Learning How to Give

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

franpitre-boysfightovertoy2Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

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Looking Ahead: the Church as tenant in God’s mission field

Looking Ahead to Sunday's readings and the Good News of God I will strive to speak that day, I am wrestling with how we understand the relationship between of God's mission and the church's mission. Stewardship themes also come through strong, especially in the Gospel.

Appointed readings:

Isaiah 5:1–7
Psalm 80:7–15
Philippians 3:4b–14
Matthew 21:33–46

(full text of readings here)

In particular, I am struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:43:

The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Jesus speaks these words after telling the chief priests and the elders a parable about tenants of a vineyard who had been entrusted with tending the vineyard and producing a crop for the landowner. When the landowner sends servants to collect the produce, the servants are killed or beaten or otherwise rejected. The landowner sends more servants, to the same end. Finally, he sends his son, who is treated in the same manner. Jesus asks what will happen to the tenants when the owner comes, and the chief priests and elders replay that the owner will put them to death and lease the vineyard to others who will give the owner the produce at harvest time.

A few things to note here:
For one, it is clear that we are talking about tenants working in the owner's field. Are we willing to view ourselves as tenants working in God's field? We cling so tightly to notions of ownership – of our land, our homes, our clothing, our cars, our money, our gadgets – yet we can too easily forget that all that we have comes from God.

And if we are tenants, entrusted with land and work (as in the parable) or with goods and money and house and time and energy, how are we called to use these things? What does the owner – God – intend for us to use these resources?

And if we are not using these resources according to how God intends them to be used, today's Gospel reminds us that responsibility for their sacred use can be taken from us and given to another. "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." God's kingdom is not dependent upon us. It is God's work that extends beyond us and our churches, and God is glad to give the work of building his kingdom to whomever proves willing and able to carry out the work.

Another thing. In the parable Jesus does not imply that the grapes in the vineyard were neglected or in any manner unworthy. For all we know, the tenants might have done a good job growing the grapes, and for this reason would rather keep the valuable harvest for themselves rather than share with the owner. The problem is that those responsible for delivering the crop to its rightful owner have no interest in doing so. How do we seek to keep for ourselves what we rightly owe to offer to God?

In the Isaiah text, we see God's disappointment that his beloved vineyard is not yielding the intended fruit, and he withdraws his care for the field and allows it to go to waste. As in the above parable about tenants, it seems in this reading that no single field is indespensible to God's mission. God will sow seed and harvest fruit wherever there is good soil.

In the Psalm, the psalmist pleads with God to restore the vineyard … a follow-up, of sorts, to the Isaiah reading, reminding God of what he has done in the vineyard, and asking him not to let it go to waste.

The Philippians reading is great, but isn't speaking with me in concert with the theme set up in the other readings. 

In fact, as good as the Isaiah text is, if you wanted to go with the stewardship theme – in advance of the traditional November stewardship Sunday(s) – a text such as Deuteronomy 26 or Leviticus 2 could be helpful to set up a discussion of the proper use of that with which we have been entrusted by God. So too with the Psalm. Psalm 24 could be good for such a theme.

Blessings to all who are preparing and delivering sermons this week!

Certain Promise, Certain Hope for Uncertain Times

Lectionary 29 (21st Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Timothy 3:14:-4:5
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In our second reading today we read excerpts of a letter from Paul
    to the younger Timothy,
    a co-worker with Paul in proclaiming the Gospel and building the church
    in the decades following the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
It was a scary time for the early church.
We can easily romanticize the early church,
    view it as some sort of frontier religion with Paul establishing Christian outposts
    in a pagan world, outposts that would later thrive as centers of a vital, new religion.
But the reality was much more grim.

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When Ministry Paradigms Collide

Two ministry paradigms collided within me yesterday, but I couldn't tell you what the wreckage looked like, because I'm not sure I really understand what happened. 

Yesterday I attended a seminar on preaching stewardship where we heard from a Lutheran pastor who, from what I can tell, seems to swim in somewhat different church waters than I do.  As I listened to him speak, I found myself saying at times, "Oh, we wouldn't do that in my church," or, "That's not the approach I would take."  I didn't really have any substantial reason to oppose or challenge what he was saying – in fact, much of it made all kinds of sense – but nonetheless it didn't set right with me.

And so I'm not sure what instinct to trust – the "a-ha" moments I was having while listening to him, or the gut-sense that his approach to church was just too different than mine.

For example, he offered an outline for a sermon series.  My gut reaction was to wince and mutter to myself, I don't do sermon series.  But, the series he presented was lectionary-based, making it a bit more appealing.  But still, for reasons rational or not – perhaps I'm just a snob – I don't do sermon series.  I have usually found them gimmicky.  Yet … yet I know that people in the pews often find such sermon series to be effective tools connecting various themes and helping them listen for something in the sermon.  (OK, my ambivalence about sermon series and sermon titles would make a full post, but that's for another day.)

Yet his sample sermon series was designed to respond to the question, "How do Christians live?"  A wonderful topic, but one that all but requires the preacher to preach about us, to make us and the way we live our lives central to the sermon.  But I've been taught, and I strive to put into practice, an understanding of preaching as proclaiming the Good News of God's work in the world, not a discourse about our work in the world.  Sermons have as their subject God, and as their object the world (including us). I'd be more than glad to teach about the Christian life, using his outline, but to preach about it?  I see preaching and teaching as different tasks.  But – and here comes the moment of realization -  when only a small percentage of the adults who attend worship show up for education hour, why not take the time to teach from the pulpit, when you've got them right in front of you?

Most significantly, perhaps, in describing his ministry this pastor talked alot about making disciples, helping people faithfully follow Jesus.  There was clearly an element of personal conversion in his tone, even if it was far from the "accept Jesus in your heart" conversion formulas of many evangelicals.  On the other hand, I tend to talk about being the church, gathering in community for a shared experience of faith, and the shared witness to Christ we make to the world.  I'm more likely to speak of conversion as something than happens within, and to, a community, than I am to speak about personal conversion.  He and I simply approach the work of the church differently, with different questions and different emphases.  Yet I can see the appeal – and the Biblical basis – for a stronger language of personal discipleship, particularly if set within a communal framework.

And finally, he mentioned that he once presented a large cardboard "golf check" to the director of a local non-profit organization, during worship.  Though I'm a fan of incorporating all kinds of blessings and prayers in worship – from blessings of backpacks to laying on of hands for the sick – the whole big cardboard check presentation thing seems better suited for a banquet or coffee hour gathering or congregational meeting, it seems to me.  On the other hand, worship is the largest weekly gathering of a congregation's membership.  So why not use that gathering to highlight how the congregation gives beyond its doors, and lift up in prayer and praise a community organization with as many church members as possible?  Such a public recognition of support for a community organization could have a great impact on the congregation, even if doing it during worship has a little bit of a "variety show" feel to it.

So I'm torn.  I can see how some of these tactics are or could be effective and appealing.  Nonetheless, I don't do such things.  I don't do preaching series, I try not to teach from the pulpit, and I do all I can to maintain worship as a time of prayer, praise, and blessing, and to save other rituals and gestures – as good and holy and wonderful as they might be – for other settings.  Is this just snobbery getting in the way of effective ministry, or a striving for liturgical perfection that too easily is becoming the enemy of otherwise good ministry?

I don't quite understand the "bigger picture" of the two paradigms that collided within me yesterday.  I can't quite articulate the theological, liturgical, or ecclesiological convictions that stand behind either way of doing church, nor the implications of those convictions.  Sure, I know that he and I approach preaching and worship in different ways, but I can't really tell you what those differences really mean, and what implications they have for the life of the church and the faith of the believer. I need to learn more.

All I know is that my own approach to doing church was challenged yesterday, and I am grateful for the thought-provoking experience.