Wreath – A Message on Luke 1:39-45

Scripture Reading – CEB – Luke 1:39-45 

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

The Wreath DRAFT sermon slides

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

wreath

Video Clip – Linus’ Speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas

Oh, how I love A Charlie Brown Christmas! You know this scene from the classic Peanuts “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The now 53-year-old television special tells the story of a depressed Charlie Brown trying to find holiday cheer during an over commercialized season. His best efforts are mocked by the other children when the movie plot is coming to a climax, and Charlie Brown shouts out in exasperation: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” Have you ever felt that way? It’s funny how little things have changed.

What is Christmas all about?

It’s a question we still pursue today in this busy season as we wade through the familiar waters of shopping trips and busy calendars, Christmas parties and holiday traffic. We rush from one thing to the next, rushing as fast as traffic will let us anyway, all the while we long in our souls to catch even just a glimpse of what it’s all really about anyway.

I don’t think I’m alone here. For me, there is always this tension about what we’re supposed to do at Christmastime. On one hand, we have the church part – special worship services, service projects, and celebrating the story of Jesus’ humble beginnings in Bethlehem. On the other hand, we have mile long to-do lists of packages to ship, photos to take, gift exchanges to participate in, teacher gifts, baking and all sorts of Pinterest-inspired ideas. It’s easy to miss the answer to Charlie Brown’s question in the holiday madness, isn’t it?

Why is that? Why do we often miss the real meaning of Christmas?

My friend Kevin put it this way – it’s like we are celebrating two holidays. There’s one holiday that’s all about shopping, presents and the latest toys. It’s a holiday full of stockings and elves – ugly sweaters and never-ending doorbuster specials.

There’s another holiday about Jesus, the Emmanuel, God With Us, being born in Bethlehem. That’s the holiday with the manger and the sweet baby.

Then my friend Kevin adds: The confusing thing is both of these holidays are celebrated on December 25th and we call them both “Christmas.” No wonder we’re confused! (His theory has really helped me to have some patience and understanding when the some of the young people in my life have sent me long wish lists!)

I have come to peace with the commercialized version of Christmas – I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas – because of all of the jingle bells, reindeer, Christmas lights and excitement, eventually people will ask Charlie Brown’s big question – What is Christmas all about?

This morning, with Kevin’s theory in mind, we are going to focus on the second of the two “Christmases,” starting with today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Our passage today tells of a short encounter between two relatives, Elizabeth and Mary. In the midst of the bigger Christmas story, we might miss this key story’s significance.

To set the scene: In the verses right before today’s reading, Mary had just had a conversation with an angel of the Lord. The angel announced that Mary was going to conceive and give birth to a son called Jesus, the Son of the Most High. Awestruck, young Mary agrees to her role, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” She sings a song to the Lord we call the Magnificat, the band sang a version a few minutes ago.

It’s right after this angel encounter that Mary travels to a city in the highlands and enters Zechariah’s house. Zechariah’s wife, a very pregnant and older Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, greets Mary. A little background on Elizabeth – she is miraculously pregnant in her old age with the child we later know as John the Baptist. But more significant than her being John the Baptist’s mom is the fact that here, in this short little passage, she is the first to publicly declare that Jesus is Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she says, “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth is the first one to announce Jesus’ role to the world – he will be Lord. (pause)

Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Elizabeth knows. Christmas is about the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we honor his birth.

To declare that Jesus is Lord (Greek: kyrios lesous (KEY ree ohs  LEE soos)) means a few things – “Lord” at the time meant your ultimate ruler – it was a title reserved for kings and emperors. To declare Jesus as Lord meant causing political and social upheaval. Jesus is Lord – It’s a bold statement of faith that today remains one of the first and shortest Christian creeds, it honors our belief that Jesus was both fully man and fully God.

What is Christmas all about? For the Christmas we are talking about here, it means we celebrate and declare that Jesus is Lord of our lives, that God lives and reigns among us. With the Christ as our leader, we are called to live full of reckless love for our neighbors. With God among us, we are called to live differently, called to live not out of fear but from a place of hope, peace, joy and love. Fear Not – that’s what Christmas is all about.

This brings us back to our symbols of Christmas and their deeper meanings.

The star leads us to this place. With the candle, we remember that we need to prepare our hearts and homes, we need to do our own “nesting” to prepare for the arrival. We need to make room. The candle also reminds us we have a light unto our path.

In the Christmas story, Mary and Elizabeth are preparing the way for Christ’s arrival. Even the little town of Bethlehem with its humble manger are “nesting,” getting everything ready for the arrival.

Which brings us to today’s symbol of the wreath at the door. There are two kinds of wreaths we could talk about. We have over here (point) an Advent Wreath – usually it’s on a table or horizontal, filled with candles to mark the countdown to Christmas. (We’re getting close!)

We also have Christmas wreaths (point) – traditionally hung on doors vertically.

Either way, the wreath is in the shape of a circle, reminding us that in God there is no beginning, there is no ending.

The wreath is a circle, and with Jesus, Scripture comes full circle. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” comes full circle with Jesus.

The prophetic declarations come full circle in Christ. Isaiah 7:14 declares “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” and the Gospel of Luke fulfills this with an angel speaking to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Micah places the birth in Bethlehem; the predictions of Daniel, Zechariah, Jonah, Malachi and others come full circle in Jesus.

The wreath is traditionally made from an evergreen – significantly symbolizing strength and the everlasting life we find with Jesus Christ as Lord.

Finally, the Christmas wreath today is a symbol of welcome and hospitality. We are being greeted this morning at Christmas’s doorstep. As we’ve traveled along on this Advent journey together, starting far away with the star, moving in with the candle, we are here prepared for company to arrive. Are you ready for company? Do you have room?

This is where the tension between the two Christmases seems to peak. As we feel the pressure to rush around, buying, wrapping and even more rushing, it gets so difficult to make room for the holy to arrive. How can we intentionally make the space in our lives?

The wreath is an everlasting symbol of God’s grace and hospitality greeting us. In our Scripture today, we can visualize the greeting between relatives Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth, further along in her pregnancy, is so excited to see Mary. The baby within her leaps for joy. Who are you in this story? Are you Mary who is being welcomed in by family? Are you the child within Elizabeth’s womb, leaping for joy, excited to be in the presence of Christ?

It’s comforting to be reminded when we see the wreath that God offers hospitality and grace to all of us. Even if we feel unworthy, if we feel like there is no way God could accept us, we can remember that God’s grace is available to all people. God wants to be in relationship with humanity – so much so that God dwelt on earth among us. God wants us to be in relationships with one another – especially acknowledging that there are people around us who are hurting and mourning this time of year. God cares deeply for the poor and the marginalized, and God cares deeply for those of us who feel marginalized because we are so busy rushing around.

In the same way, may we remember as Advent and Christmas people that we are challenged to extend God’s grace and hospitality to all who come to our own doorsteps. We are called to live differently, to make room for our neighbors, and, like Elizabeth, to forever acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Let us pray:

Lord,

In all the excitement and anticipation that comes with this season, remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Forgive us when we get sidetracked by all that glitters and jingles. Remind us that we are people who declare that Jesus is Lord because we want to live differently, we long to be people who share God’s gift of grace and love to all of our neighbors. We thank you for the ultimate Christmas gift, the gift of our savior Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray, Amen.

As we close our message this morning, I want to return to the message of Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

Times have not changed all that much since this television special was created. We still live within this tension between the pressures to buy just the right presents for our loved ones, to decorate and celebrate just right, and to sit in stillness and worship as we watch for our Savior’s arrival. May our hearts be transformed this Christmas as we remember what Christmas is all about. Let’s revisit the clip:

(Video clip through “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”)

Manger – A Christmas Message

Merry Christmas, friends. Here is my Christmas Eve message from the 6pm worship service at New World UMC Arlington:

Luke 2:1-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Birth of Jesus

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray: God of Love,

Open our hearts and minds for the words you have for us to hear tonight. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Meditation – The Manger

“because there was no place for them in the inn”

Oh, how we know this Christmas story! It’s an honor tonight to be the one who shares the story of what Christmas is all about. The baby Jesus was born in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn, and tonight I want to reflect on a story of hospitality.

 

Have you ever had to depend on the hospitality and kindness of strangers? 

 

As I reflect on my life, I can recall a few key moments (three to be exact) when I counted on strangers making space for me – a few times I could relate to Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. While a college student, I spent my summers selling books door to door for The Southwestern Company. I usually describe the program as “like an exchange program,” because, like an exchange program, we would be assigned to work in different parts of the country that were unfamiliar to us. I think the strategy is that if we were away from all of the temptation of being around our friends and local hangouts, we’d be more focused. I went to Baylor in Texas, so three summers in a row I was assigned to the Midwest – I lived in St. Louis, Missouri, Battle Creek, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Now, decidedly unlike an exchange program, we didn’t have host homes lined up ahead of time. The company does things differently now a days, but for us, our first assignment upon arriving in a new town was to find a place to live.

 

In order to save money and be safer, it was recommended we live with host families. So, the first thing we did was literally knock door to door, asking if anyone might have a spare room for 2-3 hardworking college students for the summer. We were able to pay a small amount of rent and worked long hours, so we just needed a safe place to sleep, shower and keep our things.

 

Of course, my parents taught me things growing up like “never go hitchhiking,” so I’m sure the prospect of her 19 year olddaughter finding a place to live like that gave my poor mom a near heart attack. (sorry mom) J Amazingly, three summers in a row we found people who met us and let us sleep in their homes starting that same day.

 

When I read tonight’s Scripture, it strikes me as a story about making room for hospitality.

 

Have you ever had a chance to extend hospitality and kindness to strangers?

 

I shared this story once before so it may sound familiar: In Fall 2010 my mom was retiring and moving to Texas and, earlier that Spring, she had the opportunity to buy the house directly across the street from us when our friends were moving out. We jumped on the opportunity, but had not anticipated that our friends would move out months sooner than we expected. We ended up with a vacant house across the street and an extra mortgage payment. Unlike the Scripture, you might say we had too many rooms!

 

In July, when we learned that a night-shift working Kenyan man was staying at the Life Shelter with his two sons, and he just needed a place to sleep besides his hot car that summer, we knew what we needed to do.  God placed an opportunity in our lives to offer that space to help a family in need, we were able to make room in our inn so to speak, and we were so blessed to be able to set up a humble space. Our lives have been so much richer because we were able to offer hospitality and kindness to strangers. 

 

It makes me wonder if the person in charge of the manger in Bethlehem felt the same way.

 

Hospitality, in its simplest terms, is about how we greet and welcome strangers or guests into our lives, into the places we live and work. It’s often about welcoming others without expecting a reward.

 

“because there was no place for them in the inn” reminds us that, Into this world in which there is very little room for God to dwell, Christ comes uninvited. It was a birth in obscurity, quiet, on the margins of town. This is how God-with-us, the Emmanuel, chooses to begin on earth, on the margins and in obscurity, trusting that there will be space and hospitality.


As Jesus grows and matures, beginning in ministry, he reaches out time and again to the people on the margins. The tax collectors, the heathens, the sinners, the lame, the women, the mocked and the world’s most hated – these were the types of people Jesus reached out to with love and dignity, hope and healing. These are the people with whom Jesus stayed, counting on their hospitality to welcome them.

 

On Christmas Eve, may we remember the significance of the manger. God doesn’t require something fancy and elaborate, God doesn’t need our lives to be picture perfect or our homes to be just right. God just needs space in our lives. 

 

May we all remember this Christmas that God reaches out to us – to all of us who are pushed to our margins by our own busyness, distraction and preoccupation. My deepest prayer is that God may find room in your heart this Christmas. Be blessed.

 

Let us pray:

Most Loving God, thank you for this night and for all it represents. Thank you for the hope you give us, the peace you bring, the love you pour out and the deep, abiding joy that you alone can give. We praise you most of all for Jesus, your Word made flesh. May Christ light our way as the holy star lit the way to Bethlehem. May we open our hearts to receive you this holy night. Amen.

 

Love – A Christmas Eve Reflection

We love because he first loved us.
“Love” and “because” showed up in bold because those were the search terms I used on Biblegateway. I think that pretty much sums up the call of Christianity – Love because.
Merry Christmas love from our family to yours!

Many thanks and much love to my friend Allison from Seven Arches Photography for these photos. Not only does she consistently make us look like we came straight from an Old Navy ad, she’s also one of my favorite friends.

Heaven – An original by Kate Baird

Today’s Advent devotional was written by a special guest contributor and New World church member, Kate Baird.




Images of heaven, as we can only imagine, are everywhere:

·        White shores, and beyond a far green country under a swift sunrise. 
Gandalf to Pippin in  J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”

·        “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. … And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, :and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” 
C.S. Lewis

·        A large banquet table with a place set for every individual. 
The Gospels

·        For me personally, it is a piano where my Aunt is sitting at the keys, her sister is sitting next to her turning the pages, and all my aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles and cousins are singing whatever the next page is in the hymnal…after a hearty dinner at the banquet table and naps in the hammocks that hang between the clouds.
 
I need to pause throughout my busy days and busy life and reflect on heaven periodically.  I could spend an hour on C.S. Lewis’s quote alone with its mysteries that resonate as truth. Just considering Heaven for this blog has raised my HOPE, increased the LIGHTness of my heart, soothed my anxiousness with PEACE, while I WAIT for that day.  I’m not in a hurry, but I’m not afraid at all.  How sweet it will be to walk with the one who loves me more than anyone – and I am very well-loved now!  You are well-loved now too!  That’s how I know heaven will be amazing.  My limited abilities can’t register the fullness of it. 
 
Think of it:
Suffering replaced with wholeness and joy. 
Sorrow replaced with dancing and smiles. 
Fear replaced with perfect love for others because we can’t mess up anymore!
 
What is the advantage of not accepting Heaven as a possibility?  If you believe you can impact others with the weather you take with you into a room, into a meeting, into a restaurant, into a hospital, into our social media posts, onto an airplane.  Wouldn’t it be best to take the weather influenced by a heavenly hope and light?  Imagine the positive storm system we could create.  Heaven on earth.
 
 
 

Joy – A thought for today

This series of Advent devotionals has themes based on a Photo-A-Day challenge for New World UMC. Anyone can participate and jump in at any time. For the details: check out this link.

To give an appropriate answer is a joy; how good is a word
at the right time! Proverbs 15:23 CEB

Have you ever had someone say just the right thing to you at just the time you needed it? Perhaps you are having a bad day and someone brings a smile to your face, or you are looking for an answer and someone just says it for you. It’s a joy to hear the right word at the time you need it most.

Some folks might chalk this up to coincidence when this happens, but I believe that God is at work through the Holy Spirit when it happens. Sometimes it means we have to be open to hearing what God might want us to say. Not necessarily literally hearing God with your ears, mind you, but open to what God might be putting on your heart to say to another person.

In the last few months, I had the name of a specific person come up in conversations in several different places. So many people asked me, “have you talked to so-and-so” or recommended I seek out this specific person that I felt like, in order to be faithful, I needed to do my part to make it happen. I set up an appointment.

In our meeting, I was open and curious about what God might be up to. We had an uplifting conversation, and before I left I felt like I needed to share a specific ministry idea with him.

It was delightful when he said, “Oh! We were just trying to make a decision about that!” I was able to encourage him in that particular ministry idea.

I know others might say it must be coincidence (we can disagree), but I am grateful I was able to pass on the word & it will be fun to see what God does with that. It’s a journey of joy.

I would love to hear your stories about when God has been at work in your life, giving you just the word you need at the right time. ESJ

Open – A thought from the “cutting room floor”

Last Sunday I preached a sermon called “The Candle” that included a sermon illustration about getting ready for when company is coming. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus ministry in Luke 3:1-6, we too can use Advent to prepare our hearts and minds for an arrival. There’s only so much a person can fit in a sermon. (Well, I imagine I could make my sermons longer and fit in as much as I can, but nobody wants that!) Today’s Advent devotional is from my “cutting room floor,” a part of the sermon that I didn’t quite get to fit in last Sunday’s message.

Today’s Advent word is “Open” as part of our Advent Photo Challenge. I am interpreting the word as an Open Door, a place of welcome.

As people filed out the sanctuary door last Sunday, shaking my hands as they do, at least one person said, “now I feel like I need to get home and clean the house!” Giving folks stress wasn’t the sermon goal.

I want to share today about my “messy house friends.”

See, my sermon was about getting the house clean, and I mentioned that if I know you’re coming, my house will be clean for you. But my closest and dearest friends fall into a special category – they’re my “messy house friends.”

By that I mean that we’ve agreed we’re going to love each other no matter the condition of our homes. We are going to have the kind of friendship that values relationship over a sparkling clean house (think of the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42 to get the idea.)

In the same way, Jesus loves us no matter where or how we are. Jesus can be like a messy house friend, full of grace for you and accepting you with all of your imperfection. The door is always open.

Even better, Jesus is not only a messy house friend, Jesus will not leave you drowning and suffering in the mess. You are accepted, loved and welcome how you are and you are loved enough that you’ve got company who’ll help you and love you through the messiness of life. That is grace.

Prayer:

God, help me to get past the temptation to get caught up in making my life seem perfect. Instead, God, help me to open my door and my heart to offer hospitality and love to all God’s children. Thank you for the grace you offer me. Amen.

Warmth – Thought to get you through the Day

“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Luke 2:12

I come from a family of quilters. Not that I quilt, I don’t. But my grandma, mom, aunts, cousins and countless other relatives love to make quilts.

There is a really sweet ministry in our church called the Stitchers that makes quilts. They are passed on to people in the hospital, people who are grieving, kids who graduate from school. Each quilt is put together with knots of yarn, little ties to show the prayers that have been uttered over the quilt. It’s a ministry of sharing comfort, love and prayer. We also have a ministry of knitters who make prayer shawls for the same purpose. 

Extra quilts are folded neatly over the back rows in our sanctuary, available to provide warmth and comfort to anyone in need.

There really are few things as comforting as the warmth that comes from a blanket or shawl handcrafted with deep love and prayer. There is warmth to be found in the love and kindnesses of others. I am so thankful that people are using their gifts and talents in ministry of love to others.

What are the gifts you have that you can offer to others in ministry? May today be a day that you find ways to use your gifts in ministry. Whether it is through handmaking something or a warm smile, may God’s love shine through you and warm the hearts of others. Amen.

Peace like a River Pastoral Prayer

God of Love, God of Peace and God of Joy, 

We praise you for the many ways you fill our souls with what we need.  

You are a God of love, a God of agape. When we feel alone, you are ever-present. When we feel unworthy, you wrap us in a deep love that knows no end. Forgive us for when we are in the habit of rejecting one another, of rejecting our own self even. You cherish each of us as your children, no matter how imperfect and fallen we may be. We pray for those who long to know your love, and we pray that you can use us to offer love to even our hard-to-love neighbor.  

You are a God of peace, a God of shalom. When we feel torn apart and divided by the conflict of the world, you give us a peace that transcends all understanding. Our hope can be found in your calming Spirit. Forgive us for when we fall into the trap of believing we should look down upon or separate ourselves from one another. Although we cannot understand the big picture, although we cannot understand why some things happen, we can rest assured knowing that you have got it all within your grasp, your love will undeniably conquer our brokenness. 

You are a God of joy, and with that we have hope. We pray that you, our God of hope, will fill us with all joy and peace as we learn to trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Allow us to become instruments of your joy and hope in a world that so desperately seeks the Good news you alone can offer.  

We pray all of these things in the name of the one who modeled your sacrificial love on earth, the one who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father….”

Pastoral Prayer – originally delivered 11/11/2018 at New World UMC Traditional service

Tree – Thought to get you through the day

“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” Acts 5:30 (Common English Bible) 

A wise church member shared this thought with me on Sunday:

“It’s not all the gifts under the tree that matter, it’s the Gift that came on a tree.”

In case you haven’t heard, there are only 12 shopping days left between now and Christmas. Yep, the “doorbuster specials” are long gone and we’re in the “last minute shopping” territory! 

It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of last minute shopping, isn’t it? Companies who sell us stuff are counting on this.

But I hope you’ll find time to remember the real reason for the season, the gift that came on a tree, Jesus Christ. It’s not about all the stuff.

Today I challenge you to take a moment to just look, really look, at a tree…or consider the birds of the air. Remember that God is the kind of God who is faithful to provide for all of our needs. We don’t need to be harried,  and rushed. We have all the Gift we need.

Being Content – A Sermon on Philippians 4:10-14

This sermon was originally shared on November 11, 2018 at New World United Methodist Church as part of a series. Here is a link to the audio recording.

Philippians 4:10-14 (source: Biblegateway.com)

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.b11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. 

Sermon: Being Content 

I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I am not giving you each $100 today. 

I do want to tell you the most exciting stewardship sermon I have ever heard about, but just to reiterate, I’m not handing out money. 

The sermon was given at McKinney Church (now Doxology Bible Church) in Ft. Worth. Our family friend Jake was working as a deaf interpreter there, I was out of town, so Jake invited my husband Dennis to church.  

When Dennis walked in the sanctuary, there was a giant, larger-than-life dollar sign covered in twenty-dollar bills hanging prominently over the stage where the cross is supposed to be 

Dennis had never been there before, so we can imagine he was just wondering what on earth he got himself into.   

The pastor gets up and points out the obvious – yep, this is a message about money, a stewardship campaign, there’s new construction, and so on. 

But then the message shifts to the unexpected. 

The pastor says, “God doesn’t need your money. God has all the money God needs. God needs your heart and God needs you to share your faith with others. So this morning we want to invest in your ministry.” 

To prove that they believed this, the ushers came around and did a reverse offering. What’s a reverse offering? Basically, blank envelopes were stuffed with different amounts of money in them, some had $5, some $10 or $20, a few even had $100 or more, and then they passed the plate around for each person in the congregation to get an envelope. In all, they gave out something like $16,000 to the congregation that morning. 

(SLIDE CHANGE: Woman thinking of money) 

The pastor continues with instructions for this money. 

Whatever dollar amount you received, whether it’s $5 or $100, it’s not money that is meant to be spent on yourself. It’s not money for nothing. You don’t take the $5 to the nearest Starbucks and buy yourself a grande Peppermint mocha. Instead, you pray about it & then perhaps you ask that friend or neighbor you’ve been meaning to reach out to to join you at Starbucks, and you buy that person’s drink and talk about faith over coffee.  

The people of the congregation were instructed to use the money to be the church at work in the world, and then report back with stories of how God was at work through this.  

I invite you to imagine with me what an entire congregation could do in ministry like this. 

 (Slide Change: Garbage Truck in neighborhood photo)

This morning I will share a few stories about giving that may feel like that: 

On Monday, our youngest son, Lucas, turned three years old. It was an especially exciting day because it was a Monday and, in our neighborhood that means something very exciting to our now-three-year-old.   

Monday is garbage day! 

It’s hard to explain the excitement our little boy has about garbage trucks. He can be in his room asleep, in the bathtub, engrossed in a video, hard at play – but when he hears the distinctive rumble of the truck in our neighborhood, he stops what he’s doing, eyes wide open, “Oh the garbage truck!” and he takes off for the front door.  

He jumps up and down, eagerly waiting for the truck to turn the corner and come into view. 

This excitement has not gone unnoticed by the garbage men. First, they honked and waved, eventually we learned each other’s names.  

Frank and Lawrence learned about a month ago that Lucas was having a birthday on November 5, a Monday…and they too were happy to figure out that they’d get to see this excited little guy on his birthday. 

Lucas wanted to make sure Frank and Lawrence could celebrate his birthday. So, much to my surprise, I was making cupcakes the night before for our garbage men so we could include them in a tiny birthday party to go. 

(Slide change – Lucas, Frank and Lawrence) 

How cool is this? On a day that is usually reserved for receiving gifts and being the center of attention, the greatest joy Lucas had was in giving cupcakes to our garbage collectors. He was so happy to give. How beautiful would our world be if we could all just approach giving to others with such complete joy and without reservation? (pause) 

I wish I could say that I always give with that kind of joy and without reservation. 

(Slide change – donate computer) 

I will share that I give 10% of my salary to the church – it is set up to give automatically so I don’t ever have to think about it. I never see it so I never miss it, and I don’t even have to think much about it. 

I have to say, it doesn’t quite feel like having the same kind of joy I saw Lucas have on Monday, but I get to be generous, and I have to trust God will bless my giving. I’m working on the joy part. 

So why am I talking about my giving? 

I’ve been blessed by giving to others, when I’ve been able to get generosity right, filled with joy and without reservation. I have two examples for you: 

(Slide change – Shoes)  

The first story that comes to mind was with a high school student in my youth ministry about 10 years ago. She was a remarkable young woman. Surprising to most, she had the most challenging home life of any teens I knew – her parents and her siblings were a bit of a mess, so much so that at the age of 16, she was living on her own instead of at home. 

Imagine – she was a full-time high school student, working to pay her rent, and still made time for youth group. 

As you can guess, she also was short on cash, although too proud to ask for help. So, when she shared at youth group that she was freezing as her apartment’s gas heat had been turned off in winter, my husband and I knew we had to help somehow. We bought her an electric blanket, wrapped it with an anonymous gift tag, and had a friend of a friend deliver it to her apartment. 

There was another time we sneakily worked to find out her shoe size so we could help her replace her worn out sneakers full of holes. 

She didn’t ask us for help, but it was a total joy to give to her, to anonymously meet some of her needs. We probably would have found a way to let her live at our house if she ever asked. 

Which brings me to the second example of when God gave us an opportunity to be generous with others. 

In the spring of 2010, our neighbors across the street from us informed us that they were moving to Colorado – did we know anyone who might want a one-story house in our neighborhood? 

We definitely did! My mom was retiring that coming Fall and planning to move to Texas a few months later. We jumped on the opportunity to have mom/grandma move across the street.  

What we didn’t expect was that our neighbors would then move out as soon as possible right after the last day of school, leaving us with a vacant house and an extra house payment for a few months more than we anticipated. We tried unsuccessfully to find a college student or someone who might need a short-term place to stay… 

So that summer, when I saw a Facebook post from a clergy friend, Sheila, “What would you do if you found out that a working dad of two was sleeping in his car during the day in 104-degree heat in July?” we knew what we would do. 

It turned out that Peter, a Kenyan refugee, and his two sons were living in the Arlington Life Shelter that summer. The shelter by policy doesn’t allow its adult residents to be there asleep during the day, but Peter worked third shift at the airport and just needed a safe place to sleep between being at work all night. 

Well, it’s not very often that people have spare houses, but that summer we did. There wasn’t a question in our mind – we got in touch with Sheila, met Peter and his two sons George and Allan, and opened up our mom’s vacant house as a safe and quiet place where Peter could sleep in air conditioning on an air mattress during the day and get a clean shower before heading to work. It wasn’t much to us, but I think we can all agree this would be way better than sleeping in a car in Texas during the summer.  

In the weeks that followed, With the shelter and church’s help, we were able to help get furniture to help the small family set up in their simple two-bedroom apartment before the boys started school that year. 

But the best part is that Peter, George and Allan became friends with our family. Our kids all played together, they ended up having their first American Thanksgiving at our house and we were their first houseguests for a dinner of the traditional Kenyan ugali (YOU gall ee). Years later, George graduated top of his class and is a student at UTA, and Allan has a full ride scholarship his first year at Notre Dame. They’ve even come to visit us here at New World. I’m so proud of our dear friends and grateful that God offered a way for our family to say yes to generosity. 

I hope you know that I am telling you these stories not to impress you, but to impress upon you the importance of changing your heart about giving. God will open up opportunities for you to be generous.  

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are urged to be content with whatever we have, and to be grateful. Imagine with me if we all sought out ways to give to others with the deep joy and without reservation, like Lucas giving away cupcakes to our garbagemen on his birthday? I pray that God blesses you with openings to give to others. 

I love the idea of the reverse offering that other church did – it’s a powerful reminder that the money we receive, whether it’s from an unmarked envelope or in the form of a paycheck, all of it is a gift from God we are called to steward and use for God’s work.    

But what would you do if you were given $5 today to use in ministry? What about if it was $100? How could you use that money to be a blessing to another person? (pause) 

While I don’t have money to hand out to you, I hope you consider using some of the money you already have in the way you just envisioned. 

In conclusion, here are a few questions to consider in personal reflection: 

 

  • What does it mean to you to be content whether you have a lot or a little? 
  • Is something keeping you from giving with joy and without reservation? 
  • If that wasn’t preventing you, what you do and how would that feel? 

Please pray with me: 

God, we thank you for all that you have given us. Please help us to be content with what we have, whether it seems like too little or too much. We pray that you will free us from worry, that you will open our hearts so that we can give to others with great joy and without reservation. In Jesus name we pray, Amen. Invitation