May 2, 2011

Shalom versus Fear - A sermon on Resurrection and Stewardship

If you'd prefer to listen to this sermon as it was preached at 10am, then follow this link.  Otherwise, continue reading.

Fear is an awfully strong motivator. By that I don't mean that fear is really really strong motivator, but rather that fear is awful and a strong motivator. Fear leads to all sorts of bad decisions. The fear of “I'm going to die alone” leads people into all sorts of doomed relationships. The fear of rejection leads people away from all sorts of wonderful relationships. When fear is our motivator, awful things tend to happen.
Last Sunday we heard the story of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Jesus. She was instructed to go and tell the rest that Jesus was on his way to meet with his Father and their Father, his God and their God. Mary went and told them, and today we hear the rest of what happened. The disciples were terrified. While last week everyone was doing what a sane person would do, this week, the disciples do what any fearful person would do: they hide. They huddle up in that famous upper room and lock the door for fear of the Jews. Wouldn't you go look for Jesus? Wouldn't you want to see him for yourself? Fear does funny things to us. It makes the illogical, logical. It makes the rational, irrational. It makes the smart do stupid things. And so, out of fear, that first Easter Day was not spent hunting eggs, eating ham, and enjoying family. Instead, the disciples locked the doors and hid.
When I announced on last week that St. Paul's was entering a season of renewal, resurrection, and whole life stewardship, I know that a few of you felt that tinge of fear course through your veins. Maybe you even thought about it as you got ready this morning, “Maybe I won't go this week, I just don't want to hear money talk.” I get it. I'm not stupid. I woke up this morning terrified to preach this sermon. Sex, politics, religion, and money. We just don't talk about these things. But we should. Fear has led us to not talk about the important issues of our lives, and not talking about these things has led us to near crisis situations in all four arenas. On sex, just this week the Washington Post reported that 1 in 4 children in the United States is being raised by a single mother: more than any other industrialized nation. In Politics - While Congress was in recess, they were still back-biting one another over whose fault it is that we got into the current economic mess rather than seeking realistic solutions. In Religion - Mainline denominations continue to shrink while we joke that “evangelism isn't our thing.” And Money - Exxon announced that thanks to higher gas prices, it earned almost eleven billion dollars in just the first quarter of 2011.
When fear motivates us and awful things happen.
Eighteen months ago, I stood in this pulpit and shared with you that Cassie and I give the first 10% of our household income for the work of the Kingdom of God. What I failed to tell you is how hard it was for me to get there. Prior to heading to seminary, I was content to give God everything I had... in my wallet... on the Sunday's I went to church... and wasn't serving at the altar. After Friday night out with friends, and Saturday night out with friends, Sunday morning usually rolled around with maybe a five or a ten dollar bill in my wallet. I faithfully put that in the offering plate... if I was at church... and not vested and at the altar. I was, in my mind, doing all I could. I was afraid to give any more because it would mean not paying the cell phone bill or buying groceries or, more likely, not going out Friday AND Saturday nights with friends. Once I got to seminary and we were writing a twelve-hundred dollar check to the seminary every month, it was easy to call that our gift for the Kingdom, even though, deep down, we both knew that was probably cheating. Still, we were afraid that if we gave any more, there wouldn't be enough for rent or groceries or, more likely, good Indian food. Fear motivated us to keep our wallets and, by extension, our hearts closed to God.
Back in that upper room, as fate would have it, another person managed to make his way in, through the locked doors and drawn windows. Suddenly, standing in their midst was the man at the center of all the controversy, Jesus of Nazareth, their Rabbi and friend. He begins to speak by offering a very traditional Jewish salutation, “Shalom. Peace be with you.” His words, however, aren't just a casual hello, but a call to action. Jesus understands that fear is an awful and powerful motivator. He knows why the group is huddled up with the door locked and he simply says, “no.” No, fear will not motivate my followers. Shalom will be the order of the day. Again he speaks and says, “Shalom. Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Fear caused them to hide, God's peace propels them out in love, service, compassion, and evangelism.
Poor Thomas wasn't around on Easter evening, and he wants so desperately what the rest of the group got. He wants to hear Jesus' word of comfort and shalom. He wants to receive the Holy Spirit. He wants to touch the holes in his hands and put his hand in his side. He needs that one-on-one encounter with the risen Jesus in order to shake of the fear that still paralyzes him.
And so did I. As seminary came to an end, it became abundantly clear that God had blessed us so richly during our time in Alexandria and by calling us to serve in Foley. We decided that if we were called to be church leaders, then one way we should lead is by giving 10% of our income to the Kingdom of God. After we got settled, we created our budget worksheet and realized that after tithe, taxes, bills, gas, and groceries we would have about zero dollars left each pay check. It would have been easy to put three-hundred dollars back in our monthly budget by not tithing, but that simply was not an option. For too long fear had been our motivator, but after a three-year, intensive, one-on-one encounter with the risen Lord we were able to shake the fear that paralyzed us.
Thomas needed that one-on-one encounter with the risen Jesus, and so did I, and so do we. Over the last three years, St. Paul's has done some amazing things. Things that many people would have thought impossible. You know the list, but I'll name them anyway. We've launched a volunteer ministry at the Elementary School, we began hosting Family Promise, and collecting food for Ecumenical Ministries weekly rather than one month a year. We have a monthly men's dinner, a Saturday night service, a highly successful pig-out fundraiser, a singles group, an ecumenical Vacation Bible School, monthly Bunco nights. We've done mission work in the DR, Katrina ravaged Mississippi, and given support to tornado victims last year, and today, and tomorrow. We have a weekly newsletter, a website, a facebook group, online sermon recordings, and a whole list that I'm forgetting. While the disciples were busy hiding, we've been busy doing, doing, doing. In recent months, however, Keith and I and your vestry have begun to wonder how much of our doing has been to avoid big pink piggy bank in the room: our deficit budget. St. Paul's Parish, like most households in America, has lived paycheck to paycheck for the last three years. When the money ran out before the month did, we relied on the relative ease of band-aids by asking for special gifts. In so doing, we made a mistake. Rather than rely on God's abundance, we allowed darkness and fear to convince us that resources were scarce. We sought “blood from a turnip” rather than the Spirit of God. We went back to the same well over and over again instead of drinking from the unending water of life.
As you leave church this morning, you will receive a letter and a worksheet. The letter is going to look a lot like what I've just described: going to the same old well, digging deeper, and asking for more. On behalf of Keith and the Vestry, I'll ask you to look at this letter differently. While, of course, we will ask you to considering increasing your gift, what we hope you'll prayerfully discern is where your gift is coming from. There was a time when I gave God what was left over, but now, thanks to proportional giving, Cassie and I give God the first fruits. Our tithe is the first thing in our budget, and all other decisions are based on that non-negotiable number. It was a change in priorities: a change in worldview. A move from fear to faith, and one that has impacted every area of our life.
But even that letter, as much of a change in worldview it is for us, is useless if it is all about money. If we are seeking only the cash flow to keep the staff paid, the lights lit, and the doors open, then we've forgotten why we exist in the first place. We are a ministering community... for the glory of Jesus Christ, and so today we come before God and ask him to turn on the faucet: to pour out his Spirit so that we might be overflowing: to forgive us for our lack of faith and to allow us, once again, that one-on-one encounter with the Risen Jesus. We pray, as today's Collect says, “that we might show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.” We cry out to God and say, “help us to walk the walk! Not just with our money, but with our whole lives. Bring to our lips the praises of King David “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name... For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”
Fear is an awfully strong motivator. It causes us to do wildly irresponsible things. It is the root cause of most of our sin. In the resurrection, God freely, I repeat freely, without any cost or strings attached, offers us his shalom, his peace. During these 50 days, reflect on that peace, seek after it, spend time in honest one-on-one encounters with the risen Jesus, and I'm convinced that you will find that peace is just the the first-fruit, the foretaste of the amazing blessings God longs to pour out upon you if you will only say no to fear and receive his peace. Amen.

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