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Posts Tagged ‘Blessing’

Stopping to be Thankful
2.21.10 Lent 1C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Intro
Imagine with me. Just under forty years has passed. Not only have you spent a good chunk of your life in the wilderness, but your children and probably your grandchildren have never known what it was not to be wanderers. The life of the nomad is all they know.

And it has not been an easy forty years, after all. You’ve endured terrible hardship, and lots of the loved ones that you started off with have found the journey to be too much. Some have turned back, and some have died.

But here, almost forty years after you started this journey that was a lot wilder than you ever dreamed anything could be, you’re staring in the face of the promised land. After forty years of feeling lost and unsure. After learning a bajillion and a half rules, and being chastised more than once for not playing nicely. After spending almost forty years being confused, underfed, and underhoused. After all that, you can stare down into the place you only dared dream about.

Everything you have endured, worked for, and sacrificed for is finally within your grasp.1 You can breathe in the air– it even smells different. The place that you look down into is so filled with hope that you can barely contain your excitement.

How deeply must you sense God’s grace and provision? How proud are you that you stuck it out all this time? And surely it must seem like God is finally rewarding your faithfulness.

How would you respond? I’ve never been gone away from something that resembled home for that long, but I do know that when I finally stepped off the plane in New York after 3 month in Africa, that I literally knelt down and said a prayer of thanksgiving in the middle of JFK airport. I might have actually kissed the ground if I wasn’t afraid folks might cart me off in a straight jacket, and then I’d never get home. Imagine your tremendous sense of gratitude and relief. Imagine leaning over to your neighbor, saying, “See… I told you YHWH would take care of us.”

That’s the situation that the Israelites found themselves in. I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced something that amazing, and so it’s hard for me to imagine how overwhelmed you’d feel.

Remembering Forward
Whenever you see Israel remembering something, as they do here when they remember the way God brought them safely out of slavery, pay attention. Memories seem to function a little differently for that group of people than they do for us. We think fondly about the “good ol days”, but all these memories seem to do is make us think “backward”. When we remember, we’re constantly looking to our past.

But when the Israelites remember, it’s almost like they’re “remembering forward”. For them, their present and future are tied up in their past– which works in a really interesting way, especially in this story.

What they are doing here is confessing faithfulness of God is what they base their lives on and around. God’s providing hand allows them to voice their gratitude, but it doesn’t stop there. When the Israelites confess their faith in God, they also claim the story as their own. That is to say, this isn’t a story that they’ve watched happen or they read about in history books– it is the story of how they came to be this particular people in this particular place. Memory, in lots of ways, was the basis for Israel’s faith, because as they remembered the ways that God provided for their people throughout the generations, God’s promises to them were claimed anew.

Offering the First Fruits
I wonder how or if this is our story too? I wonder if we might dig into that “collective memory” and claim this story as our own.

This particular passage that we read today is about being moved from stagnant, stale lives to lives being punctuated by opportunities to give thanks. This passage is, at its heart, about offering the “first fruits” to God in thankfulness.

Let me tell you what I learned about the tradition of the first fruits as I was working on this sermon. First of all, the fact that the people even had any fruits to offer meant that they were “settled”. Nomads who are wandering through the desert do not have crops, so you can understand why these folks were so excited to have fruits to give.

The tradition was that folks would carefully watch for the first ripe fruit of the crop, and when they had found it, they would carefully pluck it. Then they would tie a ribbon around it’s branch and they’d take it to be presented in the temple– an offering to God.

I don’t mean to put a microscope on something that might not be that big of a deal, but think about this whole process for a second. Think about what it would be like to watch for days to see the first ripe fruit. Then, I’d imagine, you’d check it over carefully– after all, you wouldn’t take a fruit that had been eaten by bugs, or that had been scarred. No, you’d look to make sure that you were picking the very best of what there was to offer. Then you’d go home, and choose the very best ribbon or string that you could find, and if I had to guess, you’d put on the finest clothes your wardrobe had to offer so that you could go to the Temple to offer your fruit. All this over a piece of fruit!

That doesn’t make much sense to us. But thankfulness was such a part of the Israelites vocabulary by this point that it made sense to them to go all out to show thankfulness to God.

Think how different we are. We live in a culture where we consider our abundance to be, somehow, due us. It’s the exception, rather than the rule, I think, that folks really stop and consider the words we sing every sunday to be true for their lives. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” somehow, at least in our heads, becomes “Praise me, for all the hard work I’ve done.”

And because we’re pretty sure that we’re entitled to all that we have, think about our attitudes towards offering. Many of us write a check every week, or some once a month, and more often than not, we look at it as something we have to do rather than something we get to do because we are moved to gratitude for the many blessings in our lives. Have you ever watched a child learn to tithe? That child’s top priority for the morning is making sure he has a coin to put in the offering plate. If his mom or dad holds on to his coin, he frequently asks if it’s time for the offering. If he is old enough to hold onto it, he either rubs it around in his sweaty palm all morning, or frequently checks his pocket to make sure his offering is still there. Children don’t really understand the mechanics of offerings, but they do understand that somehow they are giving something back to God, and this is a great source of excitement to them. I wonder when the last time we adult sorts got that excited because we had something to put in the plate? I wonder when the last time that we really prepared for offering our first fruits to God, like the Israelites prepared for offering their first fruits?

No, the truth is that the offering up of our wallets and time and selves is not something we’re tremendously excited about. At best, we tell ourselves it’s a discipline, and remind ourselves that we should do it. We make mental notes of all the things we could do with that money. At worst, we tell ourselves that we need that money or time, and that God will somehow make it without us, and we hold onto it. We reason that there are lots of people who make more than we do, and that they can carry the responsibility.

As I was doing work with our Presbytery last weekend, I had the opportunity to talk with several pastors, all, of course, with much more experience and wisdom than I have. During one of the breaks, we got to talking about doing ministry in a small church, and how our dreams and hopes were often squashed by a budget that didn’t match up with the church’s possibilities. One pastor made the remark that tithing isn’t nearly the priority that it used to be. He argued that while there are some who carefully figure out their ten percent and put it in weekly or monthly or whatever that most folks weren’t regular tithers. Then another pastor chimed in and said that the average in most Presbyterian churches (which actually tend to be “upper crust” folks as a denomination) was that people would put 2-3% in the offering plate, and that was on a more on the basis of whim than anything else. Maybe they’d heard an especially stirring sermon, or maybe they felt guilty for not putting something in more often.

I’ll be honest, as a relatively new pastor, all this blew my mind, and I told them so. I don’t know what our church giving looks like, except for seeing the same numbers that you see in the bulletin every week. I know the economy is making things tough, and that we, like most small churches, are having a hard time meeting our budget. Together the pastors told me to do some research. They told me I could find our zip code’s average household income online, and then bet me that I’d discover that if each family was giving only 5% of that number that we’d be over our budget for the year. So I looked (and remembered that this number was an “average” meaning that some households are much higher and some households are much lower.) I discovered that for zip code 28306, the average household income was 44, 237. And I figured we have somewhere around 50 households represented in our church, so I figured out 5% of of 44, 237 and multiplied that by 50. Guess what? They were right– if every household was giving only 5%, our giving would equal somewhere near $110, 592. If every household was giving 10%, we’d be seeing $221,100. Imagine what we could do with all that!

I’m a good southern girl, and as all good southern girls know, there are three things you don’t dare talk about at the dinner table: religion, politics, and money. And if something isn’t polite enough for the dinner table, then it probably ought not to be talked about, or so the wisdom goes. But, today, being a pastor goes against my southern raising. While I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about money, I think the church has a responsibility to talk about good stewardship.

But… before you tune me out, assuming that I’m only asking for you to write a bigger check (and think that I don’t know anything about your budget, and that maybe you’re doing the best you can!), I’ll tell you that I’m not really asking that. Err…well, I am asking for you to write bigger checks (which would make the finance committee very happy), but that not at the heart of my sermon. What’s at the heart of this is cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” as the saying goes. Aside from making sure that we aren’t in the red at the end of the year, I don’t really care what you’re giving. Whether you tithe $10 this year or 2% or 10% is between you and God. Though, that being said… tithing is something we’re commanded to do, and if we’re not tithing, we’re violating a “direct order”, so to speak. Every person, regardless of their financial station in life, is told to give back to God. Whether you can give thousands to the church, or whether you can only give a dollar a week, we’re all told to give to God, and trust that God will provide for our needs.

I definitely care that we’re a church is doing its level best to do what God asks, but ultimately, your family has to decide how to deal with this. But what I care about more than I care about who is tithing what (even if I knew) is about the how we give. If we fail to cultivate a generosity of spirit, we’re the ones who are losing. Having a generous spirit makes us vulnerable and giving beyond what is “Comfortable” puts us in a place where we must rely on God’s blessing to see us through, which I think, is how God intended it. We were never intended to be self-reliant, though our culture would tell us otherwise! We, however, were intended to be God-reliant.

Now, we’re fairly settled folks. Heck, our church has been in existence for way over a hundred years… it doesn’t get much more settled than that. I think we might have forgotten what it was to be so excited over first fruits, because seasons come and seasons go. This church has weathered storms before, financial and otherwise, and it will weather them again. We’re so far removed from the feelings of tremendous gratitude that the Israelites had upon their arrival in the “promised land” that we take a lot for granted. Truth be told, storms or no, all that we’ve ever known is the promised land. You’d think that maybe that would make us more grateful, but I think the fact that all we’ve done is dwell in the promised land makes us forgetful. We’ve forgotten what it is to completely and totally depend on God for everything we do. We’ve never gotten to experience the joy of carefully preparing our “first fruits” to turn over to God, and have only been able to practice giving to God the leftovers.

I didn’t realize how pervasive that attitude is until this week, actually. I’d bet that most of you, like me, have based your giving on your after-taxes income…that is, upon what you actually see when the check gets to you. But actually, that’s giving God the leftovers, if you think about it.

I don’t think God has ever given us the “leftovers”. If you think about it, the sacrifice of Christ was a sacrifice of the “first fruits”. Jesus was the joy of God, the very best there was.

I’ve got to be honest. Working with this text this week has stepped all over my toes, and the text, oddly enough, never points a single finger. It’s simply a story of folks who are so deeply grateful for what God has done in their lives that they offer the very best they’ve got. Maybe it steps on my toes, because more than once, I’ve thought of tithing as a burden. I’ve definitely thought of other things I could do with that money, and have even silently grumbled as I’ve written the check. And even on days when I wasn’t grumbling under my breath, “excitement” isn’t the way I would’ve described tithing. I, like everyone else, forget that I have so many blessings, and that turning over my 10% is the least I should be doing for God.

But today, after I’ve had a “Come to Jesus” meeting so to speak, I feel a little more pep in my step. I’ve spent all morning remembering what it was like to be that child who was so excited to give my coin that I just couldn’t wait until time to take up the offering. Today, as I’ve written my check, I’m just a little bit more certain of God’s provision for me in the future, because I’m remembering all the ways I’ve already been provided for. I think that’s what God desires for us. Maybe we aren’t commanded to offer our first fruits as much for God’s benefit as we are for our own.

Invitation to Tithing as Lenten Discipline
We’re beginning the season of Lent, which is a time for serious self reflection. Only you know if you’re not giving to God as much as you should, and only you know if you’re as cross as a bear when you do give. My invitation to you is to give as abundantly as you’re able, and then some. Step outside your comfort zone, and trust God that when you offer the first fruits that there will be many more fruits to come. Try it just for Lent, as a way to prepare for Easter. My bet is that by the time Easter comes if you’ve been really faithful with it, is that you won’t want to quit.

Sure, the church needs your money. But more than that, you need to be opened to God’s blessing being lavished upon you.

Sure this a little bit about meeting our budget. But really, it’s about meeting our God. God has brought us on an amazing journey, and will keep taking us on one that is just as amazing. Perhaps the least we could do is stop to be thankful. And perhaps we do that most fully by giving to God the very best of what we have.

May the words of Deuteronomy be your words. “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” And may the blessing upon the Israelites be a blessing upon you: “Then you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”

Thanks be to God. Amen

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Some weeks, “the stuff” that happens between Sundays is a huge burden, which sometimes leaves me feeling very down. But this week has been a week of stuff– really, really good stuff.

Tuesday was all sorts of crazy, as I was both trying to make up for a lost work day due to the Holiday, and get ready for the evening’s Celebration of Discipline study. I wound up working almost 12 hours that day, and thought I had packed the day so tightly that nothing could sneak in. My husband and another fellow from the church went to take a look at a lady’s house (as my husband noticed that it was in disrepair when we were Christmas Caroling.) When they got there, it was so much worse than they could’ve ever imagined. What they thought was simple carpentry work on the outside turned out to be a major job on the inside as well. A tree had grown into the roof, and had caused a whole bedroom on the inside to be FILLED with mold and mildew. If anyone official ever saw it, the house would be condemned for sure. We happened to be talking about the Discipline of service that night, and so we took a few minutes and made a slide show of the pictures of the should-be-condemned house to show folks afterward. The response was HUGE. Here it is two days later, and over $1000 has already been raised, the tree has already been cut down, and work has already been started– with promises for both more donations and more labor. I’m so wildly impressed with my church. For all the ways I’m sometimes driven to insanity, I’m so impressed by the ways that they see a need and jump right on it. I preached on the wedding in Cana, and how God provides in abundance last Sunday, and I can’t help but be reminded how God equips us to respond in abundance. I have no doubt that before many days have passed that this woman will again be living in a healthy space.

Another place that I happened to see God at work was in a group of 15 pregnant high school girls. Granted, this doesn’t sound like much of a blessing to have that many pregnant girls in ONE High School, but it was strangely holy. Our church has recently started a partnership with the school to start a pregnancy support group– mostly as a way to help keep these girls in school, but also as a way to support these girls that the world has turned its back on. Because I’m both very young, and the only woman minister around, the school counselor thought I might make a great addition to the group– and I guess my presence makes it sort of a faith based approach. I got into this room, and was more nervous than I expected, and felt like an outsider because I’m the only one there who has never been pregnant. I can’t relate to labor pains or some of the things that we talked about. But as we really started sharing (at what we thought was just going to be an “interest” meeting), emotions just started pouring out. The girls were sharing things about how they aren’t getting any support from their parents, and sometimes even the fathers. They just opened up– and so did my heart. I’ve been in conversation with the guidance counselor for a while as we’ve been trying to get this program started, but lately I’ve really been in prayer that God would not only use me, but use the church, in these girl’s lives. I’m still not sure how this partnership is going to work, but I do feel like both me and the church will be used. I’ve invited the girls into the church, and told them it was a safe place for them to come where they would be welcomed and loved on. But what if they come? Well, we’ll need to make sure our nursery is staffed on Sundays. (It’s been hit or miss, and the need is presenting itself. But that’s another topic for another day.) We might even have to change our ideas about what the church looks like, and who Jesus would minister to. Tough growing pains for a church who might like secretly wish that the whole church would stay the way it is, and further, that all the people in it might look just like them. But, I think, the Holy Spirit is about to rock our worlds. We’ve been praying to grow, and if these girls find a safe space with us, they might just be the growth we dared to pray for.

Holy Week, as we normally think of it, is the week between the parades of Palm Sunday and the joy of Easter Morning. It’s the week when we remember Jesus’ steps toward the cross. In Celebration of Discipline, Foster talks about living the “Cross-life”, which is what we’re doing when we “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.” This might just have been Holy Week, at least in my life, and probably in the life of the church– the week when we’ve done the best job of really following in Christ’s steps.

I’m so far behind this week. I might just have to work on both my days off (which would normally be a huge source of grouchiness). But if glimpsing the Holy at work among us in such amazing ways is the treasure I’ll find, maybe I can write a sermon on another day.

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Am I ok?

Pap-- giving me his best "Pap Smile"One of the most stirring happenings of our trip so far has been visiting with “Pap”, DH’s grandfather who suffers from Alzheimers. I’ve never gotten to meet him, so DH’s mother wanted the two daughters-in-law to meet him. No one can say, but he may not have too many more years.

I’ve been looking forward to visiting Amish country, and Hershey Park, and spending time with the family. But, to be honest, I’ve been dreading visiting “Pap” as long as I’ve known about the planned trip. First of all– I don’t “do” nursing homes (which is pretty unfortunate for a pastor of a mostly retired congregation…) My last memories of my much loved Nana were in a nursing home, and I could happily forget those. I also dreaded meeting a man, who I learned stormed the beaches at Sicily, worked for the Navy Depot, and was a cherished husband and father. This sounds odd, but in my mind, he was almost legendary from the stories I’d heard. I dreaded seeing a shell of a man who “used to be”. And to be truthful, I dreaded watching my mother-in-law interact with her Daddy– not only because it made me sad for her, but because it made me sad for me. It would positively destroy me to watch either of my parents in that state. What nice can be said about “the long goodbye”? It broke my heart to watch my mother-in-law have to say to the man who raised her, “Come here, Daddy. Take one more step. It’s me, Daddy.”

But the day was actually much more amazing than I could’ve imagined. Pap was having a really good day. He seemed to genuinely remember the family (as opposed to faking it, which apparently he has great skill for.) He was in good spirits, and was coherent enough to even joke around with us.

I wonder if the “Pap” my family talks about is in there somewhere. I wonder if he knows and is embarrassed by his state. That would break my heart to think about. Perhaps the most kind thing would be not to remember. After all, watching formerly independent self become totally dependent on other people can’t be very easy.

“Pap” is completely and totally dependent on other people. There is not much he can do for himself– including deciding if he’s “ok”. When he gets overwhelmed, he says, “Am I ok?” and waits for whomever is closest to tell him things are fine. And if he’s told that everything is fine, he believes it. I think, there is a certain amount of blessing in that– and maybe that would even be a blessing for those of us with no memory difficulties. What if that’s all it took to assure us that our world was safe?

I feel really blessed to have met Pap. I think I would have really enjoyed him when he was the person of the stories, but I enjoyed him just the way he was too. Somehow, in the few minutes I spent with him, he enriched my life.

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I know, I know…it’s been such a while since I’ve bothered to write, so maybe why start up again? Because I want this for me, because I love to, because one day I’m going to write a book and the more writing I do now, the easier (I think) it will be later.

It’s been a monstrously busy summer. Not, of course, that I would change it, but it is what it is, and it’s at least part of the reason that I haven’t written. I guess the other part is that either nothing has seemed especially worthy of ruminating upon, or that I wouldn’t know if there was something worth ruminating on because I was too busy to do any initial ruminating.

Things at my beloved church in the cornfields are going well. People are excited. They’re daring to do new things. They rally around me when I most need to be rallied around. And they bring me vegetables. I’m enjoying great support from all but a very small (though loud) minority. See earlier post on that one.

While we love living here, and are growing more and more in love with each other, things for DH and I are not going nearly as smoothly as we would have hoped. Just over a year ago, we heard God’s voice telling us to GO! Like Abraham, without knowing much about the land to which we are moving, we went. We were quite certain that God was uprooting us to bring us to the proverbial land of milk and honey– a place that both of us would be blessed beyond belief, and would be able to use our blessings to bless others. We could not have guessed that the time for my husband to be transfered would have taken a year. And if we could have guessed that, we would have told ourselves that it wouldn’t matter, because he could do anything for a short time– just to pay the bills. We could not have forseen the fact that he’s overqualified– for everything. Yeah, that’s flattering…but it does nothing to help out the living situation. Much to our mutual frustration, he’s been without work for 12 out of the last 14 months. We’re both quite certain that God’s hand is in this, but it doesn’t make our discouragement any less visceral. In fact, at least for me, some days that knowledge makes it worse. I’m a preacher. I talk a lot about faith and God’s provision. But the honest truth is that my faith is wearing a little thin.

But the equally honest truth is that God’s provision isn’t running thin. Strange little blessings show up…sometimes so small, that I’m quite certain they are a divine reminder that we’ve not been forgotten about. As if God is saying, “I’ve got it… in fact, I’ve got your whole universe right here.” Today, a muchly needed (and appreciated) small blessing showed up. DH and I were headed off to the trail for a long walk, but decided to stop and get a quick breakfast. We used to go out fairly often, but now it’s a great luxury to us– even something as simple as Chick-fil-a is quite a treat. (Who knew? But then again, I was watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the other day, and the Buckett family could only afford to buy one chocolate bar a year, and that was at great sacrifice to them. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps life is not as bleak here as I might have supposed!) We knew our morning outing would hurt us a little, but we just wanted to do something nice together. Besides, Chick-fil-a gives an amazing “policeman’s” discount, though they give it for almost any sort of law enforcement person. Today, before DH could even show his badge, the man at the counter said, “Are y’all eating here?” When DH said that we were, the man treated DH like an old aquaintance and said, “In that case, I’m gonna hook you up.” And our meal was completely free. To DH, the man said simply, “You have a blessed day!”

How many times have I heard that? Bajillions. Lots of people of faith say it, especially in the south. But this particular day, those words rang in my ears. With the discount, our meal would have only been a few dollars. Small, comparitively. But huge, on a day when I was starting to wonder if God had forgotten us. God hasn’t.

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