeking the will of God in our everyday lives—we become more conscious of how God is working in the world and remember to seek God’s will in every moment.

Next week, we’ll talk about filling the sails on our second mast, presence.

Wind in Our Sails

I plan to spend the next five Sundays in a seafaring mood, talking about how our church can have the weather gauge in our battle with the devil.

Now, I’m no sailor. And “weather gauge,” used in the context of ships going to war, is an antiquated term, better suited to the wind-driven ships of Admiral Horatio Nelson than the nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers of today. But I like the metaphor all the same.

What little I know of sea battles comes from books, specifically stories in what fans call the “Aubrey-Maturin series.” Through 20 books, author Patrick O’Brian tells an ongoing tale of early 19th-century British captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend, Stephen Maturin, a shipboard surgeon who occasionally disembarks to work as a spy. During the last three years or so, I’ve read 15 of these books. Yes, I instead should have been deepening my understanding of theology or New Testament Greek, but we all have our weaknesses.

What makes these stories fun is simple: These sailing men (and the occasional woman, sometimes smuggled aboard) are going places all over the world. As any dog or small child will attest, it’s just fun to go. And in the early 19th century, if you were going to go somewhere far fast, you needed the wind to fill your sails.

Having the wind working for you also helped when you encountered the enemy in your travels. Having the weather gauge meant that you were windward of the enemy, capable of charging down upon them at the time of your choosing, guns blazing. Such a position didn’t guarantee success, but

Battle of the Nile

most captains preferred to have the weather gauge. In the words of the aforementioned Nelson, “Never mind about maneuvers, go straight at ’em.”

Despite how grounded our church buildings may seem, the church itself moves through an ocean of time, headed for a place so spectacular as to be almost unimaginable. The Enemy hopes to sink us before we arrive, of course.

The Holy Spirit is the wind that keeps us moving and gives us the weather gauge against evil Captain Scratch. When you join the Methodist Church, you promise to do your part to keep our sails rigged using five tools: your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.

Prepare to weigh anchor.