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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Today is the first Sunday of Advent for us, which means it’s the beginning of the liturgical year.  And that means it’s time to switch back to the  lectionary for our sermon texts. At Upper Room, we usually preach lectio continua (straight through a book or portion of scripture) during the ordinary Sundays of the year.  But in Advent, Lent, and the weeks following Easter, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which provides particular readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels for each Sunday.  It runs on a three-year cycle (A, B, and C), of which this will be year B.  I was a stranger to the lectionary until going to seminary, but now I really appreciate it.

Aside from the fact that it provides seasonably appropriate readings for each Sunday, I have two reasons why I use the lectionary.  First, it takes control out of our hands.    For four years now, I’ve been reading the daily lectionary, a similarly structured set of readings for every day of the week which goes through most of the Bible in a two-year cycle (1 and 2, of which this will be year 2).  When I started doing this I noticed that it relieved the anxiety I had previously taken in to my devotional times.  What should I read? How do I know where to begin?  Giving up that control meant that it was much easier to sit down and read the Bible.  All I had to do was open the book and turn to the appointed readings.  Then I found that I was reading parts of scripture I would never have read on my own and over time it gave me a much deeper knowledge of the Old Testament.  Soon I began to hear God speaking in new ways through parts of scripture which had previously seemed dry to me. Yielding control over my reading of scripture led to a much deeper and richer reading experience. Which leads to the question, Can we really hear God’s word to us if we choose where we encounter it?  Altogether, the daily lectionary has been a tremendous blessing to my personal devotional life. (If you’re interested, it’s easy to access online and the PCUSA has printable monthly reading lists available.)

Second it’s an exercise in ecumenism.  The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is used by Roman Catholics and a number of mainline Protestant denominations.  It’s far from perfect, and omits a number of passages which pastors should still address (hence Year D).  But to read the same scriptures as other Christians of different stripes, especially at the high points of the Christian year, shows that we seek to find our unity in the Word of God.  The daily lectionary likewise is used by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants and I’m grateful to know that other Christians around the world are reading the same texts I read each day.  Not only are these the same texts that our brothers and sisters in different denominations or communions are reading, they’re the same texts that our brothers and sisters in China, in Uganda, in Italy, and in the United States are reading. That’s a beautiful picture of Christian unity.

I came across this prayer yesterday and wanted to share it because it’s appropriate for the holiday tomorrow.  It’s originally from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us.  We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

The line expressing thanksgiving for disappointments and failures grabbed me. The Holiday of Thanksgiving is one where it’s common to give thanks for the beauty of creation and for the blessings of friends and family. But our failures? Disappointments? Should we thank God for things that break our heart? Unemployment, sickness, mistakes, embarrassment, damaged relationships. Thanks be to God?

The prayer thanks God for these things because they lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. As the scripture passage I’m preaching on this week says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. . . . Yet you, LORD, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:6-8). Like the leaves falling from the trees around us now, we can’t sustain our own life, and season come when we wither and die.  Like clay pots, we can easily break. And our only hope is in the One who is Sovereign over all creation, who like a potter can shape and mold our lives according to his will.  Thus the prayer offers thanksgiving for Christ: He whose life seemed to end in failure and disappointment, but who rose in victory and triumph. He who gives us life. He who repairs these broken pots.

Thanks be to God.

It’s “stewardship season” in most churches – the time of year when churches communicate openly about their financial needs to the congregation, often soliciting pledges of regular giving from their members so as to budget appropriately for the coming year. At The Upper Room this Sunday, we’ll have an all-church meeting where we’ll talk about the vision for the future of the church, including our decreasing grant funding and our (challenging but attainable) goal of reaching $53,000 in tithes and offerings in 2012.  So we’re participating in the festivities of “stewardship season”, but I think there are deeper issues beneath the surface that need to be addressed, in our church and in all churches.  Stewardship is not a season.  It’s not something we only practice part of the year.  Faithful stewardship is about what we do with all the resources God has entrusted to us all the time.  And while this particular conversation needs to be had this Sunday, we run the risk of an impoverished understanding of stewardship if we only talk about it this Sunday and only use typical churchy language.  In fact, I think the language we use often gets in the way of faithful stewardship.  We have to change the way we talk about money.

Take for instance the word “tithing”. Churches like to encourage tithing, defining it usually as the giving of ten-percent of one’s gross (pre-tax) income to the ministry of the church. The idea comes from several Old Testament passages. Leviticus 27:30-33 says that a tenth of the fruit of the land is to be “holy to the Lord”.   Numbers 26:12 says that a tithe collected every three years went “to feed the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow”.  So the principle is often applied to the present-day life of the Church: a tenth of the income of the Church’s membership should be holy to the Lord, and should thus provide for the paid ministers of the church (Levites) and the mission budget (foreigners, widows and orphans).

But it’s not that simple. Consider these words from Richard Foster about why the New Testament actually never speaks of tithing as a practice in the early Church:

“The tithe simply is not a sufficiently radical concept to embody the carefree unconcern for possessions that marks life in the kingdom of God.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of all our goods, not just 10 percent.  It is quite possible to obey the law of the tithe without ever dealing with our mammon lust. . . . Perhaps the tithe can be a beginning way to acknowledge God as the owner of all things, but it is only a beginning and not an ending” (Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World – Revised and Updated [HarperOne 2005] pages 58-59).

If Jesus is Lord of everything – the One who already owns everything we have in our possession and the One whom we can trust to provide everything we truly need - then ten percent seems like a paltry amount to give back.  It’s a starting place, a beginning, as Foster suggests.  But on the other hand, when we really look at our finances and where our money goes, ten percent starts to seem like an incredibly high amount to give.  For most of us, it seems like it’s always getting more difficult to make ends meet.

Again, tithing isn’t simple. Consider also the issue of “split-tithing”, an increasingly common practice in my generation in which people give away (at least) ten-percent of their income to “Kingdom-work”, but only a portion of that ten-percent ends up going to the local church.  I understand this concept well.  In fact (I confess) it’s what Eileen and I still practice.  The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it runs the risk of thinking that the local congregation isn’t really “the Church”.  But the truth is the local congregation really is the Church and its mission is just as valuable as feeding orphans overseas. Both are worthy of our giving because both are ministries of Jesus Christ.

So where do we begin this stewardship season?  Maybe by asking Jesus what we need to do to grow in our discipleship.  As his constant push against the legalism of the Pharisees in the Gospels shows, Jesus is less concerned with whether we give 10 percent and more concerned with whether He is master of our life, or if we bow to money (Matthew 7:24).  So how is Jesus calling you to show that He’s master of your life? Maybe by giving more to the church this year, taking a step towards tithing if you haven’t before.  Maybe Jesus would just as soon ask you to sponsor a child through World Vision  or support an overseas missionary or a local campus minister.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).  He didn’t just say that to the Rich Young Ruler; He also said it to all his disciples (see Luke 12:33).  The question is which step is necessary for you to grow in your discipleship.

So if you’re in Upper Room,  you’ll receive a commitment card which we’re asking you to fill out and return to the church.  And on it there will be a line with the following options which could be checked: “□ This is a step towards tithing. □  This is my tithe.  □ This commitment goes beyond tithing.”  Whichever box you check, know that it’s not about “measuring-up” to human standards of giving; it’s about making a tangible commitment to grow in your discipleship this year.  Know that there’s no shame in a step towards tithing, committing to tithe is not fulfilling a law, and going beyond tithing is no reason to be proud. Make the commitment that will go deeper than the surface of the words and transform your discipleship.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:32-34 TNIV -

This week, like many in the past several months, has been filled with people. All good people, people whose company I enjoy and benefit from. But apart from a brief period of solitude at a monastery yesterday and time working alone this morning, my schedule has been filled with people.

Three years ago, the charge given to me at my ordination was to seek solitude. For a leader in the Church, the spiritual discipline of solitude provides space to hear God’s voice apart from all the others which clamor for our attention. And weary as I’ve felt recently, I’ve been craving solitude.

But as I prepared today for this week’s Sunday school class for Upper Room, I came across a convicting passage in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

It is grace, nothing but grace, that I’ve been given Eileen for a wife, who is infinitely patient and loving with me. It is grace that I will spend two hours this afternoon in deep fellowship and prayer with my co-pastor Mike and that we share the unique community of The Upper Room as a church family. It is grace, nothing but grace, that when I was a socially awkward freshman at CU lacking self-confidence, the community of The Annex and First Pres Boulder became a family for me, equipped me to lead Bible studies and sent me on mission trips through which I heard God’s call to ministry. It is grace that at Pittsburgh Seminary, I was given a community with whom to learn and worship. It is by grace that God has given me the fellowship and inspiration to holiness which we have in The House of St. Michael. And it is by grace that I’ve been given a job, a community, and a ministry at the 61C Cafe. Thanks be to God.

I still need my solitude, but I am deeply grateful today for the grace of community.

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