This is a version of the sermon I preached for Sunday, March 22, 2020, the Fourth Lord’s Day of Lent at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the fourth in a series of sermons exploring the marks of membership in United Methodist Churches: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It interacts with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Abingdon Press, 2019).
Today’s sermon is based on Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; and Luke 12:15.
Because we’re worshipping online only, with all in-person, large-group gatherings suspended for the time being, we’ve created a special worship order as an aid for online worship, which includes multiple announcements.
You can view the entire worship service here.
Additionally, I struggled with God this week around this question: “Should I stick with the preaching plan and focus on giving as an essential practice of Christian faith for this week, or should I change everything and preach something different?” I discerned God saying, “Essential practices are essential practices.” So, I stuck to the plan, but as you’ll see, the direction it went is different than it would have been if our context were different.
I’ve included a brief explanation of this discernment journey after the sermon.
Let us pray:
Holy Spirit, breathe in us as we breathe. Inspire the words of scripture, and our ponderings together, that we may see, hear, and sense your way for us today. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
A few months ago, my mixer broke – the mixer we were given fifteen years ago at our wedding. Before my dad replaced its gears, again, I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to bake my favorite cookie recipe – the one on which I’ve written, “Don’t double!” because I learned the mixer can’t handle two batches at once. But I always want two batches, “so that I can give some away” (usually I really do).
Yet, every time I look at the three or four dozen scrumptious cookies on the cooling rack from one batch, a bit of fear creeps in. I worry, “Is there enough? Will there be enough?” And then I think, “Well, maybe I don’t need to give any away.” In my mind, they’re already as good as gone, and, I think, “What’s the point of making them if I don’t even get to eat any?” Mind you, I’ve probably already eaten a half dozen before they went on the pan, and I tested each pan’s cookies as well. But I still worry there isn’t enough. Of course, I know that my life does not consist in the abundance of my cookies, but my cookie-fears tell a different story about the meaning of life.
While not about cookies exactly, the Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes is also struggling with the meaning of life, and what it means to live life well. He recounts his search for meaning. He created, he worked, and he amassed a great deal: vineyards, houses, gardens, parks, relationships, herds, wealth, and parties. He had it all, a full cooling rack of cookies for a lifetime. He sought enjoyment and fulfillment at every turn, and he didn’t limit himself at all, regardless of the warnings about eating raw dough.
But then, he “considered all that [his] hands had done and the toil [he] had spent doing it” and he decided it was all for naught: “all was vanity and a chasing after the wind” (v. 11).
His attempts to add meaning to his life by piling up more stuff, like my cookies, were never enough, and only contribute to softer waistlines.
And I think that’s where Ecclesiastes’ Teacher and our lives collide today. Whether it’s my fear of running out of cookies, or the fear elicited by quickly-emptying grocery shelves, or our legitimate fears about the future, our treasures are never big enough to overcome our fears. Especially in times of fear, we need something bigger than that which we produce or procure to sustain us. And we need practices to help us drive out fear.
At this point, our faith, and our practices, offer us a narrative alternative to consumption and fear: living with God’s heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, it’s like Jesus is speaking to Ecclesiastes’ Teacher, and to us in our fear:
“[Store] up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mt 6:19-21, NRSV)
In Matthew 6, Jesus answers the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: life’s meaning, life’s purpose, life lived well, is life shaped by the generous heart of God, revealing God’s great love to others. With everything so different, uncertain, and fearful in our lives, we long to experience more of God’s presence, more of the kingdom of heaven breaking into our lives, more of God’s heart in our hearts.
Because Jesus says that what we treasure, what we value, reveals where our hearts are – how close our hearts are to God’s heart – let’s look at what Jesus treasured. When Jesus walks with his disciples, helping them to read and live scripture, we see his heart for others, giving of his time, even when he’s tired and weary and has someplace else to go. When Jesus stops to listen to a woman who’s reached out for the hem of his robes, we see Jesus’ heart: loving her, welcoming her, healing her (Mr 5:24-34). When Jesus says that the heart of God’s way is loving God with all our being, and loving others as ourselves, we see Jesus’ heart (Mt 22:34-44). And when Jesus gives his life for his friends, as an act of self-less, undeserved love, we see his heart (John 15:12-13).
When Jesus gives of himself to bless others – to bless those God loves and treasures – he reveals God’s heart. The same is true for us: the practice of giving to bless others reveals God. Jesus asks us, “Where’s your treasure?” and tells us our hearts are there too. He knows, like Ecclesiastes’ Teacher learned, like I’m learning, that cookies and stuff are not treasure worthy of our hearts. That stuff, our money, our gifts, what we work for, are the tools God gives us to use for life’s true treasure: people, God’s beloved people.
Giving what we work for and treasure – our cookies – reveals where our hearts truly are: we treasure others, we treasure community, we treasure God’s beloved people, we treasure God’s mission. And when we give of ourselves, like Jesus, for the sake of others, we reveal God’s heart and presence at work in the world. And God alone casts out the fears of every day. Giving for others, frees us from fear of scarcity and uncertainty, and shines God’s presence into the lives of others. Not in a once and done way, but as a practice, God shapes our hearts like God’s heart through our giving to bless others.
Today, our hands remind us of the essential practice of giving, through which God shapes our hearts like God’s heart, revealing God to others. Of course, the closed, hand-shaking hand reminds us of the way we give to God’s mission through the church, together. It’s together as church, even when we’re worshipping and doing discipleship at a distance, that the practice of giving shapes our hearts to be like God’s heart. But especially this week, it’s the other hand, the one with the fingers, that I’d like to call our attention to. The fingers invite and challenge us to give in some generous, gracious, unexpected way five times this month, as a way of giving God our heart to reveal God’s heart for others.
I know there’s a great deal of economic and social uncertainty right now, but all around us, I have seen and heard stories of people’s generosity that have cast out fear, revealed God’s heart, and encouraged me.
Local businesses are seeking to find ways to support each other, knowing that on the other side of physical distancing, we want and need each other to be prepared to bounce back and thrive. Other local businesses are shifting their services to care for people. People are buying take out meals for others, picking them up, and dropping them off, in a physically-distanced way. They’re blessing others through their generosity, revealing God’s heart, and casting out fear.
I read a story about a distillery in Florida that switched to making hand sanitizer, and giving it away free of charge to anyone and everyone. In the last week and a half, our church, in ministry with the Ministerial Association, has helped three families keep their utilities on. I’ve seen people surround a family dealing with tragedy, offering friendship, support, meals, and places to stay. I’ve seen cookies delivered to friends – knock and run-style. And I’ve heard of people giving minutes and hours of their days to phone calls, to check in on friends, neighbors, and pew neighbors, displaying God’s heart for them.
All around us, God is revealing Godself through our generosity and giving. May we take up the practice of giving, especially in times of uncertainty and fear, for in giving for the good of others, God’s loving, giving heart casts out fear and fills us with hope. May it be so. Amen.
A Word of Explanation About This Sermon, Our Lenten Series, and
I started this season of Lent, choosing to preach on five essential practices of the Christian faith alongside Adam Hamilton’s The Walk, because I sensed God calling us to focus on some foundational aspects of our lives together following Jesus. The Readiness360 survey many in our congregation took in the fall affirmed this calling, and so does the season of Lent itself. Lent is a time to focus on how to align our daily living with the way of God, to walk with God, to grow in-tune with God. For these reasons, the idea of walking with God through five practices seemed like an inspired idea.
We began well in the last few weeks, with three essential practices for walking with God: 1) speaking to God through worship together and five-times-a-day prayer; 2) listening to God, especially by reading scripture, in groups, and five verses or chapters a day alone; and 3) partnering with God by serving in the church weekly, and expressing God’s kindness to five people a week.
This was all great, in our BC – before COVID-19 – days. But today, I’d planned to explore giving as another essential practice of walking with Jesus. And quite frankly, I’ve struggled with it. This week’s stock market plummet and looming uncertainty for employment and income make today’s topic challenging. Much in life feels uncertain, at best, right now, and at least one of the things behind this uncertainty is fear – fear of the unknown, or the how long, fear that there isn’t or won’t be enough, and fear of what our future looks like. This fear made me consider skipping the practice of giving. But I sensed God telling me, “These practices truly are essential practices.” They’re ways we experience God, and we desperately need to experience God’s grace breaking into our fear places today.
This week, in the midst of the anxiety and fear, I truly experienced personally, and heard/read/saw people giving of themselves that were means of God’s grace: ways God reveals God’s grace to us, ways God cast out our fears, ways God united us together in God’s mission, and ways God shapes our hearts to be more like God’s.