Tuesday, December 09, 2008

2,000 Verses, Are You Kidding

Since it's been requesting. I am again posting my sermons, even if late. Here's the one for last Sunday.

‘Tis The Season
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way;3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” *******************************
Advent, the time of waiting and preparing. He is almost here. The babe is on his way. Mary has gathered baby clothes and diapers, Joseph has made the cradle, we’re just waiting now—waiting and getting ready.
In the larger story, we stand in the same place as John the Baptist. We know Jesus is coming. We know what the rest of the world will soon know. God is doing something that has never been done before. Things are going to change. Nothing will ever be the same. We start to prepare. We start to tell people, “Get ready, things are going to be different.”
John the Baptist, what an interesting character. Not big on social skills or diplomacy, our John. But if anyone ever spoke his mind without a blink, it would be John. Can you imagine what he a Jesus were like together as children?
John, his whole life focused on preparing people for the Coming, for the fulfillment of all that had been promised, to see God walk on the earth. So, what exactly did John tell them?
You’ve heard his basic message this morning, but if you poke around a little more in scripture and read his story from Luke’s perspective, you get a few more specifics about his message. In Luke, the people said, “What exactly do we need to do to get ready?” So John told them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Oh, that again. God just never lets us off the hook on this giving and sharing thing. And, since all the commercials keep telling us that this is the season to give, maybe we should spend a few minutes looking at just what God’s expectations are.
Did you know that there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible about poverty? 2,000! This is the Bible that tells the whole story of creation in 2 chapters, where the story of the Good Samaritan is only 12 verses long, and some of the other parables are as short as 2 verses, where the coming of the Holy Spirit only takes up 13 verses. So 2,000 verses on what God thinks about poverty? I think this is maybe a big deal, then, for God.
And what do those verses say? They say pretty much what John said, and what John Wesley later said, “Fix it!” Do whatever you can, however you can, to fix it. How can we do that? The problem is too big, it has been here forever and, as Jesus said, it will always be with us. You’re right. So how does God expect us to fix an unfixable problem? To do what we can. To do everything we can.
This seems like kind of an odd time to be talking about this in some ways. It certainly doesn’t fit in with all the pretty pictures and Ricky Bobby’s sweet, cuddly, tame baby Jesus in Talladega Nights. But on the other hand, it’s the time when we think about giving the most—what are we going to give to whom, how much can we spend, what is someone giving to me? It’s also a time when we see some of the hidden need around us and are asked to do something about it.
It’s a time when we have interesting conversations about giving. All year long, people talk to me about their opinions on giving, how they decide, what they think is important, who merits it, but I hear more about it during Advent and Christmas than any other time of the year, so I think maybe now is a great time to talk about it.
The number one thing I hear is, “Well, I don’t give to ……..(you can fill in your own blanks) because they don’t deserve it.” The reasons “they” may not deserve it vary, but there’s always a reason. The funny thing is, in all those 2,000 verses God shares with us about the poor, never one time does God talk about the deserving poor. He doesn’t say, only help the widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers worked hard, but don’t worry about the ones who drink too much or don’t manage their money well. God doesn’t say take care of strangers and immigrants, but only if they have the proper documentation. God doesn’t give us an out. God says, if you see need, do whatever you can to fill it.
When you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that God would see it that way. It’s how he treats us. When God sent Jesus, when God reaches out to us in grace, there are no stipulations. Jesus didn’t come only to save those who work hard, follow the rules, live right and never challenge. Jesus came for everyone. If the only person in the entire history of humanity who ever accepted Jesus’ message was a drunken, Roman soldier who had spent his whole life pushing other people around and enjoying it, Jesus would have come anyway. God reaches out to all of God’s children—all of them, whether they’ve earned it or not—and that is really good news for all of us.
And if we accept God’s gift, there are still no strings. There are plenty of us who accept God’s help and then go off and do the spiritual equivalent of spending it all in the local bar. We mess up. And we go back to God and God bails us out again. Until we finally get it. But as many times as we waste this grace that God gives us, that many times God meets our need again.
And that’s the hard part for us, because when God then tells us to go out an be the light to the world, God is telling us to treat the rest of the world like God treats us—to meet need, to give freely, to not attach strings. Darn!
So let me share with you how that has worked out for me in my life and thought. When someone asks, I give, even if it’s the guys on the street corner holding up signs. Yes, I know it may be a scam. Yes, I know they may use it inappropriately. But I would rather be scammed than take a chance on not helping someone who really needs it. It’s the choice I make. They may be operating a scam. But even if they are, the seed has been planted and one day they may remember that the person who tried to help was a Christian and that may be enough to turn them toward God. That’s pretty much it. I may not can give much, but if I see need, I give what I can. No strings, no qualifications. This is what God did for me, and this is how I share God with others.
Now, I know that this makes some of you uncomfortable, if not downright angry. OK. You don’t have to agree with me. But God requires that you at least wrestle with it. If it upsets you, why is that? You may come out at a different place than I did, but you have to think about it honestly.
When you don’t give because one time you know of 45 years ago someone abused a gift, is that the exception or the rule? If it is the rule, how can you change it? I sat with a man this week and listened to him talk about one needed family in town that could never seem to make ends meet no matter how much help they got. Yes, the single mom didn’t spend her money in all the right places, but instead of just cutting her off, he and his wife went over and spent time with her helping her learn how to plan out a budget, balance a checkbook, manage what she had. Maybe instead of cutting people off, we need to get more involved with them as people.
Maybe your reason is that you don’t know where the money will be spent. Well, if it’s a gift, then it’s a gift. When you give your grandchild a bicycle, you don’t dictate how often and when they ride it. It’s theirs! We can’t maintain control over what we give. Besides, God is in control anyway.
Maybe you really, honestly feel like giving money to people harms them in some way, then make some microfinancing loans. Maybe you don’t have money to share, then do what you can. The point is, God calls us to share what God has given to us—everything God has given to us, and not just the leftovers. If we follow God’s model, we have to remember that God gave until it hurt—he gave us Jesus, knowing that we would kill him. How much does our giving hurt? How many presents have we given up to give to someone else? When we look at the amount that we spend giving unneeded luxuries to those we know, how close do we come to matching that with giving necessities to those we don’t know.
Now lest you think I’m asking you to give more to the church for the good of the church, I’m not. I won’t deny that we will be happy to take your gift and share it wherever we can. But what I’m really asking you to do is to think about what you give and why, and to whom. Be honest about your priorities. God tells us over 2,000 times what is expected of us. How are you going to respond?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.