Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sermon for October 16 -- Stewardship Sunday

The Price and Cost of Sacrifice
2 Samuel 24:18-24

“How much does it cost?” How many times have you asked that question? We are obsessed with the price of things. When we see a big house we ask, “How much does it cost?” When we see a luxury car, we say, “Look at the price tag on that!” A big part of shopping is the attempt to find the right price. Some of us will go through store circulars and drive for miles in order to save a few dollars on the price. Some stores even offer low-price guarantees. “If you find our item anywhere else for less, we will refund the difference.”

We don’t want to pay too much for something. We don’t want to pay too little, either. We like to think that a person who gets something for free gets the best value. But, that’s not usually the case. You can pay too little for something just as you can pay too much for it. I know someone who gets his room and board for free. Do you know what else? He’s homeless. His “free” room and board are provided by a homeless shelter. Are you envious? Of course not! I’m guessing you would not wait in line to receive that kind of free service. We feel pride in paying a fair price for the things we have. What we want out of life is not a handout, but a fair deal. We want to pay the right price.

The question this morning is, “What is the right price to pay for our Christian faith?” How much should we be willing to pay for the spiritual resources that help us find meaning? Listen closely to my question. I didn’t ask if we should pay for our faith. I asked, “How much?” I assume each of us will pay. The issue is: what is the right price?

Today’s reading from 2 Samuel gives us some guidance. Has your ego ever been so inflated that you made a poor decision? It happens in today’s story. God’s fumes with anger because David, once again, disobeys God. David calls for a census of the people. It seems innocent enough. However, the royal advisors know that the census results feed David’s ego. You can always be more proud of your mighty exploits if you have a firm number to back it up. The census also counts David how many eligible men to conscript into military service. If David drafts them, his army grows, and he can conquer more territory. The census is a bad idea. David knows it. He counts the people anyway. God’s anger burns against David. In an absolute monarchy, the only check and balance occurs when God corrects the king. God asks David to choose his punishment.

In our house, we play a game called “Would you rather . . .” We take turns asking another person a difficult question: would you rather be poor and popular or rich and hated? Would you rather eat worms or ants? God gives David a “would you rather” proposition: As a punishment, would you rather see your people suffer through famine, war, or plague? David chooses the plague, and then helplessly watches the agonizing death of 70,000 subjects. In heartache, David laments, “I alone have sinned. I alone have done wickedly, but these people, what have they done? Let your hands, O God, be against me.”

God tells David, “Go and make an altar to me. Make a sacrifice at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” The threshing floor is a place where grain kernels are separated and ground into flour. It’s is an image of abundance. While his people face scarcity and death, David travels to a house of plenty. Araunah, like a good citizen, offers the king his threshing floor, and everything that goes with it, for free.

If David had been a smart shopper, he would have said, “That’s a bargain I can’t pass up.” Instead, David says, “No, I don’t want it for free. I’ll buy these things from you . I’ll pay the right price. . . I will not offer burnt offerings to my God that have cost me nothing.” David knows if he makes a sacrifice that costs nothing, he cheapens his relationship with God. He pays the farmer 50 shekels of silver and God ends the plague. Later on, Araunah’s Threshing Floor will be the foundation for the Jerusalem Temple. The location of one costly offering will forever accept the sacrifices of worshippers.

One of the ironies of the Christian faith is that it’s completely free and it costs us everything. Christ offers salvation for free. We don’t pay an entry fee to get into the church. Nobody here ever sends a bill to church members.

But, once we get in the door and start worshipping God, we are asked to give something sacrificial to God, a gift that costs us something. We want to pay the right price. Every year, church members sit down and determine the right price for their offerings to God. We all know that we can’t run the church without money. The question is always, “How much?” Like David, every one of us asks, “How much is the right price for me this year? We can’t have it all for nothing. So, what is my worthy gift?”

Running the church comes with a price and a cost. The price is the bottom line of our budget. Right now, it’s about $260,000. The price pays for heat, electricity, snow removal, staff salaries and benefits, insurance, cleaning, outreach, and other day-to-day expenses of running the church. There is also a cost. Cost reflects an item’s value in alternative uses. When money is tight, we channel it funds to one area of he budget as a priority over another area. There’s only a limited amount of money to spend every year, and it can go to a number of alternative uses. When the money gets used in one area, then there is less of it to use somewhere else. So, we make decisions of how to allocate scarce resources to their most valued uses.

Time has a cost. When time is consumed in one activity, there is less to use somewhere else. The cost of our time is its value in its alternative uses. Discipleship also comes with a cost. We choose to direct spiritual commitment to alternative uses. There are tons of people and places dividing our attention and resources. Following Jesus means allocating spiritual focus on our relationship with God. As a result, someone else will not that portion of our focus. Cost is about sacrifice and obedience.

But, how much should we give? Where should we give? Some people answer, “Not much,” “Not all,” “Not here,” or “Just enough.” Such people have a small vision for the church. A small vision is not expensive.

Sometimes people have a vision that is too large for the resources available. Sometimes a cumbersome vision tempts us to build something unreasonable. The price is too high for the scarce resources that have alternative uses. I don’t think God wants us to do that. God wants us to have an appropriate vision for the church -- a vision that’s large enough to challenge the resources we have available.

It is sinful for a church to have such a small vision that it doesn’t cost much. Can you imagine a church saying, “Let’s do the absolute minimum so that it doesn’t really cost us much and we can save our resources”? Imagine if the church decided to cut down on expenses so that we could make it a bargain for the members. We could say, “This month we have enough money. We don’t want anybody to give to this church. But down at the Methodist church, they hired a new staff member and they have a new program for children, so we want all our members to give down there instead of here for this month.”

Do you think that would be what God would have this church to do? I don’t want to belong to a church that has such a small vision, and I hope you don’t. I am not campaigning for an unreasonably large vision, but I don’t want us to have a miniature vision that costs nothing. We need visions that reflect the right price for our church -- A vision that will challenge our church.

We always struggle with the right price. Many of you know that we started 2005 about $30,000 in the red for our church budget last year. We worked hard to reduce the deficit. Many people increased their pledges. We found some new renters. We ran fundraisers. Past and Present’s Shop profits help us out. We also received some very high, unexpected plumbing and insurance bills this past week. By the close of the year, we may run about a $10,00 deficit. We must not have the right vision and the right giving to reflect the cost of running the church. We also want to enlarge our vision for this year. We want to do more as a church, which means challenging our financial resources. I hope you will join me in helping our church to have the right kind of vision.

There are other aspects of stewardship. One is the commitment to prayer and worship. To be blunt, I want you here on Sunday mornings, participating in our life as a church. When you join the Rotary club and miss more than 10% of the time, they will kick you out. We have many members that miss more than 10%. We also have many members who decided, “Out of all of the alternative uses of my time on Sunday morning, I choose to worship God with my church family. I will not make offerings that cost nothing. I will not have a faith that costs me no time.”

Stewardship also involves service. The Church of the Savior in Washington DC requires every member to serve through local service organizations in their community. I wish that our church could have that kind of expectation of our members. True Christians are not self-centered, self-absorbed, and only concerned about “me, myself and I.” The basic nature of the Christian is to reach out and serve others. It means saying, “I don’t want a faith that costs nothing in terms of service.”

Some people are proud that their faith cost them nothing. Can you imagine someone saying: “I’m so happy that I go to that church, and I don’t give a dime. I’m a member of that church, and I don’t attend but 20% of the time. I’m a Christian, and I don’t serve anybody but me.”

“I give burnt offerings to God that cost me nothing.” Is that the kind of Christian you want to be? I don’t think so.

What is the price and cost of sacrifice? Steven King learned. During a commencement address, the author asked graduates what they will do with their money. He said:
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t know exactly how many millions of dollars. I’m still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I’m doing Ok . And a couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like a branch of a tree taken down by a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard? We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve King? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? . . . Just the blink of an eye."

In what will we invest our lives? Will our lives be devoted to giving or only to taking?
What is the price and cost of sacrifice for you? Think about it as we form a vision of who we are, as a church, and what we can do with generous gifts.

Works Consulted:
Anders, Dr. Mickey. “How Much Does It Cost?"
http://www.pikevillefirstchristianchurch.org/Sermons/Sermon20020407.html
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove: IVP, 1998.
Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Stackhouse, Max L., Dennis McCann, Shirely Roels, and Preston Williams. On Moral Business, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Sermon for Oct. 2, 2005 -- World Communion Sunday

Crime and Punishment
Genesis 4:1-16

We have several children’s Bibles in our house. Today’s children’s Bibles are more exciting then they used to be. Engaging stories. Colorful cartoon pictures. It’s a good thing to introducing our little ones to the rhythms of Scripture. We hope the stories will fasten to them throughout their lives. My five-year-old’s Bible storybook takes complicated stories and reduces them to a half dozen simple sentences. Here’s what Genesis 4 is condensed to: Adam and Eve had two sons. Their names were Cain and Abel. Abel obeyed God, but Cain did not obey God. Cain was angry and killed Abel. This was wrong. Adam and Eve were very sad. God was sad, too.

We hope that some day our kids will move on from the simple stories of their children’s Bible to deeper understandings of the stories. It’s hope I have for all of us – that we grow to engage the Scriptures as critical thinkers. Often, our understanding of Bible stories is what we learned in Sunday school. We are adults who still carrying around the flannelgraph versions of the Bible. The version of the story I read to you a moment ago said flat out that “Cain did not obey God.” One of the higher-level children’s Bibles I have says that God didn’t like Cain from the beginning because “Cain was cold and proud and self-willed.” We hold on to those images even as adults. We assume that Cain came out of Eve’s womb as the spawn of Satan while Abel was born as Mamma’s Little Lamb. We remember how in Sunday School we were taught that this story was “The First Murder,” and we assume that Genesis 4 is in the Bible to teach us about the spread of sin.

Of course, there’s some to all of that, but it’s not the whole truth. Let’s go to the story and see if we can read it in a new way. It begins simply enough: Adam and Eve start a family. They have two sons. Cain, the big brother, grows into a farmer. Abel, the little brother, becomes a shepherd. We are told nothing else about Cain or Abel. They seem to be decent, hard-working sons. They are both religious people, so they honor God by giving offerings--a sacrifice specific to each man’s vocation. Each offers some of the product of his work. Cain brings some produce from his gardens and Abel brings some firstborn animals from his flocks.

For some reason, God like’s Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Why? Is Cain really proud and self-willed? Is God trying to rub it in Cain’s face that he’s the Bad Seed? Is God anti-vegetarian? Was there something wrong with Cain’s crops? Maybe God really does like the little brother best. Maybe the difference is that Cain kept back the best produce for himself while Abel willingly offered some of the very best. Maybe Cain’s devotion to God was lukewarm while Abel expressed enthusiastic piety.

For some reason, God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We are not told why. But since we don’t want God to come off as arbitrary, we try to figure out what was wrong with Cain’s offering. We don’t know why. Cain does, and it upsets him. He’s angry. And sad. And depressed. Why didn’t God like his worship? It’s not a bad question. Cain will soon be guilty of something rather horrible--so terrible as to make whatever was wrong with his sacrifice look trivial by comparison.

We have another assumption about the story. God didn’t like Cain. After the murder, God rejects Cain forever. I don’t see that in the text. God’s words to Cain aren’t harsh. God expresses concern for Cain’s well being. Whatever is wrong with Cain’s attitude, it is not so bad that Cain is helpless. God suggests that with some effort, Cain can wrestle temptation to the ground and become the master over it instead of the victim. Did Cain wonder about this at all? Did he try to wrestle with his frustrations and angers? We don’t know because the story wastes no time in hauling Abel out into the field where the deadly deed is done.

Did you notice that Abel never speaks? He never says a word. Abel doesn’t make a sound until his blood cries out from the ground. The only words of Abel are the cries of the innocent victim of violence and abuse. Abel’s cry pierces God’s ears. Cain can’t get away with the crime. God says to Cain, “Listen! Don’t you hear the blood crying out!?” Apparently he did not. Neither do we most of the time.

Crime goes on and on. So does its punishment. It’s like a farmer who sows poison into the soil of his fields. As Cain spills his brother’s blood onto the ground, now nothing will grow for him. Cain the farmer is literally up-rooted from the ground. He is a restless wanderer on the earth. He won’t be able to sink down roots anymore. He moves to the land of Nod, which is Hebrew for “wanderland.” He is punished with a living death. So Killer Cain begs God to please not let the same fate come to him!

You almost expect God to tell Cain, “Tough luck, buddy! You chose death and so now you need to face your own death.” God never says it. Humanity chooses death but God insists on life. God knows that the cycle of violence needs to be snapped. Cain will not suffer Abel’s fate. God marks Cain to show that God protects him. It’s bad enough that Abel’s blood screams in God’s ears. God can’t bear to hear Cain's blood shout out, too. God chooses life in the face of death.

Somehow, through it all, God loves Cain. Who knows why--he doesn’t seem terribly loveable. God saves Cain while Abel’s blood still screams. If we hold those two images in tension, we you are approaching the mystery of the gospel. Many children’s Bibles show a picture of Cain whomping Abel on the head with a rock or a stick. It’s terrible. But that is not the final image of Genesis 4. We are left with a pool of Abel’s blood, crying and screaming into God’s ear. It pains God to hear it and so he has his hands cupped over his ears. Yet at the same moment God is bending down and kissing Cain’s forehead, protecting Cain for life!

Screaming blood and kissing lips. Justified punishment and gracious salvation. Cain’s bloody hands and God’s mark of protection on Cain’s forehead. The images collide and bewilder. Why does God keep insisting on life? Why doesn’t the cry of Abel’s blood have the last word? Why? Because only God may have the last word, and that word is life.

Does all this talk about innocent blood remind you of someone else? How about Jesus? The blood of Jesus has something to say-- the shed blood of the innocent always speaks to us. Abel’s blood cried out to God with screams of horror and injustice. Christ’s’ blood cries out, too, and it shouts words of life. God didn’t let anyone shed Cain’s blood because cycles of violence and death must stop. Something needed to be done to restore God’s creation. That something is found in the sacrifice of God’s Son. Here is the final and ultimate innocent victim whose blood is shed unjustly. Jesus' blood does not scream, it sings; it does not cry, it croons; it does not darken into a pool of death but becomes a fountain of life.

Cain chose death and could never quite settle down again because of it. East of Eden there was only restlessness and wandering. Cain set us up for a whole history of restless wandering--the land of Nod has been most everywhere, it seems. Meanwhile, in all our restless search for answers and identity, the blood of the innocent keeps getting shed. The cries from the blood-soaked soil in lower Manhattan must send God reeling, but no less also the cries from the soils of Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and everywhere that people die as one group keeps trying to gain mastery over another.

Cain set our human race to wandering, unable to sink down roots into the soil we have sullied. Jesus grants us rest and a settled place to sink down roots into his love and grace. Cain brings us to Nod. Jesus brings us home. Abel’s blood speaks of death and injustice. Jesus' blood speaks life and grace.

As we come to communion, we remember the sacrifice of Christ. We come as those who are brought from death to life. As we come, let’s remember the times we have chosen death over life. Sadly, it happens too easily. But death doesn’t get the final word. Even when we choose death, we are loved and protected by God. God always chooses life over death.

Sources:
"Hearing Abel, Raising Cain" by Scott Hoezee, http://www.calvincrc.org/sermons/topics/genesis/genesis4.html

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