Posted in Giving
Thank you to everyone who worshiped, gave, decorated, cooked, served, ate, played, and more to make Sunday morning a wonderful celebration.
When I was growing up, my family planted morning glory seeds every year along the side of our house: long, green, curly vines, with brilliant blue flowers that open up in the morning. Our morning glories at Newhall Drive in Whitefish Bay Wisconsin grew up happily, twisting around a trellis. Every morning I would go out to check on them, to see how much higher they had grown and to count how many flowers they had.
It’s a sweet memory. So, I decided that I should plant some morning glory seeds for my kids. I can’t say I have a very green thumb, but watching my mother garden for so many years, I know the basics. So I went out to Verrill farm and found some morning glory seeds. Right next to the morning glory seeds at the store were some evening glory seeds, moonflower seeds that bloom at the end of the day. So, I bought some of those too.
I felt really good about my parenting that day. I was not only maintaining a family tradition, I was expanding it! Flowers to count in the morning, and also at night. Vines growing all around the house. Then the seeds just sat there, in their pretty paper packets, on my counter, for a year. A whole year passed without my managing to get any of those seeds into the ground.
Last spring I was determined to do better. My kids were out of diapers! I was ready to conquer the world, or at least, a little gardening. I even looked up the right date to plant the seeds, and put a notification on my electronic calendar. When the date came, and the notification popped up, I went outside with my trowel and spade and seeds and my kids, and we planted those seeds in the best spots I could find. We watered. And we waited. And we waited. And we watered. Nothing seemed to be happening.
You never know what’s going to happen with seeds. Surely the crowds who surrounded Jesus knew that, even better than we do, as they lived closer to the earth. Jesus says to these folks: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground … and they sprang up quickly… But when the sun rose … they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone who can hear, listen!
I wonder about the skill of this particular sower. Why sow seeds on a path? Why sow seeds among rocks, or thorns? Why wouldn’t a sower be more careful with her precious seeds, directing them towards only the best soil?
But of course, this is a parable. Jesus even goes on to explain it later on in this chapter. In this parable, Jesus tells us, the seed is the word of the kingdom, the good news of God. This good news is scattered widely among all people, but it does not always grow. Sometimes the seed is stolen from a heart by evil. Sometimes it wilts in the heart, as the result of trouble. Sometimes it its growth is choked in the heart by the cares of the world or the lure of wealth. There are many ways for seeds of the word of the kingdom to die. Still, sometimes, the word reaches a heart that is open and ready, good soil, with good conditions for growth. Someone hears the word and trusts it until it roots down deep within them, bearing fruit and yielding thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.
I’ve been thinking this week about the seeds that this community scatters. Seeds of the good news, seeds of God’s kingdom. We scatter words of encouragement and wisdom, acts of kindness and service, gifts of presence and prayer, witnesses of justice and love. Our sowing does not always go perfectly. We may occasionally set ourselves too ambitious a planting schedule. We may not always have enough sowers at the right time, in the right place. And many of the seeds we sow, we never know if they grow.
This is simply the way of sowing, Jesus tells us. It’s an act of generosity, with an uncertain outcome. And yet, with all the seeds that die or get drawn away by the wind, some seeds take: and what a magnificent harvest they make.
A magnificent harvest. When someone is comforted by the visits and cards they receive at a difficult time. When young people are empowered to serve, and given a chance to lead. When weary hearts are encouraged with music and prayer, beauty and hope. When our capacity to welcome one another, and to accept ourselves, keeps growing. When our relationships with other faith communities are strengthened. When those who are lonely find companionship. When new people arrive and discover a place that will support and enrich them.
The sowing that we do together is sometimes difficult, but the harvest is enough to take the breath away. God multiplies our efforts, sometimes by thirty, or sixty, or a hundredfold. Like a mustard plant, seeds of God’s good news sometimes find such good soil that they grow and spread like weeds: enormous, persistent, sprouting up everywhere.
As it turns out, the seeds my family planted did not grow very well. The moonflower seeds never even sprouted. The morning glory seeds did sprout, but they never creeped upwards or made flowers.
I’ll plant some seeds again this spring. There’s one thing we can be sure of: without seeds, nothing will grow. I am grateful to be sowing seeds of the kingdom with all of you. And I am grateful for all of the sprouting, and growing, and climbing, and bursting into flower that we get to witness together.
God our Gardener, we give thanks for all that you do. You prepare the soil of our hearts, breaking down rocks, tearing out weeds, sending water and grace. You scatter seeds of good news relentlessly among us, even when we are not ready for them, just in case a root, a sprout, a leaf might grow. You empower us to stretch and bloom, until we can be sowers and seeds ourselves, partners in the work of cultivating your kingdom on earth. Bless us to be a blessing, now and always. Amen.
Check out the fabulous pictures from our FANTASTIC greeting card and chalkboard napkin ring sale, sponsored by Children’s Ministries and Sunday Fellowship! Last Sunday was a wonderful success, and we thank all who participated and supported our ministries and our lessons about Congregational Giving. The proceeds from the sale will be divided between Children’s Ministries and Sunday Fellowship and offered as our pledges for 2019. Stay tuned for the sale totals!
I Kings 17:8-16
In the book of Kings we learn about the leaders of the Kingdom of Israel. The book begins with stories about the great Kings, David and his son Solomon. It continues with many lesser rulers of a divided kingdom, each seemingly worse than the last. Jeroboam and Reheboam, Abijam and Asa, Nadab and Baasha; Elah and Zimri and Omri; almost all of them regularly do what is evil in the sight of God. But perhaps the worst of all is King Ahab. It is during the reign of this awful Ahab that we meet Elijah: one of the greatest prophets of all time.
Just before our text today begins, the word of God comes to Elijah, predicting a drought. God tells Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. Elijah survives by drinking from the wadi and eating bread and meat delivered by ravens, according to the command of God.
Unfortunately, in time, the wadi dries up. Elijah is no longer provided for. God gives Elijah new instructions: “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” Elijah goes to Zarephath and asks a widow for water and food. The woman replies, “I have only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Elijah is not daunted by the woman’s reply. He says, “Do not be afraid; but prepare some of your food for me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For God says: The jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The woman agrees to do what Elijah asks. And amazingly, she discovers that Elijah is right: her jar and her jug do not fail: her household is well fed.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several days with a bunch of church people at a continuing education course on fundraising. We wrestled with big questions about money and faith. We considered new ways to invite people to use their financial resources to support the missions of our organizations. I left totally excited about the role of generosity in our faith lives, and the opportunities we have here at this church to deepen our shared commitments.
It is clear from this passage in the book of Kings that Elijah did not have the opportunity to attend this particular fundraising course. He’s asking for food, instead of money, but it comes down to the same thing. Elijah does just about everything wrong, from a fundraising perspective. He doesn’t get to know the woman at all before inviting her to give. He doesn’t explain what his mission is, why he might be a worthy investment. He doesn’t even truly ask for anything: he just demands what he wants. Worst of all, Elijah doesn’t take no for an answer. When this woman explains that she and her family are literally starving, he still pursues his object aggressively, demanding that she feed him before her own child, and promising that God will not allow her food to run out.
Strangely, this story ends well. The widow decides to feed Elijah. Meal and oil magically multiply in their containers to satisfy her whole household until the drought is over. What on earth are we supposed to learn from this?
Most of us have a complicated relationship with money, with resources. This relationship is shaped by our history of having too little, or just enough, or more than enough. It’s shaped by the attitudes of our family members and friends, and any faith communities and cultures we have been a part of. Sometimes folks talk about having “common sense” when it comes to money, but in my experience, people have very different ideas about what that common sense should be. There are several radically different philosophies about money floating around in our culture. For example: our American commercial culture tells us to take as much as we can get, and buy the most expensive things we can possibly afford. Commercial culture promises that money can give us pleasure, even happiness, while demonstrating to others how valuable we are. Alternatively, many of us here in New England have been taught to be very cautious with our money. Don’t show what you have; don’t talk about what you have; don’t spend more than you have; make sure you can be responsible for yourself. This Puritan-inspired attitude promises that our money management will prove our morality, preserve our pride, and keep us secure.
Most of us are already confused about money when Jesus comes to crash this party with an entirely different point of view. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters – God and money. Jesus tells a rich young man: “Sell everything you have a give the money to the poor.” Jesus tells us to consider the lilies; not to worry about our basic needs. Nothing that Jesus says could be considered common sense. If we follow Jesus, he won’t make us rich OR responsible. Instead, he tells us something that belies most of our experience. Jesus, and our wider scriptural tradition, tell us: It’s not about the money.
It’s not about the money. How can that be true? Money is great, and helpful, and often necessary. It’s one thing to hear that it’s not about the money in Concord, Massachusetts, where most of us are not planning to lay down and die after our next meal. It’s quite another thing for the widow in our story today. Surely it is about money, about resources, for her.
I struggle with why so many scripture stories lift up the generosity of those in true poverty. I don’t want to romanticize poverty, or spiritualize it. Want is real, and it can be brutal. I do wonder, though, if our ancestors realized what modern research teaches us: it is those with the most limited funds who are statistically the most likely to share them. Those who have the most limited resources are the most likely to be our leaders in generosity.
Why is this? Why are those with the most limited resources the most generous? I wonder if struggling with a lack of money reveals money’s limitations more starkly. Money can do a lot; but in the end, it fails to bring lasting pleasure, true happiness, moral superiority, individual independence, or security. When money is not available, when there is not enough, the truly valuable things are perhaps more obvious: relationship, compassion, community, faith. Money is a means, but not an end. If we make it our end, we are doomed to profound disappointment.
Each year, during our congregational giving appeal, I let you know what I plan to give, and why. I am glad that I am able to continue to give ten percent of my income to this church, dedicating it to God and to the ministry that we are doing here together. I am also working on a better plan for my giving outside of the church: an area for growth.
I should admit that my commitment to the church is not always easy for me. Sometimes I get a little twinge when a pleasure is out of reach of my family. Sometimes I get a little twinge when I think that we should be doing more to ensure our future security. Mostly, I am glad to say, my giving commitment gives me a profound sense of peace and gratitude. I want to keep letting go of false ideas of what money could get me, if I kept it to myself. I want to keep experiencing the power of throwing in my lot with others, of letting the wealth that has come into my hands work for the good of many. I believe in what God is doing here among us, and it moves me to be able to support it. Those quotes, those dreams we heard at the beginning of the service – they are worth the world to me.
Ultimately, scriptures teach us, nothing actually belongs to us individually. Ownership is an illusion. We can only be stewards for the wealth that comes from God and belongs to all God’s people, all of God’s creation. The amazing thing is, that the more we learn to share what we have with one another, the more it grows. Instead of fear and scarcity, as we give and connect we discover abundance: abundant resources, abundant love, abundant possibility. As our hands open towards one another, loaves and fishes multiply, and meal and oil appear out of thin air, through the mysterious and marvelous grace of God.
Dear God, money makes us anxious and afraid and enthralled and protective. It pushes our buttons, and we get all wrapped up in it, instead of being focused on you. Whatever numbers are in our bank accounts, help us to breathe deeply, day by day, shedding fear and shame and pride. Teach us that our true value and security come from you. Teach us how to share what we are able and called to share with glad and generous hearts, that we might relieve the wants of others, free ourselves of every burden, and participate in your miraculous multiplication. Amen.
Last Sunday our Sunday school children capped off their four-week hands-on learning experience about Congregational Giving, and what a finale it was! Since October the children had been busy creating handmade cards and scarves for a special sale on November 12th. As we spent the weeks creating, we talked about our church and what it costs to support all its programs and ministries (see my previous blog post for the kids’ creative thoughts on that!) and how people decide what and where and how to give. We agreed that the money from our card and scarf sale would be given right back to the church on November 19th – the day the adults submitted their financial pledges for our 2018 budget year. Our November 12th sale was a wonderful success (thank you to all who supported it!), and this past Sunday the children eagerly counted out the money that we made – the total was $294.20! The kids were amazed! We wondered what the church might be able to do with $294.20. With a $400,000+ budget, would $294.20 even help? Here are their thoughts:
“That could buy a lot of toilet paper.”
“Maybe buy some food?”
“Give it to the poor!”
“We can get more supplies for Sunday school.”
“Help with the renovation.”
“Buy candles for the Advent Spiral.”
We spent the remainder of class decorating wooden pledge tokens that we then brought upstairs as we rejoined worship. The children offered their tokens, as well as our $294.20 gift to the church. It was a proud and joyous and empowering moment for all of us – truly lifting our sweet, sweet spirits together as one. Thank you to all who supported our learning journey in giving. It is certainly a life-long lesson, and one the children have easily embraced!
Jesus is on the border between Samaria and Galilee when ten people approach him. We don’t know if they are Galileans like him or foreigners, outsiders, Samarians. We don’t know anything about these people, except that they are afflicted with the disease of leprosy. They call out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them, and he sees their affliction. He hears them calling out to him with the name his disciples use for him. He hears them asking for mercy. Jesus says: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” They go, and as they go, these ten people are healed.
So far this story is not very remarkable, at least in the gospels. Jesus is, by nature, a healer. He heals whoever he comes across. He heals people, no matter where he finds them. He heals people, no matter who they are. Jesus’ healings are often simple, like this one. He doesn’t make a big show of what he can do. And the healing often takes place after the fact, as it does here.
The healing in this story is not very remarkable, at least for Jesus. The twist in the story comes after the healing. One of the people afflicted with leprosy – a Samaritan, a foreigner – notices that he has been healed. And as he notices, he changes direction, turning back towards Jesus. He praises God with a loud voice. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet. He thanks Jesus. And Jesus tells him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. Your faith has saved you. Your faith has made you whole.”
In this story, ten people are healed from leprosy: a physically debilitating and socially isolating disease. For at least one of the ten, something else happens as well. He responds with praise, with worship, and with gratitude. His physical healing changes his heart. His heart is made well, he is saved, he is made whole. Jesus witnesses his transformation, and sends him out, to find an entirely new way.
The practice of being grateful is a hard one to learn. Day after day, I ask my children, after they have received something: “What do you say?” Still, with all this drilling, they rarely come up with an unprompted “Thank you.” Learning to notice what we have been given, to delight in it, and to be truly grateful for it: this is a spiritual practice that most of us struggle with throughout our lives.
Christian blogger Glennon Doyle calls the shift from complaint to gratitude “putting on our perspecticles.” As if gratitude is a pair of spectacles for the heart that can fundamentally change the way we view the world. (more…)
Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten young women take their lamps and go to meet a bridegroom. Five bring back-up flasks of oil. Five do not. Unfortunately, the groom is late — very late — so late that everybody falls asleep and the lamps begin to go out. Finally, at midnight, the groom shows up, ready to start the party. Five young women refill their lamps with their back-up flasks. Since these women refuse to share their oil, the other five women are forced to leave and seek oil elsewhere. When the women return from their errand, the door has been closed against them. The groom will not let them in.
I confess that this story is not one that I like very much. A whole group of young women, or virgins, or bridesmaids, waiting for the arrival of a tardy groom: It seems like the set-up for a cliché and sexist romantic comedy.
I also have practical questions. Why would failing to bring an extra oil flask to a wedding get you kicked out? And who would actually be available at midnight to sell supplemental oil to desperate guests?
My biggest question, however, is: what are we supposed to learn here? It is challenging to draw any sound moral lesson from this tale. Consider the heroes we have to choose from. The five supposedly wise women refuse to share. The breathlessly awaited bridegroom is so late his guests fall asleep waiting for him. This is rude enough, but then he bars the door and denies ever knowing the five women who take a few minutes to purchase more oil. Talk about a double standard.
Thankfully, Jesus ends this story by dropping a big hint to let us know what it is really about. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (more…)