The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 27, 2019
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:17-19
We begin with story one. He never had much money in his wallet. Whenever Dr. Mauze and his staff would go out for lunch he barely seemed to have enough to pay for his food. This always seemed a bit odd to his staff since he was the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, and even though in the 50s and 60s when he was there, he was not paid a great deal, he was paid well. No one quite understood this until one day a staff member happened to mention this in passing to Mrs. Mauze. “Oh,” she replied, “That’s my doing. Each day I carefully count out how much money he needs for lunch and I put it in his wallet.” Curious, the staff member asked why. “Because,” came the reply, “George is a man with a big heart.” As you know, he loves to get out of his office and wander around downtown. The problem was that everyone there knew that George was a soft touch. People would come up and ask him for money and he could never say no. So what he would do was that he would give away everything he had with him. I decided that if we were to have anything to retire on, I need to give him only what he needed, or he would give away everything we had.”
Dr. Mauze was a man with an abundant attitude. He always believed that he had enough and more than enough to give to those in need. And you could see this in the two qualities that make for an abundant attitude; and open heart and an open hand. What is interesting about the scriptures is that those two qualities, an open heart and an open hand go hand in hand and they are both desired by God. I say this because whenever it is mention that one ought to give, it is always done in the context of giving willingly, giving joyfully, giving lovingly. We can see this in verses seven and eight in Deuteronomy where the writer says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” Later in verse ten, the people are told to, “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so.” In a sense, it is the attitude of an open heart that allows for the action of an open hand. Why do these two go together? Because human nature is that the more we have the less, open our hearts become to others.
I know that sounds strange, but it is noted in scripture and in a wide variety of recent studies. I will offer two studies. The first is the candy jar study. Researchers began by having subjects think about whether they saw themselves having more money or less money than other people. Following that, the subjects were shown a bowl of candy. They were told that they could take as much as they wanted, and whatever was left would be given to children in need. The results were that those who thought of themselves as having more money than others, took more candy, while those who thought of themselves as having less, took less candy. The second study is one in which people were give VR glasses…you know those glasses where you are seeing in 3-D? The video shown to the subjects was of a street scene in which the subjects were walking down a street. Along the way were a variety of people, all trying to make eye contact with the wearer. The less money the subject had, the more eye contact they made with people, especially those who might appear to be needy. The more money someone had, the less eye contact they made, not only with those in need, but with anyone. These studies, along with many other ones, show that as our income increases, we not only begin to close our hearts to others, but also we don’t actually see others. This is the reason the scriptures remind us that we are to nurture having an open heart, so that we can see not only the needs of others, but we can see their worth and value, as did Dr. Mauze.
Now for story two. When we lived in the Panhandle of Texas, I was asked to do a memorial service for a former member of my congregation. He had been one of the few physicians in the town and was much beloved. People talked about him with great affection because he was always willing to make house calls and was always available. In addition to that, at his death he had left a large bequest to the community foundation in order to assist the town that he loved. As I was meeting with his daughter to discuss the service, I commented on those two things about her dad. Her response took me by surprise. “Do you know what that bequest is?” she asked. Before I could respond she continued, “That was the bicycle I never got. That was the vacation my mother never had. My father never took a day off, ever. My mother begged him for even a few days to go someplace. He always said no. And he said no to Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. Sure, he cared for all those other people. But not us.” To so many this was a dedicated man with an abundance attitude, that he always had enough to give away, but somehow not to himself, or to his family.
I bring this up because an attitude of abundance is about having an open heart and an open hand to all. It is not only about giving away to strangers, but it is about giving to family and self in order to enjoy life. We can see this in those often overlooked verses seventeen and eighteen in 1 Timothy. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…” Notice that an open heart and an open hand to others is there, but there is also the reminder that what we are given by God is to be enjoyed. This is a very Jewish and not a very Puritan concept. I say this because within Judaism there is always a call to enjoy life. The writer of Ecclesiastes states that there is nothing better in life than to eat, drink and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Think of Fiddler on the Roof and the wedding scene. Think of Jesus first miracle in the Gospel of John where Jesus turns water into wine for the wedding. Life within the Biblical tradition is not to be a dreary, ascetic journey…which our Puritan ancestors seemed to think it was to be. Instead it is to be enjoyed by family, friends and community.
What Paul is trying to tell Timothy and the church he serves is that as God’s people we are to find the balance in our attitude of abundance. We are to find an attitude of abundance that as Paul puts it elsewhere, does not cause us to be in need, but insures that others have what they need. This is the balance of an attitude of abundance. It allows us to see ourselves and others as equally worthy of having the blessings of God’s bounty on this earth. It allows us to find a balance between loving ourselves and loving neighbor. My challenge to you then on this day in which we make our financial commitments to the church is to ask yourselves, “Where is my balance? Where is my balance that allows me to have an open heart and hand toward strangers and toward self?” Then to work toward that balance in such a way that you live with an attitude of abundance toward all.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 20, 2019
Genesis 1:29-31; Mark 12:41-44
There are special moments in every teacher’s life when they see the lightbulb turn on in a student’s mind. All the hard work explaining and demonstrating and running through the concept over and over finally pays off. The student gets it and the teacher swells with joy.
This story in Mark is a joyful moment for our teacher, Jesus. He has just arrived in Jerusalem with everyone else for Passover. As the crowds grow, Jesus finds a spot in the temple to “people watch.” He should see righteous displays of faith from the people of God. This is a festival that attracts all the religious celebrities to one place and all their fans. If you want a good example of how to worship God, this should be the place to take notes.
What Jesus observes is not very encouraging. He sees people taking on far too much work in the temple because they think it will somehow win them friends, or respect, or a place in heaven. He hears loud praying so everyone will know exactly how religious that person is. He sees people dressed in their glitziest robes, passive-aggressively positioning for the best seat in the courtyard. He hears offerings being made one coin at a time, so that the clinking of their donation fills every ear. Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink. Jesus gets frustrated with the missteps of God’s people. How are they still not getting this?! Abraham explained it, Moses explained it, the prophets explained all of this. Why are they still treating God in this way? He hears it again, clink, clink…then nothing. Jesus looks up to see why this person has delayed putting in the rest of their coins and sees a widow walking away from the offering jar. A smile spreads across the teacher's face. She gets it.
She gets it! This woman understands what an offering is and how to give. Jesus quickly gathers the disciples and points her out. “This woman has given the biggest offering of anyone here,” he tells them. We easily understand that Jesus does not care about the amount of an offering, but we struggle with what he does care about. Many interpret this scripture to mean we should all give until it hurts. Jesus says these others will not even miss the money they have given, but she will, so we think he is saying we should all give until we would miss the money we give. However, I think Jesus is holding this widow up as an example for a different reason. We don’t know anything about this particular widow. We only know from the context that she is probably very poor, as most widows were. We know widows had a low standing in the community and had no power to speak up for change. Widows were dependent on the kindness and generosity of others to survive. But that doesn’t mean they were worthless. Widows were probably reliable childcare, surely some of them made the best soup in town, and maybe others were great storytellers. In the best-case scenario, widows were still a part of the community, maybe not valued like Jesus would have liked, but they were still included. This widow was included in the Passover events. She was allowed to come into the temple to participate in the festivities, so she was still an active member of the community.
Jesus has watched the life of this community all day. Jesus isn’t against what the temple stands for in theory. Jesus likes that this is a place for people to gather, he loves that they feel close to God here. The temple is a place where people come to learn. Even Jesus, as a child, learned in the courtyard and is now teaching there. If he hated the temple he would not go there to participate in the life of this place. Jesus likes the general ministry of the temple and the community it supports. So, let’s assume this community was doing its best to support the widows in their midst because they knew these women were valuable members, and God wanted them to care for the widows. If that was the case the temple probably took up an offering for a widow’s ministry. A ministry this widow would have been a benefactor of. Then she finds herself with two extra coins at festival time. She could go and buy herself a celebratory pomegranate. Yet, she gets it. She gets that she has received blessings from this community and heads to the temple to drop her two coins in the jar.
When I first started working for a church, I had this awkward realization. If I give my tithe but then get a salary from which the tithe comes from, am I giving at all? It was this weird “catch 22” dilemma I still wrestle with from time to time. I think this widow at some point wrestled with the same thing. If I give these two coins today but then get a full meal tomorrow, am I even giving anything? In a roundabout way am I just giving to myself? Yes… and that’s what she understands. Giving to a community that supports you and benefits you is just giving to yourself. This is a good investment strategy too. Buying stock in products you need and purchase is a good idea. Giving to a ministry that offers something for you ensures the community will still be able to do the ministry it is doing, and you will continue being supported. Jesus holds this widow up as an example because she understands this concept. Not because she gave until it hurts, she donated to what helped heal her.
When we get to stewardship season, church leadership starts to trip over themselves to try and teach this idea in a new way. We think somehow stewardship is such a foreign concept that members just don’t get it. But we aren’t doing anything in the church that isn’t happening in every store in the world. Money is exchanged for a need or a want. The concept is easy, the problem is when we give to the church that feeling of mutuality gets blurred. There isn’t an immediate exchange of goods or services. Here in our church, we can take for granted that money comes in and great ministries thrive. The link between the two gets lost.
For the widow, it was very tangible. Without the temple’s widow ministry, she would be hungry and so she feels a strong pull to give what she can to keep the temple open and working. She depends on it being funded. That isn’t something just the widow or the needy can feel. If we take a moment to reach out for that link and find it for ourselves, find what we depend on here in this community, we realize we are all beneficiaries of the ministry of this church. Some of us come here to learn, from staff who spend their working hours planning the education. Some of us receive a “Basket of Love” at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of us have been visited by a Pastor or a Deacon, that without a paid church phone bill would not have happened. Some of us have met lifelong friends here, or have children who have supportive, loving friends here because this building is a safe and clean place to gather. We are all beneficiaries of the ministry of our pledges, tithes, and offerings. Giving to this church is giving to ourselves.
Let me take a quick, side tangent to explain three words. Tithes, offerings, and pledges. Tithes - we usually have some sense of its meaning. A tithe is 10% of a person’s income. That percentage was established by a few Biblical texts that suggest 10% is a respectable amount to give to ministries doing God’s work in the world. There are hundreds of sermons written about the tithing texts. This is not a sermon about those verses. All I want you to have in mind is 10% is a tithe. An offering, then, is anything given above 10%. It is above and beyond what is sufficient. Offerings were and are taken for special causes or needs in the community. We recently took an offering for Hurricane relief.
That leaves pledges. Pledges started when churches realized they needed to have a clue about what was going to be donated in a year to set a budget. Pledges are the commitments we are willing to make, and the expectations we place on ourselves for the coming year. We are lucky that we operate in a pledge structure. For the widow, she had to have money at the ready when the jar ran out. We get a little more wiggle room on the timing. So, knowing about tithes and offerings, we make a pledge. It is the declaration of the commitment we feel we can uphold over the next year to support the ministry of the community we value. And just like Jesus gathered the disciples to learn from the widow’s offering we are being asked to look at her example today too. Because she gets it.
When Jesus saw that woman give her two coins, he must have swelled with joy seeing someone get it and live it out. I felt the same way when I heard about Jack. Jack gets it too. Jack is five years old, and he goes to our Hand-in-Hand day school. Another ministry we can take for granted, thanks to your pledges, tithes, and offerings. Jack comes here to learn and to play with his friends. Every day after school he doesn’t head straight to the parking lot, he actually comes into the sanctuary to say hello to God. If you haven’t heard your voice echo in this room when it’s empty, I highly encourage you to try it someday. After Jack has met with God he walks into our administrator, Jan’s office, and gets a piece of candy from her candy bowl. With sweet in hand, or more likely in belly, Jack heads to the parking lot to go home. Someone in Jack’s family has realized that it takes some effort to keep the candy bowl full. Since it is one of Jack's favorite things about this place, they have taught Jack that he should support the candy bowl stash. Every so often Jack brings a bag of candy for Jan. This is not an easy thing for Jack to do. Holding that big bag of candy, even a five-year-old can work out, “If I keep this bag, I get it all. If I give this bag, I have to share.”
The link between giving and receiving in the church gets blurred because one donation gets spread between so many different beneficiaries. It’s like ordering fries for the whole table. Everyone benefits, but the temptation to feel like we have lost something because we didn’t get to eat every last fry sometimes sneaks up on us, and we second guess if we want to order fries next time.
Taking the time now to think about what we love about this community and making a pledge to keep that ministry thriving helps us defeat that temptation. We ask ourselves now, how much do I value the ministry of this place? Do I want to be the kind of person who buys fries for the whole table, who gives to the ministries I value? Just like Jack must ask himself. Do I love getting candy enough to hand over the excess of candy I have this month? Hopefully, the answer is yes, and we can all benefit from the gifts we all give.
I heard someone in a podcast this month say, “A sermon is not the words a preacher prepares over the week, it is the moving of the Holy Spirit in each person’s heart and mind.” I want us now to sit and listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to each of us individually.
May we be as brave as that widow to live out what the Spirit has taught us today.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 13, 2019
Isaiah 58: 6-11; Mark 10:17-27
They had it all. They were millionaires with all the trimmings. They could go where they desired. They could have anything they wanted. But something was missing. Their marriage was a mess. Their lives were not their own. They sensed that deep inside something was not right. So they gave it all up. They sold their home, gave away all of their money and committed themselves to doing whatever it was that Jesus desired of them. They took literally Jesus’ command to sell all and follow him. Their journey took them to Africa as missionaries, to a communal Christian community called Koinonia Farms, and then ultimately to found Habitat for Humanity. Millard and Linda Fuller had it all, but they gave it up in order to share their lives with the world…and now Habitat is the largest non-profit home builder in the world having constructed more than 800,000 homes housing more than four million people. It is an amazing story. So how many of you are ready to join me in doing this? Giving away all we have and doing something amazing for God? Yeah, me neither. I am afraid I love my possessions a bit too much to give them up. And that being the case, what are we to do with this story from Mark…and the Fuller’s story?
What I hope that we will do with it is to see it as Jesus’ attempt to help this young man, and by extension all of us, reach his full potential as a God follower by helping him begin his journey into the very heart of God’s love. To understand this, we need to return to the story. Jesus is hanging with his homies, when a young man rushes up, kneels and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” For most of us, we would assume he is asking how to get into heaven. But this is not the case. For Jews in the first century, eternal life was something that one would receive here on earth when God’s eternal kingdom arrived here (on earth) and not there (in heaven). And since Jesus had been preaching and teaching about this coming Kingdom, the young man figured Jesus was the go-to guy. Second, we might assume that the young man is trying to earn his way into the kingdom. Again, this is not the case. He understands that as a Jew his inheritance is the kingdom, if he is righteous…if he stays true to Torah. Surprisingly Jesus does not disabuse him of this notion. Instead Jesus asks the young man if he had stayed true to the way of God by following the commandments. When the young man replies truthfully that he had indeed done so, Jesus loves him. What this means for me is that Jesus saw in this young man extraordinary potential; extraordinary potential to be a God follower. The same potential Jesus had seen in Peter, Andrew, James and John. Such potential that Jesus invites him to join the other disciples on their amazing adventure for God. The only thing the young man must do is to sell all he has, give the money to the poor and come along.
Why does he have to do this? I would argue that he needs to do so in order that he take his foot off the brake and begin his journey toward fulfilling his potential as a follower of God. I realize it might sound strange that this young man needed to begin his journey, considering that he was already keeping many of the commandments. But the commandments the man was keeping, aside from honoring his parents, were the “Thou shall nots”; thou shall not lie, cheat, steal, defraud and so on. But those commandments are not the journey. They are the guard rails that protects us while we are on the journey. They keep us from wandering off the road and into a ditch, or from running into and hurting others along the way. The journey on the other hand is the “Thou shalls”; thou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and thou shall love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, the journey is what happens when we live Isaiah 58 by sharing our bread with the hungry, covering the naked, and housing the homeless, we are fueled for reaching our potential as followers of God. The journey is what happens when we share what we have. This lack of forward motion on this young man’s journey, raises the question of why hasn’t he gotten started? Why hasn’t he shared his bread with the poor and shown concern for his neighbors. Why has he kept all his wealth for himself? I believe the answer is because he has his foot on the brake and not on the accelerator, meaning he was living with an attitude of scarcity.
Like so many people in this world, this young man had found that treasure, rather than giving him an attitude of abundance, had given him an attitude of scarcity. What is an attitude of scarcity? It is, the more treasure I have, the more I realize what I have to lose. The more treasure I have, the more treasure I believe that I need to stay afloat. The more treasure I have, the less, if any, can I share, because then I will not have enough. This is seeing the world with an attitude of scarcity. It is fearing that I will lose what I have, so I hold on to it more and more tightly with each passing day. My favorite story of this is of a friend in San Antonio, who was a wealth manager. One of his clients, in their early nineties, single, no family had assets in the millions. One day they were discussing what to do with the money, and my friend, who is very generous, asked, “Have you ever thought about giving some away?” The response was immediate and angry. “How dare you ask me to give any away. I may need it all.” This is an attitude of scarcity. This is the attitude that the young man brought to Jesus.
What Jesus was hoping to engender in the young man, in order that the young man reach his full potential, was to shift his attitude about treasure from being one of scarcity to being one of abundance. What does abundance look like? It looks like: I have enough, and enough to share. I have enough, and don’t need so much more that I cannot love God and neighbor. I have enough and do not fear giving some away because I believe that just as God has provided in the past, God will provide in the future. It looks like Isaiah 58:11. “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” This is the attitude that allows people to take their foot off the brake and put the pedal to the metal and fully engage the journey; to fully live into our potential of being followers of God.
God wants us all to reach our full potential as men and women who follow Jesus along the journey to the heart of God. For some of us, in order to reach our potential, we need to sell all and give it to the poor. For others of us, who are already on the journey and are living with an attitude of abundance, it is simply to keep our foot on the accelerator. As I look out at you all this morning, I don’t see anyone whose foot is on the break. I see generous people, willing to live into Isaiah 58. The challenge then for us is not to sell all that we have, but it is to continue along the way, along the journey of faithfulness. My challenge to you then is to simply ask yourselves this question, “How fast am I going and could I go bit faster by sharing a bit more of what I have with those in need?”
he Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 6, 2019
Genesis 41:37-40; John 14: 15-17, 25-26
“Why do you ordain women? Don’t you know the Bible doesn’t allow it.” That statement was not something I expected to hear as Cindy and I were waiting in line at Greenfield Village for a 4th of July event, several years ago. We went with friends and being there early were waiting in line with a thousand other sweating attendees. Someone how I struck up a conversation with a man behind me. We exchanged pleasantries. I learned he had worked for the State Department in Cambodia and he learned that I was a Presbyterian Minister. When he discovered my true identity, he wanted to know which Presbyterian denomination I worked for. When I told him, he said that he belonged to another Presbyterian denomination, one that only ordains men and then proceeded to ask why we ordained women. Over the years I had developed my elevator speech to answer that question, though I have not used it since I left Texas, where I used it a lot. My answer was the Paul said that there are neither male nor female in Christ; that Paul had affirmed the ministry of the pastor couple Pricilla and Aquilla; and that there had been a female Apostle, named Junia. None of that seemed to matter as he trotted the usual Bible verse that seem to oppose women’s ordination. Realizing that this conversation was not going anywhere productive. I finally said something to the effect of, “Sure there are those passages, but sometimes the Spirit teaches us something new.” As He considered how to respond to that thought, the gates opened, Cindy grabbed me and we left before his head could explode.
The Spirit teaches us something new. For many Christians this is a frightening idea. It is frightening because many of us see our faith as having a nice, neat set of rules that have been handed down from the saints of old, and that those rules are etched into stone and so therefore the Spirit has nothing new to teach us. It is as if there came a time when an iron curtain descended upon the Christian world, such that those ideas and understandings of the past could never be changed. So to say that the Spirit might teach us something new is, for some, heretical. Yet that is not at all what Jesus says in the upper room. As he and the disciples are leaving Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will (and this is my translation) continually teach you everything and continually remind you of all that I have said to you.” What does this mean? Let’s pull it apart back to front. The Spirit will remind them of all that Jesus has said. What has he said, “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus sums up all of his teachings in this one new commandment. They are to live as servants of one another, loving each other as Jesus loved them. The Spirit will continually teach them everything. What is it that they need to be taught? How to love one another in new and different situations. Jesus, I believe, understood that the church would find itself facing new and unexpected situations with each passing year. No manual of operations or rules cut in stone could cover them all. What was needed was the Spirit to be present to continually teach them how to apply the love of God in each new moment. This is why we say that the Spirit helps us live God’s love.
So what is it that we have learned that those before us did not know? What is it that the Spirit has taught us? For the church, we learned that slavery, though affirmed in the Bible, is wrong. We learned that women do not need to be subservient to men, though there seems to be that tendency in scripture. But we also learned some things here at First Pres. I say this because over the last 185 years of our history, the leadership has been almost all white men, because women were not allowed. But then about fifty years ago something began to happen. The Spirit began to teach us that God gifts men and women not only for faith but leadership. Eventually that led to women in leadership, not only as elders but as ministers, such as Louise Westfall, Amy Morgan, Joanne Blair, Kate Thoresen, Julie Madden and Bethany Peerbolte. The work of the Spirit did not end there though. It changed our understanding of inclusion and the best way to see that is to remind ourselves of our inclusion statement. “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” In other words, the Spirit has helped our church become a place where God’s love and welcome in Christ is poured out to all. It has helped us live God’s love in new and amazing ways with each passing generation.