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Sermon for October 19, 2008 -- Stewardship Sunday

A Letter from Home
2 Corinthians 9:1-15

Dear Matt,
Tragedy struck The Jerico Springs Progressive Church of the Ozarks last Sunday afternoon. It was the day of our church’s monthly potluck. We were looking forward to some of our favorite recipes: Adelaide’s Tuna and Sardine Casserole, Bea Jimsons Baked Frito and Velveeta Pie (You remember Bea Jimson, Woodchuck’s wife?), Lucille Collins’ Squash and Ritz Casserole, and Willadoll Broadfoot’s Baked Peekabeef Muffins. I was planning on fixin’ my usual recipe – your Grandma Beydler’s famous Honey Lamb Biscuits. But, I decided that Sunday was a day for change, and I had a hankerin’ for green bean casserole. I guess I wasn’t the only one. As we arrived for Sunday dinner and uncovered our dishes, every one of ‘em to the bowl was a green bean casserole. Marilyn Perkins, supervisor of the potluck committee, watched in horror as family after family arrived with the same side dish in tow. By the time grace was said over the meal, there were over twenty-five green bean casseroles lining the buffet table with no meat dish in sight.

Marilyn Perkins was shook up real bad. She gave a report about it to our local paper the Jerico Pioneer. Through her tears she said, “I keep my mind on scary stories from other churches about excess country chicken or johnnycakes, but you never think it’s going to happen to your church. All I could think at the time was, ‘Why us, Lord… why us?’” Aftershocks from the church disaster were felt throughout the community as Schnuck’s Supermarket reported a shortage of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and French’s french fried onions. A few brave church members weathered the green bean avalanche by using large amounts of sweet tea to wash it down, while others, dazed and hungry, fled to their homes. A small posse of survivors, led by Jimmy Perkins, found shelter at a nearby McDonald’s. Jimmy doesn’t usually that clear headed. I was proud of him. He tripped while helping other members cross the parking lot to the golden arches. I’ll never forget him lying there in the dirt parking lot, screaming, “Save yourself!” Pastor Sanford plans to hold a special service next Sunday to help his congregation deal with the emotional toll of “green bean incident” as it’s now being called. Pastor Sanford was quoted in the Jerico Pioneer saying, “This is a hard time for my flock and I’m not sure the Bible has all the answers for a tragedy like this. I mean, come on! That’s a lot of green bean casserole, even for the Ozarks.”

Theories abounded as to why this catastrophe took place. It’s likely due to the 25 cent sale on Libby’s green beans at Shnuck’s. The main theological issue under debate is whether this is all part of God’s sovereign decree or the tragic outcome of people’s free will exercising the right to bring a side dish to church. Bea Jimson, of course, thinks it’s God’s judgment. At women’s circle the other night she just kept sayin’, over and over, “I’ve told them for twenty years they shouldn’t be calling it pot-luck. That’s an affront to an Almighty God who doesn’t deal in luck. I just hope this egregious sin against God doesn’t ruin my chances to win the lottery. I’m feeling pretty good about my numbers this week. Cross my fingers.”

The good news is that phase two of our building project is finally finished. Took longer than a Texas Highway, but it’s done. Remember how I told you about our church renovations a few years ago? Pastor Sanford decided we needed more room so as we could put together some programs for children and families. Well, the old building never had any indoor plumbing, neither. Us old timers got wearied of trekking like the Israelites through the wilderness to use the facilities. The new building got indoor plumbing. Some say it’s an extravagance. I say it’s an amenity a long in coming. We held the ribbon-cutting ceremony for their brand new indoor facilities the Sunday before the green bean disaster. Throughout the sermon, people would take turns hurrying to the restroom whether they had to go or not. It was a new thing that needed to be enjoyed while it was fresh and exciting. Bea Jimson thinks that our new facilities will usher in a new era of superiority for our church. I’m just happy to have a sink indoors.

Church attendance was up 10 percent that day. Once word got out that indoor plumbing can boost church attendance, some of the other churches in town started planning their own building improvements as a way to lure new members to their pews. This kind of thing had happened before, of course. A few years ago, the Church of the Amalgamated Brethren across town implemented their own “church growth initiative” when they were the first church in town to install air conditioning, otherwise known as “a box fan in the window.” Not only did their attendance increase, but a few members from other churches (including The Jerico Progressive Church) changed allegiances and joined the Amalgamated Brethren. Suddenly religion had a purpose during the long hot summer.

Of course, now we have to pay for all of these improvements. Which means that Pastor Sanford has been speaking a lot about money lately. He wants people to think about how they spend their money – what’s most important. A few weeks ago he used a visual demonstration to add some emphasis to his sermon. He found four worms and brought them into the church. The worms were placed in four separate jars. The first worm was put into a jar of whiskey, the second worm was put into a jar of smoke, the third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup and the fourth worm was put into a jar of good, clean soil. At the end of the sermon, Pastor Sanford reported the following results … the worms in the jars of whiskey, cigarette smoke, and chocolate syrup were all dead – but the worm in the good, clean soil was alive. He asked us asked us, “What can we learn from this demonstration?” Without even raising her hand, Bea Jimson called out: “As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won't have worms.” Now Bea Jimson doesn’t like our Pastor at all. She says Pastor Sanford caters too much to everyone else. Of course, it’s not in Bea’s nature to like a preacher. I doubt that Jesus would have been hired if she were on the search committee. I’m sure he would have disappointed her somehow. The Apostle Paul would have definitely given her fits. I once overheard her tell the preacher “If God were still alive, he’d be shocked at some of the changes you’re making!” Pastor Sanford doesn’t back away from Bea. He says a church that never asks for money is a church that is either dead or dying. A church that does nothing needs nothing.

Bea isn’t what you’d call a cheerful giver, bless her heart. I don’t think God wants us to give in order to get something back. That’s not how Jesus did it. Jesus said that the secret of life is very simple. Those who want to hoard life will lose it, and are already losing it. Those who are willing to risk life will gain life. When you hoard your life, it means you hardly dare live. To give up your life, means to go outside yourself – to love, to spend yourself. Giving is one way of expressing our enthusiasm for life. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the Apostle Paul said it, and it is worth repeating – God loves a cheerful giver. One Bible I read says it like this: God loves a hilarious giver. Some churches want you to “gives until it hurts.” In my estimation, that’s a terrible thing today. After all these years, I’ve found that the person who gives until it feels so good – until it’s great, until it’s fun, until it’s a real joy – that’s the person who finds great satisfaction in life.

I’ll never forget a story I heard about Cletus Simms. Cletus was considered to be of no account. I know for a fact that the only truck he ever had was the 1967 Ford F-150 that was given to him by his daddy Lemuel Simms as he lay gasping on his death bed after being runned over by the very same truck twenty three years ago. Cletus used to some bushhoggin’ around the pond for me from time to time. But he couldn’t make it on the farm any more – ended up moving to the city of Lickskillet to find work. He lived in rented room at the YMCA. He had one set of clothes, shoes wrapped with rubber bands to keep his soles from flopping, and a thread-bare overcoat. He spent his mornings napping in an old metal chair by the heater in the back of the Police Station. Two of the deputies took an interest in Cletus, occasionally slipping him a few bucks. They found out that Max, over at Max’s Diner, gave Cletus a hot breakfast every morning, no charge. The deputies decided to have Cletus over as their guests for Christmas dinner one year. Cletus carefully unwrapped the presents they gave him with a big smile on his grubby face. As they drove him back to the YMCA, Cletus asked, “Are these presents really mine to keep?” The deputies said yes. Then Cletus had a bright idea. He said, “Just bring me over to Max’s Diner before I go home. With that, Cletus began rewrapping his presents. When they walked into the diner, Max was there as always, cleaning counters and making coffee. Cletus went up to Max and said, “You’ve been good to me, Max. Now I can be good to you.” No Account Cletus gave all his presents away on the spot.

Kind of reminds me of what your Grandma Beydler used to say, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.” It applies to giving too. We think that the easy way is to worry, and strive, and have fits when we don’t think that we have enough. But that sounds hard to me, don’t you think? The hard way is being so consumed with worry that we make empty promises, or cut corners, or make bad decisions based on bein’ scared. I find it’s a whole lot easier to give cheerfully and generously. That’s what God has done for us. God is good to us when we forget God’s even there. God just gives and gives and gives, and invites us to give in return. God loves a cheerful giver. It’s not just a cliché. It’s a reminder of the commitment God shows us, no strings attached. Does that mean we quit our jobs and sit around singing Kum Ba Yah while we wait for God to drop gold from the sky? No. We still work hard and show some good judgment. We put our faith in God, we remember that God’s reputation is one the line because there’s a promise out there that God will give us everything we need. That’s what Paul meant when he said we got to believe when we give. God can pour on the blessing in astonishing ways so that we are ready for anything and everything – more than just ready to do what needs to be done.”

There I go a-preachin’ again. Say hi to the little ones for me. And remind those Yankees up in Connecticut how good God is. I gotta go – have a little job to take care of. I’ll tell you about it next time. All I’ll say is this – a general rule of thumb -- If somebody tells you to come look in the sink, don’t.

All my love,
Aunt Georgia


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