Thanksgivukkah

As we approach another Thanksgiving feast, among the many things I am grateful for are those of you who read my posts in this blog. The number of views this month has been phenomenal and heartwarming, and I thank you all for the encouragement it gives me to feel the appreciation and support I draw from knowing that my words in some small way matter to you. I send my best wishes to you and yours for a most blessed Thanksgiving.

In a rare alignment of calendars, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah both fall on November 28 this year, and some people are calling it “Thanksgivukkah.” The two celebrations fit together well because both are opportunities give thanks for God’s blessings and renew our trust in God to provide what we really need in life. Today’s Columbus Dispatch had a great reminder if you, like me, need a refresher course in Jewish history: “Hanukkah commemorates the reclamation by the Maccabees of the Second Jewish Temple [in Jerusalem] after it was desecrated by Syrian Greeks in the second century B.C.E. The Maccabees found only one day’s worth of suitable oil to fuel the menorah, but it miraculously lasted for eight days.”

By way of counterpoint, that great source of wisdom, Facebook, gave me a friend’s post today from Somee Cards that says, “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.”

Both stories made me pause to ask myself how thankful I really am, and how much do I really trust God to provide what really matters in life. The first line of Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” How much of what drives us in life are wants masquerading as needs? That’s an important question any time, but especially this week.

I remember worshipping several years ago at a small church in a low income urban neighborhood where material blessings were hard to come by. We sang one of my favorite hymns that day, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” During the singing of that great hymn my attention was drawn to a member of the choir, a woman who is totally blind. As I looked at the pure joy and peace on her face as we sang the words, “All I have needed Thy hand has provided,” I was moved to tears of humility and shame. How often do I throw myself a pity party for some irritating inconvenience or minor ailment, while others suffer the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with grace and gratitude?

My prayer this Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and for the consumer-driven madness of Black Friday is for a simple faith in the providence of a God who takes one day’s oil and says, “Trust me. You’ve got enough.”

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Thanks for Not Nice People

Can you name all 12 tribes of Israel? No, don’t Google it. Many years ago I had to admit to my church youth group that I couldn’t either. We were at a summer mission work camp in Virginia where instead of just giving each work team a number or a letter, some creative soul decided to name each team after one of the 12 tribes of Israel. You will recall from the book of Genesis that those tribes were named after Jacob’s 12 sons. The challenge to name all 12 arose because at our work camp we only had 10 teams; so two of the tribes were not named.

Inquiring minds want to know these things, and it provided a teachable moment. So in the church van on the way back to Ohio at the end of the week we asked our youth if any of them could name the two missing tribes. No one could, of course; so we invited the kids to pull out their Bibles and see if they could solve the mystery. It was a great way to keep them occupied on the long trip home, and turned into a much better spontaneous Bible study than most I have planned in advance.

While digging around in Genesis the youth found a lot of interesting R-rated stories that they had never learned in Sunday School. They discovered that those 12 sons of Jacob came from 4 different women, and Jacob was only married to two of them. Yes he had two wives, Rachel and Leah, and if you don’t know the story of how that happened, it’s very interesting drama in Genesis 29. The youth also found tales of incest and adultery, and other stupid human tricks that would make good soap opera episodes.

After they had shared several of these unseemly stories with each other, one of the young women turned to me and said, “Those aren’t very nice people! What are they doing in the Bible?” Excellent question and the answer is that fallible human beings are all God has to work with. It’s like when Jesus’ critics asked why he ate with sinners. Because if he didn’t he would always have to eat alone!

What I love about the biblical narratives is that they are not sugar-coated Hallmark movies but honest stories about how messy life is. The characters (in every sense of the word) are just like you and me, and the good news is that there is a place in God’s story for all of us, from Abraham to Zechariah, from Bathsheba to Mary Magdalene, not because of our many faults, but in spite of them. Thanks be to God who is faithful, especially when we aren’t.

By the way, the two missing tribes were Zebulun and Issachar.

“Radical Generosity”

A preacher stood up to preach one of those dreaded sermons on stewardship, i.e. Money. Her church was experiencing some challenging times financially. She told them that they all knew the church was getting stale and stagnant. She reminded them they had just sung that old Avery and Marsh hymn, “We are the Church,” which says, “the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.”

“A people on the move,” she said, raising her voice. “This church has been resting too long and there is too much need in the world. We’re gonna make this church get up and start moving if we have to crawl at first.” Someone in the choir cheered the preacher on by saying, “Make it crawl, preacher, make it crawl!”

“We will,” she said, surprised at this enthusiasm. “And after we get it crawling, we’re gonna make this church get up and walk.” “Make it walk, preacher, make it walk!” came a voice from the other side of the sanctuary. Really excited now, the preacher upped the volume and said, “And after we learn to walk, we’re gonna make this church run, my friends, we’re gonna make it run!” “Make it run, preacher, make it run!!!” shouted a whole section of the congregation in unison. “Yes, we will. With God’s help we will,” she said, “And to make it run, we need more money!” In the back row, one old timer stood up and said, “Let it crawl, preacher, let it crawl!!!”

A theology of generosity is based on the belief that we do not ask for money to fund a church budget. Budgets and numbers don’t inspire generosity. Giving out of duty or obligation or a sense of guilt may pay the bills, but it won’t build a healthy Christian community on fire for doing God’s work. Instead we ask people to be more generous for their own spiritual growth because to be more generous is to be more like God.

I was privileged recently to work with Summit United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio. That church has a generosity team that has created an excellent statement entitled “Toward a Theology of Generosity.” If I may paraphrase a bit, that statement says that we are generous because it is part of our natural identity as children of God. We are created in the image of a gracious and generous God, but we know that image gets a little tarnished and corrupted by worldly things. So we need regular attitude adjustments to let our God-given generosity shine through. Summit’s statement says, “Extravagant generosity transforms who we are and what we are about. Because the choice to live in this way goes against a culture of consumerism and individualism, when we actively decide to live this way, it is both an intentional and subversive choice.”

I can’t tell you how much fun it is to hear a church talk about being subversive as a positive attribute of Christian discipleship. That’s the kind of thing that makes Summit such an exciting congregation. Summit gets it – that the church is not just about comforting the afflicted, but it is also about afflicting the comfortable, challenging the status quo and offering a Godly vision of what real community looks like.

There are a couple of key words in those sentences from Summit’s statement:”transform,” “choice” and “decide.” Generosity is an intentional choice that we decide to make, and like any worthwhile skill it takes practice and cultivation and inspiration, or we fall back onto the wide path of popular culture that leads to destruction. The word “decide” is an interesting word. Life coach Kary Oberbrunner, recently pointed out to a group of us that the suffix to that word, the “cide” part, is the same suffix that is in words like pesticide, genocide, homicide, suicide. Get the common theme? Those are all words that describe killing in one form or another, and to de-cide is also to kill. It is to kill other options by choosing the one that we will intentionally follow.

That’s why decision making is so difficult – because we know we are cutting off other options and we mourn for those we have to let go. For example – when you decide to follow a career path, or pick a college or course of study, you close off or kill other alternatives that you could choose to follow. When you decide to get married, you’d better kill off your desires to be with other partners, or that marriage is doomed. Be forewarned that when we let God influence our decision making, the outcomes often look different that we expected. When I graduated from Ohio State University many years ago my big plan was to buy a Corvette and go to California. Know what I did? I bought a VW and went to seminary!

Pope Francis is such an exciting breath of fresh air in the Roman Catholic Church because of his generous attitude toward the poor and oppressed. He said recently, “If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves.” The gospel frees us from slavery to selfishness and transforms us into the generous people we were created to be by our gracious and generous God.

We are transformed so we can go out and transform the world into a place of justice and generosity. How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Where does the spirit of generosity come from? Where does the power come from that can transform selfish, fearful souls into daring witnesses and martyrs who transform the world? [For a more detailed discussion of how that is possible, please see my post on 10/31/13 of my sermon on John 20:19-22 where the risen Christ empowers the disciples for the ministry set before them.]

That power frees the giver within us. I recently learned that the word “give” appears in the Bible 2172 times, but if you add up all the times the words “believe,” “pray,” and “love” appear, they total only 1421. That surprised me at first, but then I realized that giving is really belief, prayer, and love in action, in concrete tangible forms. A news story in a small town weekly newspaper brought that point home to me last week. A young mentally handicapped woman was seen taking money out of a fountain in the town square in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and someone called the police. She had taken a grand total of $2.47 because she was hungry and had no food for herself or her pets. A reporter for the weekly paper followed up on the police report, but he then decided to do more than just report Deidre’s story. He set up a website and used social media to make an appeal for donations to help Deidre. Generosity spread from that initial act of kindness and a total of $13000 and counting has been raised from sources all over the world to help Deidre. Sharing is contagious, and so is selfishness. We can choose which to follow.

To decide to follow the path of radical generosity is to say no to the false teachings of the prosperity gospel or the limiting beliefs of a scarcity mentality. If we allow God’s spirit of abundant generosity to help us make the right choices, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crawl, walk and run outside our comfort zones into the world God calls us to serve.

We all need God’s power to live generously, and church leaders, clergy and lay, especially need that power to be transformed so we can inspire and model radical generosity for the others in the church and community. Summit UMC’s theology of generosity statement ends with these words: “We want to build a grassroots movement. Where there is a wider group of people who are filled with the Spirit of generosity and ready to respond, people get excited about the ripple effects as ambassadors.”

In other words, generosity is contagious, and our job is to start an epidemic!!!

[Originally written for Summit UMC’s leadership dinner, November 3, 2013]