Give ’til it Changes You

Dear Covenant Kin,

So here we are—Stewardship Sunday. Stewardship Sunday is when we collect pledge cards from the gathered community so that we can plan for ministries in the coming year. Most of the world hears pleas for money on this morning, but that, as you well know by now, is not how we do it. So at this point, you haven’t heard much about money, instead, you have heard a whole lot about the plans that you all made during New Beginnings for what ambitious future ministries you want to take on as a community. Hasn’t it been exciting to hear all of these future visions? And this week, all of the Young Adult Volunteers we have supported throughout the years will be casting a vision for us about how we, as a single, mid-size congregation can have an impact on global mission—talk about ambitious.

So here it is—the ask. Our Covenant family has remarkable visions of a future where we are being sent to make a difference in the world. Of course, that only happens if we have the resources to support those visions. So I want you to prayerfully consider your giving this year.

Some interesting thoughts on pledging and tithing to the church: First of all, this is an ancient concept that seems to have it’s roots in the most ancient scriptures of the Israelite traditions. Genesis 14 and 28 are occasions where early church patriarchs offer a tenth of what they have to God as a tithe. The Mosaic laws in Leviticus 27, Numbers 18, and Deuteronomy 14, 18, and 26 speak of tithing as well.

Now I know what you’re thinking—WHOA! Slow down there, I am no where close to a tithe and now you are making me feel guilty—Don’t worry, just keep reading and all of this will make sense soon enough.

I had to stop for encouragement there, because the reality is, the New Testament’s version of tithing is even harder for us to palate. Of course, the passage from last Sunday (Acts 2:42-48 see also Acts 4), suggests that all the followers of Christ sold everything they had, put it into a big pot, and lived in a totally communal way. And Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook either; in Luke 18, Matthew 19, and Mark 10 Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything.

Okay…are you panicked yet? Are you still reading or did you give up? I know that at this point you are either seething mad or nervous or feeling guilty—DON’T FEEL THAT WAY! Giving to the church should have nothing to do with guilt, nervousness, anger or anything else. And let me further let you off the hook—That is not how I or my family gives to the church either.

Let me explain…We would love to be fully tithing, but we just aren’t there yet. We have been steadily working our way there for several years, but we still have a ways to go. We certainly haven’t sold everything we own and given it to the church, so you can breathe a sigh of relief there too.

Here is what we do: we figure out how much we need to be giving that it really effects all of the other decisions that we make. We know that we can’t live the same way if we are giving that much—this is really important to us. For us this is a deeply prayerful and faithful decision, because it is something that affects our every day life. My family pays its gift to the church at the beginning of the month—knowing full well that every other financial decision we make for the rest of the month will be impacted by the money that we have already given. That is what I think faithful giving looks like. We give at the level that changes how we live our day-to-day life. That is ultimately what this faith stuff should be all about, our everyday lives should be affected by our faith—ALL OF OUR EVERY DAY LIVES! Not just Sundays. Not just during prayers at meals or bedtime. Every moment of our lives should be impacted by how we practice our faith.

We full well know that our lives are changing in every possible way next year with a new child on the way. Finances included! But that reality has not changed our level of commitment to the church or to how we live our lives of faith.

So…don’t take up the biblical practice of tithing unless it is right for you and has an impact on how you live your day-to-day life. Don’t sell everything you own and give it to the church. Though that would certainly change the way you live your every day life, I don’t think that is the best way to approach your giving. Find a way to give meaningfully that causes you to make decisions in your everyday life a bit differently. Consider finance as a field in which we live out our faith. And most of all, stop feeling guilty, or angry, or nervous about talking about money in church. Remember, this is about living out those future visions of ministry together—this should be exciting, invigorating, and relieving.


Meditation and Queen Elsa

Last week I began an online Masters in Interfaith Action through Claremont Lincoln University. It is a school that brings together people of various faith traditions in the same classroom (online classroom that is), to not only study things like ethics, social justice and theology, but to also engage each other in hopes that a faithful and meaningful dialogue might begin. The course work has been tremendous, and rather than just adding more stuff to my pile, has had the reverse effect—reducing stress.

Here is why: one of my first courses is on mindfulness—the practice of being truly present. It is akin to meditation and contemplation, but really has to do with how we are living each moment, not just those that are actively used for meditation or prayer.

I thought an interesting way to use my reflection this week would be to share one of my discussion assignments with you. Then, ask the question—how might you practice mindfulness?

Discussion Prompt: The first discussion item this week is to share how you might be implementing the essence of the readings and activities in your everyday life. E.g. have you been able to implement present moment awareness in your typical activities? What are your ‘gorillas?’ – in other words, what are the good things in your life that you might tend to overlook because you are typically focused on life’s stresses and challenges?   How has reading, thinking or processing about mindful or heartful awareness begun to shift your behavior?

My Response: This week I received the gift of being a solo dad. My wife was out of town at a business conference and so I had our three year old all week. Part of me wanted to react with stress (one more thing on top of all the work!), but another part of me saw this as permission. I had been having a busy couple of weeks, and this was the permission I needed to put some things on the back burner and enjoy time with my daughter. I was the only one there. She needed me. She needed me a lot more than all the work needed me. We played in the park, we had a movie night, we spent time in the backyard, and I was able to give myself permission to simply shut everything else out and play. There is something to the idea of play being an avenue to mindfulness. Coming out of my religious tradition, I think this is what Jesus spoke of when he said to enter into the kingdom you must become like a little child. You must appreciate the specialness of each moment. You must have joy. You must be able to put other things aside and simply focus on the present moment, and in so many ways this is a lesson children have to teach us. This may need to be a focus of mindfulness for me. I never considered that playing, “Queen Elsa,” was a contemplative practice. However, as Professor Daugherty alluded to in the introduction, Thich Naht Hahn said that the greatest gift we can give someone is our presence–being fully present with them. I want to be better at practicing this kind of presence with my daughter. I also want to make time for other meditative practices, but in some ways, I believe this is a good way of really starting on my “Gorillas.”

How about you? Are you going to practice mindfulness by playing, “Queen Elsa?” Or what ways might you be more present in your everyday life?

Go and Do Likewise

The Good Samaritan is as much about international politics as it is about neighbors. When most of us think about the “Good Samaritan,” we go back to Sunday School mode and remember being told something along the lines of, “Jews didn’t like Samaritans.” So we simply think this is a case of people that aren’t liked. As you could surmise, I want to push that a bit deeper.

First of all, Samaritans weren’t just disliked or different. Samaritans were the people of Northern Israel that the folks from around Jerusalem really didn’t like. We forget the sense of history that overhangs all events in the Middle East. In this case the Samaritans were the folks that had split off from Judah and created the Northern Kingdom. Not only was there a deep internal divide between North and South, but international politics with Assyrians and Babylonians actually pitted the two nations against each other in battle. Both wrote nasty things about the other (you can always tell whether a prophet in the Old Testament came from the North or the South based on who they were criticizing). And even all these years later, as the Israelites had traded one empire’s oppression for another, there was an underlying animosity between the two.

Not only that, but there was a big disagreement between North and South over how religion was supposed to be lived out. For the South, everything revolved around the temple in Jerusalem. This was God’s Holy Temple. It was THE Holy Temple. In the North that wasn’t necessarily the case. To carry out religious ritual Northerners didn’t want to travel all the way to Jerusalem every time, so the religious system was different (thus the two different religious leaders in the story who do nothing to care for the man in need).

So we have religion and politics—all we need is sex for the perfect trifecta of taboo topics! If you don’t believe me about these divides, here is the bit of information that should seal the deal—the story is set on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho—this would be the road crossing the “Mason-Dixon” line between the North and South, between Israel and Judah, between good “Jews” and Samaritans.

Jesus is taking aim at the divisions that we hold most dear. This is not just about neighbors being unexpected or disliked people. This is a commentary on toxic political and religious systems that have led people to forget that they are always neighbors and should act like it.

So let’s add a modern twist to this. Jesus is talking to a liberal, elitist, democratic, atheist, arugula-chomping, big-city, tort lawyer, and telling him he needs to start taking care of that red-neck, good ole’ boy, gun totin’, evangelical, tea party republican, country bumpkin—and vice versa.

So the question for you—what divisions do you hold most dear? Jesus is telling you to get over them and start taking care of that person on the other side of the religious, political, and cultural divide and start acting like neighbors.

Being Sent to Make a Difference

And so the stewardship season begins… I am so thankful that Covenant thinks about stewardship differently than so many churches. In many a church, this time of year is filled with pleas from the pulpit or guilt trips. I am happy to say that I really don’t think this church has ever done stewardship that way, but sees quite clearly the deeper meaning of what we are taking about. It isn’t about money. It’s about giving thanks.

Typically, during the stewardship season we have had many congregants speak in worship about the various things they are thankful for, as well as, how their faith and life have been impacted by the church. This year we will be going in a slightly different direction. The leadership of the church has been listening very carefully to you throughout the New Beginnings Process, and there were four areas of ministry that rose to the top as places you told us you wanted our church to focus: Children, Youth and Family Ministry; Neighborhood and Community Ministry; International Mission; and Redefining Evangelism. These were the areas of ministry that inspired the most passion within the congregation, and so these are the areas where we are focusing our ministries as we move into the future.

Over the next several weeks of Stewardship, we will be blessed to have leaders in each of these areas of ministry talking to us about future stories of how we are being sent to make a difference with our Children Youth and Families, our neighborhood, international mission and rethinking what evangelism is. We certainly have a great deal to be thankful for in our past stories, but we also have great things on the horizon for us as we live out our calling as Christ’s disciples. There is a sense of excitement and passion about these ministries that is becoming contagious. So this year we will be looking at the future ministries that our gifts will go to support.

I also encourage you to take this as a time of personal reflection. Which of these ministries inspire passion within me? How am I being sent by Christ to make a difference? Where am I being sent by Christ to make a difference? If not one of these ministries what else? Think carefully about these questions. Feel free to make an appointment with me to talk about how you might commit to these ministries of the church and, how you might make a difference.

That is what stewardship is ultimately about, giving thanks to God that through the many gifts we have received from God—we too are Being Sent to Make a Difference!

Don’t Be Hatin’!

Matthew is a self-hating Israelite. Or as David Lose put it in his blog this week, “I kind of think Matthew’s a punk.” In this case, what both Lose and I are referring to is the fact that this week’s passage is all about manipulating people to dislike the same people Matthew dislikes—in this case the scribes and the Pharisees. I will openly admit that much of what I am putting together here is in line with what Lose said in his blog, You can check it out here: Crazy Love.

But I want to build one more thing into the conversation where I don’t think Lose went far enough.

So let’s review…This is the parable of the wicked tenants. Land Owner sets up a nice vineyard, rents it out, tenants aren’t paying the rent, owner sends servants to collect, tenants beat them, owner sends more servants, tenants beat them, owner sends son, tenants think that if they kill the heir they will inherit the vineyard so they kill him. After telling this story, Jesus asks the crowd of Pharisees what the land owner will do to the tenants when he comes and they script their own demise by suggesting that the owner should kill the wretches. Oh yeah, did Jesus mention that those nasty Pharisees are the wretches? Oops.

Lose nicely goes in the direction of pointing out that the Pharisees are the ones who insist on killing the wretches—not Jesus—though that is often the assumption we too make when we talk about this passage. We think Jesus says here that God is gonna come knocking and kill those awful Pharisees who have acted so atrociously with the gifts God gave them. But Jesus doesn’t say that. The Pharisees do. This points toward our systems of injustice and misunderstanding of grace. If we take Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection as the extension of the story, Christ doesn’t put them to death at all, but comes back to life to remind them again of God’s love!

So that is a summation of Lose’s point, but I wanted to extend something that he only briefly mentions. Lose mentions that it is passages like these that lead to anti-Semitism. Christians have had a history of pointing at passages like this and saying, “Oh, Look! See Jesus says the Jews are disinherited and that we ought to kill those wretches.”

First of all, as Lose points out above, Jesus never said that. Jesus does say that those who reject the cornerstone will miss out on the kingdom of heaven (we will save defining that point for another post). Jesus never says anything about violence, or that the Jews should be the target of it! Further—this isn’t about Jews—certainly not modern ones!

I think in this case it is quite the opposite—Jesus is not referring to Jews in general, but religious elitist who think that they are entitled to the kingdom of heaven because of their own work. They think they are the ones who worked the vineyard, they should benefit from it—not the vineyard owner that rented them the land in the first place. This passage is a reminder to us that none of us created this world. Any benefit we reap from our work is a direct result of God’s gifts. That is why Christ points back at Psalms and Isaiah and their commentary on Israel. The cornerstone verse is not about accepting or rejecting Christ—it is a reminder that God offered grace to the Israelites (the cornerstone that was rejected) in that God cared for Israel when others rejected them. This is a passage reminding them that they couldn’t be where they are today without God having taken extraordinary care of the people of Israel when they were rejected.

If we are to see this as a reminder of God’s Grace and how important it is for us to always remember that it is only by the grace of God that we are where we are, then this has nothing to do with Jewish people, and everything to do with religious elitism and entitlement! So who is in the role of the Pharisees condemning themselves? Not Jews, but Christian Elitists who now believe we are the “Saved” ones! This is a warning to all of us highly religious folk who think that because of who we are and the way we act or what we believe, God is going to treat us special. IT’S NOT ABOUT US! IT IS ABOUT GOD’S GRACE! There should be nothing antisemitic about this; rather, this should be a reminder to us of how reliant we truly are on God. This brings to mind another passage in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Unfortunately, that is often how we read scripture—it is about all those other awful people, but not us. Let’s take a lesson here and remember to give thanks. All we have is because of God’s Grace, not because of our beliefs, what we do, or who we are. Let’s take time to be thankful for the great gifts we have, and make sure that we pass those gifts on to others as well!