Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon for October 25, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Religion and War
Mark 13:1-31

Onward, Christian Paintball Soldiers! Did you know there is a group called the Christian Paintball Players Association? One of the Association’s most famous paint ball fields is called Promised Land Paintball in Trevor, Wisconsin. Promised Land Paintball Park has special rates for church youth groups, scouts, and others. Promised Land Park brings the Gospel to the paintball community, becoming a living example of God’s word as you being non-Christian friends and share your faith in Jesus with on the paintball field. If you really want to make a statement, make sure to buy some Christian paintball t-shirts through Lion’s Pride Christian paintball gear. It’s popular for paintball teams to post pictures and descriptions of their gear online. Christian paintball teams do the same thing. Take, for instance, “Neplusultra” whose skull-capped logo features a team motto from the book of Psalms: Praise be to the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle (Ps 144:1).

Promised Land Paintball Park is also a Department of Defense Contractor. Visiting military troops are completely outfitted with all required paintball equipment and given a comprehensive “Troop Briefing” that explains the missions. Here’s how a typical special game day might look: In addition to good ol’ Capture the Flag games, you can play unusual scenario games with a plot and a mission! Scenario 1: Outlaw Island. The year is 2008 and the public is tired of paying for an out of control prison system. The answer . . . Outlaw Island where you and your fellow inmates fight for some of the most disgusting food on the planet! Scenario 2 : The Nuke. The “bad guys” want to nuke the area with a suitcase Nuclear Bomb. The bomb has a count-down timer visible from the outside so you can see how long you have to disarm it - just like the movies! Your Mission: Disarm “The Nuke” before you’re all vaporized! Yes, Promised Land Paintball actually have a “Nuke Simulator” complete with a big electronic count down timer! Scenario3: Command & Conquer. Seven Flag Stations and huge hills and valleys on an enormous field make this the biggest and most challenging game of them all!. Capture and defend strongholds - lowering as many enemy flags as you can and raising your own in victory! And the best part of Promised Land Paintball? Pastors, youth pastors, and their wives, get to play totally free of charge (I guess woman pastors aren’t allowed).

Hey, I have a scenario for you. Someone sneaks a video camera to a paintball fight at Promised Land Paintball. The camera captures pictures of children in urban combat gear and facemasks, shooting at each other as their religious leaders give instructions, and look on the scene with approving smiles. Imagine that the video gets sent to Al Jazeera, who plays the clip for the entire Muslim world to see. Can you imagine the lead story? "Look at the American Christians, training their kids for war." The Muslim world is already convinced that America is trying to take them over. What more “proof” would they need?

Picture another scenario. Most of us know the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” It is an innocent, beloved hymn, right? What would happen if Americans heard Muslims singing that song with only one word change: “Onward Muslim soldiers, marching as to war”? Doesn’t sound so innocent anymore, does it?

Is religion dangerous? Do religions cause wars?

Christianity is not without its dangerous doctrines. From time to time, these doctrines give rise to violence and wars. Actually, there is no religious system without potential dangers. Religions have tortured and killed those who have “wrong” beliefs. Religions discriminate against outsiders, regarding them as enemies of God. At times, some religions have imposed their beliefs on entire societies, repressing all other forms of worship. There have been religious wars, persecutions, and hatreds. Whether we are conservative or liberal, these outbursts of religious violence should fill us with horror. There is no denying that they happened. They are inexcusable. How could a faith like Christianity, which appears to be pacifistic in its origins, become a religion of warrior knights and inquisitors?

We must admit that there are many pages in the Bible that drip with blood. Hundreds of verses pertain to killing, violence or war. Our own scriptures portray God as a Divine Warrior. God is the first warrior. By the power of God victory is accomplished. God calls the people and guides them to battle (Judg. 20:18; 1 Sam. 6:8-10; 14:6-10; 30:6-20; 2Sam. 5:17-25). The decision to go to war is not simply left to the discretion of the king or leaders of the land. God decides when the time for war has come. In today’s Gospel reading, we hear about a cosmic battle -- wars and rumors of wars, en end-time apocalypse with images to send even the bravest souls to bed with nightmares. Jesus’ words indict the violence of the Imperial Roman war machine that confined the hopes of his people through military occupation.

Even though the pages of Scripture are often bloody, there are also words filled with longing for peace. There are visions of peace, promised by God. Jesus worked nonviolently as he called people into his community of disciples and taught them to ready themselves to walk in his way. Throughout his life he battled evil but never entered the battle with a force of arms. He fought with the word of truth, the power of love and the signs and wonders of God. He called his followers to prepare themselves, not to kill or destroy in the name of their opposition to evil, but to endure suffering as they sought to serve his cause and be like him. From Luke Jesus is reported as saying:
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:27-36).
What do we do with these mixed messages? Is religion dangerous? Does religion cause wars?

Actually, most wars in human history have not been religious wars. For instance, look at WWI and WWII. These wars involved desire for territory, national pride, and aspirations to extend imperial control. Religion was used to call people to national duty, but these wars were not about supporting religious doctrine. Let’s look at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both have strong religious dimensions. But the wars are a so about ethnicity, identity, power struggles, oil, inequality and oppression as the root causes of violence. Religion is used in support when possible, but these are not really holy wars. There’s a group called the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank focused on international security. The IISS has named over 260 armed non-state groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only a minority of them have religious ideals.

My point is, religion can play a part in violent conflict. And while many Western media seem obsessed with religious threats, it turns out that genuine religious wars are few. Where religion is a factor, it is called upon to give support to other causes of conflict. Religions don’t usually cause wars. People cause wars, and they use religion was a justification for their actions. It’s important for religious groups to become aware of their potential to be used for violent ends. Religious groups need to understand that they can be used to inflame conflict.

We need to ask another question. Can religion be a force for peace? Religions need to find ways to encourage the central messages of their faiths that call for peace and reconciliation. Without religion, there will still be wars and violence on earth. With religion, we at least have a chance that the generous voices of our best founders can be heard with greater clarity. With religion, there is at least a chance that goodness may flourish on earth.

War is contrary to the will of God. While the use of violent force may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, Christ pronounces his blessing on the peacemakers. God calls us to live in communities shaped by peace and cooperation. We need to reject policies that lead communities to hopelessness. We proclaim that God created us for each other, and so our security depends on the well being of our global neighbors. Instead of warfare as a solution to conflict, God calls us to be advocates for those who are most vulnerable in our society. Each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth. The earth itself belongs to God and is intrinsically good. We have a biblical mandate to welcome strangers. to heal the sick, and to enjoy right relationship with each other.

Good people, religious people do harmful things. However, peace is the will of God for all creation. The disruption of peace was the result of the fragmentation of right relations. I am convinced that, from a religious perspective, war is wrong. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. Our religious traditions require that when we exercise power, we reflect deeply on the consequences of our actions and the true source of peace and security.

Chiseled into the walls at United Nations headquarters in New York are words taken from the Hebrew prophet Micah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” That is our vision. More than ever, we need to be dedicated to making it a reality.

A Prayer:
God, we pray for our world, a world in need of paths to peace. We pray for a world in which we might learn that differences of faith, of race, of nation, need not separate us. We pray that this world, which may be further divided by this war, can become one where there is less hatred and more understanding. There is only one destiny on this small blue planet, and there are no other hands but ours. So let us, as one people, pray, finally, for the courage and the wisdom to find a path that leads to both peace and justice.


Sources:
http://www.promisedland.com/
http://chuckcurrie.blogs.com/chuck_currie/2006/10/a_sermon_on_chr.html
http://www.neplusultrapaintball.com
http://www.lionspridepaintball.com
Ward, Keith. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 56-54
Allen, Jospeh. War: A Primer for Christians. Nashville: Abingdom, 1991.
http://www.ncccusa.org/news/03news47.html
http://archive.uua.org/president/030320prayer.html

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sermon for October 18, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Religion, Violence, and Evil
Luke 9:51-5; 1 Samuel 15:3-8
Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.” So Saul mobilized his army at Telaim. There were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 men from Judah. Then Saul and his army went to a town of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. Saul sent this warning to the Kenites: “Move away from where the Amalekites live, or you will die with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites packed up and left. Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt. He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else.
What an ugly passage. It is a word from God for the King of Israel to wipe out an entire people. In our holy of scriptures, we hear a command to commit genocide. And it’s not our only terrifying text. Read the Bible closely and you will see stories that endorse punishing the children and grandchildren, of a sinner (Exodus 20:5-6), using torture against captives (2 Samuel 12:26-31), legal rape of female prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18; Deuteronomy 21:11-14), slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Colossians 4:1), religious intolerance, and transferring punishment of sin from the guilty to the innocent (Gen. 3:5-6, Genesis 6:5-13; Leviticus 16:8-34). Our Christian Scriptures are not exempt, as we hear in our reading from Luke. As Jesus preaches peace, his disciples are ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy their enemies. In Christian history, texts have been found to “prove” that Jews are Christ killers. What is going on here? We need a way to deal with these stories, these texts of terror. In a world where there are those who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we need to be explicit about how we handle these passages of Scripture. How does one argue with a Divine command to wipe out a people?

The fact is some people don’t ague. They think that their religious texts give them permission to do evil and call it good. Most of us have some to believe that Islam is this kind of religion, especially after 9/11. The most distressing feature of terrorism by Islamic extremists is that that the perpetrators believe that they have the right to murder people in order to achieve religious and political goals. The religiously motivated bombings and attacks by terrorist Muslim groups are too numerous to be listed. Among them are:
• 2005: Delhi bombing
• 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh bombing
• 2005: London Underground bombing
• 2004: Beslan school occupation by Chechens
• 2004: Madrid trains bombing
• 2002: Bali nightclub bombing
• 2001: World Trade Center and Pentagon crashes
• 1998: U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania bombings
• 1988: Lockerbie crash
A significant percentage of North Americans blame all Muslims and/or all Arabs for terrorist acts. Others blame all fundamentalists within Islam. But in fact, the responsibility rests with extreme, radical, violent, fundamentalist Muslims; a numerically small group among the world’s approximately 1.2 billion Muslims.

Islam is not the only religion that has committed acts of violence in the name of God. Jewish terrorist actions are performed on a much smaller scale, and are limited to the Near East. Among the best known cases of Jewish terrorism is the 1994 machine-gunning of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the town of Hebron. A single terrorist killed 29 people and wounded about 150 before being killed himself. The killer, Baruch Goldstein, was an American medical doctor. He became a hero to the extremists, and the marble plaque on his grave reads: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the Nation of Israel”.

And yes, Christians do it, too. While religiously motivated terrorist actions by Christians are relatively rare in the West, verbal expressions of intolerance are far more widespread. Consider the following pronouncements by various Christian leaders: In 1980, Bailey Smith, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., made national news by announcing that “God does not hear the prayers of a Jew.” At the 2002 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Vines denounced Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” He also condemned religious diversity as a major problem in America. There is a recent movement in Protestant Christianity called The Recontructionist movement. It claims that the coming reign of Jesus will abolish democracy, the separation of church and state, abortion, religious freedom, federal welfare programs, and many other features of modern society.

There are many additional examples of violence committed by religious people all over the world. For example: The assassination of Sri Lanka’s prime minister by a Buddhist monk. Buddhism strictly prohibits killing of any sentient life form, by the way. How about the bomb that destroyed an Air India Boeing 747 over the Atlantic, killing all 329 people abroad? Both Sikh and Kashmiri terrorists were blamed (although these attacks were probably motivated by political reasons and not by religion).

Whether ancient or modern, violence in God’s name knows no boundaries. All religions have engaged in sacred terror, including widow burning, child sacrifice, caste systems, mass suicide, female genital mutilation, witch hunts, ritual abuse, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, and apartheid—the list is depressingly long. Christians killed thousands in the Crusades and Inquisitions, defended slavery, were complicit in the Holocaust that killed six million Jews, ravaged the Native American peoples, and have murdered abortion doctors and gays, and their actions were somewhat based on their interpretation of selected biblical texts. What do we do with these texts? How do wee handle these “hard passages” in the Bible that appear to conflict with today’s moral consensus? There are some profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in the Bible when it’s compared to today’s secular and religious ethical systems. These passages cast religion in a bad light. They cause many people to reject religion, and may contribute to the legitimization of violence throughout the culture.

Is Religion Dangerous? Do we need to edit our Bibles and eliminate texts of terror? Let’s just get to the point. Religion is not bad. Religion is not evil. Religion is not dangerous. However, people can be bad, evil and dangerous. They can use religion as a way to support what they want to do. Any Muslim who cites the Qur’an or Hadith to support their view that Islam should forcibly convert the world to Islam, stands in direct opposition to every scholarly tradition of Islam. The term jihad, which means “striving”, is primarily meant to mean the heart’s striving to obey God. Jihad as violent force is a secondary meaning. Most Muslim scholars say that violent jihad is confined to the defense of Islam against unjust attack.

Any Jew who calls for the conquest of Egypt, Syria and Iraq by Israel would be regarded as demented by virtually all Rabbis. The biblical command to take care of foreigners who live in the Holy Land far outweighs any texts about holy war or conquest.

The vast majority of Christian churches regret Crusades and pogroms. Most of us interpret these as misunderstandings of Jesus’ command to love enemies and seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.

Religious Scriptures can be misused. When we do that, we ignore the weightier matters of our Holy Books – the love of God and neighbor, the search for compassion and mercy. In other words, there are violent texts that can be found and used by those who are filled with rage and hatred. Using violent texts to justify hatred ignores the historical scholarly interpretations in all of our traditions. By selectively choosing certain texts that support their aims, evil people choose hatred and intolerance over debate and dialogue. Religion does not cause intolerance. I think it’s quite the opposite. Intolerance uses religion to give alleged “moral support” to hatred.

We need to learn the warning signs that religion has become evil and evil has become religious. Here are some warning signs:

Fanatical claims of absolute truth. This includes:
  • Blind obedience to totalitarian, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders or their views that undermines moral integrity, personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Identifying and rationalizing “end times” scenarios in the name of religion.
  • Justifying religious ends by dubious means.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy,
Another sign is demonizing those who differ from you, construing your neighbor as an Other, and claiming that God is on your side alone.

We should judge religions by their most authentic examples rather than by their worst corruptions. Sacred terror is almost always complex and bound up with other causes (social, historical, economic, cultural, political, etc). But at the end of the day, we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is justified with a specifically religious rationale. We should commit ourselves to do whatever we can to stop it.

What do we do? We hold each other accountable. We speak up when our own religions dehumanize and marginalize others, or when, in the name of religion, certain groups are targeted for exclusion. When fight for justice when governments suppress religious activity through harassment or prolonged detention. We pray. We pray for religions to follow the generous spirits of their founders. We pray that we will be people of peace. We pray and work for a loving, compassionate, just and generous world in which religion brings out the best of who we are, not the worst.

We dialogue and explore our differences, respectfully and courageously. We come together here to deepen our spiritual lives and to increase our understandings. This work then enables us to be healthier and more whole people. And it equips and inspires us to do the daily work of building a better world.

Sources:
http://www.fvuuf.org/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=380&Itemid=127
(http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20060619JJ.shtml)
http://www.religioustolerance.org/relhateex.htm
Is Religion Dangerous, 36-38.

Sermon for October 11, 2009, Stewardship Sunday

Compassionate Giving
Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 14:14

Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”15:32
Let’s do a little compassion exercise together. If you prefer not to participate then that’s fine. Participate as fully as you feel you are able to. I invite you to become aware of yourself: Be aware of your own body and how you feel at this moment, aware of the people that sit near you, aware of this building, its particular smells and sounds, and if it helps you to become more aware I invite you to close your eyes.

I’m going to give to you a series of situations that I want you to consider and feel in your body. I’ll invite you to say a phrase in the quietness of your own mind, after each of these situations:

The first person that I want you to focus on is a 12 year old Iraqi boy whose name is Ali Abbas, who not long ago lost his entire family and both his arms when a rocket hit their home. I invite you to say, “Just like me, Ali has known deep sadness and fear.”

The second person is a 15 year old girl whose name is Maria. She lives in Honduras where she works 12 hours a day without any overtime pay, and no access to drinking water. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans. She does that unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”

The next person I want you to focus on is a politician with whom you have very different views. Say, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”

The next situation is a friend, family member or a colleague with whom you find yourself in conflict. It could be a recent conflict or a past argument. With that person in mind say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in life.”

Finally, focus on a person next to you, either left or right, front or back, and with your focus on that person say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in life.”

You can now open your eyes. I wonder for whom is it easier to feel compassion: those farther away from us or those closest to us? Even within our own church family, so many people are suffering. My heart breaks for so many of you. I’m sure your hearts break for each other. Sometimes I get to the point where I consider the situations that each of us face, and it almost seems too much to bear. It seems that there’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain we experience. Yet, the central symbol of the Christian tradition is Jesus on the cross. When we move beyond the notion that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath at our sins and begin to see the Jesus on the cross as a human being holding the suffering of the world in his body, then we better understand the compassionate love of God. , in a sense each of us holds the pain of the world, just as Jesus held the suffering of the world in his body. Compassion is the deep desire for the suffering to come to an end. That is a central theme in our own Christian tradition.

What does compassion mean to you? I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church – I’d been there for about a year. One day I met Jennifer, and 18-year old mom with a daughter who was just a few months younger than Zoe. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, unmarried, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors had it that the boyfriend was abusive, so Chris invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris and Zoe. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who, according to her, was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned the “system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a sleazy hotel room, funded by Social Services. After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. I guessed she would rather live with the abuse than live with the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund her reckless decisions. When we heard she moved back, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was she ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing? Did we help her like Jesus would have helped her?

Pity or empowerment? I also learned the difference from Brett. One Sunday morning, right before the beginning of worship, a woman pulled me aside and told me that her stepson Brett had tried to kill himself again by jumping off a three story building. Two weeks later I visited Brett at a hospital in Buffalo, right after the last of his extensive reconstructive surgeries. Brett was a handsome, 22-year old whose eyes told the whole story. He was broken, His body was crushed. His emotions were tormented by depression and loneliness. His spiritual life was non-existent. Turned out, he had not tried to kill himself. He was running away from a drug deal gone bad, and tried to leap off the roof to get away. in these situations, there is really nothing to say. I can’t lecture the guy on his bad decisions. He has family for that. No need to heap guilt or to be manipulative. I wanted him to know that there is a real God who wants him to know a sense of belonging, total love and acceptance that comes in yielding one’s life to God. What to do, when moved with compassion but you don’t know how to show it? What to do when you get one chance to say the right thing, and you end up just sitting silently listening, trying to be a friend, trying to how some understanding? Could he be empowered to change his life? To be a better person? A healthier member of our community? Could I help him like Jesus would have helped him?

Jesus had a way of seeing potential in people: Street women, tax collectors, lepers, the insane, and the neglected. Jesus saw value in each of them. He showed compassion. He showed charity and he empowered. Can I do that? Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving of that which I value?

I’ve learned something very important through these two situations. I had not gone on my own inner journey. I hadn’t worked out why I needed to help. I had not been honest about my own needs and motives before I offered to fix someone else’s mess. So the compassion I offered was more like charity. Charity is when I do something to someone. Whether it helps the other or not, charity makes me feel better. Empowerment is when I help others to help themselves. There is a place for both. There is a place for helping even when we don’t have our motives completely checked. I would rather see someone helped even out of selfish motives. But compassion is so much more profound if we can help people help themselves, and to do it out of a deep inner mindfulness.

If you are having a dream in which there are 1000 people starving, there are two ways that you can stop their suffering. The first way is that in your dream, you can feed them. The second way to stop the suffering is for you to wake up. The minute that you wake up, their suffering ends. We have to do both. We have to wake up and understand ourselves and what motivates us. We also have to feed 1000 people. We have to do both and somehow find that right balance between practical action and personal awareness.

As you consider your own life, consider what your faces of compassion are. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and listening, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can be sitting with someone, or to taking someone’s hand and leading. There are so many faces to compassion. I want you to consider how you show it. Where do you find yourself effective and skillful in expressing compassion for others? Compassion can be neat and clear. Compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. Compassion is about being with someone through the trials of life, even when there is nothing to be said and nothing to be done.

As we take time to consider our giving to TCC, I hope we can give out of compassion. You know, sometimes the biggest stumbling block for nonbelievers is not Christ, but Christians, not God, but the fact that the church, in its hour of prosperity, does so little to alleviate the suffering of the world. We are trying to change that here. I hope you know that as you give to the church, you empower us to do great things. Yes, we pay staff, operate and upkeep our buildings, pay utilities, mow the grass and plow the parking lot. We also educate our children in values like love, social justice, faith, and service. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We serve our community and extend our hospitality. We try to make the world a saner place, a more loving place, a more equitable place. The resources you give empower us to demonstrate our understanding of Christ. Your compassionate gifts empower TCC to give back to you – to empower you to be a better mother, a better father, a better spouse, a better member of the community, a better friend, a better child of God, a better human. Our giving helps us realize that in Christ there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one nature, one flesh one grief, one hope.

I know, we worry about money. We think of all the things we can’t do. We do not have to worry about compassion. It exists in abundance. Wake up to it. Reach out and share it. Live it. Become it. In so doing, you will be part of the transformation of the world through service, justice and compassion.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sermon for October 4, 2009

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.”

I know, I know. We are in an economic downturn. We are a nation of bargain hunters. But many people are not giving up on small luxuries. The Trumbull Starbucks seems busier than ever. I read that many people are keeping up their appearance during the downturn. While the demand for plastic surgery has decreased, nearly three out of four plastic surgeons who responded to a survey this fall reported that demand has increased for Botox. In one interview, a woman lost her job as a district sales manager for a bookstore chain She is $140,000 in debt. She has slashed spending and all but stopped eating out. But she hasn't given up her Botox injections. “It's like comfort food,” she says.

I’ve never been a good bargain hunter. Every once in a while, I’ll scout out a good deal. But my problem is that I don’t want my life filled with cheap trinkets. I know lots of people who do. That’s fine for them. I have a different philosophy: Don’t want to pay too much for something, and don’t 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 choose to wait in line to receive that kind of free service unless the wellbeing of you and your family depended on it. 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 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’s the price and cost of sacrifice?

Have you made a poor decision to protect your ego? It happens in today’s story. God fumes with anger because King 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 self-worth. You can always be more proud of your mighty exploits when your membership rolls are high. The census also tells 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. And God is mad.

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. 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 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 can’t buy God. We don’t pay an entry fee to get into heaven. Nobody here ever sends a bill to church members. But, once we get in the door of a church and start publicly worshiping God, we are asked to give something sacrificial —a gift that costs us something. We want to pay the right price. Every year, we ask you to sit down and determine the right price. 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 $245,000. In the past five years, we have cut our budget by almost $15,000. $245,000 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. Worship has a cost. You can choose to be here. You can choose to stay home and read the paper on Sunday morning. You only get one Sunday each week, and you decide how its best spent.

But, how much 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.

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 our church decided to cut down on expenses so that we could make it a bargain for the members. We could say, “This month we finally 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 puny vision, and I hope you don’t either. We need visions that reflect the right price for our church -- A vision that challenges our church.

Some people are proud that the practice of their faith costs 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 only attend 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 didn’t think so.

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.
  • "Keeping Up Appearances In a Downturn." http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122999145997128503. html?mod=rss_Lifestyle

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