My concept of worship has evolved over time. For so long, as a musician, I thought it was about how we expressed ourselves through song—hymns and modern music. I participated on praise teams who appeared to take 100% responsibility for every congregation member’s worship. Are we trying to contrive a feeling of elation through music for everyone? I don’t believe so. Though, I love when I have that ‘feeling’. This seemed too narrow a definition.
After much contemplation, it seems to me it’s about wanting to live our lives out of delight for what has been done for us. Our daily work is worship and ministry. You don’t choose between being a missionary or a teacher or a business person. We are all on mission, we are all teachers by the example of our lives and we are all in business by how we steward resources. Doing something for someone else out of gratitude and abundance is worship. I give thanks to my dear friend, Dave Stone (founder and Chief Worship officer of First Rate), credit for expanding my thinking about that. “Work is Worship!” I will one-up him and say “Life is Worship!”
Also, I questioned, as C.S. Lewis did why we need to worship an all-powerful God. Google his responses if that has puzzled you. But, here was the personal revolution for me from C.S.’s book ‘Reflections on the Psalms’.
“The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.
It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.”
“The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.” Selah. The worship is FOR OUR DELIGHT!! SMH! Then, Lewis goes on to say, that Heaven will be a place where this resounding expression of delight will be with the fullness of worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Glorifying the (triune) God by enjoying Him forever. Sign me up for some ‘forever enjoyment!’
I wish for you a presence of mind & spirit this holiday season. This is so that you can enjoy to the fullest your daily walk and those you share it with. When you share that enjoyment, it becomes complete and is worship.
I’ve included a picture ‘Paul Thorn with the Blind Boys of Alabama’ who were at the Levitt this summer. Hearing live music is the where my husband and I find ourselves ‘expressing delight’ and making the enjoyment complete.
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.
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.
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
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
3 In the
fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was
governor of Judea, and Herod was rulerof Galilee, and his brother
Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias
rulerof Abilene, 2 during the high
priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah
in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around
the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as
it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Key Point: Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival.
Advent is a time to
get ready for an arrival. Do you have company coming in the next few weeks?
Or are you the company that other people will be hosting? The holidays are upon
us, and for many people, this means getting ready for the arrival of company.
And what do we do when we know that company is coming?
We clean the house! On top of all of the other things we try
to accomplish between now and Christmas, if we have company coming, it’s time
to get the house ready. Now, I know some of you may have a house that is sparkling
clean all of the time…If you’ve come to visit, and my house was sparkling
clean, you can safely guess that was only because I knew were coming and I made
sure the house was clean before you got there.
From time to time, I get a question that usually goes
something like, “With both parents working full time and having four kids,
especially with three involved in sports, how do you do it? How do you keep up
with everything?” And so I debated about putting this extra secret information
out here. But, here’s the answer to the question I get asked all of the time,
In spite of the image I try to put out there, the answer isn’t
that I put on my superhero cape and whisk through it all without breaking a sweat…I
don’t do it alone, we sometimes hire help. A couple times a month we have a cleaning
crew come in and help us get everything really clean.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up with having
this kind of pampering, so I feel a little self-conscious sharing about it.
Because I didn’t grow up with this, there was something I didn’t know about
having a cleaning service. My kids can probably tell you because they are
heavily involved in this part.
When Irene and the rest of the cleaning crew is coming, the
day before it’s all hands on deck to have everything picked up so that the crew
can do their jobs of scrubbing and cleaning.
We clean up the house just to prepare the way for the cleaning crew. I never expected I’d ever
use this as a sermon illustration!
(Slide Change: Picture of John the Baptist circa 1600)
You see, strangely enough, this brings us to our scripture for the day about another person getting ready for company, although not in the same way we were thinking.
John the Baptist, sometimes called John the Baptizer – now he’s quite a character, isn’t he?
The various gospels describe him as a man who is shouting
out in the wilderness, he lives alone. I like this painting because he’s
pointing to Jesus – that’s a big part of John’s role. He is found wearing
clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey – he’s wild and
He’s a relative of Jesus, possibly a cousin, and I imagine
him like a pretty out there hippie cousin. Maybe you have a relative like this
(Slide Change: Jen Norton John the Baptist -used with permission from artist)
I imagine him with crazy hair, a bit of an oddball who maybe
smells like the wild and nature. You can smell him coming. “A smellative” Do
you have one of those? Know what I’m talking about? You don’t – is it you? J
He’s a prophet, not afraid to say what needs to be said. Maybe
you have relatives like him who apparently are unafraid to speak passionately
about whatever is on their mind? No? Maybe you’re that relative? (Smile)
So in this story, John is preparing the way for Jesus to start
his ministry. We tell this story at Christmas time because Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s like he’s
getting the house ready so Jesus can come in and do the real, deep spiritual work.
So let’s set the scene: In this story, God’s people have
become pretty comfortable and complacent…If we kept reading in today’s chapter,
we’d see that John calls the crowds “children of snakes,” and warns them to
repent, be baptized and have their lives changed. It seems he is a bit of a wet
Now I imagine few people ever want a sermon on repentance –
it’s like being scolded for all the bad things you’ve been doing and being told
to knock it off.
(SLIDE CHANGE- Repent & be baptized meme)
John’s message to “Repent & Be Baptized” includes two parts – a “no,” and a “yes.”
Repentance is the “no.” Repentance isn’t a word we use in
everyday language, so I’ll explain it. To repent is to turn the other way. We
all make mistakes and have regrets, when we repent we turn from sin and move
toward making things right. You can think of repentance as a big “U-Turn” sign
on your life.
It’s worth pointing out that the people in the crowd John
was talking to weren’t caught up in big sins, causing trouble. Their biggest
problem was that they were beginning to be settled in their faith, just resting
on the fact that they were “born” into the faith & just going through the motions
of faith. For me, this description hits a little too close to home. It’s tempting
to sometimes claim the identity of “Christian” and then not think much about
The problem is that being a Christian isn’t always supposed
to be comfortable, feel-good stuff. We are not called to a comfortable,
lukewarm, safe faith.
John knows that when Jesus starts his ministry, people will have to have a deep faith. Jesus is going to start a new world order. So John’s call here to repent is designed to make us uncomfortable when we want comfort. We need to turn from ways that keep us from God.
We talked last week about how Advent is the in-between time
– it’s a time for reflection on things that have already happened, and
preparation for things yet to come. Advent
is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s
a time for cleaning up our spiritual house, so to speak. We can use this
time to consider the condition of the world, even consider our own wrongdoing
and regrets. We can reflect on what we’ve said and done (or perhaps what we
have not said, not done) to make the
world a better place. John the Baptist makes the way for Jesus’ ministry – this
morning we will consider how we can prepare the way for Jesus’ arrival too.
Repentance means asking ourselves tough questions like “How
deep is my faith? (pause) Are my actions in line with my beliefs? (pause) Is my
faith expectant, alert, growing, and serving? (pause) Or is my faith small,
tired and lukewarm? (pause)
John is preparing the house, getting ready for company. When Jesus arrives, we can’t have legos and dirty socks on the floor – we need to be ready.
But we’re not left in the dark feeling sorry for ourselves –there is a second part to John’s message that’s really important.
The Be Baptized part – the life as a follower of Jesus –
it’s a “Yes!” It’s not that John is trying to bring us down by telling people
to repent, he’s trying to direct us to a new life that is richer, fuller and
To have a life of richer faith, it begins with discerning what actions you need to take.
What gifts/resources do you have? What is on your heart to do for God? Do you know you are forgiven? What are you passionate about? Inlight of your gifts and resources, what is your mission?
Once you have come up with answers to these questions, you
are preparing the way for a life of following Christ.
Advent is more than just a time to make sure all of the toys
and presents are bought and delivered on time – it’s so much deeper than that!
Advent, as the beginning of the Christian new year, is a perfect time to make a
fresh start and prepare for what God has in store.
Advent is a time to
get ready for an arrival. Advent reminds us – we have an adventure ahead.
We need a light to our path on this adventure.
(Slide Change: luminarias)
Which brings us back to the symbol of the Candle at Christmastime.
It’s important that we turn to the right sources of light as we go on this faith journey. When we light a match in a dark room, it provides a temporary light. If we try to be the match for too long, our fingers get burnt. We also don’t want to turn to the wrong sources of light – if we put our trust in the wrong things, they will eventually disappoint us.
The candle is a symbol that reminds us of Christ.
Christ is a light that will overcome any darkness.
The candle can also symbolize God’s word found in the Bible, is “a light unto the path,” a guide that helps us to see on the journey of faith. It’s not a candle in the wind about to get extinguished.
When I was a small kid living in San Antonio atChristmastime, I remember seeing much of the city sidewalks, especially around churches, lined with luminarias –simple brown paper bags, each filled with a little sand and a small candle.
Paths lined with candlelight, a tradition started in the AmericanSouthwest, is a beautiful practice reminding us of the fabled journey of Joseph, a very pregnant Mary, and a simple donkey taken long ago. The light of the luminaria shows us the prepared path.The decoration is simple in the face of all that glitters, flashes, inflates and twinkles to music today, just as the simplicity of their journey toBethlehem is a stark contrast to the decadent and powerful Rome that ruled the day.
As we prepare the way for company, as we prepare the way for the coming Jesus Christ, we can take heart in knowing that
John 1:4 “Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. The light shines through the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
Let us pray –
God of Light,
Thank you for being a God who is faithful to show us the way of life. As we prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ in our hearts and in our lives, be a light unto our paths this Advent. Help us to share the light of the love of Jesus Christ with people who need it. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Last Monday I was driving Nate home from school, talking about his school day first, then about this upcoming sermon series on stewardship. I shared that I was hoping to bring something new to the table, some fresh take on stewardship.
“Like what? What do you mean by stewardship?” he asks.
“Well, you know, how we use our money. We’re talking about how the world teaches us that money buys happiness but that it really can’t…”
“Money can definitely buy happiness, Mom.”
Stopped me in my tracks. “WHAT?! No, it can’t.”
Maybe none of you have had the pleasure of having a debate with Nate. Nate is sharp as a tack, perhaps a lawyer in training. He is loophole finding, pedantic. He loves a literal, precise argument, and he will argue any side of any issue for fun. He has a bit of a stubborn streak too – I have no idea where he gets the stubborn streak. (smile)
Now, I’m a pastor. And there was no way this kid was going to take down his theologically trained, good-stewardship-minded pastor mom in this argument.
SO I tried talking about how money may buy you stuff that temporarily makes you feel happy, but that feeling goes away and it’s not the same as the deep abiding joy we find in faith.
“Yeah, but then I can just buy something else that makes me happy.” (pause)
Well, I am too stubborn to admit defeat, and I still know in the long run I’m right (smile). I have to admit though, this kid has been really well trained that money is the key to happiness, that money changes everything, and we may have our work cut out for us!
What do you all think? Can money buy happiness? (don’t answer!) Let’s look at this together.
This morning we are going to consider the role money plays in our faith lives as we look at the difference between a scarcity mentality and an abundance mentality.
What do we mean by a scarcity mentality? Scarcity mentality or scarcity mindset, is a term coined by Steven Covey, and is founded on the idea that, if someone else wins or is successful in a situation, it means you lose. It is based on a belief that there is a limited amount (a scarcity) of resources, so we have to constantly be on the lookout for ways to earn more, store up more, acquire more than others.
In short, the story we tell ourselves is that there’s only so much success/wealth/stuff to go around, it might run out. I don’t have enough so I want to make sure I get more, save up more, have more than others. In our American culture, you may feel this as the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. Deep down, it’s based on a fear that we don’t have enough.
In many ways, this mentality is synonymous with pursuit of the American dream. Our success is often measured by what we acquire, where we live, what we own. Scarcity mentality is why we have a never-ending desire as a culture to acquire more stuff, and why so many of us face the constant temptation for instant gratification, temptation to buy now, pay later… and it’s almost counter-intuitive – because this mindset is based on a fear that we don’t have enough, we often end up with a tendency to rack up stuff and debt…in the book this series is based on, Adam Hamilton refers to these American problems as “affluenza” and “credit-itis.”
In today’s Scripture reading, called the Parable of the Rich Fool, God challenges the fool, challenges us, to not put our trust in wealth, but that we should trust in God. The problem wasn’t that the man had wealth. There’s nothing wrong with having wealth, but the problem is when the desire for more and more drives our lives. The faith problem is when we are not trusting in God enough and we’re hoping the stuff we acquire will take care of us.
This passage creates a tension and makes us ask ourselves in whom or what we put our trust. Do we put our trust in possessions, or our ability to take care of our self, or do we put our trust in God?
One of the biggest challenges we have as Christians in our culture is really trusting that God will provide for us. In our culture of plenty, we are often tempted to believe that we can provide for ourselves. We often believe that it’s completely up to our own hard work and accomplishment to have a sense of security.
The opposite of a scarcity mentality is an abundance mentality.
With an abundance mentality, one believes that they already “have enough resources and successes to share with others.”
In other words, people with this mindset believe they have “More than Enough” (point to title slide) The story we tell ourselves when we have an abundance mentality is we are already so blessed, we have so much and know that God will take care of us. We don’t have to try to keep up with everybody else. We have more than enough, we even feel more blessed when we share and can celebrate the successes of others.
If we were to keep reading the verses that follow today’s passage, we are told that we are not to worry about our lives, what we eat, about our bodies, or what we will wear. We are instructed to consider how God takes care of the ravens of the air, the lilies of the field – we have a trustworthy God who will provide for us more than enough, who provides for us so abundantly that we have more than enough to share. If we live like we believe this, with trust in God and faith in having abundance, our hearts are changed.
What does this look like? I have seen this abundance mindset in the most unlikely of places.
One of the things I love most about when I went on mission trips to locations like Haiti, Appalachia, and rural Jamaica, places where people live in conditions that are almost unimaginable, is the amount of trusting in God’s provision I witness there. I have seen the deepest faith and the deepest joy in people who have dirt floors, homes without plumbing, leaking roofs, children playing in insect-infested puddles, or children joyfully playing with makeshift toys made from flattened bottlecaps and string. This boy was playing with a single beat up Hot Wheel car.
In the midst of this abject poverty, I was able to get to know and worship with people who truly trust that God will provide for them. These same people who have so little, go out of their way to share what they have with me. As guests, we are careful not to make an offhand comment like, “oh I really wish I had a Coca-Cola with this,” because it is likely that someone will go to great lengths, maybe spending all they have, in order to share.
It fills my soul when I am around people who deeply trust that God will care for them. Because these are places where people are less distracted by the pressures of competition and constantly buying new stuff, there is a bigger focus on paying attention to faith, paying attention to helping meet the needs of others. It strengthens my faith to be reminded of what matters most.
But you don’t have to go to a third world country to witness an abundance mindset. I listened to a really inspiring TED Talk this week about a woman who began a community garden project in her small, Northern England town of Todmorden. In this small town, people have planted fruit and vegetable gardens in their front yards, on city land, vacant lots, anywhere there was land available. Every plant is for sharing, no matter who planted it. It turns out everyone takes what they need and there’s still plenty for others. They are eating healthier, growing locally, sharing. This small town has inspired similar projects around the world – a great illustration of an abundance mentality. Abundance thinking begins when we practice sharing with one another.
Writer and blogger Seth Godin shared this thought recently:
“There’s one view of the world that says what all people want is as much stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. And that’s a world based on scarcity….”
“There’s a different view not based on scarcity but based on abundance that the thing we don’t have enough of is that we don’t have enough connection (we’re lonely), and we don’t have enough time.
And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves, yes, we will seek that out.”
What I take away from this quote is that we have a unique opportunity as a faith community once we change our mindsets from scarcity to abundance. When we quit worrying about having to compete with other churches to have the latest and greatest stuff, when we quit worrying about having enough, and recognize we already have more than enough, we can live out of our abundance. We can shift our focus from ourselves to meeting the needs of others.
Although this quote wasn’t meant about Christianity, I love that the quote points out that people long for a place where they can connect with one another and have meaning. That’s church! As people who trust in God’s abundance, we can offer that gift to one another, we can share that gift with a busy, over-consuming culture. We can live into our mission to love God and love neighbor.
So, As we shift toward truly trusting that God will provide for us, one of the toughest moves we could make is to learn to depend on something outside of our own self.
I have an interesting faith challenge for you this week inspired by my seminary friend Ryan Klinck and his work with the Neighboring Movement:
I challenge you to borrow something from a neighbor.
Why borrow something? Borrowing something from a neighbor is something that really flies in the face of American cultural norms, particularly that we are supposed to be self-reliant individuals who do not need other people’s help, because if we do, then we are perceived as “weak.”
Yet, something beautiful happens when we borrow something from a neighbor, we are:
relying on someone else’s resources and wisdom
giving neighbors the opportunity to share
growing our relationships with the people closest to us
This practice takes more time than just running to the store, so it’s an investment in our relationships instead.
Borrowing something can remind us that self-reliance is a myth that actually leads us towards isolation, which isn’t healthy. We need other people and relationships in our life, it is a healthy thing to ask for help from others.
On a faith level, it teaches us to honor the gifts other people have and giving them space to share them with us. It reminds us of the abundance God has to offer us all, it is reminiscent of the Acts community, where they had all things in common and shared all they had..
It is my prayer that we can be a community of faith who knows that money cannot buy happiness – that we can be people who can share generously because God so abundantly gives to us.
To God be the glory. Amen.
Giving Credit where it is due:
 Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
This photo was taken by a friend of mine, Scott Sigrist, and used for this sermon with his permission. You can see more of his work at www.sigristphotos.com. (thank you, Scott!)
This is the second day of our Advent Photo Challenge and the keyword is “Star.” Since I preached a sermon with that title yesterday, I thought I’d share the text of my sermon with you today.
Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 21. Adult Jesus is talking his disciples in the temple and this is the last chapter before the Last Supper and all that follows. It’s an odd way to start the Christmas season, but we will understand why before the morning is over.
Luke 21:25-36 CEB
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
A lesson from the fig tree
29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.
34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”
I love going to places where you can see all of the stars, even the stars in between the stars.
One of my favorite things about getting away from the city is being able to see the stars. I’ve even been known to pull my car over at night on an empty Texas state highway in order to make my entire family endure my making them all look at the stars. (I’m sure they appreciate it.)
So, I was really excited when, about five years ago, my family planned a weekend vacation at Canyon of the Eagles in the Texas Hill Country. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nature park west of Round Rock, in a part of the Hill Country that is an official “dark sky” area. There’s very little lighting in the park to cut down on light pollution. When you walk around the park at night, they give you special little flashlights to carry around. It is home to the “Eagle Eye Observatory” and one of the best places to see the stars at night, because, of course, they are big and bright, deep in the heart of…
Canyon of the Eagles is a migratory path for eagles, so we also hoped to catch a glimpse of one of those too. (pause)
Well, I wish I had a better star story to tell you. What ended up happening was that it was cloudy and rainy the entire weekend. The mosquitos ate us alive. And although we had a nice video tour from the resident astronomer of what we could have seen if there were no clouds, it just wasn’t the same as we had hoped. (side note: We didn’t see an eagle either – total bust.)
But isn’t this picture beautiful that my friend Scott Sigrist took at Dinosaur Valley State Park? We didn’t get to see the stars like that on our weekend, but we know they were still there.
Stars are a constant – throughout history, sailors and travelers have used stars to navigate and keep their sense of direction.
When was the last time you noticed the stars? Do you have a lucky star or a favorite constellation?
Today we begin the Christian season of Advent.
The word “Advent” comes from the latin word “adventus” which means “to come toward, to draw near, to approach.” It is a time of expectation, a time of waiting.
Waiting…How are you at waiting for things?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. Just so you know that I’ll go to extremes to prepare for a sermon (smile) I spent my Friday afternoon waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles so we could get my son’s driving permit. Oh the waiting! This time I paid attention to what people do while waiting – it’s no surprise that most people spent that time distracted by their phones or TV. A few people read books. Very few just sat there, waiting and watching.
Not all waiting is terrible – as we spend this season waiting, we can be on the lookout for what is to come. It’s the perfect time to look for signs as we wait.
Advent is an “in between” time of year. Obviously it’s in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it also marks the time between the “already” and the “not yet.” In fact, during Advent, we are waiting for three things at the same time. I’ll explain:
The first thing we are waiting for is the obvious one – the “already” – we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate this, we are celebrating something earth-shattering that has already happened.
Think of it this way: imagine that you ordered a package from Amazon (not too hard to imagine.) You are so excited that it’s on its way. Then you check the app and see that, much to your surprise, it’s already delivered. You check your front porch and, sure enough, all of the great stuff you’ve been waiting for has been there all along. It’s already arrived.
The second thing we are waiting for is the “not yet.”
Our Scripture passage today talks about all of these signs of that the end is near. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, it says. Throughout history, there have been times when doom and gloom preachers have pointed to naturally occurring events like eclipses, earthquakes, and meteor showers to declare the end of all civilization. “Repent! The End is Near!” they’ll shout.
This is a really odd way to start the Christmas season, isn’t it? Here we are ready to hear the good, predictable news that sweet little Jesus is going to be born in a manger…but then the scripture is all about the end of time. What’s going on?
With wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and natural disasters, coupled with human evils of wars, oppression, violence, intimidation and discrimination, dominating our news cycles, it may even be tempting to fall into “fear and foreboding,” to see what is going on and wonder, is this a sign of the end of the world? In the face of all that is going on in the world today, it is tempting to be overwhelmed by all of the brokenness we see around us.
But if we pay close attention to today’s scripture, our message is not about doom and gloom at all. It’s a message of hope!
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”
Notice that adult Jesus is talking here, pointing out the signs that something good is happening as we notice the leaves sprouting – summer is coming, not winter! As humans in an unpredictable world, we look for signs that will predict what’s coming. Yet, as people of faith, we know that there will come a time of final victory – this is the “not yet” that we wait for – a time when everything is restored and God’s reign is on earth as it is in heaven. So we wait for that day with hope.
We wait for the “already,” and the “not yet,” and the third thing we wait for during Advent is the “right now.” It’s the signs and symbols of God at work today.
It’s tempting to look at our world with fear and despair, isn’t it? But if we’re not careful, we will totally miss where God’s kingdom is breaking in to our world right now. When God’s people work for justice, for mercy, for wholeness and compassion – that is God’s kingdom on earth right now. The exciting thing is we get to be a part of that! Every time we – individually and as a community – work to restore the broken systems and people in our lives, the more we bring glimpses of God’s reign on earth, we bring the signs of hope in a world that desperately needs to be reminded.
Which brings us to the symbol of the star at Christmastime.
During Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, we often place a star on top of our trees. The star reminds us of the star that shone over Bethlehem, guiding the magi to the place where Jesus could be found. It is a symbol of something that guides us – a divine guide, a constant presence.
Especially times in uncertainty, it’s comforting to look for reliable signs to follow.
Funny thing – Do you know when it is hardest to notice the stars? During the brightness of day.
As it turns out, even during the brightness of day, they are there. It may be that the biggest challenge we face is finding God’s guidance when things are going well for us, when we are in our own bright days…when we are tempted to believe we can do all things on our own. (pause)
As we journey through advent together during the next few weeks, I challenge you to fight the pressure to rush to Christmas. Prepare for Christmas by praying, becoming aware of God’s guidance, and doing good work for God’s glory. Be the “right now.”
It is so fitting that we begin Advent with the sacrament of communion. I invite you to remember during communion today of all that God has already given you, to reflect on the promise of hope for the future, and to find ways to bring God’s restoration on earth today. Let us begin…
Where have you seen God at work recently?
What is something you are really looking forward to?
This sweet little jingle bell started as a preschool craft project for one of my big three kids. It was delightful to have our littlest one put it on the tree this year!
The jingling of bells reminds me of this passage from the book of Psalms:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! 2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! 4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! 5 Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
This morning we are talking about how even our little choices impact our wisdom, and how to become wiser through the practices I am calling the “3 P’s of Wisdom,” in order to make it easier to remember. The 3 P’s are Pausing, Praying and Paying Attention.
So first, what do we mean by wisdom?
For starters, it’s worth noting that wisdom is not the same as knowledge –
(image credit: shockinglydelicious.com)
To quote Miles Kington: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” (pause, hopefully for chuckles) (Side note: What I learned this week is that tomatoes in a fruit salad is a real thing people do!)
So, wisdom isn’t knowledge. Wisdom is having the ability to have insight about relationships and choices. It is a natural ability to understand things that most people cannot, and is a knowledge gained by having many experiences in life.
The opposite of wisdom is foolishness, silliness, stupidity. Nobody wants that!
Having wisdom makes your life easier…Where in your life is the lack of wisdom getting in the way?
I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, one of the areas of life I struggle most with being wise is in how I spend my money – although some might argue that my biggest struggle is how much time I spend time on my phone. 🙂
Don’t get me wrong, I want to be wise in how I spend my money. I want to give generously to the church and to good causes worth supporting. I want to set aside enough money to send our kids to college (all FOUR of them!) and I want to save wisely so someday, probably quite a ways away, I want to retire. I want to be a good role model to those little people who are watching.
But if I’m honest, there is a lot of pressure to use money in ways that probably aren’t the wisest.
I spend money on clothes and shoes that are cute but I don’t really need, I buy things from Amazon, I feel the pressure to upgrade my phone and get the latest and greatest gadgets. I may or may not have a problem with buying too many Sharpies and art supplies.
In fact, really large corporations are banking on my inability to make wise choices. It doesn’t help that credit card companies are more than happy to extend credit to me to make purchasing more things easier. Actually, I just read a stat recently that, as of 2017, the average American household’s consumer credit card debt was over $15000, so I’m apparently not alone on this.
My husband jokes that our problem is we have too many resources and not enough good things we are doing. Consumerism solves that problem for us. Bang! Problem with having too many resources is solved!
And it’s not just finances, there are choices to make all the time on how to spend my time, (yes that includes how much I’m on my phone), what to eat or drink, how to treat others, what to pay attention to… What about you? What are the areas you struggle with when it comes to making choices? (pause) While the areas we are working through probably vary widely, deep down we all want to walk in wisdom.
It’s like our faith says one thing, but all the other messages we are seeing say something different. A lot of the choices are probably no big deal, but there are still so many choices. The thing is, nobody sets out to get his or her self in a bad or unwise place, whether it’s about our finances, relationships, addictions, health, or whatever – it’s almost like we wake up surprised one day wondering how we got here.
In Science class, there is a concept called “tipping point” and an experiment where you make a boat out of aluminum and try to see how many pennies you can put in the boat before it sinks. How it usually works is you put the pennies in one by one, and eventually a penny drops in and the boat sinks quickly to the bottom. (Side note: We tried this during youth group recently & one of the groups figured out a way to make a nearly unsinkable boat…so maybe we have some wise students in our midst!) In the same way, we make choices that, individually, are insignificant. But, like the opening video illustrates as well, the accumulation of several choices brings us to a place we never expected to be.
Isn’t it great to know that even though we all face this issue, God’s word has something to say about it?
Remember at the opening of worship when I asked you to think of the wisest people you know?
For me, my friend Bill came to mind, but I also thought of all the times I would visit with John Cash on Sunday mornings before he moved to Florida – there was a lot of wisdom to learn from his 9 decades of life experience!
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” James 3:13
The book of James reminds us that people who are focused on gaining God’s wisdom are known as being pure, peace-loving, considerate, full of mercy, impartial & sincere. Think again about the wisest person you know – how do they measure up? (pause)
So, as we move forward from here, how do we become wise?
To become wise, you need to follow what I’m calling the 3 P’s on this path to wisdom. I’m calling them “Pause, Pray & Pay Attention,” but those who are Gen- Xer’s in the room might appreciate that Vanilla Ice’s word to “Stop, Collaborate, and Listen” also would work. 🙂
The first “P” is to PAUSE. (STOP)
In order to grow in wisdom and learn from experience, it is essential that we PAUSE for time to meditate/reflect/know yourself. We live in a culture that is constantly busy. We rush from one thought, one activity, one bit of information to the next.
The problem is, if we are so busy moving around all the time, we will absolutely miss out on opportunities to learn, miss out on opportunities to hear what God might be saying.
I love this movie quote from the classic Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” This is so true. (image credit: quotesgram.com)
Life is full of choices. Every day we can make a million choices without thinking, so the first “P” is that we need to PAUSE and consider the impact of our actions before we move forward.
What does “Pause” look like? I’m a big believer in the practice of taking a “Holy Pause” between activities – just a moment to catch your breath. (pause) You can even taking a weekly “Pause” in the form or Sabbath rest which will give you the space to move forward with wisdom.
A huge benefit of this is if we pause to reflect on our own lives, our own shortcomings, we grow more patience with others.
The second “P” is PRAYER. (COLLABORATE)
James 1:5 says we need to ask for wisdom – that anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.
In Scripture there are several examples of people who struggle with wisdom. King Solomon, the son of David, is the best-known Biblical character for wisdom. In the Old Testament book of 2 Chronicles, Solomon had just become king when God appears and tells Solomon “Ask whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.”
Solomon thought about all of the things he could request & wisely said, “Give me wisdom and knowledge so I can lead this people, because no one can govern this great people of yours without your help.”
In response, God, delighted that Solomon didn’t ask for things like wealth or power, gives Solomon not only wisdom but also wealth, riches and fame beyond any kings before or since.
We begin the search for wisdom by pausing and praying, but we can also gain wisdom in two ways: personal experience and learning wisdom from others’ experiences – as long as we follow the final “P”
The final “P” is Paying Attention. (LISTEN)
You gain wisdom either through your personal experience or – the great shortcut to wisdom – through listening to the wisdom of others.
Think of it this way: I believe people can be divided into two main categories: Stove touchers and non-stove touchers. Which are you?
Here’s how it works: there are people you can tell “hey, don’t touch the stove, it’s hot and will burn you.” They will touch the stove anyway, get burnt & learn that stoves are hot.
Non-stove touchers will hear the good advice, follow it & still learn that stoves are hot.
Whether it’s to gain wisdom through personal experience or through the experience of others, you have to follow the final “P” and Pay Attention to the available wisdom.
We can learn from Scripture quite a lot of wisdom from others – some things never change. We can learn to follow instructions and put the words into action.
Having a lot of different experiences helps you gain wisdom – but only if you let it.
It’s not enough to just have experience, you have to PAY ATTENTION to life as it happens around you.
Like in the video, we are often distracted by the screens and other things vying for our attention. We miss life as it happens when we are so busy trying to get a video or an Instagram image of it!
To grow in wisdom, you have to be able to see what is right in front of you
And also see the deeper meaning of life
My friends, in conclusion, here is the hope in this message:
We constantly receive messages from our culture about what we should do and how we should spend our time and resources in order to measure up to the world’s standards of success or happiness.
As people of faith, we have a unique opportunity and challenge to live lives that are markedly different than the world’s standards. As we seek God’s wisdom instead, we seek to live lives of grace, mercy and love. You have the opportunity to live lives that exemplify God’s love and especially God’s love for all people.
No matter where you find yourself, you can move toward wisdom. By following the 3 P’s of Pausing, Praying and Paying Attention, we can make a million little choices that move us toward wisdom.
It is my prayer that you will walk thoughtfully through your millions of small decisions, perhaps even learning wisdom from others often (as opposed to touching the stove yourself!) and live a life that brings peace and hope to others.
As we close, I want to offer an opportunity for you each to practice the 3 P’s of wisdom. In a minute I will pray and the band will come forward to play a song. During their song I invite you to spend time perhaps with your worship guide and a pencil, and take a moment to PAUSE and reflect on your life, PRAY for God’s wisdom in decisions you need to make, and PAY ATTENTION to what God might be saying to you. You can write down a prayer, or ideas on what you might want to work on, or spend the time in prayer as we reflect on God’s word for you.
Let us pray:
Spirit of wisdom,
This morning we confess that all too often we make choices that pull us away from you, distract us from the path you have for us. Forgive us for the choices we make. We ask for your true wisdom to be a guide in our lives. Thank you for being a God who never leaves us nor forsakes us.
Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in
us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of [Gehenna.]
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
Has anyone ever said something to you that changed you?
I was a teenager on a joint Polish Catholic/United Methodist youth group retreat
when I heard a few words that completely changed my life. My friend, Bill
Kozlowski, was a couple of grades ahead of me. His mom was one of the youth
leaders at his church and every spring our two youth groups had a spring retreat
I remember Bill saying to me, “Erin, one of the things you need to realize is that
you’re not better than anyone else.”
Those words alone could have hurt my feelings, but the important part was that
Bill kept speaking.
He added, “You also need to know that no one is better than you either. God made
us all, and no one is better than anybody else.”
It was a simple truth. I doubt that 16 year old Bill had any idea that the words he
said then would so positively affect the rest of my teenage years and beyond.
I mean, imagine being an insecure, self-conscious adolescent, constantly
comparing yourself to others and feeling like you were coming up short…and
then you hear, really hear, and choose to believe, that you are genuinely okay,
that you are enough, just as you are. Believing those words as a teenager was a
game changer – I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was measuring up
or how I compared to others.
His words helped me to navigate a pretty challenging season of my life with quite
a lot more grace and confidence. His words changed me. His words may have
even been part of why I later felt called to youth ministry.
A few short years later, when Bill tragically died in a Coast Guard accident, I was
all the more grateful for the words we shared during his all-too-brief time with us.
Can you remember a person in your life that said something to you that changed
You see, our words are powerful.
In fact, let’s do a little survey:
Consider your closest relationships – perhaps you are married, or think of your
best friend, your parents. Or even consider the people sitting right around you.
How many of you think that you could say/text/tweet or do something in the next
30 seconds that could dramatically improveyour relationship? Go ahead and raise
your hand. (pause)
Okay, how about this – how many of you think of something that you could say
that could really hurt/destroy/cause harm to your relationship?
Whatever you just thought of – DON’T SAY THAT!
Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the good choices that we
make all of the time – there are plenty of times we don’t say something mean and
it keeps our relationships better.
We can know words are powerful if we consider we worship a God who spoke
the universe into being…we can look at the beginning of the Gospel of John and
see that in the beginning was the Word, the logos, and the Word was with God
and the Word was God…
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, the words you speak come from your heart.
Our words are rarely neutral – they give insights into the heart of the person
speaking. Whatever we say isn’t just random words – what comes out of our
mouth comes from the same place as our convictions, aspirations, dreams, hopes,
doubts and emotions. Since our words are rarely neutral, what we say always has some intended result even when we don’t think about it.
Most of our life is built around words. We’re a culture that is always talking one
way or the other – if we’re not literally speaking, we’re texting, typing, updating
our status, tweeting, emailing, or writing. We even sing words. Words are a part
of everything we do, they are a part of all of our relationships.
When I reflect on my life, on conversations I’ve had, conversations people have
overheard, I’m not always proud of the words I’ve spoken.
I imagine I am not alone in realizing there have been times in my life when I’ve
said unkind things, yelled out of frustration, complained and made people feel
bad. With my words, with my tone of voice, with my impatience…there have
been so many times when I’ve hurt others. I’m not proud of that – but I also
imagine that I’m not alone in feeling regret about things I’ve said.
You may have said things you’ve regretted too. There may have been times when
you talk too much.
Today’s passage in James is focused on the incredible importance of “taming our
tongue” – the importance of taking care with our words.
I believe that our words have unprecedented power today.
Consider this: When this letter was written, the audience was the twelve tribes of
Israel who were now living as refugees in foreign lands. The letter was written at
a time when communication was only as fast as the messengers could walk, run,
or perhaps take a horse. It was like an Oregon Trail type of journey – To get the
word out to the next village might take a few days or weeks.
Even when my husband Dennis and I started dating (way back in the last
century!), we lived in different states for a while and wrote letters to each other,
so we can remember that it would take 3 or 4 days to send our messages.
Times have changed since then – and especially the way we communicate. While
this passage focuses on taming our tongues, if it were written today it would
encompass all of the ways we use words.
Just how powerful are our words today?
Consider this example – if I were to sit down and have a conversation with
(church member) today at lunch or even over the phone, and things got a little bit
snarky or I said a few things that were kind of harsh, some damage will be done. I
have the ability, even in that conversation, to have a change of heart, to apologize
for my carelessness, and to try to make things right.
Now, if I were to stand up here at the pulpit and say the same careless thing – now
I’ve multiplied that impact times the 150-200 or so people in this room. We don’t
have a live feed, maybe I could get to the audio recording and edit things before
the sermon is posted online. The damage said here feels like it is pretty
In today’s culture, we have so many more ways to communicate our words than
Now let’s imagine that instead of just speaking, I decide to put my unkind
thoughts out on Facebook, Twitter, or to vent a little in an email or text message.
What I have learned is that typed words often can take on a life of their own.
(Especially words taken out of context, which is something our soundbite culture
loves to do.) In just a few keystrokes, an email can go from one person to
hundreds. Emails passed from one person to another, even what starts as more or
less well-meaning emails from good people, have broken relationships, caused
people to lose jobs, and caused great damage. Faith communities have suffered
from the words of its members.
Added to this is the tricky element that we don’t know which words will be contagious, which will go viral – a few years ago I wrote a blog post about St. Barnabas’ tornado damage that was widely shared, and we ended up with more people sending Easter eggs than we could have ever imagined. I had to do some damage control to stop the flood of responses.
In 2013, I posted this Instagram picture as part of a Youth Ministry photo blog
challenge with the topic “where would you like to be in 10 years.” I was very
surprised a few months later when I received messages from friends in California,
New York, Ohio and Texas letting me know that the same photo was picked up
by a Buzzfeed/clickbait type Facebook post full of pretty unfavorable 10 year
change illustrations of celebrities like Brittney Spears and Will Smith. I no longer had any control over the context around my original words.
Words are powerful…and words are contagious.
Emails get forwarded, posts get shared – unlike the days of James’ letter when
we’d have to carry it by horseback, in an instant we can spread images and
messages around the world.
I invite you to take a moment to focus on this part of our Scripture from today –
it’s also printed in your worship guide: “People can tame and already have tamed
every kind of animal, bird, reptile and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It
is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father
and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from
the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
What strikes me about this text is that we have the power in our words for both
blessing and cursing.
You may have expected to hear a message about not saying bad things, but…
This means we have the unprecedented power to do good work with our
There’s a Harvard Business Review article that investigated the impact of using
either positive feedback to constructive criticism to change team behavior.
They called the ratio the praise-to-criticism ratio, and monitored results in
companies and teams and different performance levels. The highest performing
teams used an overwhelmingly higher amount of praise to motivate behavior.
Interestingly, there is a similar study that shows effects of praise and criticism in
the success of marriage relationships and the results are similar. The research
varies, but the general consensus is that it takes about 5 or 6 positive comments to
beat out the negative messaging we hear.
If that’s accurate, let’s work out some math here in this room then.
Let’s say there are 150 people in the room to make the math easy.
If each of us made a commitment to have a positive impact with our words and
our witness once a day this week, that would be enough to overcome about 30
negative things a day. If we commit to each saying just 5 positive, life affirming
messages a day, that should work to even things out.
And yet, imagine what impact we could have if we all decided to be all in on this
project, if we all committed to doing our best to be positively impacting people
whenever/however we communicated this week – what kind of positive, life
giving force could we become?
What dreams and ministries and visions could we accomplish if we all vowed to
use our words to build one another up?
Our words are so powerful.
The tricky thing is, we never really know when we are saying words people are
hearing. My friend Bill probably had no earthly idea that he was saying something
to me that would be a sermon illustration a couple of decades later. He caught a
moment when I was ready to listen. We don’t know when we’ll have an impact or
who we are impacting, so let’s just commit to assuming each moment we have is
that moment of truth that can impact another life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to think about what could happen to us as
a faith community if we committed to treating one another with that kind of care,
if we committed to lifting one another up with encouragement and put a stop to
grumbling, gossiping and complaining to one another. And then if we extend this
power of words beyond our walls…
We have the power to be an absolutely transforming force in the world. Let it be.