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Harbinger of Hope December 3, 2017- Advent 1 New Philadelphia Moravian – Rev. Joe Moore

Over the last two weeks, Worth has covered the topic of hope pretty well, actually he has covered it exceptionally well. So well that I am hesitant to delve into the same topic. But it just so happens that today is the first Sunday of Advent and, as I said to the kids when we were lighting the candle on the Advent wreath, the theme for the first Sunday of Advent is hope. So I don’t really see how I can avoid it. I hope that you are ready for one more sermon on hope.

I imagine that many of you were kind of expecting it. Because more than any other season, Advent and Christmas are times of tradition, times of expectation, times of anticipation. I’m sure that most of you came to church this morning anticipating that we would sing Hosanna because that is the tradition for the first Sunday in Advent in the Moravian Church. It’s just one of those things that we expect this time of year.

Among the many traditions and expectations of the season, there’s another event that happens every year about this time. Usually around Thanksgiving or the first Sunday in Advent, what I like to call the “Harbinger of Hope” appears. That’s a good word, isn’t it? “Harbinger”- it means a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another. And that is what the “Harbinger of Hope” does. He comes to lay the groundwork for the big event, to get things ready for the major arrival, to signal the approach of one who is greater than he, to herald the arrival of the big guy, to “prepare the way.” But it’s not who you think. If you were paying attention to the gospel lesson, you are probably are thinking that the Harbinger of Hope is John the Baptist. But it’s not. However we will get to him later.

The Harbinger of Hope that I am talking about is the Elf on the Shelf. Have you seen these guys? They are elves who make an appearance in homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas to scout out who is being naughty and who is being nice. Santa’s “scout Elves” hide in houses to watch over events. Once everyone goes to bed, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the elf flies back from the North Pole and hides.

We have one of these elves in our house. I wanted to bring him to church so that you all could see him, but one of the rules is that if one of the family touches him, he goes back to the North Pole and never returns. His name is Jingle and in addition to spying and hiding, he creates a fair amount of mischief. But he still qualifies as a Harbinger of Hope.

When Jingle, the Elf on the Shelf, appears, the hope and anticipation that Christmas is soon to follow, arrives with him. He signals the approach of one who is greater than he, he prepares the way, he gets us ready for the arrival of Santa Claus. When you see the Elf on the Shelf, you know that Santa Claus is coming to town. For all of those who have been good this past year, he is a sign of hope. And for those who maybe haven’t been quite so good, he is also a sign of fear. Because when you see the Elf on the Shelf, you had better hope that you are ready for who is coming next, for the one who comes after him. And if you are not, you know that it is time to get ready. It’s actually kind of nice to know what’s coming, to have the chance to get ready, to prepare for the one who is to come.

John the Baptist plays much the same role for Jesus as the Elf on the Shelf plays for Santa Claus. John is Jesus’ “harbinger of hope” He is the voice in the wilderness that Isaiah prophesied would come to herald the coming of the Lord, the Messiah. John the Baptist told the people, all the people who would listen, to get ready, to prepare the way of the Lord; to make a straight highway in the desert, to lift up the valleys and bring down the mountains, to level the uneven ground and smooth out the rough places. Because the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed, He is coming.

For the people that heard Isaiah’s prophecy and for those who saw John the Baptist as the fulfillment of that prophecy, the thought of the coming of the Messiah was a great cause for hope. They had long been persecuted, held captive, forced into slavery; their lives were defined by being oppressed, defeated, hated. They were waiting, they were longing, for the one who would come and save them and set them free. So they listened. They listened to that voice in the wilderness calling them to prepare the way of the Lord.

They listened to the wild man, clothed in camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey. They listened as he called them to confess, to repent, and to be baptized. They knew that it was necessary, they knew that it was what they needed to do to prepare, to be ready when He arrived. They knew it, but do we?

Confession and repentance aren’t really what we like to think about when we are celebrating Advent. We would prefer to save that stuff for Lent. Hope, peace, joy, and love- these are the things we like to think about, to focus on during this season of preparation. It’s much more fun, it’s much easier to prepare to receive those things that Jesus brings into the world than it is to look at ourselves, to confess our sins, to repent from our sins, and to go and sin no more.

It reminds me of a lost verse from one of my favorite Christmas hymns, Angels from the Realms of Glory. “Sinners wrung with true repentance, doomed for guilt to endless pains; justice now revokes the sentence, mercy calls you break your chains.” Doesn’t really fit the Christmas mood, does it? No wonder it’s a “lost’ verse that you won’t find in either the red or blue hymnals. It was in the old 1923 black hymnal but it has wisely been left out of the more recent versions. Who wants to sing about that on Christmas?

Yet they are an essential part of our Advent preparation. There are really two types of preparation during Advent. The first is physical- we decorate our homes and  our church, we buy and wrap gifts, we trim candles and hang stars. The second is spiritual preparation.  And it is something that we often overlook. That’s why it is good to have John the Baptist, the Harbinger of Hope, to remind us to prepare not only our bodies, but our souls as well.

We spiritually prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world and into our lives by first doing the thing that we don’t like to do- to consider our sins, our faults, our shortcomings, all the ways that we have failed and fallen short of God’s glory. Then we confess our sins, we acknowledge the wrongs we have done and the good that we have failed to do. Then we repent from those sins, we turn our backs on them and strive to  not do them anymore.

We need to remember that an equally important part of our spiritual preparation  is recognizing that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit already. When  we confess and repent, we also receive the assurance that our sins have been forgiven. The penalty has been paid. Jesus has made recompense for our sins. In a way, he has prepared the way for us, rather than our preparing the way for him. At least when we are only focused on preparing the way for Jesus to enter into our own lives.

But our Advent calling as Christians is much larger than just preparing to receive Jesus in our lives. That may sound strange to hear, but I believe it to be true. As Christians we are called to prepare the way for Jesus to enter the world- not only our world, but the WHOLE world. This is where Hope, Peace, Joy and Love come in. These are not just the qualities that Jesus brings into the world, they are also the qualities that he expects us to bring into the world.

It may seem like a daunting task, bringing hope, peace, joy and love to the world. They aren’t things that we always have, or more accurately, they aren’t things that we always feel. Even during Advent and Christmas, when we are supposed to be filled with them, when they are supposed to be at the forefront of all that we do. Let’s face it, sometimes we are just going through the motions, doing what we are supposed to do, just because it is the “most wonderful time of the year.”

But it’s difficult to offer hope when you aren’t feeling hope, it isn’t easy to bring peace when you aren’t peaceful, it is impossible to share joy without being joyful, it is hard to give love when you aren’t receiving love. But do it anyway.

I’m not discounting those negative feelings. I’m not saying that they aren’t real or that they don’t matter. Because they are real and they do matter. Life is hard and pain is real. But you aren’t alone in your pain, you aren’t alone in your life. That’s what this time of year is all about. It is about welcoming God into our world and into our lives. It is  about welcoming God made flesh who dwelt among us, who felt the pain that we feel, who knows what it is like to feel hopeless.

Remember how Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” as he hung dying on the cross. Jesus knows what it is like to feel hopeless. Remember how Jesus was persecuted by the very people he came to save, he knows what it is like to not have peace. Remember how Jesus wept as he saw the lack of faith when his friend Lazarus died, Jesus knows what it is like to lack joy. Remember how Jesus was denied, not once, not twice, but three times by Peter. Jesus knows what it is like to not be loved. So if you are not feeling what you are “supposed” to be feeling this Advent, if you are struggling to find hope and peace and joy and love, remember that Jesus  knows how you feel. You are not alone.

But as difficult as it is when you don’t feel the way that everyone says you are supposed to feel, even when you know that you aren’t alone in those feelings, that you have a Savior who has felt the same way, it is essential that we do what he did. It is essential that we be who God has called us to be and and who the world needs us to  be.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was profoundly influenced by the Moravians. As he struggled with his faith, he asked a Moravian friend, Peter Boehler, how he could preach faith when he wasn’t sure he had faith. Boehler replied “Preach faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” The same applies to us. We can bring hope and peace until we have hope and peace, we can share joy and love until we have joy and love. In other words, fake it until you make it. But not really. Because we do have those things, even if we don’t always see it or feel it or know it.

We have already received Jesus, we are recipients of the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love that he brings. They are part of our identity as his followers, they are part of who we are as Christians. We have them and we are called to share them. And this Advent and Christmas at New Philadelphia provide us with plenty of opportunities to prepare the way of the Lord, to make a straight path on which he may come.

The offerings and activities of the 12 Days of Service, as we feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, as we care for the sick and the prisoner, as we work and pray for and serve the least of these, are all ways of bringing hope and peace to our neighbors and community, to our world. Our wonderful Advent worship services and our Christmas lovefeasts share the joy and the love that we have with our friends and our families.

Like the Elf on the Shelf and John the Baptist, we are Harbingers of Hope. We are preparing the way of the Lord. We are the hope and the peace and the joy and the love. So let us use what we have and be who we are so that we can make straight in  the desert a highway for God, so that we can lift up every valley and bring down every mountain. Let us tell the world that their penalty has been paid, their debt is forgiven. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

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The apostle wrote to the church in Ephesus, telling them that he remembered them in all his prayers. The substance of his prayer for them was simple and revealing.

  • He did not ask God that members of the church might have an easy life.
  • He did not ask God to inspire members of the church to tithe a portion of their income to God’s work.
  • He did not even pray that God would make the church a strong, growing, dynamic and attractive gathering of saints.

He asked simply that God might open “the eyes of their hearts” so that they might know the hope to which God had called them. Obviously hope is a powerful concept, the seed of many great things.

The ancient Greeks understood the dynamics of hope. You remember the story of Pandora. According to Greek mythology she was the first woman. The head of the God’s Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful box with instructions not to open it under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity, which had also been given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the box, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, the one thing that we really need to make life bearable: hope.

Very few people in the history of the world have believed the story of Pandora to be literally true. Yet, most people would agree about the importance of hope.

Let me give you an example. Some years ago I was asked to serve on a committee to help our local school system to define a list of character traits to be taught our children under the umbrella of “Good Citizenship.” More than a dozen parents and educators spent hours and hours discussing traits we thought should be included on the list. We finally adopted more or less the same list of eight character traits proposed by our State Legislature: 1. Respect, 2. Integrity, 3. Kindness, 4. Good Judgment, 5. Responsibility, 6. Courage, 7. Self-Discipline, and 8. Perseverance.

As we finalized the list, I suggested that we add one more characteristic of Good Citizenship: Hope. Of course, by that time, everybody in the room knew I was a pastor; and I suppose that made many people suspicious. Maybe they thought the character trait, hope, introduced by a pastor was too religious, for my suggestion was voted down. However, when we stood to vote, every non-white parent and educator in the room voted with me. They voiced their approval, too. One woman rich in the wisdom of motherhood said:

“If our children don’t have some hope of success in school, and some hope for a better life when they have finished school, then nothing else will matter to them.”

She went on to say that it was a lack of hope that drove our young people, red and yellow, black and white, to drugs and promiscuous sex, and led them into lives of crime and violence. Powerful!

Obviously, hope is not just a religious concept. Everybody needs hope, no exceptions! Thus hope can be an educational strategy, and hope can be a political strategy. In his book, The World Is Flat, Hot and Crowded, Thomas Friedman that the Muslims who become Jihadists are those who live in countries where there was no hope for a better life. They choose martyrdom and the hope of Paradise over a life of poverty and hopelessness. Friedman says that if we are to defeat the Jihadists we must help them discover hope for their own lives. Wow, imagine that, hope is a strategy in the war on terror!

Hope is a medical strategy, too, especially for those who are seriously ill. If people believe that their illness is unto death, they either give-up the fight and become despondent, or they reconcile themselves to the inevitable, and make the best of the time they have left. However, if they have even a slim hope of beating the disease that has attacked them, then they fight back, and their attitude helps their doctors help them.

I trust that you can see, in almost any situation in life, real hope is a very good thing, for it inspires effort. By contrast, false hope is a very bad thing, for false hope is the source of much disappointment, pain and anguish in the world.

Counselors who treat people with situationally induced depression (as opposed chemically induced depression) say that it is the gap between what people hope to gain from a situation and what they actually gain that sinks them down in depression. For instance, a woman hopes for a 10% raise and gets 4%. She can’t help but be a little disappointed and discouraged, especially if the men in her office received the higher rate. Or what about this? A man hopes to marry a woman he has secretly admired for years; but he never lets her know how he feels. Then, one day, she shows up at church with a diamond on the fourth finger of her left hand. Oops! It was Frankie Valley who asked: “What becomes of the broken-hearted? They had a hope that has now departed?” I could go on to touch on all the things children want for Christmas, but never get, things as simple and as expensive as an Apple Watch or a Google Plus. When I was young, at the start of catalog season, I always asked my parents what they thought Santa Claus could afford this particular Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trying to avoid a gap between what I hoped for, and what I received.

Now, at this juncture, I would be less than honest if I did not point out that some people think that religious hope is the source of a great many of the worlds ills, whether personal, economic or political. In his book, The True Believer, Eric Toffler mentions two kinds of hope. He makes a distinction between “hope that is just around the corner,” which he regards as good, and right, and true, because it often “spurs people to action,” and “hope that lives in the far distant future,” which he regards as ultimately dangerous, because it robs people of their desire and ability to act in the present. To illustrate Toffler used the example of slaves, and other politically oppressed peoples, who accept their miserable present and pin all their future hopes on the pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-by that the people in power dangle before their eyes. Obviously, Toffler agreed with Lenin who said, “Religion (and by extension religious hope) is an opiate for the masses.”

Now let’s talk about religious hope. The New Testament teaches that as Christians we have two kinds of legitimate hope, hope that is just around the corner, and hope that lives in the far distant future. Both are rooted in the same action by the same actor. The action is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the actor is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians 1:19 the apostle is talking about hope for the here and now, when he says that he wants us to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.”

Then in Ephesians 1:20-21 the apostle is talking about hope for the far distant future—a future beyond the grave that was revealed in Christ when:

(God) raised Jesus from the dead and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

As Christians, by faith, we believe that we have a surplus of legitimate hope. If we read the New Testament carefully we discover that our surplus of hope reveals itself in four stages.

I. The first stage of hope is the stage of false hope. This is the stage of idolatry. In this stage people people put their faith in God’s of their own making. St. Paul says that idols have no real existence. Jeremiah said that idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot talk. They cannot walk. They have to be carried everywhere they go. They cannot do us good, and they cannot do us harm. The idols we make for ourselves today are more dangerous. They cannot do us good, and they can do us harm.

II. The second stage of hope is stage of no hope. No hope is better than false hope. In Ephesians 2:12 those who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus are said to be “without hope, and without God in the world.” People who reject God are forced to live with “the benign indifference of the universe.” It is the best they can hope for; but no hope is better than false hope.

III. The third stage of hope is the dawn of real hope. Real hope dawned when Jesus came into the world to reveal God, and God’s future for humankind. In John 5:39 Jesus spoke to the Jews saying, “You search the scriptures, because in them you think you will find eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.” When Jesus said this, he already knew he would have to prove it. He knew he had to lay down his before he could demonstrate that he had the power to take it up again. During the final week of his ministry, Jesus set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem, knowing he would be rejected by his own people, and then crucified, killed, and buried by the Romans. Unbelief says that the cross was the bad end of a good man, but faith declares it to be a road traveled once, for all, by our now victorious Savior, for on the third day, Jesus was raised from death, showed himself alive to his disciples by many proofs, and ascended to the right hand of the majesty on high, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and far above every name that is named, in this age, and in that which is to come.

The resurrection of Jesus has implications for all humankind. In 1st Corinthians 15:20-23, St. Paul says that Jesus:

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam (the man of the flesh) all die, so also in Christ (the man of the Spirit) shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

IV. The fourth stage of hope is spread of hope to all people. This spread of hope is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is variously called, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God. We are talking about the mystery of the Trinity. In Ephesians 1:13, the apostle writes that the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our (heavenly) inheritance until we receive possession of it.” And in Romans 8, St. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is not just the guarantee of our inheritance until we receive possession of it, but the means by which we attain possession of it. He writes:

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him, But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The Holy Spirit gives us hope for the Far distant future. He also give us hope for the present age. In the letters attributed to him, Paul uses the word “hope” forty-eight times.Two-thirds of the time he is talking of the hope of eternal life that is laid up for us in Christ. This understandable, for this is the hope that cannot be shaken. However, one-third of the time, Paul is talking about the same things we hope for in the here and now. The apostle talks about the hope we have for our family and friends, and the hope we have that others will think well of us. He talks about the hope that God will supply our financial needs, and bless our plans, and comfort us in our weakness, and heal our diseases. In Ephesians 3:20 Paul reminds us that, “by the power at work within us (God is able to do) far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, or imagine.” No wonder the late James S. Stewart, the great Scottish Presbyterian preacher said that:

The central business of preaching today is to tell men and women that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to them, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.

Paul never says that God will deliver us from every situation in life; he does say that God will delivers us through every situation in life (read 2nd Corinthians 11:16-29), and make us stronger for each (“..suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character and character produces hope…” Romans 5:3-4) until we come at last to the final trial, and he will deliver us through that one, too, lifting us from this world into the world to come.

Postscript:

St. Paul himself had tasted God’s power in the Midst of life. In 2nd Corinthians 1 he wrote:

8   For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9 Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; 10 he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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I am planning a short series on “Times and Seasons,” and this morning I want to talk to you about time. The young live with the myth that they have unlimited time. All mature human beings know that we have limited time available to us. Psalm 90 declares that:

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

In speaking of seventy or eighty years, the Psalmist is talking about what we might call a normal life, lived chapter by chapter through birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, ups, downs, illness, and death. Some people do not have a normal life. Children die of childhood diseases; teenagers and young adults die in accidents they thought could not happen to them; men and women who have barely achieved middle-age die from from various causes, often through no fault of their own. When people die before their time, we say that their lives are like an unfinished symphony, or a painting that has been put away before all the details of it have been drawn-in and properly colored. We are sad, but we know, too, that they have had their time. Their time is past, and it will not come again.

We fear death, but the ancients were terrorized by something worse. They were terrorized by the endless cycle of existence. They thought no event, and no life was unique, but each repeated itself endlessly, like the sun that rises and sets, and the season that recur year after year. According to Thomas Cahill, the idea of time with a beginning, a moveable middle that some have called “the eternal now,” and an end is one of the gifts of the Jews. The idea is rooted in the God who has created, sustains, and will perfect the whole created order as we know it. Christians say that the history of salvation has a similar movement. The center of salvation history past was Christ on his cross, his body, broken for us, and then, Christ, risen from the dead, his ressurection the sign of his vindication before God, and the guarantee of the new life beyond the bounds of time, for all those who have faith in him. The center of salvation history present is the Holy Spirit, at work in the world, at work in our lives, enabling us to believe in Jesus Christ, and calling us into the church, which is Christ’s body in the world; and then sending us back out into the world, to be Christ’s hands and feet, always busy, until he comes. The center of salvation future is Christ coming back for his church on earth, or, our being called home to him in death, which are but two-sides of the same coin. Either event brings to an end time as we know it personally.

The gospel lesson from Matthew 25 fits nicely into this understanding of time and salvation history. Jesus told the parable about a Master and his servants, but the parable is obviously about Jesus and his disciples. Do not overlook how Jesus says, “It will be.” In saying, “It will be,” Jesus is speaking of a future time when he will no longer be with his disciples, bodily, and they will be left alone to serve him in his absence. Jesus said “it will be as when a Master was going on a journey.” The Master called his his servants to him, and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, to another one. He gave to each according to his ability. Then the Master went away. The five talent man went “at once”, don’t over look the phrase, “at once,” and traded with his five talents. He made five talents more. The two talent man also went, though perhaps not so quickly, and made two talents more. The one talent man was not so bold. Knowing his Master to be a hard man, who sometimes took what was not necessarily his to take, he went and hid the one talent the Master had entrusted to him in the ground. When the Master returned, he asked his servants for an accounting. He was pleased with the work of the five talent man, and with the work of the two talent man. He praised each of them using the same words and saying:

Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.

Then the Master heard the report of the one talent man. He was very disappointed. He said:

You wicked and slothful servant! By your own confession, you knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed. So why didn’t you invest my money with the bankers, so that, at my coming, I could have received what was my own with interest?

Then the Master ordered the man’s one talent be taken from him, and given to the man who had ten talents; and he ordered the worthless servant himself be cast into outer darkness, where men will weep and gnash their teeth. Do not jump the the conclusion that this “outer darkness” is hell and nothing but. In this case, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” may also be associated with the regret we experience when we realize we have wasted our time and opportunity. What did the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier say:

Of all the sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, “It might have been.”

And perhaps you will recall the name of Horace Mann the great 19th Century American educator and politician who promoted universal public education . It was Mann who wrote:

Lost – yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty, diamond-studded minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever.

In his book, “Today Matters,” John C. Maxwell, tries to communicate the value of the time we thoughtlessly waste. It was Maxwell who wrote:

To know the value of one year… ask the student who failed the final exam. To know the value of one month… ask the mother of a baby born a month too soon (Who must wait to bring it home.)To know the value of one week… ask the editor of a weekly newsmagazine. To know the value of one day… ask the wage earner who has six children.To know the value of one hour… ask the lovers who are waiting to meet. To know the value of one minute… ask the person who missed the plane. To know the value of one second… ask the person who survived the accident. To know the value of one millisecond… ask the Olympic silver medalist.

No wonder Jesus encouraged his disciples not to waste the time available to them. In John 4:35 Jesus said: “Do not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest.’ I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.”

We Christians do not compete for the silver, nor do we compete for the gold. We do not even compete against each other. We compete against the relentlessness of time. And we compete simply to hear the word of the Lord:“Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a little, I will set you over much; enter into the Joy of your Master.”

Now, if we know that time is precious, how then should we live?

First, we must let go the past, all of it. In Philippians 3:13 St. Paul wrote:

This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

We certainly need to let go of our sins and failures. Too many of us sit around trapped by our past, reciting the liturgy of “woulda, shoulda, coulda.” As Christians, we must remember our sins and failures, so that we can use that knowledge, but we must remember them as if they happened to somebody else. In 1st Peter 2:24 the apostle writes that “(Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” When we give our sins and failures to him, we are free as never before.

We also need to let go of our successes. Billy Graham said that God will not take our sins and failures and unless we also give God our successes. Too many people sit around reliving our “glory days,” when God wants us to live in the now. It may be that God wants to say to us what Robert Burn’s Rabbi Ben Ezra said to his wife: “Come grow old with me; the best is yet to be.” It occurs to me that is exactly what God said to Abraham and Sarah, who were the Father (and Mother?) of all who have faith. Many of you will remember the name of Lib Green. You will not be surprised to remember that Lib and her husband Gene lived long and full lives, dedicating much of it to God’s work at New Philadelphia. It may surprise you to learn that, in 2017, thanks to an annuity that Lib set up before her death, she was our single largest donor. It may be so for years to come.

Second, we must bloom where we are planted, and make the most of the opportunities we have. God holds us responsible only for the time, talent, treasure and opportunities he has entrusted to us. God does not hold us responsible for the time, talent, treasure and opportunities God has entrusted to others. If you think you could handle more responsibility than you have before you right now, blessed are you. All you have to do is prove yourself faithful over a little, and God may give you the opportunity to be faithful over much.

Third, we must follow a plan. That plan is a lot simpler than most people imagine. In Ephesians 2:10, the apostle said that “God has created us in Christ for good works that we might walk in them.” John Wesley spelled this out for the early Methodists saying:

Do all the good you can; by all the means you can; in all the ways you can; in all the places you can; at all the times you can; to all the people you can; as long as ever you can.

That is about perfect! I would add only, that you should do good “as soon as you can.” Not only is time our most precious commodity, but many good intentions have died in delay.

Fourth, once we have put the plan into action, me must not give up! The best advice I ever received was from a dying man. He called me to himself and said, “Worth, never give up, never give up, never give up.” As I have grown older, and as I have piled up almost thirty years doing one task in this one place, I have come to think that Galatians 6:9 may important counsel believers can ever receive. Therein St. Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” (In the Bible the heart is the seat of the mind, emotions and will!)

Fifth, take a long view. Human beings have a life of very limited duration. It maybe that God has called us to start something that God will call upon someone else to finish. St. Paul understood this. In 1st Corinthians 3:6 he wrote, “I planted, and the preacher who came after me, Apollos, watered; but it was God who gave the growth.” As I have drawn nearer to the time of my own retirement, the long view has become more and more precious to me. I am confident that someone will join you to continue the work that we have done, and I hope and pray that together you will do more and more. I am not yet ready to retire, but at 68 I am certainly thinking about it. I was thinking about it this on Saturday as I finished my walk. I went by the front desk at the downtown YMCA. As I passed by, looked at the jar of inspirational sayings and Bible verses they keep at the desk, and I spotted a one green slip of paper down deep in the jar. It was the only green slip I saw. Since my name is Green, I thought it must be for me, so fished it out. It was from 1st Corinthians 3:7: “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who gives the growth.” Some people would call that coincidence. I wonder what the mathematical odds of that would be? And what about this? The New Testament text for Sunday, November 19 was also 1st Corinthians 3:7! Coincidence? It is hard for me to think that.

So, in conclusion, only one question need be answered: “When do we start ?” Well, according to Jesus, the five talent man went “at once,” to trade with his money. And in 2nd Corinthians 6:2 St. Paul gives us good advice when he quotes the prophet, who speaks for God, saying:

At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation. Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, today is the day of salvation.

With this in mind let us do all the good we can; by all the means we can; in all the ways we can; in all the places we can; at all the times we can; to all the people we can; as long as ever we can. And let us begin, as soon as we can. Let us begin today. What are your options?

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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All Saints Sermon – November 5, 2017 – Rev. Joe Moore

New Philadelphia Moravian Church

 

Today we are celebrating All Saints Day. Admittedly, it’s not one of the big church festivals. It is certainly below Christmas and Easter, and even Pentecost and Epiphany. It’s not one of the ones that everyone wants to be in church to commemorate. While we all know plenty of Christmas and Easter Christians, who only attend on those days, I doubt that there are any All Saints Day Christians. It’s just not that big of a deal. Actually today isn’t even All Saints Day. It was this past Wednesday and being on November 1, it gets further lost in the excitement about Halloween. It’s kind of funny that we make such a big deal about Halloween and almost totally ignore All Saints Day. It’s like making a big deal about Christmas Eve and completely ignoring Christmas Day

Regardless, All Saint’s Day is one of those church festivals that is overlooked, especially in Protestant churches. I guess it’s because the idea of “saints” is so closely associated with the Roman Catholic Church. It can’t have been a coincidence that Martin Luther chose October 31, the day before All Saints Day, to post his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg Germany. One of the things that Luther was protesting was the sale of indulgences, which was the practice of purchasing forgiveness of sins. All Saints Church also offered indulgences for those who would come and “venerate” the relics of the saints, or in other words, show honor to the relics of the saints. Saints were symbolic of the things the Luther was protesting. Since the very beginning, saints and Protestantism don’t really go together.

And the Moravian Church doesn’t really “do” saints either. It’s likely because Jan Hus preceded Martin Luther in the condemning of indulgences by almost 100 years that we don’t have saints in the Moravian Church. But if we did, we could probably all easily name at least three of them. Jan Hus would be the first, followed by Jan Amos Comenius and Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

But even though they are the “Big Three” of Moravian history, we don’t consider them to be saints. On July 6, we remember the martyrdom of Hus but we don’t think of him as St. Jan Hus. So why are we celebrating All Saints Day? Why do we have an All Saints liturgy in our hymnal? And it’s not something new in the blue hymnal. It’s there in the red hymnal and, going even further back, it’s in the old black hymnal as well. And it is almost the same in all three hymnals.

All Saints Day is obviously significant in the Moravian Church, even though we don’t have official saints and we rarely make a big deal about it. It seems like we get kind of hung up on the second word “saints” and forget about the first word “all”. But we shouldn’t. Because it isn’t just “Officially Recognized Saints Day” or “Some Saints Day” it’s “ALL Saints Day” and the difference is important. All Saints Day isn’t only the celebration of people like St. Francis or St. Augustine or St. Joan of Arc. It isn’t simply celebrating those people who have been canonized or are seen as exceptionally holy or close to God, like Hus or Comenius or Zinzendorf.  It isn’t reserved for those who have been martyred or killed for their faith.  All Saints Day is about celebrating ALL the saints. Including the not so saintly Saints, including our personal saints, including the broken saints.

All Saints Day is when we have to pay attention to the 2 churches. No, not the Catholic and Protestant churches. But the church above and the church below, the church on earth and the church in heaven. Both are filled with the saints. The scripture that we read in Revelation is about the church above. It is the Church Triumphant, the “great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” It is the church that is filled with saints- Peter and Paul, Francis and Augustine and Joan of Arc, Hus and Comenius and Zinzendorf. It is the church of those who have suffered for their faith, who have been killed for their faith. The church of those who are holy and special and “saintly.”  This is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This passage from Revelation paints a beautiful picture of what heaven is like. And notice that I say it is what heaven is “like” as opposed to what heaven “is”. One of the things that the Bible strives to do is to put ideas and concepts that are beyond our human understanding into language and images that we can understand. So while the description of the Kingdom of Heaven is true, it is not necessarily exact or precise or literal. What this depiction of the Kingdom of Heaven describes is a state of being in the continual presence and under the constant care of God, the one who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb. The Kingdom of Heaven is the place the saints end up, after they have come out of the great ordeal.

That phrase “the great ordeal” makes it sound like the Kingdom of Heaven is only for those “true saints”; the ones of whom the world was not worthy. They deserve to be in the continual presence of God after having spent their earthly lives wandering in deserts and mountains, in caves and the holes in the ground. They are worthy of the constant care of the Lamb after having been stoned to death, sawn in two, slain with the sword, burned at the stake, killed by an assassin’s bullet. They get to be forever in the shelter of God after having spent their lives destitute, persecuted, and tormented. They have come out of great tribulation and been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They gave their lives for their faith and now they are receiving their reward. They have truly earned the title of “Saint”- whether official or unofficial. Today we celebrate them, we celebrate the “Saintly Saints”.

Dwelling with the “Saintly Saints” in the kingdom of Heaven, the other members of the Church Triumphant,  are what I like to call our personal saints. These are those who we knew and loved and lost. Our personal saints are those who guided our lives and informed our faith. They are the ones who helped bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, at least for us. They showed us what it was like to love God with our heart and soul and strength and mind. They are the ones who showed us how to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. They are likely the ones who showed us how to love ourselves, because they loved us when we couldn’t love ourselves.

We all have our “personal Saints.” I’m sure that we are thinking of them right now, remembering their names and the impact they had on our lives. For that they are Saints. They may not have been as holy as the “saintly Saints”, they may not have given their lives for their faith. They may have been flawed and sinful and human and broken. But they too have earned their sainthood. They are worthy of being in the Church Triumphant, they are part of the kingdom of heaven. They deserve to be in the constant presence of God, receiving the continual care of the Lamb, in whose blood they have been washed. Along with the “Saintly Saints” our personal Saints are now in the place where they will neither hunger nor thirst anymore, where the sun and it’s scorching heat will not strike them. On this day we celebrate our Personal Saints.  

And on this All Saints Day, we celebrate the broken saints, too. This is where we move from heaven to earth, from the Church Triumphant to the Church Militant. Honestly, I don’t really like that term “the Church Militant” because hearing it conjures to mind images of the church as being engaged in war, of Christianity being a battle or a fight that can only be won be overcoming, overpowering it’s opponents. And that is certainly not what Jesus did and it is certainly not what Jesus taught, as we heard in the Matthew passage. But we will take a closer look at that in a few minutes. In the context of the church, the Church Militant is used to signify the church on earth, the church that is still struggling with sin, with darkness, with evil. Not necessarily battling but definitely struggling. This is the church of the Broken Saints, this is our church. This is us.

We have trouble thinking of ourselves as “saints”. We almost exclusively think of saints as being holy and perfect and special. And we know that we aren’t holy, we are far from perfect, and we don’t see ourselves as special. We know that we are broken. While it may not be easy to see ourselves as saints, it is too easy to see how we are broken.

We see our brokenness every time we hurt someone else with our words or actions. We see our brokenness every time we hurt ourselves with our thoughts or words or actions. We see our brokenness every time we hurt God with our thoughts or words or actions, every time we sin and fall short of God’s glory. We do these things, we see how broken we are, and we just know that we can’t be considered “saints”.

Yet we are. We are saints, even when we are feeling our most sinful, when we are feeling downright unholy, when we are at our most broken. Because saints aren’t born. Saints are made. Peter and Paul, Francis and Augustine and Joan of Arc, Hus and Comenius and Zinzendorf, none of them were born holy, or perfect, or saintly. They all had their sins and their flaws. They were all broken. But we know them and see them as saints. Because they didn’t let their brokenness stop them. They didn’t let their brokenness prevent their blessedness.

They persevered in their faith despite being persecuted and reviled. They did what God called them to do and lived as peacemakers in a world that glorifies war. They did what God called them to do and showed mercy in a world that thirsts for vengeance. They were who God created them to be and hungered and thirsted for righteousness among people who celebrated sinfulness. They were who God created them to be and were meek in a world that values assertiveness. And by doing what God called them to do and being who God created them to be, they were blessed. And they became saints, they were made saints. Despite their brokenness. Or really, because of their brokenness.

You see, saints are saints, not because they are perfect, but because they know that they are not. They recognize that they are broken. They know that they need God. And they rely on God to enable them to do what God is calling them to do, they rely on God to help them become who God has created them to be.

When we recognize our brokenness, when we know how much help we need, and we rely on God to make us whole, to help us get through our lives, we have taken our first steps into sainthood. We know that we can’t do it alone, yet we also know that we must do it- we must live in this world that is so opposite of the world that we want it to be, that God created it to be.

The world that Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount is not the world as it is, it is the world that God as God wants it to be, as God intends it to be, as God created it to be. And it is the opposite of the world as it is. So we rely on God to help us live in it as the people God created us to be- God’s beloved children. We rely on God to help us make this world the world that God created it to be- a world where the poor, the mourning, the meek are not only blessed but where they know that they are blessed.

That’s what Saints do, they help others to see their blessedness. They help others to see God. They help others to know God. Saints are those who help others be who God created them to be and who help the world to be the place that God has created it to be. Saints are those who don’t allow their sinfulness and their brokenness to prevent them from striving to unite the kingdom of earth with the kingdom of heaven.

Today we celebrate ALL the saints- the ones in heaven and the ones on earth. The ones who have gone and the ones who are still with us, the ones who have shown us the way and helped us on our journey to God. So let us be thankful for those Saints. And let us not forget that we too are called to be Saints, let us not forget that we too ARE Saints- as sinful as we may be, as broken as we are, we are Saints. So let us strive to love each other as God loves us, let us strive to forgive each other as God forgives us, let us strive to be the Saints that we are as we show each other the way to God and as we show the world who God is and what it means to live as God’s beloved children. Let us strive to be the Saints who bring together the kingdoms of earth and heaven. If it’s not us, then who will it be?

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The sermon this morning is entitled, “Imitating Good Stewards.” Imitation is defined as “the action of using someone or something as a model.” When it comes to stewardship there are a number of models we could follow, but the best is Jesus himself. Over the course of his life Jesus gave us two very different models of stewardship.

For the first thirty years of his life, he gave us a very traditional model. We know from Mark 6, that at the time he started his ministry, he was living in close proximity, and probably under the same roof with his mother, Mary, four named brothers, and several unnamed “sisters” besides. He lived in the village of Nazareth, and he worked as a carpenter. In his book, “The Mind of Jesus,” William Barclay observes that Mark calls Jesus a “teknon,” which is the Greek word for a master carpenter. Barclay said that Jesus undoubtedly kept a shop in his family home, and Barclay imagines that the sign over the door of the shop may have been an ox yoke, on which Jesus, or Joseph before him had written, “My yoke fits well.” That little bit of advertisement would later furnish Jesus with a superb illustration of what it means to be his disciple. One who takes the yoke with Jesus takes a yoke that does not bind or chaff.

There is no doubt that for the first half of his life that Jesus engaged in a trade and earned a living. Likewise there is no doubt that Jesus gave a portion of that salary to the synagogue. In Matthew 23, Jesus criticized the Pharisees saying:

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and dill and every herb, and (you) neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Jesus would hardly have approved the tithe without practicing it, though he probably practiced it as a minimum. We know from the gospels that Jesus also was mindful of and gave to the poor (John John 12:5, 13:29, etc.). In Matthew 6 Jesus was undoubtedly speaking from experience when he said,“When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” No doubt, over the course of his life, Jesus knew both ends of that exchange.

When he was about thirty years old, Jesus left Nazareth to begin his ministry. From this time on, he gives us a completely different model of stewardship. He depends completely on God, and on the kindness of those whom he serves. Accompanied by his disciples, Jesus moved about the country preaching the kingdom of God. As he did, Jesus and his followers often slept outdoors. Thus in Matthew 8, we read how Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” During the time of his active ministry, Jesus and his disciples kept a common purse, and they accepted charitable donations. Likewise, they often ate in the home of good friends, like Mary and Martha, and they sometimes ate in the home of people who either accepted the gospel, like Zacchaeus in Luke 19, or (initially at least) rejected the gospel, like Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news of the kingdom from town to town, he charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff. He permitted them to wear sandals, but not to carry an extra tunic, or bread or or money. He told them to rely upon the hospitality of those who received their message. We know from the book of Acts, and from certain of the epistles, that even after the resurrection, the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and certain other prophets and evangelists and teachers continued to rely upon the hospitality of those whom they served. Eventually, the number of people who did this multiplied, and it got old. A late first century document known as “The Didache,” and sometimes spuriously called, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” warns that a true prophet may ask for bread or a night’s lodging, but if he ask for money he is a false prophet. Likewise, The Didache warns that a true prophet may visit with a church in a particular location, and stay a day, or two; but, if the prophet seeks to stay a third day, he is a false prophet. The purpose of the Didache is pretty clear—it warns the itinerant preachers that are welcome in the churches, but only for a very brief visit. Of course, The Didache was not scripture. Thus, over the centuries from that time to this other Christians have felt called to depend completely on God for their living.

In the early 13th century, the man we now know as St. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant by the name of Pietro di Bernardone. When Francis felt that God had called him to rebuild a certain church, he took several bolts of cloth from his father’s business, sold them, and used the money to refurbish the small chapel. When his father learned of it, he declared that Francis had lost his mind, and demanded that Francis payback the money he had taken. A few days later, Francis and Pietro appeared before Bishop Guido. They stood on the steps of the cathedral and presented their arguments. The Bishop ordered Francis to repay his father. So Francis entered the cathedral and took off the expensive clothes he had worn to the trial. He then came out of the cathedral, stark naked. Without a hint of shame he announced:

“Until the present moment, I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. Now, since I am determined to serve God, I return to him the money over which he is so upset, and also my clothing that he bought for me. From now on I wish to say only ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone.’ ”

As Bernardone stumbled off with his goods, Bishop Guido ascended the steps of the cathedral and covered Francis with his enormous cloak. Soon Francis would follow the rule laid down by Jesus for his disciples when he sent them out to preach from town to town, a simple tunic, belted with a rope. Francis started a movement of like minded brothers that endures today as the Franciscans .Some have called Francis one of the greatest human beings who ever lived. Yet, even those who admire Francis most admit that he is not the model that all of us can imitate. If some few people wish to follow the example of Francis, the rest of us give thanks to God, and call those people saints. However, if all of us were to follow the example of Francis, we would soon create a hardship for our families, and our friends, and the church, and the society in which we live. We know from the Book Acts and the Epistles of Paul that the members of the church in Jerusalem sold all that they had, and held all things in common. It was a grand attempt at communism. However, after a very few years, St. Paul was going around to the Gentile churches collecting alms for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. Likewise, in 20th Century India, Gandhi lived a lot like Francis; but the Mahatma knew this model would not work for everyone. Gandhi famously and rightly said, “My poverty has cost my friends a fortune.”

The first apostles, prophets, and preachers existing on hospitality alone; but this model did not last indefinitely. We know from Acts 18:3 that Paul and Silas worked as tent makers.We know from 1st Thessalonians 2:9 that they worked at this trade day and night so as not to place a burden on that church. And we know from 1st Corinthians 9:18 that they did this so they could make the gospel free of charge. Even today, some people engage in what we now call “a tent making ministry.” I know a young baptist preacher with a Ph.D. who lays tile to support his ministry. Not long ago, he told me that God has not yet seen fit to call him to a full-time church, but God has seen fit to prosper his tile business.

Of course, as you know, not every pastor works outside the church. Over the centuries, as the gospel spread and churches grew in both numbers and in size, it seemed good to the church to set aside certain persons to an ordained ministry, which was deemed worthy of a salary. I think it is interesting that, though St. Paul never took a regular salary himself, in the case of others, he did justify and approve it. He discusses the matter several times, and it all comes down to what he said in 1st Corinthians 9:11. There in Paul writes, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” In other words, Paul says that, in general it is o.k., and even desirable for the churches to “…pay the preacher.”

Now let me say a word in the defense of all the preachers, pastoral assistants, Christians educators, organist, business managers, secretaries, custodians, etc. who do receive a salary. If we were primarily interested in money, or better benefits, or shorter hours, or longer weekends, or an early retirement, we would certainly have followed another calling. Most of us are salaried because simply because that is the model of the churches we have served. If the model changed, most of us would change, too.

So, we have dealt several models for church staff; but what about the rest of us. What about the church in general? What models do we have that we can all follow?

Well, we can all imitate the example of Jesus the carpenter, if not the example of Jesus the preacher. The character of Jesus did not change when he changed his primary vocation.

Likewise, in1st Thessalonians 2:14, Paul says that we can imitate the example of the churches in Judea. Of course, If we do that, we must pick and choose. We have already seen that the Judean churches tried communism, and failed; and we have seen how their failure put a hardship on the other churches. Thus we can imitate them in generosity, but we can hardly follow them into that failure. Paul says we can also imitate them in their willingness to suffer for their faith. It may sound strange, but one who suffers, through no fault of their own, and suffers well, is a wonderful steward, and a sterling example to us all. We know from Romans 5 that St. Paul thought suffering was good for us, as it produced endurance, and character, and hope. The only chance we have to suffer, and suffer well is in this life. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “He who shirks suffering, and escapes it in this life, will find it eternally without remedy.”

Likewise, we can imitate the example of Paul himself. In Philippians 4:9 Paul says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” We have already talked about what we have heard and seen in Paul. What have we learned and received from him?

Well, in 1st Corinthians 16:2 Paul tells the members of that church to “…put something aside on the first day of every week as he or she has prospered.” Let’s break that down.

First, we must give regularly. We may give weekly, or monthly, or whatever, but it is important we give regularly. Remember: We plant a thought and reap a word; we plant a word and reap an action; we plant an action and reap a habit; we plant a habit and reap a character; we plant a character and reap a destiny. If we want to fulfill our destiny as good stewards, we must make giving a habit by doing it regularly.

Second, must give proportionally, according to how we have prospered. At this juncture, it is hard not to mention the tithe. In Genesis 14, the first person in the Bible to tithe is Abraham, the father of all who have faith. He paid a tenth of all that he had to Melchizedek, the Priest of God Most High, whom the book of Hebrews calls a “type” of Christ. Then, in Leviticus 27, Moses commands the children of Israel to make a tithe of their herds and flocks, saying that every tenth animal is holy to the LORD. Eventually the people of Israel gave a tenth all their income and possessions to God. Thus in Malachi 3:10, God speaks through his prophet saying:

Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.


Paul echoes this passage from Malachi in 2nd Corinthians 9:8 wherein he says that “…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.”

Now, what if we can’t afford a tithe. If someone can’t afford a tithe, there are two options. First, we can give a lesser percentage, in hopes, that, as God prospers us, we can increase the percentage. If you can’t give a tithe, give five percent. If you can’t give five percent, give two percent, and increase it as you are able. Leviticus 27 says that it is possible to redeem the tithe at a later date by adding ten percent to the tenth.

Second, I would be remiss if I did not suggest that we may make a leap of faith, and trust God to supply the resources we need to tithe. When Elayne and I married, I made $430 a month, and she did not work. At the end of the first month of marriage, we were flat broke. The second month we started to tithe. We were away, so we took a tenth, $43 dollars and split it right down the middle, sending $35 to my church and $8 to hers. We have never been broke since. Or what about this, a much better story. I had a friend, no longer living, who started tithing at about the same time he started a new business. He wrote and dated 52 checks, filing in an amount he hoped would be a weekly tithe. He then gave the checks to his church treasurer, and told him to cash each check as it fell due. He told me that not only did he have enough money in the bank to cover each of those checks; but, at the end of the year, he had to write a 53rd check that was written for almost as much as the total of the first 52. I know this little story sounds suspiciously like it was purchased from one of those internet sights that peddle sermon illustrations to busy preachers, but it is genuine in every particular. The grandson of the man that told me that story is now a member of this congregation, and the business his grandfather started is still going strong after more than fifty years.

Now, what if you can afford more than a tithe? This a tremendous opportunity, for when start to give beyond the tithe, we tend to make special gifts to the people and ministries that matter to us most. Nothing gives me more pleasure than making a 2nd mile gift—a gift beyond what I have pledged to the local church, to some deserving cause. That cause may vary from person to person, whether it be the Mission in Cuba, or Hope—“Help Our People Eat,” or Laurel Ridge, or the Forsyth Prison Ministry, or City with Dwellings, or Hurricane Relief, of The Open Door Lunch which benefits a number of local ministries, or some special ministry of your choosing.

Paul says that several things happen when we give.

First, we have the satisfaction of having something to give. All of Paul’s teaching on stewardship assumes the truth of the Proverb, “It is better to give than to receive.” How do you want to pass your life? Do you want to spend it looking for the relief that comes when someone makes a gift to you? Or would you like to live your life looking for an opportunity to invest in the lives of others? With this understanding, everyone wants to develop the habit of giving!

Second, we have the satisfaction of watching the gift grow from seed to flower. It is a joy to watch a new building go up, or to see an old one refurbished. It is a joy to follow the launch of a new ministry. It is a joy to watch the positive impact our gifts make in the lives of others. Though it is always wonderful to be personally involved, it is not always possible; but we can our money to work of us.

Finally, we have satisfaction of knowing that God will not only multiply our fiscal and physical resources, but God will also “increase the harvest of our righteousness.” That is from 2nd Corinthians 9:10. In other words, St. Paul ties the state of our stewardship with the state of our discipleship! Billy Graham does exactly the same when he says we are not converted until the religion of the head reaches down into the heart, and the religion of the heart, reaches down into the religion of the pocketbook and out through the hands that we have pledged to God’s service.

God loves a cheerful giver! Those of you who wish to express that Joy may bring your gifts and promises of the same and place them on the communion table as we sing our final hymn.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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Today we begin our Stewardship Season. My hopes for the next four weeks are two-fold. On the one hand, I hope that each of us, as individuals, will prayerfully consider the stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure. On the other hand, it is my aim that all of us spend a little time thinking about our stewardship as a church. We need to know where we are, so that we can know where we are going.

Our assigned lesson is Philippians 4:1-13. As we look at it, consider that the Philippians’s church was one of Paul’s absolute favorites. We tend to forget that the apostle’s experience of church was not unlike our own. He loved all the churches, but he loved some churches more, and some churches less. Let me illustrate. About a decade ago I was a guest in a hunting camp in eastern North Carolina. Another pastor was also a guest. When he found out who I was he came to me and said,

“I hear you are a preacher. What kind of church do you serve?”

I told him I was a Moravian, and I served a wonderful church, this church.

He said, “I suppose that is alright, but I serve a New Testament church?”

I said, “Really, a New Testament church, what kind? Is it a good church, like the one that Paul served at Philippi? Or is it one of those problem churches, like Paul served at Corinth, where things were so bad that one member was living with his father’s wife?”

He looked at me as if he were suddenly far away, with his church, and said, “I never thought of it like that.”

Paul did. Paul was a lot like us. He loved all the churches, but he loved some churches more, and some churches less, and when it came to his favorite churches, the church at Philippi was near the top. In his letter to that church, and especially in chapter four, Paul is trying to encourage the congregation to new heights. He uses a number of powerful concepts, and, in English, the words that express these concepts all begin with “p.” I would mention three.

1. The first powerful “p-word” that Paul uses in Philippians four is praise. Paul tells the church at Philippi that he loves them and longs to be with them, and then he praises them, calling them, his joy and his crown. We know from the first chapter of Philippians that the church is Paul’s joy because they had been his “partners in the gospel” from the very first day that he came into contact with them. There had been some difficulties. Some of the leaders had disagreed with one another, but the good far out weighed the bad. The church at Philippi is Paul’s crown because together they had produced a lot of fruit.

Several times in his letters Paul imagines what it will be like to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The Master will say,“Paul, you have been in my service. What proof of your life and ministry can you offer?” In 1st Thessalonians 2, and here, in Philippians 4, St. Paul says the only proof he has to offer is the churches he has served, and what they had accomplished for Christ together.

Like Paul, I am a pastor. If I were writing a letter to New Philadelphia Moravian Church, I might be inspired to call New Philadelphia, my joy and my crown.

This church is certainly my joy, and I hope it is yours. Several weeks ago, I took a Sunday off to visit another church in our community that is not unlike our own. It has a great reputation. That morning, I attended not one church service but two , a contemporary service and a traditional service. I found about what I expected to find, good music, good preaching, and some outstanding people I assume to be volunteers. I was pleased to see four people working the audio-visuals. I got some good ideas just by attending. However, though I admit to having been secretly jealous of this church in the past, I am jealous no longer. I went away thinking that if I were a young pastor with a choice of serving that church or this church, I would want to cast my lot here. I think I would feel the same way if I were a first time lay visitor, but that does not mean that everyone would feel the same, for every visitor has a different set of expectations and needs.

Likewise, I consider this church my crown. I believe that we have done some great things together for Christ. Some of those things are hard to measure. It is difficult to measure the good we have done in the lives of individuals. Though Paul would occasionally mention individuals that were his “children in the gospel,” he never attempts to put a number on his spiritual work. It is impossible to do that, because it is easier count the apples on the tree, than it is to count the trees in an apple. You might reach only one person with your witness to Christ, but that person may multiply themselves many times over.

So how do we measure what we have done together? We can look at our time, talent, and treasure.

Treasure is easy. I do not know of a single instance over the last thirty years that we have failed to meet our obligations to ourselves, our suppliers, or the Province. You may not know this, but whereas a Church like First Presbyterian contributes about fifty-thousand dollars to its denomination. Because our denomination is so much smaller, we send almost two-hundred-thousand dollars to our’s. Likewise, we we have built two buildings that, in the money of yesterday, cost almost four million dollars; and we paid the last one off in half the allotted time. Finally, following the example of Joesph, when he was Pharaoh’s steward, in the fat years, we have put something away in case lean years follow.

What about talent—or Spiritual gifts, if you prefer? We have invested that, too. It takes a lot of talent to put on a worship service each Sunday. It takes musicians, ushers, greeters, audio-video volunteers, hospitality host and hostesses, and, last but not least, somebody to drive the golf cart! Likewise, in a time when people have been saying that Sunday School is old fashioned and outdated, we have maintained a very-good one. We have staffed it with teachers and filled it with learners. (Admittedly, for some time, we have needed for some pupils to become teachers.) Many of our members have invested their talents in working inside the church, as Elders, and Trustees, and in the Men’s, Women’s and Youth fellowships, at the Open Door Lunch. You work outside the church too. You serve important organizations like Laurel Ridge Moravian Camp, Sunny Side Ministry, City with Dwellings, Samaritan Ministries, Crisis Control, Contact, and the like. Many of you have also been active in foreign missions through agencies like the Moravian Mission Society, and the Armando Rusindo Foundation. I am particularly proud of the way that our youth have served in places as far-flung as Alaska, Jamaica, and Cuba. I agree that they could do as much closer to home; but the cross-cultural experience stays with them for a lifetime.

And what about our time? Let’s look at the time people spend in worship. Since the late 1980’s our average weekly worship attendance has rarely dipped below 350. That put’s us in the upper 10% of all churches in America. For more than twenty of the last thirty years, we have worshiped more than 400 people per week; and for more than a dozen of those twenty years, we have worshiped more than 500 people per week.

Today things are different. Last year we averaged 413 people in two worship services. This year, I expect that final number to be between 370 and 380. It will be down for a number of reasons. It will be down because we have sent a few individuals and families to other cities where their work has called them. It will be down because we have sent another batch of our young adults off to college, and when we send our children to college, parents follow, at least for a time. And who would not want to attend Parent’s Weekends, and football games and the like? From top to bottom, as a church, we have grown older. Over the years, we have seen many family members and friends move from the rolls of the church at work to the rolls of the church triumphant. Likewise, a number of members who were fit enough to attend services last year, are no longer fit enough to do so. We can’t forget them! In the last several weeks I have visited with no fewer than half a dozen individuals and couples who fall into this category. Though it pains me to mention it, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that we have lost some members to other churches because they could not find what they were looking for here. In every case–but one, I have to endeavored to learn their reason for leaving, and I think I can give an account of that, even when their reason for leaving is me. At the very least, I can say with confidence, that we have not lost these folks to unbelief. Finally, there are those who belong, and have good intentions, but for one reason or another, no longer come to Sunday school or worship. These are they who concern me most, because we love them and miss them. People attract people. People do not come to church for preachers, people come to church for people. So, as a part of my stewardship efforts, in the months ahead, I will be attempting to convince them of how much we need them.

So, we are not as strong as we have been; but, when all is said and done, I would still call New Philadelphia our joy and our crown. I were a young minister with a choice, somebody like Joe Moore, I would rather serve here than almost anywhere else. I do not say this lightly. I think the church has entered an age of leanness. It will be harder than ever before to reach people for Christ, and harder still to engage them in a local church. The good news for us is, that it has always been harder for Moravians to get new members. Very few Moravians move into Winston-Salem, and when they do, they have a choice of more than a dozen churches. Because it has always been harder for us, we are better suited to this new age of leanness than many churches of many denominations. I believe we can continue to do it.

Am I praising you unjustly? I think not. In Galatians 4:18 St. Paul says, “For a good purpose it is always good to be made much of…” And E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary and evangelist, said that the first duty of a pastor is “to hold a crown over the heads of the church until the church grow into it.” I still believe that from the bottom of my heart. Peter Berger affirms it in his book, “Invitation to Sociology,” saying “the one who is given respect comes to respect him or herself.” I suppose I would add only that if people do not grow into the crown, it is a pastor’s duty to help them groan into the crown. I am not so good at that; but, at least, I am well aware that there are many good churches, and few great ones; and that just being good is often the enemy of being great.

2. The second powerful “p-word” that Paul advances in Philippians four is prescription.

In Philippians 4, Paul’s prescription is two fold.

First, he twice tells the church at Philippi to rejoice, saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Thirty-five times in his letters Paul uses the word “rejoice.” He uses it 8 times in Philippians alone. In various epistles he tells the members of the churches to “rejoice in God,” to “rejoice in hope,” to “rejoice in all that is right,” and to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” In Romans 5 he says that:

“…we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God, more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, because, as we know suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character still more hope, and hope does not disappoint us , because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Paul was a joyful Christian, and he hoped to pass on that attitude, because he knows that our attitude determines our altitude. We have to name it before we can claim it. We have to confess it before we possess it. We have to believe it before we can receive it. I am a rapper, so don’t you be a napper!

The second part of the prescription is equally dynamic. Paul says:

6 Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

There is absolutely no concern we cannot bring before God. Only after we have made our request known, do we receive the peace of God, which passes all understanding. When can’t explain God’s peace, but when he achieve it, we believe it, and when we see it in others, recognize it. My friend Ron had it. About 15 years ago he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He had a lot of people praying for him. When he went into hospital, they cut into this kidney, but they could not find the cancer. They sewed him up and sent him home. Nine years later, he called me to say the cancer was back. This time it encased his kidney and grew-up over his vena cava. One of his doctors was afraid to operate. Another agreed to do it, but told Ron his chances of survival were risky at best. The surgery was put off for two months. Early on the morning before the surgery I sat with him for thirty minutes before his family arrived. He told me the last two months were the best of his life. He told me if, after the surgery, he woke up and saw his wife, he would be alright. And if, after the surgery, he woke up saw his LORD, he would be alright, too. He spoke as calmly as I am speaking to you now. He had God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding. He did not just affirm it in his head, he knew it in his heart.

Now what of our justified anxiety over the church? Let me make a confession to you. Though I am absolutely sure that the church of Jesus Christ will survive, and thrive, I don’t begin to know what it will look like next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. I don’t know; but I am sure that God does. And I believe that God wants to guide his church to the future that he has prepared for it. I am confident that God will make his will known. He may make his will known through me, or through you, or through someone we have not yet met. There are always three options when it comes to discovering the will of God: My way, your way, and God’s way. It is our task to discover God’s way. We can only do that together; and we can only do that after we have committed ourselves to God and to one another. That is why, in 1st Thessalonians 2:8, Saint Paul says to the church at Thessalonica, which was no less dear to him than the church at Philippi, that they had become very dear to him, so much so, that he was ready to share with them not only the gospel of God, but also himself.

3. The final powerful “p” of that Paul shares in Philippians 4 is the “p” of his personal example.

This personal example, like Paul’s prescription is two-fold.

First, in verse 8, he tells the members of the church to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious. He says, “If there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Paul is not suggesting that we spend our time pining over the window displays at Jarrod’s, or Macy’s, or or over the Cabela’s catalog. Paul is not urging us to think on physical things, but to think on those moral qualities that transform us. Remember we don’t use ideas, ideas use us.

Second, Paul tells the members of the church to mark his personal example. In verse 9 he writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” I once read this text with a group of ministers. I don’t remember everyone who was present, but Br. Bishop Wayne Burkette was there, and Dr. C. Daniel Crews, and several others. Each of us responded in the same way. We sat before this text in silence, thinking of how hard it must be for a pastor to be so confident of his or her own conduct so as to advance themselves as an example to the church. Now, admittedly, Paul was bolder and more confident than most pastors. In Philippians 3, Paul is bold to say, that before he came face to face with Christ, there was a time when he considered himself , as to righteous under the law, “blameless.” In 1st Corinthians 15, he boasts that he has worked harder than any of the other apostles. In 2nd Corinthians 11, Paul boast that he has suffered more than those that many regard as superlative apostles; and, in Colossians 1, he is so brazen that he says, “In my body, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, for the sake of his body, the church.” Of course, Paul can point out his weaknesses, too. In 2nd Corinthians 10, he says that he is better at writing letters than at preaching, and that his bodily presence is weak.

So, then, ignoring my weaknesses for the time being, are there any qualities in Worth Green that I would advise you to imitate? A few, perhaps. Let me mention three.

First, I take refuge in God’s grace. I live by Ephesians 2:8 where-in we read, “By grace (we) are saved, through faith, and not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest lest anyone should boast.” My late daddy used to stop people on the street and say to all who would listen, “I know God loves you. He must, because he loves a rascal like me.” If I could take one thing from my dad, it would be his willingness to speak this truth to strangers.

Second, though I like to think I can be hard on myself, I am not so very good at judging others. I frequently take refuge in the saying of Jesus, “Judge not, lest you be judged, for the judgment you give will be the judgment you get.” This can be good or bad. I once led a young attorney in a profession of faith. He told me my best quality was my non-judgmental attitude. “It enabled me to talk to you,” he said. Maybe. Maybe not. My friend, the late Tom Cartee, once told me that, in the world of business, and, perhaps, in the world of the spirit, our greatest asset is also our greatest liability. Ouch! Maybe, in being non-judgmental, I am too willing to accept the good, denying people the opportunity to reach for the great. Remember: The good is the enemy of the great. My mother said it, “Good, better, best, never let it rest; until the good is better, and the better is best.”

Third, I may retire someday, but I won’t quit. That is what I promised the Joint Board when I accepted the call here. I won’t quit because I believe it is only when we have reached the end of our own resources, that we enter “God Room, “ which is the place where only God has room enough to work. I believe that God is able to do for us, “far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, or imagine,” but God can do it only after we have jumped in with both feet, and made a real commitment of our own time, talent and treasure. The church does not need people who touch a toe in the water, and try to decide if it is too hot, or too cold, or just right. The church needs people who jump in with both feet, knowing they may be treading water for a long, long time, before God comes to their aid. The church needs people who will love it for more than it is worth, so that it can become more than it is. I pray God that I might be one of those people; and that each of you might be one of those people, too.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M. D.Min.

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