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Sunday, November 29, 2015

“Prepare Your Heart!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 1:  1-15
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent C,  November 29,  2015

“Now is the time! Here comes God's kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!" (Mk. 1:15 CEB)

For he who is about to approach these holy and dread mysteries must be awake and alert, must be clean from all cares of this life, full of much self-restraint, much readiness; he must banish from his mind every thought foreign to the mysteries, and on all sides cleanse and prepare his home, as if about to receive the king himself. "
                                                                   ----- John Chrysostom  (circa. 390 AD).

I’ve only gotten to shake the hand of one American President.   I got to shake President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter’s hand once while he was active as President and another time, afterwards, as our former 39th President.   The second time he was at a Baptist meeting in an Atlanta meeting I attended where he was signing his new book.   

As some of you know, Jimmy Carter still faithfully teaches a Sunday School class several times a year at his home church, Maranatha Baptist Church, in Plains Georgia.  But I’ve never been to it.  However, I think it would be quite interesting to watch or listen to a former President talk about faith in very personal terms. 

The first time I got to shake President Carter’s hand was in March of 1978, out in front of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University.  I was scheduled to have a doctor’s appointment that day in Winston-Salem and left home early to see if I could get a seat for the President’s address.  By the time I arrived around 8 am, the unreserved area of the chapel was already filled and there were many people standing outside in the courtyard awaiting his 9 AM address.  I joined them and waited and watched for the President to arrive.  

The President made his address that morning mostly about America’s concern over the Cold War (  As he exited the chapel he walked toward my right.   Most of the large crowd began to push toward the roped line, reaching out to shake his hand.  Realizing I was too far back, also remembering that the President arrived from the left, I merely walked toward the rope at the left side of the courtyard where hardly anyone was standing.  Suddenly, as I had hoped, the President turned back toward my direction, still shaking hands.  As he passed by President Carter looked me in the eye, smiled, and shook my hand.

It was not only amazing to watch this unfold, it was also quite an education to arrive and hour before the President did, and to observe and watch some of the preparations being made for his soon arrival.   The route of his entrance was corded off.  Television Cameras were stationed in place.  All kinds of Secret Service agents were on the roofs of every building.   Police were everywhere.  Well-dressed large men with Sunglasses where standing around in the crowd.  Helicopters were flying in the air and dignitaries were standing in wait for him at the door.   Of course, the campus grounds at “Wake” were even more immaculate than normal.

When someone important is coming to visit, there is a great need to prepare and ready ourselves.    This is not just something American’s do for the visit of a President, but this is something that has been done for Kings, Pharaoh’s, and heads of state since the beginning of civilization.  It is this need to make the right kind of preparation that the gospel of Mark opens with.   Mark’s theme is based upon John the Baptizer’s message which quoted the great Hebrew prophets of Moses, Isaiah and Malachi, crying out  “Prepare the way of the Lord,  make his paths straight  (Mark 1:3).”  Although each of the four gospels tell us about the preaching of John the Baptist, only Mark opens with this call to prepare ourselves for the coming of someone very important  

Mark’s approach to the gospel is as unique, distinctive, if not somewhat ‘strange’ way to begin to prepare for this Advent and Christmas season.    Think about it this way: We are much more familiar with the gospel according to Luke, which gives us warm stories about the Shepherds along with the picture of the birth of the baby in a manager.  We are also more familiar with Matthew, who warned Joseph with angelic visits or lead the Magi with a star.  We are even more familiar with the lofty gospel of John’s very poetic and theological witness to “Word that became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn. 1:14)  than we are accustomed to celebrating Christmas with Mark’s most original word as the very  beginning of the gospel’ (Mark 1:1).  

Mark’s gospel was probably the very first gospel written and it is the only gospel to call itself ‘the gospel’ which means ‘good news’.   None of the other 3 gospels, Matthew, Luke nor John, actually called themselves a gospel.  They all talk about the gospel, but they do not name their writings as such.   This fact should at least make us want to consider why Mark’s gospel begins as it does.   It should also make us want to consider just how important, if not even more ‘original’ to the core of the gospel and to the Christmas message, Mark’s beginning of the gospel is.

What Mark tells us right up front is what Christmas must be about.  This is  ‘the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son…’  (1:1).   This means that the original Christmas is not about Christmas parties, not about Christmas music, not about Christmas decorations nor is it even about gift-giving, or about time with family for the holidays, as good and wonderful as all of these things are.   Mark’s gospel, as the original gospel of Christmas, reminds us what the good news should be about: the ‘good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.’   We can’t really prepare for any kind of genuine Christmas celebration unless advent prepares our own hearts for Jesus Christ.

Prepare?   Now you may wonder why should we still ‘prepare’ ours hearts for the meaning of Christmas, when the good news about Jesus Christ has already come and gone?    Is to prepare for Jesus now just some superstitious or superfluous tradition like is still being observed in the archaic, medieval-like, Christmas traditions in Europe where some will prepare for a fictional ‘baby Jesus’ who will come to put gifts under their Christmas tree just like Santa Claus?   Is the Christmas season anything more than some nice, warm, mythical and magical images of home, religion, or even ‘dreamy’ secular longings for world peace, or is there something else this season of preparing and waiting is supposed to be about?   

Many people like the very eccentric scholar at Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman, would say that during Advent there is nothing else to prepare for, since the claims of the Jesus are only mistaken exaggerations ( .  He’s a very strange Bible teacher indeed, who doesn’t see anything of value in the Bible except to study what people used to believe, since he was once a believer in Jesus himself, but is no more.   Even though Professor Ehrman, a noted historical scholar of the biblical world, has refuted other wild interpretations which claim Jesus never existed, to him Jesus is just another would-be messiah who failed and whose death ended in horrible, tragic defeat.   Jesus the Christ means nothing to him as a matter of faith, love, or expectation of hope.   Like some families even around us, but hopefully not among us, Bart Ehrman may still even celebrate Christmas, as a nice family tradition, but his celebrations have nothing to do with really preparing his heart for the coming of this Jesus who is still the unexpected messiah.

Is there anything we need to be preparing for?   The Christian hope and part of the Christian message spoken by Jesus himself is that ‘this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11 CEB).   Mark has Jesus referring to this too, when Jesus speaks of the ‘day’ when ‘everyone will see the Human One, (the Son of Man, NRSV) coming in the clouds with great power and splendor” (Mk. 13: 26).   Even Jesus admits he doesn’t know when, nor did he tell us exactly how this would happen (Mk 13:32).  But Mark’s gospel, along with Matthew and Luke, who are following his lead, have Jesus telling his disciples and us to ‘watch out’ (Mk 13:33), to ‘stay alert’  (Mt 24:42), and to be ‘praying’ (Luke 21: 36), because we really don’t know when he is coming (Mk 13:33-34).  Jesus spoke like this because he said it will be like the coming of ‘a thief’ ‘in the night’ (Matt 24:43).  We don’t know when.  We are only told that somehow, someday, he will come.

But the second coming of Jesus is not the only thing this season of Advent asks us to prepare for.  Jesus is not only ‘this same Jesus who will come’,  but Jesus is also the ‘Spirit of Jesus’  (Acts 16:7) who keeps coming, and coming, and coming again (Jn 14:3) whenever we fully and freely open our lives up to his restoring, reconciling, and redeeming presence.  But how do we do this?  This strange other-worldly  baptizer’ may answer that too.

If we are going to ‘prepare’ our hearts for Jesus, we may not be able to get away from the ‘world’ like John did—we may not even be able to be inspired beyond ourselves by looking up at the stars under a wilderness sky, or to contemplate consider life’s greater meaning, nor have the depth or ability to reconsider or hear again powerful words of the Hebrew prophets.    All this might seem too far away from us, but there is one place John asked the people to go which caused them all to come flocking to hear his message.  We can go ‘there’ too.   John ‘shouted’ for the people to prepare their own hearts with a genuine look within themselves so they would have a ‘change of hearts and lives’,  not so God would condemn them, but because ‘God wanted to forgive them’ (1:4) and call them to an even greater baptism than water, offering them a ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit (1:8).

In Mark’s ‘beginning of the gospel’ we don’t even have to wonder what kind of “baptism” this Holy Spirit baptism means.   It’s not some superficial, Pentecostal extremism about speaking in tongues or dancing on hot coals of fire, but it’s about what happened to Jesus next in Mark’s powerful introduction.   

 Moving from John’s baptism to the Baptism of Jesus, Mark introduces us to the kind of baptism Jesus whole ministry is about.   While he was coming out of the water,”  the text tells us,  Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him” (1:9).   That’s a powerful picture of spiritual baptism, but there’s more:  And there was a voice from heaven:  “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” (1:10).  

While there is of course something unique about Jesus’ baptism as “God’s Son”, there is also something very un-unique and un-special about it.  This is the voice God wants us to ‘prepare’ to hear, to prepare to understand and to receive into our own lives.  In the more traditional language of the Bible, God wants us to hear him call us his ‘beloved’ child or children. 

In one of the most powerful books on the meaning of the Christian life,  the late Henri Nouwen, wrote “The Life of the Beloved” for a Jewish friend, in order to help him understand the meaning of the Christian life.   Nouwen pictures the “life” of a Christian as the baptized ‘beloved’  whose life is now lived like the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread of communion.  It’s an unforgettable, powerful image and this series of quotes from him sums up what it means to be baptized, not just with water, but to be baptized ‘spiritually’ as the ‘beloved’ of God:  “Aren't you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don't you often hope: 'May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.' But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied.  You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death…”

“….the real "work" of prayer is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me…..To gently push aside and silence the many voices that question my goodness and to trust that I will hear the voice of blessing-- that demands real effort. ….., you have to keep unmasking the world about you for what it is: manipulative, controlling, power-hungry, and, in the long run, destructive. The world tells you many lies about who you are, and you simply have to be realistic enough to remind yourself of this.    Every time you feel hurt, offended, or rejected, you have to dare to say to yourself: 'These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself.  The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God's eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity, and held safe in an everlasting belief.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World as quoted at (  

In his commentary on Mark, theologian NT Wright tells of a famous movie-maker who got into a huge legal dispute with his mentor and guide.  The younger man simply couldn’t handle criticism, and ended up rejecting the person who had helped him so much.  When it was all over, a close friend summed up the real problem.  ‘It was all about an ungenerous father,’ he explained, ‘and a son looking for affirmation and love.’  (From Mark for Everyone,  Tom Wright, WJK Press, 2004, p. 4).

What kind of ‘voice’ do you hear within yourself?   Is it a voice of condemnation or a voice of affirmation and love?   It’s very hard to get those ‘negative’ voices embedded from our childhood out of our head, especially during the Christmas season, but this is what spiritual baptism into the truth of Christmas is about.  For Jesus, baptism was about hearing that voice, not of Joseph from Nazareth, but the voice of his true Father, the God who is the Father who unconditionally loves us all.   Are you prepared to hear such a voice?  Even when the voice of the Spirit is trying to convict or convince of the truth about faith or the truth about ourselves, it is the voice that say,  You are my beloved child.”   Preparing yourself to hear this voice within your own heart, is at the core of what being a Christian and being Christian is all about.  That is the true ‘spirit’ of Christmas.

But hearing God’s voice of affirmation does not shelter us from the trouble, temptations and struggles of living in this world.  That’s why ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’, Mark tells us that ‘the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness’ where he was ‘tempted’ and tested by Satan (Mark 1; 12-13).   Even being God’s ‘beloved’ does not protect nor prevent us from facing great suffering, pain, or temptation.  In fact, being the ‘beloved of God’ may sharpen that pain at times, because we wonder ‘why’ a God who calls us his ‘beloved’ would allow such things to happen to us.  

While we can never specifically answer ‘why’ evil, suffering, or pain happens to us, what we can know is that it is this very ‘unanswered’wilderness of pain that prepares us to minister and care about the suffering of others.   This is exactly where Mark’s gospel takes us next, as the final step in our initial preparation for Advent.   He tells us how Jesus begins his ‘ministry’ preaching the ‘nearness of God’s kingdom’ which is a call to ‘trust’ God’s good news (1:15 CEB).   We come to trust God’s good news, not when we get all the answers we want in life, but when we ‘follow’ Jesus, just as those very first disciples were called to do.  To put down their ‘nets’ to catch fish, and to pick up their ‘nets’ of love to go out and ‘catch’ people who need help, healing, and the ‘good news’ of God’s grace and love preached for them (See Mark 1: 16-20).

There is no doubt that what drew people to Jesus was that he not only had a powerful message, but that he also had an authoritative method, of help and healing that challenged the ‘demons’ of evil in Jesus’ day.  For me, the presence and promise of Jesus is that his love, care, and compassion still challenges and dispels the demons of our age; loneliness, carelessness, heartlessness, and cruelty, either in the name of religion, government, or individual callousness.  When we hear God’s true voice of ‘affirmation’ in our own hearts, we are then ‘prepared’ to take that voice and share it through loving deeds of ministry in the world, as we follow Jesus in his way.

Of course, we’re not Jesus.  We don’t have to be.  But we can follow Jesus, and this is right at the heart of what we should be ‘prepared’ to do and to be.  I’ll never forget how a very gifted business woman in the churches I’ve served, once said to me.  She once involved her Sunday School class in the annual “Toy Store” Mission that the Baptist Association hosted and I had spoken about.  Her class adopted a struggling family and showered them, not only with gifts, but with time, visits, prayers and love.  After the Christmas season was over, she came to me and said, “Pastor, we will never feel like we have truly celebrated Christmas ever again, unless we have somebody we can help and love.  Thank you for invited us to be a part of this wonderful ministry.”

This is what Mark opening words are preparing us for; not just to believe in who Jesus was, but to prepare our heart for following and living Jesus in our own lives.   You really can’t say you know Jesus, unless you follow Jesus.  To follow Jesus, you must look beyond your own world,  look deep within yourself and hear God’s voice of love, and then, look around you and see and respond to the needs of those who need to see, hear, and know that Christmas is not just a season, but it’s a gift that’s being ‘unwrapped’ in us.   Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

“Reason to Be Generous

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Tim. 6: 6-12; 17-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 24+, November 22th, 2015
Years ago legendary Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal recruited an outstanding player to be on his team.  He was six feet five inches tall, weighed 250 pounds, and could run the 100-yard dash in 9.6 seconds. 
His only handicap was that he wasn’t a very good student.  When mid-term grades were posted, he reported to the coach as he was required to do.  Coach Royal asked his new player,  Son, how did you do?”  He replied, “Coach, I made an F in English, I made an F in Chemistry, I made an F in Psychology, I made an F in sociology, and I made an F in History.  What do you think about that coach?”
Coach Royal responded, “Son, it looks like you have been spending too much time in one subject.  (From Paul Powell, Taking the Stew out of Stewardship, Annuity Board Press, 1996, p. 99).

 Today is the third message on the issue of money.  You may be thinking that I’ve been spending too much time on one subject.  Well, if this subject makes you a bit uncomfortable, be glad to know that this is my final message on this subject, at least for now.  So, let’s get to it.

In this final biblical text on money matters,  we turn to the letter of Timothy,
where we find similar words to Paul’s earlier discussion about contentment.
But these words go further, considering how ‘godliness’ and ‘generosity’ can
help us keep money and materialism from destroying the soul and spirituality
of our lives.

The author of First Timothy gets our undivided attention by asking us right up front, to face our own mortality.  He says, “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it” (1 Tim. 6:7 NRS).  

Recently, my wife was schedule to have a colonoscopy, as part of her regular physical.  When the doctor was about to administer the anesthesia, he explained that he would be giving her propofol.   My wife quipped; “Isn’t that the same stuff that killed Michael Jackson?”  The doctor responded,  “Yes, but I won’t be giving you that much!”

The sudden death of Michael Jackson in 2009 gained global attention, as people around the world took notice and watch every detail of the news story.  But there is no greater picture of the truth that ‘we can take nothing out’ of this world.   Who will forget those televised images of the “king of pop” being transported to the Los Angeles coroner’s office wrapped in a plain white sheet?   Michael Jackson had amassed wealth and popularity beyond all ordinary comprehension, but he was being loaded and transported to a morgue like all of us one day will.  This is how all of us came into this world and will leave this world.

Back in the summer of 1989, Teresa and I visited New York City for the first time, and attended worship at the famous Riverside Church, which was originally a Baptist Church that was built and paid for by John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men in American history.  When Rockefeller’s grandson died in 1979, ten years earlier, that church hosted the funeral for the former vice-president who served under Gerald Ford.  During the funeral service, the pastor, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., (isn’t that a great sobering name for a pastor—Coffin?), shared honestly and told the congregation that Rockefeller’s death, the death of this incredibly wealthy man, reminded him that ‘this is God’s world.  At best, (implying that no matter how rich and powerful we might become), we are only guests.  Even the Rockefellers are guests in this world.”
(As quoted in James A. Harnish, Simple Rules for Money, 2009, p. 62).

As pastor John Ortberg has vividly related our human situation to the almost outdated board game,  “When the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”   Naked is how I came from my mother’s womb;”  Job said,  “And naked I will return there;  the Lord gave, and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).  Job was using his ‘mother’s womb’ as a personal way of describing ‘mother earth.  It was from dust he was created, and it is to ‘dust’ he will one day return (Job 10:9). 

Such language about mortality gets much more serious than most of us desire be on any given Sunday.  But the point is not to take the joy, hope, and dreams of life away from us, but to help us learn to value of every day as a ‘gift’ from God that money cannot buy.   It is all too easy to let our desire for wealth, money or riches, take over in our lives so that the desire for more and more can begin to take our lives away from us.  This sobering word quoted in Timothy is given not just to put ‘the fear of God into us’, nor to ‘scare  hell out of us’, which are not bad things either, but it is to be a reminder that the clocks of all our lives are continually ticking away, mostly without any awareness of when they will stop. 

If you walk into the main square in Prague, you will see a medieval clock that was built just for this purpose, with a skeleton manning the bell, constantly reminding the inhabitants of that city that one day the bell will toll for them.   We too need to learn to make each second we have count for something more than earthly treasures, so that every dollar we earn, every dollar we save, and every dollar we spend, contributes not just for our own physical existence, but also is being invested for spiritual treasures which point to our hopes and our love for those who come after us, as well as, our own ‘priceless’ hope of eternal life.  One thing for sure, if you were to learn in the next moment that your life was coming to an end in the next few months, you would look at money and your life in a whole different light.

But before we get to the ‘good’ that money can do, Timothy asks us to consider once more the evil money can cause. “Those who want to be rich, fall into temptation and are trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction”  (6:9).  These words seem to explain what comes next in that most memorable quote about ‘the love of money’ being’ the root of all evil’.   People who fall in love with money, or the things money buys for them, can fall into the kinds of temptation that can trap them and bring ruin and destruction.  How many times some news show reports how a once wealthy Hollywood Star is now living on Food Stamps for worst.  But there is much more here than a mere warning about ‘fleeting’  wealth, riches or fame.

 While there is some debate among linguistic scholars about whether this famous text should say that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ (KJV) or that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil’ NRSV), we all know that there is as much evil in the world about power or pleasure, as there is about actually having lots of money. But since money is most often the way to gain power or pleasure, we can certainly understand why the ancients expressed or translated it this way.  

 The ‘love of money’ or the desire for money can become evil all on its own.   For example, even though money wasn’t mentioned in the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness, money could have been the answer to every weakness Jesus ever faced in his life---his need for food, his need to have his message accepted by the populous, and his need to have the kind of power that would influence the world around him.  Since money could have been an answer, it could have been the ‘root of ALL evil’ exactly because it was not THE ANSWER which would touch the hearts of people in the world for the greater good.

 Just as most have been witnesses to the ‘good’ that money can do in the world, we’ve also been witnesses to the ‘evil’ that money can do when people are ‘in love’ with what it can do for them.  But this kind of ‘love of money’ is a corrupting, destructive, harmful kind of love that almost brought our whole world into financial ruin back in 2008.

 If that is still too big a picture to wrap our minds around, perhaps we can best be reminded of what ‘the love of money’ did to Bernie Madoff, and the hundreds of investors who ‘trusted’ him to invest their money wisely, but instead he baited them in an investment fund that had no real value, because he was making himself rich and spending all their money.  When the crime was finally uncovered,  Madoff not only ended up in prison, but he destroyed his relationship with his wife,  one of his two sons committed suicide, the other is sick with cancer from worry, not to mention many thousands of investors who had nothing to show for their years of hard work and diligent investing.  Ruin and destruction” are probably not strong enough to express how those people felt, or what Madoff’s family, or even he is now going through.

But can’t the ‘love of money’ get even closer home to each of us?   Isn’t there an even a greater ‘harm’ from not just what money can do to us?  Isn’t it just as bad to think about what ‘the love of money’ or just having money can keep from us, because it has robbed us from life’s greatest treasures?  I’ve heard about people visiting in poverty stricken areas of India, and seeing something among those very poor families we don’t have, even with the fulfillment of our own  ‘American Dreams’.  If you remember, as soon as the Beatles struck in rich, they went to India too, to try to find relief what ‘wealth’ was stealing from them.   What does Timothy being by money as a way to be ‘trapped by senseless and harmful desires’?  

If one would use psychology to study what made Berine Madoff go after the money,one would try to go beyond his inordinate love of money and ask what was missing in his life that would have caused him to do what he did that was so senseless’, so stupid, and so ‘harmful’?  But in a recent interview with Bernie Madoff in his Butner prison cell, Madoff insisted that his Ponzi scheme was not senseless nor was he trying to hurt people so he could get rich because he was already rich.   He insisted in that interview that he really wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. But such a ‘wild and crazy’ answer only affirms that the greatest evil from the love of money is not the evil of what a love of money will do to people, but it is what money can robs from us that can be our ruin; the loss of common sense, the loss of morals and character, and worst of all a genuine capacity to love.   Is there any greater destruction than this?
( 104838_Page4.html).  

But this whole discussion about money, if it truly follows Scripture, must end on a good note. The final word about money in this text is positive and is especially aimed at those who have the money they need, if not more.  As Paul tells Timothy, Tell those with money:  “Don’t be highminded (KJV), egotistical (CEB), arrogant (NIV), or haughty about the money you have, the writer advises.  Nor should you put too much ‘stock’ in the uncertainty’ of wealth.  Only God is the true source of ‘enjoyment’.

This word ‘enjoyment’ is a fascinating the original.  It sounds like the American breed of horse, appolusis.  The term does not simply mean ‘enjoyment’ for the sake of pleasure, but it means to gain what is needed to satisfy what each person needs to give them joy, fulfillment, and purpose in life.   The ‘riches’ that bring this kind of ‘joy’ are not left to our imagination, but are explained as ‘doing good’, being ‘rich in good works’, being ‘generous’ and of course, being ‘ready to share.’   This ‘enjoyment’  is satisfying because it ‘stores up a treasure (heavenly or spiritual) as ‘a good foundation for the future’.  These kinds of riches enable you to ‘take hold of the life that really is life  (6: 17-19) so you use your money and you don’t let money use you.

Right at the center of this wonderful way to use money is the word ‘generous’.  It carries the idea of being liberal with what you have and being eager to share it.   It points right back to the material blessings you already have which you now can share.

Generosity like is is wonderfully illustrated in a story by Robert Schnase, a Methodist bishop in Missouri, who tells how ‘generosity’ can begin in one person and then spread to brings hope, joy and satisfaction both individually and as a community.    Schnase tells a true story of how the members of a small congregation faced the challenge of paying for an unexpected air conditioning repair bill of $465.   The church had already exceeded its maintenance budget and account balances were low across the board.  For more than forty-five minutes the finance committee discussed options.  Should they borrow the money, postpone a payment, or make an appeal for money during worship on Sunday.  Or should they reallocate other budgeted funds from other ministries?  They even considered other money fundraising options, such as a rummage sale, bake sale, or a fund-raising dinner.   The thought even occurred to ask one of the wealthy members of the church to offer a special donation.  Frustrations grew.  They had few real solutions.

Finally, one the members of the finance committee, a teacher, just shook her head at the impasse they had come to.  Smiling, she suggested they simply stop talking and thinking so much and paused for silent prayer to see if God would provide another way.  The others went along. After a few moments of silence, she looked around the room at her friends and fellow church members, and she said, “We all realize that any one of us could write a check for the full $465 and it would not make any major difference in our lifestyle, comfort, or financial security.” 

 With that she pulled her checkbook out of her purse and wrote a check for $465 to the church.  The she said,  “Anyone who wants to join me can add their check, too.  We’ll earmark the surplus for children’s ministry.”  Three other followed her lead, and two wrote checks for $200 and $100 respectively.  The result of her inspiring and generous leadership?  The air conditioner repair bill was paid, and the children’s ministry had an unexpected $1695 to launch a new initiative to teach the faith to the next generation!
(Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,  by Robert Schnase, Abingdon Press, 2007, pp. 11-112).
Generosity means that there is no end to the ‘good works’ the church can accomplish for the purposes of Christ when the sharp awareness of the assets, resources, and talents God has entrusted to exceeds the fear of scarcity and the obsessive focus on needs, problems, and shortages  (Schnase).  When we realize our lives are in God’s hands, from beginning to end, we don’t worry half as much as we are ready and eager to put ourselves into the hands of this God.  God wants us to bless us and for us to use our money to bring true joy, rather than let our money use us to bring fear and frustration.  As the John Wesley said, we should earn all we can, save all we can, and then give all we can to the glory of the kingdom of God, and then, as Paul told Timothy, we will find that we have stored up good treasure for the future and have taken hold of life that is really life  (6:19).  Amen

Sunday, November 15, 2015

“Learning Contentment”

A Sermon Based Upon Philippians 4: 10-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv., DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 23+, November 15th, 2015

Do you remember Stanley Johnson?  He was the humorous character in a TV commercial for a lending agency.

With a self-satisfied smile, Stanley introduced himself and his family, complete with two children and a dog.  He showed us his four-bedroom home in a great neighborhood, his swimming pool, and his new car.  With obvious pride, he let us know that he was a member of the local gold club.  Grinning into the camera while he turned steaks on the backyard grill he asked, “How do I do it?”  Still wearing a silly grin, he confided with us, his audience by answering his own question:  “I’m in debt up to my eyeballs.  I can barely pay my finance charges.”  He pleads at the end of the commercial, 
“Please, somebody help me.”

Stanley Johnson was able to grab attention because he is not unusual.  He’s typical of far too many people in our culture.  He represents the kind of financially irresponsible, socially acceptable, and overreaching debt that helped plunge the American economy into the ditch soon after the commercial appeared.  When we met Stanley Johnson, most Americans carried an average $9,000 debt on their credit card.  If they only made their minimum payment, it would take thirty-one years to pay off.  They would pay $29,000 only in interest.  In one year when that commercial aired, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated college. 

James Harnish tells of a husband who hit the ceiling when he saw the credit card bill.  He asked his wife, “How many times do I have to tell you that it’s economically irresponsible to spend money we don’t have?”  She replied, “I don’t know about that.  If you never get the money, at least you have something to show for it?”  Hasn’t this been the much too prevalent attitude of our instant-gratification, credit addicted, consumption-oriented culture, Harish asks.   This irrational myth of the good of ‘more’ and having it ‘now’ has caused too many people to put their soul on loan and mortgage their grandchildren’s future (From “Simple Rules for Money,  James A. Harnish, Abingdon Press, 2009, pp 37-38)

Answering Stanley Johnson’s cry for help is not about loaning him more money.  Because God really cares for ‘Stanley’, God wants to cure him from his addiction to things and money, finding nourishment substantial enough to satisfy his hungry soul.   No matter what the addiction is, as every counselor knows, the cure is not to take away the craving, but to replace it with a more nourishing fare.

In our text today, the great apostle speaks of times ‘being in need’ and having ‘little’ (Phil. 4: 11-12).   Being a child of parents who grew up during the Great Depression, I was constantly reminded of times like this.  When I would get my Christmas presents my parents  continually reminded me that they only got ‘fruit’, ‘candy’ or ‘one simple hand-made toy’ at best.  It was something I didn’t always want to hear, but they impressed it upon my mind anyway, reminding me that I should be ‘grateful’ for what I was receiving.  But who learns how to be ‘grateful’ in times of plenty when I am receiving everything I need and want?

Perhaps this is exactly what Paul is getting at.  Paul tells his readers that he has ‘learned to be content with whatever (he) has” (v. 11).  Sometimes what he has is ‘little’ and other times what he has means ‘plenty’.   It is by accepting all and any of his ‘circumstances’ that he has ‘learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.    As you read this, you don’t have to guess which ‘circumstances’ have taught him the most.  It is certainly not the ‘times of plenty’.

As Paul writes this letter, he is in real ‘need’ (4:11).  Paul was in prison for preaching the gospel, but even this prison letter that he is writing from prison has been ironically named Paul’s letter of ‘joy’ (Phil 1.4, 2:2).  Paul is able to find joy, peace, and contentment, even in his very negative circumstance because of what is inside of him, not what is going on around him.  Paul has ‘learned’ it because his contentment is not about having everything the way he wants it, when he wants it.

Is this kind of contentment which can make positives out of negative situations even possible in a world where we already have so much, and even too much stuff?   Do we have to have everything taken away to learn this secret?  Or is there another way to ‘learn’ to curb our desire for more and more.  

Paul tells us that he learned contentment ‘’through him who strengthens me’ (4:13).  We know who this ‘him’ is and this same Jesus should be our ‘teacher’ in contentment too.  But how do the spiritual teachings of Jesus teach us?  Even more importantly, in a world with so much how can Jesus teach us to even want to learn this kind of contentment?

Well, let’s consider one person in the gospel account whom Jesus tried to teach contentment?  We often call him the ‘rich, young, ruler’.  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke we learn that this rich, young man had everything, including religion, but he still wasn’t very content.  He had been taught as a child what it meant to follow the law that should give life and contentment, but he says that he still needed something more. He asks Jesus: “Good Teacher, what good deeds must I do to have eternal life?  (Matt 19:16, Luke 18:18ff).  Seeing that this rich young man was still lacking contentment and peace, Jesus tells him he will only find contentment if he sells everything, gives the money to the poor, and then comes and follows Jesus.  No doubt, such a prescription for contentment was as much of a ‘shocker’ for him as it would be for us.  And just like most of us we would be, we are also told that this wealthy, young fellow is not ready nor willing to do what it will take for to learn ‘contentment’ from going on the kind of adventure of life which Jesus might offer.   So we read that he goes away ‘grieving’ because he can’t accept this RX for contentment.   He is unwilling to let go of those things which do not make him content to learn contentment the only way it can ever be learned from Jesus, or from anyone.

Do you see that part, if not the main part of this rich, young, man’s problem was that was also making his ‘salvation’ another ‘thing’ to have?  Instead of finding a way of salvation and contentment in how he relates to God and others, he makes salvation something he must ‘have’.  He failed to find contentment because true contentment can only be found from a life of being in God and sharing with others, but not from ‘having’ only what he wants for himself.   Only the person that moves toward the source of true contentment can ever expect to find contentment.   But how do you ‘teach’ someone to want to learn this kind of spiritual and relational path? 

Recently I received an email from a friend in Germany who asked what she could say to someone who said she was content in life, but did not need any kind of faith or relationship with God?  Unlike this rich, young man who came to Jesus because he knew that something was missing, many of those around us don’t even notice what is missing in their lives because they seem to be ‘content’ without any kind of spiritual connection with God or with others.  And she seems to be content,” my friend told me.  “What can I say?” She asked. 

Her question does not have and easy answer.  People who have everything they need seldom realize or reveal the needs they still have which can be hidden under the surface or pushed away into a dark closet . Instead of ‘going away sorrowfully’ as did the young man in the gospel,  they are content to go away from God, as rich, happy and perfectly satisfied people, who have little or no spiritual need for God at all.  What can we say to people like this, who are content to learn nothing from what Jesus has to offer to them?

Contentment is hard, if not impossible to learn from a position of power or prosperity.  Jesus himself said it is nearly ‘impossible’ for a person with wealth to enter the ‘kingdom of God’ (Mark 10.23).  In saying this, Jesus did not mean that you couldn’t get into heaven if you had money as much as he meant that because you have money you probably aren’t the least bit interested in it.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  For the most part, people only learn the things they have to learn.  If you feel as if you don’t need to learn anything new, why should you? 

Here, at this difficult intersection of need and want, is where we need to return to the our character Stanley Johnson.  Remember, he was the guy who not only ‘had it all’, but he was also the fellow who felt like he had to have it all, until he ended up in ‘debt up to his eyeballs’.  As we consider Stanley Johnson’s desire that was much bigger than his pocketbook, we need to ask what Stanley’s problem really was.  Was it just a money problem that Stanley had, or was the problem he had even bigger than money?  Was Stanley going after so much stuff, more than he could afford, only because he wanted it, or was it because he was trying to feed an even greater emptiness?

Recently CBS’s news magazine Forty-Eight hours told the story of a Wall Street Hedge Fund founder who was worth Billions before he was thirty years old.  He was a genius who amassed a fortune of money and moved with his wife to Costa Rica, where together they lived in an unbelievable, “James Bond like house”, located in the middle of a rain forest.   It was a ‘dream-like’ existence that was ‘surreal’ to the reporter, but was accepted as normal for this couple who seem to have it all.  But the reason 48 Hours was there reporting was not because their money, but it was because of the alleged ‘murder’ of this Wall Street genius by his own wife.  She says she didn’t do it, and that may be true, because this her husband had confided in a friend that he was going to kill himself. 

Whether he did or she did is still being decided in the third trial.  But for us, we ought to decide already that ‘having’ is never any sure way to contentment.  In fact, needing, wanting, desiring and having is normally a sign of discontent.  Many times people who will amass great wealth for themselves live with some sort of emptiness they are trying to fill, that will never be filled with money or great wealth.

Trying to understand what kind of ‘wealth’ will bring lasting contentment is what Paul’s closing words to the Philippians reveals.  As Paul began this final chapter of his letter he refers to this congregation as his ‘joy and crown’ (4.1).   And in our text, beginning in verse ten, he is elated that as he has entered prison for preaching the gospel their ‘concern’ for him has been ‘revived’ and they have had an ‘opportunity’ to show it (4:10).  Upon receiving their care package, he politely says it was ‘kind of them to share in his distress’ (4:14).  Do you see what is going on here?  Do you see that the source of his contentment is the evidence of genuine care and concern? 

If you have ‘eyes to see’ and ‘hears to hear’ you’ll notice it doesn’t take much to make a person content when they have strong relational bonds.   But when these bonds are missing, all the money in the world can’t seem to fill the void.  Stanley Johnson’s problem may be that he needs to get curb his spending, but better yet, he probably  needs to find a community to live in where people care more about having friendships, having faith, and being family than having to have all the things money can buy.  As the saying goes, money will never buy anyone true happiness or contentment. 

“My God will satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus?” (4:19). This concluding line from our text today is how Paul sees the true source of contentment.  Notice that he says,“My God…”.  Don’t think that Paul is pointing to his own personal opinion about God, but he is speaking in a very personal  and relational tone.  He speaks this way because true contentment will become personal.  Learning contentment is about living in relationships that we give our lives to which will give our lives back to us.  People who don’t have such ‘personal’ connections with God and with each other probably won’t realize what they are missing until they come to realize ‘who’ they are missing. 

Interestingly, you only realize who you are missing when discover the love that is missing in you.  “I have been paid in full and have more than enough.  I am fully satisfied…” (4:18), Paul concludes.  Even when he has practically nothing left in that prison but his life, he still says, “I have more than enough… I am fully satisfied.   Paul’s satisfaction is not in the ‘gift’ he has received, nor in the situation he is in, but it is in the people who care about him and it and it is in the God who continues to give him ‘grace’.   All the money in the world can’t buy the ‘strength’ and ‘joy’ such concern and love gives him.    You can’t put this kind of contentment in your wallet.  You can only put it in the only place where true contentment can be found: In your heart.   Amen.