Monday, November 16, 2015

American Christians and the refugee crisis

Of course, I get it. There's concern about the refugees coming from Syria to the United States. This concern is magnified because of the fact that a Syrian passport was found near the bodies of one of the murderers.

This is a legitimate concern. If you aren't concerned about that sort of thing, how's about inviting one of these folks to live in your home with you, sight unseen, without screening them? Of course you'd screen them first.

But--here's the thing--we do that. Well. Too well. The refugee resettlement process in the United States is remarkably restrictive. The screening process for placement in the US is painfully long; there are cases in which it can stretch into years. The Economist reports that three quarters of a million refugees have resettled in the US since 9/11 and not a single one has been arrested on terrorism charges.

For Christians, there are two relevant pieces of information to take into account.

1. ISIS involved a refugee precisely so that the west would turn against refugees. These people are literally fleeing ISIS, not supporting them. And because the Syrian refugees are ISIS's enemies, ISIS is using us as tools to keep the refugees from finding permanent homes elsewhere. We're being used. This bears repeating: we're being used.

2. The Biblical message is clear: welcome refugees. There is no way to take this out of context, because it's such a pervasive message. I will acknowledge that welcoming refugees may mean different things to different people, but you can't argue with the Biblical message. At best, you can say, "The Biblical message isn't practical" or "I don't believe the Biblical message." If that's your argument, fine. But to claim to take the Gospel seriously and then to say we should turn away refugees (without otherwise finding ways to care for them) is to say, "You know, Jesus, I hear you. I just don't like what you're saying, so I'm going to go another way."

Look. I'm scared, too. It isn't easy to be a citizen in this world, at this time, with these problems. I fear what this means for me, for my family, for my faith.

So that's all to say that I don't mean to suggest that this stuff is easy. The way of Jesus rarely is. I'm just saying, it's clear.

Photo (c) 2015 Mstyslav Chernov. Used under a creative commons license.

On Church: Episode 2, When Church People Attack

I love church people, as in I am regularly brought to tears by the depths of their goodness and generosity. But sometimes people act afool, and the pastor often gets the worst of it.

In this episode, we talk about what to do when church people are difficult, and why they deserve some grace.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Church: Episode 1, Young Clergy

My friend and colleague, Matt Lacey, serves Church of the Reconciler in Birmingham, AL. We have started an occasional podcast talking about our very favorite subject matter, titled "On Church."

The first episode deals with our experience of being young clergy. We love the church, both the congregations we serve and the larger connection. We want it to be better. I hope that comes through.

November 1 Sermon: Heaven is For Real (But Most Books About Heaven Are Not)

11.1 Sermon: Heaven is for Real (But Not All Books About Heaven Are) from North Decatur UMC on Vimeo.

October 25 Sermon: Instructions for Singing

10.25.15 Sermon from North Decatur UMC on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

October 18 Sermon: Change Your Life, Change the World

Genesis 28: 12 – 22
[Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am theLord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

Mark 12: 41 – 44
[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Can I first acknowledge that the church hasn’t done the best job of talking about money over the course of the centuries? That one of the reasons people bristle when we start talking about money isn’t so much the fact that this is a difficult topic. We talk about difficult topics all the time: love, sex, relationships, justice. We talk about difficult topics. The reason people bristle is because the church has done a terrible job of talking about money. I mean, we really don’t have a great track record, when you start to look at the history of the early church, where bishops were incredibly wealthy people because they skimmed money from the church, to the reformation and the sale of indulgences to the highest bidder, all the way to the televangelist scandals we all know so well, the more mascara the better. And then there was this tweet a couple of weeks from a prominent preacher:

And it is a lie. Jesus bled and died because his message was to proclaim good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and not, I should be very clear to add, not so that your 401(k) can blossom. If anything, the Bible says the exact opposite of the words of this offensive tweet, when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” or “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven” or “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Let me acknowledge that the church hasn’t done the best job of talking about money over the course of the centuries, but what I want to do is not to say, we have no witness on this matter, but to do what the church does best, what Jesus does best, which is redeem even the most difficult of circumstances.
So what I want to do this morning is ask the question, or rather, encourage you to ask yourself the question, “What is God calling me to give as a percentage of my income?”

There may be baggage here, but I think it is important, because there are few things you can change in your life that will make a bigger difference in changing the world than changing the level of your giving. I hope you’ll consider all the ways your life can change and the ways you should live differently because of the difference Jesus has made in your life, but you can’t separate giving from all of that.

And the first thing I want to talk for just a few minutes about what the Bible says about giving, specifically giving money to the church, and I want to share how my understanding of what the Bible says has impacted my life and the life of my family. I want to talk about how we understand giving in the church, and then I want to end with how your giving has helped change lives in this place, this church, on this corner.

The first part is really the easiest part, or at least the simplest. The Bible calls us to be generous. The standard for generosity is the tithe, which is 10% of your gross income. We didn’t pull this number out of thin air—it comes from the Old Testament. In those days, believers would take 10% of their grain, 10% of their crops, 10% of the land they’d received and give it to the church. They wouldn’t take the scraggliest piece of land, or the day old bread or the crops that were about to turn, but the first fruits.
Now, I’m not saying that if you brought us some chickens we wouldn’t take them, but we use the tithe to talk about money nowadays because money is a modern concept—in the Old Testmant days, grain was money, crops were money. We are called to offer the first fruits, that first tithe, to God. And this is all well and good, but then Jesus comes along and says, “that’s great, but being generous may well mean more than tithing.” And so perhaps you have been tithing for years, and you’ve been looking for an opportunity to increase your level of giving, to increase your devotion to Jesus. If so, know that the message of Jesus is clear: the more generous you are, the more you will find yourself in the presence of God.

But this kind of thing isn’t easy to start, and it can seem overwhelming. Let me encourage you to start somewhere, so let me use my own life as an example. I certainly don’t mean to brag—there are people in this room much more generous than I—but I do want you to understand that what we are talking about, what God talks about in scripture, isn’t a tip. We’re talking real money, The church council has set my salary next year for $55,000. I also have a little teaching gig at Emory that pays $3,000 a year. That’s $58,000. So next week, when the Estimate of Giving cards go around, I’m going to mark down that I’m going to give the church back $112 a week, which totals just over $5800 a year, my tithe. My wife, you may know, is a pastor, and does the same thing with her income, so that the first 10% of our income goes back to the work of God. We also try to support our almas mater, the NPR station, various political and charitable causes, but the tithe comes first, because it’s God’s, and if I profess that Jesus is Lord, I’ve got to say it with my wallet just like I say it with my mouth.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy. I see that money leave my bank account twice a month, after every paycheck, and I—even I, as someone who works here—I think, “oh, I bet I could find lots of good ways to spend that money.” And yet as we have learned to simplify our lives, to live off the 90%, we have found ourselves continually grateful, continually amazed at God’s goodness. Having less discretionary income has made us more dependent, in many ways, but dependence is exactly what God requires of us.

Now, I want you to know that we haven’t always been tithers. When we were at the start of our careers, when we were in graduate school and as we came out, it was a challenge to get to a place where we could be that generous. And this is why when people ask what it means to join NDUMC, what expectations we have, one of the things we talk about is that if you covenant to join North Decatur United Methodist Church, if you want this to be your home base for following Jesus, we expect you to work toward tithing. If you aren’t there yet, that’s fine, but I want to be clear that there are expectations of membership—if you just want to come to worship, and you aren’t ready to join, that’s great!—but if you want to join this church and be a member, there are certain expectations, that you will uphold the church with your prayers, presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ. These are not empty promises. They matter.

So when people join the church we ask them that if they aren’t yet tithers, that they work towards it. That means, we say, that we ask people to pick a certain percentage of their income and commit to giving that percentage to the church. So, say, you make 40,000 a year before taxes, and you decide that you’re ready to give, say, four percent, that’s $1600 a year. That’s $30 a week, and it’s a great start. It shows commitment. And if you’ve been giving four percent this year, try getting to six for next year—not because the church wants your money, but because God wants it, because generosity is the key to happiness. And if what we are doing here really is the most important thing in the whole world—if following Jesus is the most important thing—than we should take seriously his call to give, and commit our first two, or four, or ten, or twelve percent to the work of God.

Now, this would be easy if you could give your money directly to God, but you really shouldn’t, you know, bring your money and set it on the altar and light it on fire as an offering to God. The problem, at least for some people, is that the church gets involved, and that’s the problem when we say that Jesus bled and died so that you could prosper financially. And the church would be great, were it not for the people, for you and me! We’re not perfect, but I consider it God’s greatest miracle that here we are, two thousand years later, and the church is still here. Miraculously, the church is still here, despite the crusades, and the televangelists, despite the wars and the heresies, the church is still here.

That’s all to say, we can’t help being the church, but since God has directed the church—us—to be the vessel through which God does God’s work, to be the way we give to God, I do think it’s fair to ask questions about how we spend the money that God has entrusted to us through the giving of this community.

It’s one reason we make the budget public. This isn’t a secret document. My salary isn’t secret. Shoot, you can go on the website of the North Georgia Conference and see the salaries of every single clergyperson in the conference—all 900 of us or whatever it is. We try to be transparent about the finances of the church. We’ve just finished this year’s audit, in fact, showing that our giving is good, our spending is in control, and that we have proper controls for how we spend so that the money you put in the plate each week is best used for the glory of God.

You should know that this church, that North Decatur United Methodist Church, takes very seriously the importance of being good stewards of the money with which the church has been entrusted. In fact, let me show you a graph that shows how the money we’ve spent over the last 12 months has been spent.

Over a third of all the money that has come in in the last year has gone to outreach, to serving God’s most vulnerable children. You probably didn’t know that such a high percentage of your giving goes to that mission, but it’s true. Through our connectional giving—our apportionments—we add to a great swath of churches called United Methodist who seek to connect their personal piety with a public witness for healing and justice.

But even if you didn’t know what percentage that the church uses to serve the poor and feed the hungry, you already knew this was a special place. It is. I asked this week in an email and on Facebook for people to share their stories with me of how their lives had been changed because of NDUMC. And I got more responses than I can share, but here are a few:

  • NDUMC has changed our lives in so many ways…but one thing that has been so important and meaningful for me is the community of believers who have loved my children as their own.  There is great assurance for a child as he/she goes through adolescence/teenage years knowing that there is a community of folks who love them, believe in them, care for them, and hold them close during a time in their lives when they question all things

  • A former member writes of her sister who grew up here and now serves as a chaplain in a retirement community in North Carolina

  • Newer attendee: My life has changed very simply, though significantly, in that I am now much closer to God than I have been for a very long time.  It's been over a decade since I've attended church and simply attending church has started me on a path back towards where I need to be in my relationship with God---this is the greatest life change possible, nothing else can compare. 

  • I committed my life to Jesus Christ when I was 11 years old and grew strong in my faith for many years.  Then it seemed that my faith faded and the church got in my way or became the way rather than Christ.  I went through a time of deep questioning and searching, trying to do it all on my own for many years.  9 years ago God drew me back into Christian fellowship through NDUMC.  It was one toe in the water at a time until I felt I could trust the people of God to accept me and I could open my heart up again and accept them.  Following Jesus with my NDUMC family has been wonderful, challenging, frustrating and humbling.

  • My life has changed dramatically since I have been volunteering my time throughout 9yrs as a member. Its giving me a passion, a drive, and inspiration to help take the church further into the future.

  • The community through the church and [the TNT] group is one of our favorite parts of living in Atlanta. We've made some really good friends and had lots of fun! 

  • The way God has changed our lives through NDUMC is by the genuine love and care the members have for one another.  When we first started coming to church we noticed it and now we are members and participating in it. This church welcomes, loves, and accepts people no matter where they are on their faith journey. For me, this speaks to how God's love radiates from NDUMC.

  • “I just don't think a lot of people realize what a gift NDUMC is to the immediate community.”

  •  I got over my distrust of Christians.  I used to unfairly assume that all Christians were judgmental and shallow, but when I came to NDUMC, I found that my prejudices were completely unfounded.  I learned that you can be a Christian, you don't have to be perfect, you can learn from other people who are also imperfect, and still make a big difference in the world! (Goes on to say) After getting connected to people who genuinely care about me and thinking about how I was living my time on this Earth, I started tracking how much I was drinking each week, and found out it was much higher than I expected (and wanted).  It wasn't terrible, but I was wasting a lot of money and time.  Through prayer and some deep discussions with my spouse, I have reduced my drinking and am living a healthier life!

I will end with this. I always feel like I’ve got to apologize for the way the church has talked about money throughout the centuries, but for as frustrated as I sometimes get about money in church, I’m honest when I say that I am so incredibly excited about what this church, what God’s church at North Decatur, can do in the coming year. I’m just imagining even more kids running and laughing through the hallways. I’m imagining new worship services that make room for new people. I’m imagining a bold, inclusive witness that says to this community, “yes, we know that the church has messed up, that we haven’t always been the proper vessels for God’s love, but come help us do better. Help us to reach out to new people,” for the message of Jesus is life-giving, it is redemptive, and it will save you in ways you didn’t even know you needed saving.

I just wonder. What would happen if we busted through the barriers to generosity and said to God, there are plenty of reasons for me to give you what is left over, but I choose to give you what is first? What would happen if we said, “the things for which Jesus bled and died—those are the things for which we want to live?” Give that some thought this week. Amen.

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