Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Stewardship Sunday: All Our Stuff

(The following is a sermon I preached to kick off our stewardship season here at the American Church.)

A few weeks ago the Times ran this headline: ‘We’re too rich to be happy, say the Tories, and only radical taxes will save us.’


Now for those of us whose ears are still tuned to American political thinking, can you imagine a candidate saying that in the States?

There were the usual protests from MPs who argued that jobs would be lost in their constituencies, but no one made the valid point that having too much wasn’t the core problem—that the real issue was what people do with what they have—what they do to share their stuff.

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Jesus replied, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry."
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God."

Now there’s a text for the first day of a stewardship campaign, don’t you think? It’s not an accident that we’re reading this parable today. I’m not trying to be sneaky here—the point of this parable for us today is that it’s important to look at what we have, how we manage it and depend on it, and also to decide how much of that we will invest in the vision and ministry of this church.

Before we dive into what this means for us in this church, let’s look at the story behind the story.

Even though Jesus doesn’t mention it specifically, this parable is about building our lives according to the values of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom isn’t a realm or a place with boundaries and limits. It’s God’s reign over his creation and his power over all things, even death.

This parable opens with a question from someone in the crowd. A guy asks Jesus to mediate in a family dispute between two brothers. I love Jesus’ response here: Man, who made me the solver of your family problems? Jesus saw that at the heart of the question was a problem with greed, and reminds us that our lives aren’t measured by how much stuff we accumulate. And so he tells the crowd a story about a successful guy.

The main character is a good man by the standards of his day: he works, he plans, he saves, he protects his belongings. He expects to enjoy the future he created and protected. We admire people like this! In the detail of the story this is a good farmer—a prudent businessman—a pillar of his community.

But then he had an unusually good year and found himself with a strange problem: he didn’t have anyplace to put his extra stuff. He had barns filled with the crops he’d already grown, and the wealth he’d already accumulated, but now he had to make decision about what to do with the extra. That’s where he gets himself into trouble.

Notice how many personal pronouns he uses in this section. OK, I know that’s the kind of nerdy observation you’ve come to expect from the son of an English teacher, but just count them. The guy makes 11 references to himself in just 3 verses. It has to be some kind of record. But it illustrates the point of what happens when greed overtakes us—when it takes over our sense of balance, our sense of responsibility to our neighbor.

The man decides to tear his old storage facility down and build a bigger one. He decides to take it easy—to eat, drink and be merry—he allows himself to rely fully on his wealth instead of on God.
But then God enters the story and says: ‘You fool, your life is over—who will get what you planned to give yourself?’ Now at this point it’s important to say that the rich man didn’t die because he hoarded everything for himself. As nice as it might be for our stewardship plans to hold that one over all of us, it’s just not the point of the story. The point is that the guy didn’t know when his life would end, which made hoarding his extra stuff the focus of the story.

It’s also important here to say that there was nothing wrong with the way this man had been managing his finances up to that point. There’s a justness, a practicality in this parable, especially to people who enjoy a generous portion of God’s provision (that’s a nice way of referring to people who make a comfortable living). Nothing wrong with providing for yourself and your family. In this parable it’s what we do with the extra that matters. It’s what we do with the extra that marks our commitment to God and his Kingdom. The guy in the parable forgot all that and built bigger barns so he could keep it for himself.

That ends up being the kicker in the story. Jesus is critical at the end of the parable toward those who store up things for themselves without ‘rich toward God’. There are two problems this parable identifies for us.

First, the problem here is with someone who is so consumed by possessions and money that they become the source of his meaning and value.

Second, being so committed—or enslaved—to one’s possessions makes us deaf to the call of God on our lives, and also to the needs of our neighbors.

This parable is spoken to people who have extra—to people who have provided for themselves and their families, and are deciding what to do with the rest of God’s generosity.

So what should we know and do about it?

First: The life of discipleship includes supporting the vision of our faith community, our church. The life of faith makes all kinds of demands on our lives. One of them is to participate in the support of God’s work through the church. Giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient—it’s one of the marks of mature discipleship.

Second: The collective vision of this place is what we support when we give. Take another look at the list of announcements in the bulletin. There’s a lot going on here that is designed to help each one of us experience and enjoy the foundations of a healthy church: fellowship, worship, discipleship and service. You won’t hear much about need over the next few weeks, but you’ll hear a lot about what this church offers as a way of meeting the spiritual and physical and emotional needs of the people who come into this place, and how we can do that more effectively and faithfully.

Finally: the parable we read translates into a faithful consideration of Pledging—making a commitment to give at least a fixed amount for the coming year—pledging allows the leadership of this church to implement a vision, to make plans and dream big about how we’re going to serve each other and this community.

In that article I mentioned from the Times, the political solution to helping people handle their extra money went like this: ‘The main proposals include new taxes on domestic flights, varying rates of vehicle excise duty to punish those most polluting in each class of car, and limits on expanding airports and motorways. Private, non-residential parking should be taxed to discourage car use, and out-of-town supermarkets should be required to charge customers to park.’

I have a better idea.

Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear about the great things going on here at ACL. Take some time to think and pray about how you want to be involved. Your time, your talent and your financial support will play a role in the ways this church can live and share the message of Jesus Christ with each other, with this community, and with the rest of the world.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Little Kindness

In a big city kindness comes in small portions. I suppose that’s different in rural areas—we city folks have the impression that in the country people show kindness in big ways: helping plow the farm, raising barns and the like. Those are huge, but in the city life is completely different. Holding a door open…picking up a dropped glove or scarf or a child’s toy…taking your time getting on the bus so that someone else can make it in time. That’s the sort of thing that happens in a city.

The other day I saw a young woman get on my bus and drop into a seat. She looked exhausted, like a lot of people do here in London. She didn’t look English—my guess that she was one of the thousands of immigrant workers here from Poland or China or Africa, the sort who clean and fix and build most of the city around me. She was dozing in her seat when an elderly woman boarded the bus and labored her way down the aisle. Without a thought—without any consideration of her own tiredness—she got up and offered her seat to the woman. The lady sat down and thanked the young person with a smile that would melt the hardest heart. It was one of those truly beautiful moments that happen in a big, impersonal city. Nobody got a barn built on the bus that day, but someone gave something of themselves to make another person’s day a little better.

What a humbling thing that was to see.

I get frustrated here—with the level of service, with the general melancholy and materialism of the culture, with the overt rudeness of people who seem to have little time or care for others. It’s such an easy place to be cynical—easier by far than any American city I’ve ever been in. I can have days here when I wonder if there is any hope for the gospel—any point of contact that might let me say: ‘you know, that’s sort of like what happens in the Jesus story.’

And then I see a tired young woman give up her seat to a pensioner.

I was reminded today that God made everyone in his image. What that means is not that all people are basically good deep down. I’m certainly cynical enough to reject that idea. But what it does mean is that occasionally, in small ways, we can see something that reminds us of what God wants us to see—how he wants us to behave—and we can share it with someone else. People might not all be good, but there is in every person the potential to be good, to be decent, to be generous to a stranger. I know that may seem small, but that’s the point. With so many people crowded together in this ancient/modern city, it’s the small things that matter. It’s the small kindnesses that stand against the torrent of contrary evidence and remind us that there is a God, that he loves us, and wants us to love each other.

Friday, October 19, 2007

One Disciple's Soundtrack

The following begins an occasional series of reflections on the music that has influenced my life as a Christian. From time to time a song pops back into my head, and I want to try and capture why that song was important to me then, and maybe even now.

So I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately. That’s not really something new, but I’m finding that it’s not as easy as it was in LA to listen to my favorite songs and especially to hear new ones. I don’t drive here. Sometimes I get home from work just as Ian is ready for some play time. There just aren’t the same opportunities to listen to music.

So I’m learning some new ways to keep music in my life.

It helps that I’m using my iPod more, and I’ve started playing music in the background when we have dinner. I can also listen to Jack-FM from LA here at my desk via the internet, which is great. In the mornings here, there are several music-oriented TV shows where I’m catching up with some newer songs as well.

Listening to more music is bringing back a flood of memories. We listened to a lot of music in our home when I was growing up—I can remember singing songs by the Eagles, Queen and Neil Sedaka (not very often you see those three in the same sentence), sitting around our living room. My sisters and I will always have a soft spot for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’

As I got into junior high and high school music functioned for me in the same way it does for a lot of adolescents: it gave words and emotion to things that I thought affected only me. Jackson Browne was especially influential. I learned to sing and play most of his songs on guitar, and to this day the only song I can play on piano is ‘Looking Into You’ from his first album.

When I made a commitment to Christ as a teenager and started to grow in my faith during high school and college, I started listening to some of the Christian rock/pop of the day. Back then, before people realized that it was profitable (and promptly ruined it), Christian pop music had an energy and creativity that mirrored that of other kinds of music. In the early 1980s it seemed that a new Christian band exploded out of Orange County every few weeks or so. This music—faithful, challenging, passionate and innocent—the Christian pop of the early 80s was the soundtrack to my early growth as a Christian. In the same way that secular music gave words to my teenage years, Christian songs gave me the language I was looking for to describe my attempt to be a disciple of Jesus.

Some of these performers might be familiar to you: Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Bob Bennett, Sweet Comfort Band, Allies, Petra, Amy Grant, Mark Heard, Pat Terry... I’ve been listening to some of them again and have found myself transported to very specific times in my formation as a Christian. Over the next few months I want to share some reflections on why or when or how these songs made an impression on my life.

Why do this? Well, for one thing it lets me write about music, which I love to do, and maybe it’ll get you to dig some of these chestnuts up and listen to them again for yourself. Some of you weren’t even born when these songs were popular, though some have worked their way into the worship music canon. Find them on iTunes and hear them in their raw, un-homogenized state.

But the real reason is that today, as I was walking to my office, I listened to a couple of Keith Green songs on my iPod. One in particular—it’s hard to explain how this can happen on a London street—one of his songs put tears in my eyes and I had to stop for a moment before walking on. The song was called ‘Until Your Love Broke Through’, and it took me back to my early college days when I was still trying to figure out what this faith thing meant to me—and what I might mean to a God who seemed so distant and powerful and HUGE. This song—more than any sermon I heard or book I read back then—helped me put into words what I needed to know about an important part of who I am and whose I am. Here are a couple of verses and the chorus:

‘Until Your Love Broke Through’
(Keith Green and Randy Stonehill: 1976)

Like a foolish dreamer who was trying to build a highway to the sky,
All my hopes would come tumbling down and I never knew just why.
Until today when you pulled away the clouds that hung like curtains on my eyes,
Well I’d been blind all those wasted years and I thought I was so wise,
But then you took me by surprise.

Like waking up from the longest dream,
How real it seemed,
Until your love broke through
I’d been lost in a fantasy
That blinded me
Until your love broke through.

All my life I’ve been searching for that crazy missing part,
And with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart.
And now I see that the answer was as easy as just asking you in
And I am so sure I could never doubt your gentle touch again.
It’s like the power of the wind.

It’s funny, but what I remember from back in 1980 or so when I heard this for the first time was that line: ‘with one touch you just rolled away the stone that held my heart’. I remember thinking then that I could picture God just flicking away with his little finger whatever kept me from being with him, from feeling his love for me. At that moment the ‘bigness’ of God became something I could rely on—could rest in—instead of something I needed to fear or avoid. No pun intended, but that was huge. It was a step for me in growing closer to God at a crucial time in my life, and it drew me into a deeper commitment (flaws and all) than I ever thought I would make.

It was that line that got me again this morning as I walked down Cleveland Street from Euston Road in the middle of London. That stone rolls back into its place every so often, and it was a gentle reminder to me, pouring out of my iPod, that God is there, poised to flick it away again when I come to him in faith. Not a bad way to start the day.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Parable About Grace

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-15)

Jesus said:
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
" 'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.
"He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

What do we make out of this parable?

The math of the landowner is a little bit on the fuzzy side, don’t you think? But that’s part of the story. The point of this parable is that we are all recipients of God’s grace—his generosity that is his alone to give. In our math we talk about getting what we deserve. In the math of the Kingdom we get far more than that. The best definition I know for the kind of grace God gives to us is: Undeserved Favor.

Think about that.

Undeserved favor doesn’t mean that we get what we deserve—it means that we get what God chooses to give us. The math we usually use to calculate our appreciation and our envy, our giving and our resentment, all of that math goes out the window in the values of the Kingdom. That’s the point of this parable. Everyone got their pay—but the landowner chose to be gracious to some folks who hadn’t worked as hard for it.

There are some things for us to learn from this parable.

Grace is not about human effort, the things we do or what we deserve. This is a story about the way grace works from God’s point of view. We can’t reason our way into this one—it has to be revealed to us. We are accepted, welcomed, loved by God because of his grace and his initiative. That fact radically changes the math of how we’re called to live in the Kingdom of God. Robert Capon wrote: ‘If the world could have been saved by good bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses—by the Law—and not Jesus.’

It’s easy to try to define the 11th hour converts as being somehow less deserving than the rest. They’re like the deathbed confessions or last minute conversion stories we’ve all heard. But in the context of the Gospel we are all such people, all of us hired at the eleventh hour for a full measure of blessing, all of us totally dependent on unmerited grace.

The call to us is live remembering that we have received grace from God, and to extend that grace to others. The warning here is that when we aren’t radically generous with grace to other people, we probably haven’t considered the grace we’ve received. Don’t let that happen in your life.

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, wrote an essay about this parable. He said this:

‘People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. They are prepared to go on breaking their backs plowing the same old field until the cows come home without seeing, until they stub their toes on it, that there is a treasure buried in the field rich enough to buy Texas. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s works as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-sized kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt, but not for the great tree it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at the First Presbyterian Church of Wherever, but not for the marriage supper of the lamb.’

As we move into the seasons of Thanksgiving and Advent and even Christmas, my prayer for all of us is that we are prepared for the grace we’re about to receive and celebrate. We can thank God now for the generous math of the Kingdom, for the undeserved favor we have all received, and we can share that grace with the rest of the world.


Monday, October 08, 2007

A Very Cool Saturday

Ian and I had a fun weekend. Julie spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at a women's retreat at our church, so Ian and I had some dude time. Friday evening we ordered Chinese food and ate it while we watched the second Harry Potter movie on DVD.

Saturday we watched some cartoons in the morning, then a show on Children's BBC on creating art at home. The painting there were using as an example was called "Surprise" by Henri Rousseau. Ian said that they had learned something about the artist in his class, and that it was his favorite painting. I looked it up online and it turned out to be here in London, so we decided to go see it (after eating the leftover Chinese food for breakfast).

One bus ride and we were at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. We went to the information table and I said "we're really here to see one painting," and that's when Ian chimed in with "it's by Rousseau." The man said, "you came to see 'Surprise' didn't you," and told us how to get there. We walked through rooms with paintings by Monet, Chagall, Van Gogh, Renoir and a bunch of other greats. When we came to the room with the painting we were after, Ian got this big smile on his face and we stood in front of it for a while. We looked at some other pieces and then left.

When we got outside there was a huge demonstration in the Square about the persecution in Burma (that's the picture at the top of the post). There were speakers and Buddhist chants, and we looked on for a few minutes. We walked up through Leicester Square and through Picadilly Circus to the Tube, then up to Homebase (a poor excuse for a home improvement center) to get some things for the house. After a bus ride home we relaxed and had lunch together.

I tell that story because I've shared so many of the things that have been hard about being here. On Saturday I was struck by how cool it is to be in a city where you can see a famous painting on a kids' show in the morning, and see it in person before lunch. Ian and I had a good time together. I've been working so much lately that it was good to go out and be father and son for the day. I loved every minute of it.

Sunday's Sermon: Plenty of Room

One of the challenging moments in planning a party is creating the guest list. I’ve worked on guest lists with church groups, family parties and other gatherings, and it’s always tricky to know where to draw the lines—who to include and who to leave off. Anyone here who can remember planning their wedding knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Our text this morning has a party, a great banquet, it’s called, and the reaction of a host who just wants as many people as possible to enjoy his food and drink. It’s a parable that Jesus told as an allegory, or a story where the characters represent something bigger and broader than just the people involved. The guest list is the issue here—let’s read the story.

Luke 14:15-24

A wealthy man is throwing a party, and he invites the sort of people you might expect him to invite—people he knows, who are in his circle of friends. They make excuses, and so he fills his party with anyone he can find.

Now we should say here that none of these are bad excuses. These people were busy—they had properties to manage, businesses to run, they had relationships that needed care. In this cultural setting marriages were considered so important that men were exempted from military service and even work during the first year after the wedding. These aren’t ‘the dog ate my homework’ kinds of excuses. In today’s language, they were about investments, business trips, important jobs and family vacations.

The problem wasn’t that they were bad excuses. The problem was that when the master calls us, nothing else should get in the way.

The host responded with a radical idea. It may have been normal to fill the seats of no-shows with people of the same social standing, but this host reaches out to people who would have been excluded from the first list: the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. These were people who couldn’t escape their need for help—they never had any illusions about being self-sufficient; self-satisfied; independent. These people knew that they needed help from outside themselves

‘And still there is room.’ That’s the key to this passage. Notice where it comes in the story: The original guests have said no, and the banquet has been filled with the outcasts and the poor and the broken people of the community. That’s when the servant tells his master: ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room’.

The master’s response is to send the servant even farther in the search for guests—to the countryside and alleys. He wants his house to be full.

Most of the time we think that this parable is teaching us to be inclusive, to reach out to the unfortunate, to care about the blind and the poor and the crippled and the lame. Those are all important things, and they appear very clearly in other texts, but they’re not what this parable is about.

The parable of the Great Banquet is about setting priorities. It’s about recognizing that our relationship with God comes first—not after we’ve done everything else on our list. He gets our first attention, our first effort, our first money. It wasn’t that the field or the oxen or the marriage weren’t important—they weren’t lame excuses. It was that they represented priorities that were upside down and sideways.

God made room for us, but we have other things to do. But that place is still there—still there is room, the parable teaches.

Thank God.

What does this mean for us in the church?

First, the call from God is to be with him—to commune with him. This story—and all of Scripture—shows a God who is determined to have fellowship with all of his people. Notice just how much the host wants people at his dinner party. Whatever else we this place is—source of fellowship, a great place to sing, an American club...whatever else we call this place, we shouldn’t forget that it is the church of Jesus Christ, a place where we come to meet the living God in a real and powerful way. A place where we join together as people on the journey of faith to learn how to love better, worship better, serve better.

Second, we make all kinds of excuses, and leave others take our place in the call of service. This is a challenge to those in the church who hear the invitation and politely refuse it. It’s a challenge to those of us who have forgotten that we need God, that we need a savior. Maybe it’s a challenge to listeners who still won’t acknowledge that need—the self-sufficient, the self-satisfied, those who would never admit that they could be dependent on God. The point of this parable isn’t the detail of any excuse, it’s the danger of using those excuses in the first place—the danger of excusing ourselves from the Lord’s Table, and all that that means, because we have better things—more important things—to do. What could be more important than living as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?

Finally, ‘and still there is room.’ There is no limit to the grace extended by God to the world—he wants everyone there. This is such an important part of the story. Even though the last part of the text talks about the original guests not enjoying the banquet, that’s because it’s their choice—not because the table was full.

The point of this story is that God’s mission to his creation is never finished. As one writer put it, God is determined to have fellowship with his children, even if they turn him down at first.

That leaves us with a couple of very important questions:

Will we make excuses that prevent us from hearing God’s call?

Will we make still more excuses that keep us from sharing what we hear?