A few years back I took a series of classes at NYU on fundraising and management for nonprofits. It was a very interesting class; one of the key things that they said to having a successful fundraising campaign was to recognize the givers. Not only to name them, but also the amount that they gave. To which I gave a chuckle, “That would never work in a church!” To which they gave me a list of many churches that had great success doing that.
I went back to my church at the time and told them what I had learned. Other than not naming the big donors, we were following most of the other things they recommended. But when I mentioned the thing about naming donors and listing what they gave, that was shot down without a second thought. The response they gave was “Presbyterians don’t do that.” I let it go; personally, I was not big on doing that anyway. But it made me think about why.
In all of my churches, around Christmas time I will get some money to anonymously hand out to families in need. The first year that I did that for one person, he said:
“It is crucial that no one know this is me giving the money; you see, when I was a child my father had lost his job and we did not have enough money to keep the lights on in the winter, let alone food or anything else.
After looking for a job for two weeks and no success, our father was starting to research shelters where we could stay and at least have heat. One morning after we woke and all of us were frozen, our mother told us to pack, and we were almost out the door when the mailman came to the door handed us an envelope with enough money to cover our expenses for the month.
It was like a gift from God. We never knew where the money came from or how it was just the right amount, but it was, and within the month, my dad found a new job and everything turned around. You see, while we knew that a person had done this, and there was an ongoing family guessing game as to who it was, we really knew that it was God. God inspired that person, and God had directed them to send it to us. And the spirit will work through you to give this to someone who really needs it.”
This was a man who had done very well for himself; while he started his life in a family that often went without, as an adult he lived very comfortably. This annual gift he recognized needed to be seen not as charity, but as a hand up to someone who needed it. Moreover, to him it was a moment of grace, and it really did not need to be known who, that would just detract.
Personally, he had a feeling that was indescribable in his heart, and though he wanted to share it with everyone, he knew in some way that would cheapen the gift of love that he gave. Which brings us to the lesson this week, Matthew 6.
When thinking of the discipleship that Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, the giving that we are rewarded for in this world is often not for God, but for our own social positioning or power. When we give anonymously we do it as a spiritual, personal practice. This is why as a church we rarely talk about how much someone gives, and why money is such a uncomfortable subject, because we don't want to get caught in a situation where our focus becomes more about the money than it is about God.
On one of the beautiful afternoons last week I was siting on my patio, and I heard the delicate buzz of a humming bird. I was not expecting that noise, so it was slightly startling; as I looked to find the little bird, my movement so startled the bird it flew off, making my only glimpse a blurred speck as it moved along on its adventure and search for food.
It made me think about the humming bird; they are fascinating creatures! I know that if I were asked to describe the bird, I would start by talking about their movement, the long beak to suck the nectar, the small body and so on. Interestingly, I do not think I would mention the sound. Though I recognized the hum, I know the visual understanding of the humming bird was my primary understanding.
This is unfortunate, or was, in that I did not really take the time to fully understand the bird that was before me. However, because I could not see the bird made me hear the bird in a new way. For the first time, the hum was not a buzz or some background white noise of nature, but it was like a song. Its musical quality was calming yet inspiring. Though I did not catch a good glimpse of the bird, I know my understanding of the humming bird as a species will forever be changed, and much fuller.
Part of our human tendency is to try and understand the world we are in based on the knowledge that we have. Being a visual species, we rely on what we can see to be the basis for how we interpret the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to faith, what we see is never the whole picture of what God is really doing in this world.
The Bible teaches us over and over that what we see often deceives us. This is a recurring theme in the Pauline letters. It is not that what we see is wrong, rather, it is that what we see is so incomplete that our understandings are often wrong because we rely on what our eyes tell us rather than understanding the whole picture.
It is like this: we can agree that the sky is blue, right? Well, that is not necessarily the case; yes, we see blue when we look to the sky, but the blue color is really a figment of the way our minds process the white light that comes from the sun (seehttp://spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/). So, while what we see to be blue is blue, that is only part of the story of the sky’s color. When we look beyond the question of color, we then begin to ask more important questions about what is going on up there that we cannot see.
When it comes to our faith, we have to look at everything: what we see with our eyes, understand with our minds, what we feel, what we hear, and so on and so on weighing everything equally. If we let one sense dominate over another, our understanding of faith becomes skewed. While this may work in the short term, what we often find is that the incompleteness of our understanding of God often leads to feeling empty and lost because we are unable to fathom how God can be present when we cannot see Him in His fullness.
As people of faith, one of our basic responsibilities is to be open and listening for God. This is how we form deeper relationships with God as well as come to understand who we are as His children. Unfortunately, too often we get to a place in our faith where we think that we have come to understand in fullness all that God is and we stop asking more questions, leaving us with only a small glimpse of what God fully is.
This morning as I looked out my window I saw another little brown humming bird. I listened as I closed my eyes again to its song. I realized that the bird had become so much more to me now that I saw it in this new way. I could not help but think also about how much more God has become to me every time I allow myself to see Him more fully.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 and 16-18
One could spend a lifetime exploring tools of faithfulness. This means that we will always fall just a bit short when spending only a month exploring all that helps us to both understand our faith and grow in our faithfulness. This is why I focused on four “tools” or approaches to life that I find to be essential for growing in faithfulness and understanding your faith. I believe that our faithful life is nearly impossible to grasp if we are unable to trust, accept, and forgive.
When we trust, we allow ourselves the comfort of not always having the answer and not always seeing the whole picture. This trust allows us to accept both one another and God, understanding that there are different understandings and expectations in life, but as a whole we are ultimately a small part of a much larger story, and must accept that our way is not the only one, but is one of many.
The two brought us to forgiveness, a loaded word and understanding of any means. Forgiveness occurs because we first trust that God is in control and Judgment is His. Secondly, we forgive because we recognize that we are not God, but we are only one part of God’s bigger plan and our concern is not being right, but living in community with one another. Thus, we recognize that we must forgive in order to grow; otherwise, we become stuck and bitter.
This leads us to what I think is one of the most important theological concepts for faith development, and that is grace. The dictionary definition of Grace, according the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms is:
Unmerited Favor. God’s grace is extended to sinful humanity in providing salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ that is not deserved, and withholding judgment that is deserved (Rom 3:24; Eph. 1.7; Titus 2:11).
When we truly accept grace we become free! We are freed from the bondage of this world and the burdens of life. We are freed from our past and opened to a new future. But all the good that comes from grace can only happen if we accept it and live a grace filled life.
This Sunday we are seeing this play out in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14). Both the Tax Collector and the Pharisee go through the same prayer routine, but while the tax collector was humble and repentant, the Pharisee boasted of his piety. In this parable, the Pharisee ultimately is not interested in his relationship with God; his interest is purely in the recognition he gets.
What really lets us know the point of the parable is the following story of Jesus and the Children (Luke 18:15-17). When Jesus was teaching people were bringing children to him, which was not accepted, especially by the disciples. But Jesus creates another teaching moment saying to those gathered that the children, with their openness and love accept God and God accepts them. We all know the line from this pericope: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
The thing that links these tools is that all four of them are about us, you and me, individually. It is not about us in a selfish “how do I find salvation” way, but about us in a “how do I connect with God” in a more connected way. While we might learn trust, acceptance, and forgiveness from other people, the only way that we will find God’s grace is through our own commitment and seeking to be faithful.
The Sermon on the Mount is proving to be an interesting and faith filled exploration for us. This week we are going to skip ahead a few verses to Matthew 5:36-48. While we might come back to murder, adultery, and divorce, I think that we need to talk a bit about Love. I think we can always use more discussions about love, because so often we find ourselves mistaking other things for love.
I remember working with a family a few years back. Recently divorced, the father had their child on the weekends; the mother had the child over the week. While the divorce was very amicable, in fact, both parents remained good friends, even to this day, there was a big problem. Every Monday when the child returned to the mother he had a new toy. Not having much money, this weekly gift was starting to frustrate the mother and raise expectations for the child. After about a year of this arrangement the child began to withdraw. His grades in school were suffering, and his attitude became dark.
With nowhere else to turn, the parents came to me. As we talked through a lot of issues I began to see that both parents were concerned more about how much the child loved them then about his falling grades and change in attitude. In other words, they were afraid that the child would no longer love them. This is why the Father bought the new present every week and the mother, whom we found out in the talk, would essentially let the boy do anything he wanted.
Without realizing it, both parents were trying to buy their child’s love. This may surprise some of you, but in our society this is very common. We often try to do this with love mistaking the things of this world with love, just think of jewelry commercials on television. Love is something that comes from within one’s soul and encapsulates how we care and recognize each other. This was interesting because in many ways, the divorced couple showed more love to each other then they did to their child.
When I spoke to the child, this was confirmed. He talked about how much better his parents got along after the divorce, but how he was no longer important. He also spoke of how he felt unloved. For me, this was quite sad.
Love is the essential component to making life work. When we show love to one another we begin the process by which we can live in community with mutual respect and begin to grow. However, if we reject love, and live for hate and vengeance, then we can only be held back.
The greatest problem is most of the time when we feel hate and anger it is because of our own wants and needs. Moreover, when we substitute love for the things of this world we create a false sense of love, something that is temporal. Rather, God calls us to show a type of love that is fuller, that does not change because of our needs or comfort, but is a love that goes to the root of who we are.
This is why loving our enemies is so important, because it is not about us. Love, as everything in our life, is about our place in God’s Kingdom. I love the way that the Message interprets this:
48 “In a word, what I’m saying is,Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
As you prepare for this Sunday ask yourself if you live a truly loving life. If not, how might you change to show love?
From the Pastor's Desk . . .
When I was in elementary school Rock Candy was a big deal. We were so into rock candy one of my teachers decided to show us how to make it. We each took a jar, filled it with water and saturated the water with sugar, dangled a string down the center and let it sit. Each morning we looked at our strings and documented the growing crystals. By Friday our crystals looked almost ready, but we would not get them until the next Monday when they had doubled in size!
Being a lover of candy it was one of my favorite exercises in school. I know the teacher was really trying to get us to learn about crystals and their structure and formation, but for me the message and lesson was very different.
The water we used was clear, and even after boiling the water and adding all of the sugar the water was still clear when we poured it back into the jar. Now tat the water was saturated, if we were to drink it we would have a very different experience than the original tap water would have been. Even though there was no apparent change, EVERYTHING had! When we introduced the new element, the string, we were all very disappointed. NOTHING happened. The teacher told us to be patient, things take time to develop, and sure enough they did.
At the end of the experiment we were given the reward of our candy. As sweet as the reward was, the thing about the experiment that always stayed was the magic that happened when we let nature (God) do its thing. Our role was to get things in motion, do our best to follow the recipe, but also to protect the experiment once it happened. Sometimes we had to guard against inquisitive fingers of other classes and often from our own curiosities, the desire to pull the string before its time or try to add something to make it go faster or make it bigger.
The thing I learned most from this experiment was my role and God’s role. I could “get the ball rolling,” I could keep the experiment safe, I could even watch it to see what was going on, but I could not create the crystal, only God could do that. The same thing is true of all of life. Whether it is the children that we are called to care for, the family that we are part of, or the community that we find ourselves, we each have our place and we all contribute, but the most incredible times are often the ones where we step back and let God do his work.
This Sunday as we celebrate the Children’s Sabbath we have to take time to recognize that we will never be able to control the lives of the children that are around us. We can’t even always keep them safe, but we can do everything in our power to make sure that the world is the best that it can be, and we need to trust that God can and will take care of the rest.
But too often we forget about this role, and like the one kid in my class that knocked over his experiment because he was focused on something else, we let other things pull us away from what is best, and we pass laws or loosen our standards, hurting the children, not letting them grow as they could.
This year the Children’s Sabbath nationally is focusing on two things: Gun Violence and Childhood poverty. These are things that we can control. We can create the environment where all children have enough to eat and can feel safe from the violence of guns. But far too often the politics, greed, and selfish motives get in the way, only to learn later that it is the children who are harmed the most.
Like the crystal, we have a role to play and we must play that role so that God can do His work. We need to think of how we look out for the children in this world and ask ourselves what we might do to make their lives better.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
So far in our Journey of to find the essential tools for deepening our faithfulness we have seen the role that trust plays as a fundamental starting point and foundation for Faith. Trust allows us to move forward with the very basic understanding that we are reliant on God and can trust that He will provide. This is also a call for us to trust each other, in that if God is working in them as God is working in us we must trust that they will do what is needed. This leads to acceptance; God constantly shows us acceptance, showing us through the actions of Christ that the most important thing of life is faithfulness. We then are called to accept others. By accepting others we can grow in our faith and understanding of God recognizing that God is working differently in all people.
When we trust and accept we also have to forgive. Forgiveness is essential within the church and a healthy community. As an expression of faithfulness, when we show forgiveness we extend to one another that beautiful gift of Grace, allowing our forgiveness to be a model for how God will show his grace towards us.
Grace and forgiveness are great topics to follow on a Sunday that we celebrate the Children’s Sabbath. As we know from studies and much research, the most successful children in adulthood are often not the ones who find school easy or have had the “perfect life;” rather, they are the adventurous ones who have made mistakes and have grown to learn from them. They are often in families that are often supportive, sometimes strict, but always forgiving.
When forgiveness is not part of the family or perfection is the only accepted state of being we find terrible problems. Now it is important to note that forgiveness is not accepting an “anything goes” life. Forgiveness requires us to admit to our faults and learn from them.
This is crucial within the Christian story because it is how we come to grow to understand God. As humans we are subject to making mistakes or even harming someone and finding ourselves in a position of needing someone to forgive us. This need for other’s forgiveness is a further reminder that we are all in this community together and our community can be strengthened by it. As a greater community, when we learn to forgive the faults and shortcomings of others, as well as ourselves, we begin to be able to live into a new reality.
The Sermon passage this week is from Jeremiah. It is one of the great passages that are associated with the Advent season. While we see it as a text foretelling the coming of Christ; it really is about the change that is coming to the society. The change is one that will move from the idea of the bondage of sin to a personal relationship with God. It also suggests, for one of the first times in the Bible, that through what Christ teaches to be God’s Grace, we can be forgiven our transgressions against God and be made whole, independent of our family history but reliant on our individual faith.
This forgiveness that we see within Christianity has everything to do with our faithfulness to God. When we are faithful and trying to grow in our relationship with God, God will give us grace to forgive our iniquity. When we trust in God and accept the faithful life, God grants us forgiveness. The ultimate question, though, is whether or not we can forgive others.
After talking about the Beatitudes last week, I thought it would be worthwhile looking at the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. this will cover a few weeks, but I think it will be interesting because it seems to hit on a lot of the needs that we have as a group.
This week we are going to have a service of salt and light! Salt and Light are used in various ways in the Bible and conjure up very different emotions depending on where you find them. However, in this passage, Salt and Light are both considered to be positive; not only are they positive, but they are something which we are to strive for.
Let’s start with salt. In agriculture, Salt is something that needs balance if there is too much salt in the soil, nothing will grow. The same is true if there is too much salt in your food, it is inedible. But the right amount of salt will bring flavors to life. Christians are called to be the salt of the land. Being the proper seasoning we can bring out the best in others and help others to see the fullness of God.
This brings us to light. The light and darkness analogy is always a good one, but in modern times with so many sources of light it is often hard for us to remember what a sacred commodity light is. Think if you only had one candle in your home and the power went out, that little flicker would be all you had to make your way around, possibly even be the only way you could stay safe.
If you had your light and you kept that light to yourself, you would get all of the benefits, but in doing so you would deny others theirs. Also, if you had the light and wanted to protect it so much that you were willing to hide it, you run the risk of the flame burning out completely.
In the analogy, God is making us his light in a very dark world. He is calling us not to sit back and hide from the world but be engaged, with the bringing the message to others. This helps the light to grow person by person, household by household, and so on.
In both the salt and the light analogies, Christ is foretelling the Great commission in a sense that we have a responsibility not to sit on the knowledge that we have but to go out in the world and share it.
As you prepare this Sunday, if you have time I want you to try an experiment. Make your house as dark as you can. Move away from mirrors and shiny things and light a candle. Take note of how much or how little that one candle will light up.
Then meditate and pray about what that means to you. Ask yourself if you can be that light or if someone else might be that light for you and what that means. Are you just starting to flicker or do you need to be relit? Are you burning bright, or do you still rely on others to see clearly. Play around with this and see what God might be saying to you.
Many people look to Christianity as a blank slate, with an assumption that “all Christians believe the same thing.” Obviously this is not true; we need only to look at Northern Ireland to see how brutal Christians can be towards one another. In America, although we do not have the sustained wars that have plagued Northern Ireland, our religious wars are far more insidious and cause much greater harm. Simply put, we have a great debate over the role of faith in our lives.
As Presbyterians we are always a little non-committal when it comes to declaratives. Theologically, there are many reasons for this. The easiest two to grasp lie in the truth that we are both human and not God. Because of our human condition, which by its very nature makes us imperfect, we are relegated to a world view that is incomplete. This view forces our hand in any situation to add the caveat that we are only correct to the level that our understanding allows. In other words, we think we are right based on our knowledge, but there is a good chance that we are not.
This is where the second aspect of our tradition comes in: we are not God! Obvious, right? But to many, this is forgotten, since there are claims that are made by some traditions as to who has been saved, and who has not. Moreover, there is a level of superiority that some Christians bestow upon others. Again, the problem lies within the fact that when we assert ourselves over another individual, we place ourselves in a godly position claiming superiority. This assertion of power leads to tyranny and ultimately a situation that becomes devoid of God in lieu of human wants and needs.
This struggle is the basis for one of the greatest schisms in the Presbyterian Church. Termed the “New School and Old School Schism,” the New School embraced a theology that basically said the ends justify the means, in other words, whatever it takes to bring someone to faith was good. This group embraced Jonathan Edwards and the Revival movement, even though theologically and biblically, the movement left something to be desired.
The Old School embraced the traditions of the Westminster Standards. The revivals were shunned to a strict life living into the standards of the church. For the Old side, faith was the starting point and how we lived out that faith was crucial. For the Revival movement and the Old School side, faith was the goal. Through experience and life one would attain their faith.
This split happened because both side claimed irreconcilable differences, only to reunite roughly 20 years later, only to split again during the Civil War, and so on. The saddest thing of all of these splits, including the one our denomination is going through today is that we so often get distracted with “being right” that we miss the fundamental truth of Jesus Christ, focusing on “right theology” rather than living into our relationships and growing in our faith.
In practice, when we look at the debates that split the church or cause divisive feelings, so often they have nothing to do with God or Christ and everything to do with power, control, or asserting a specific piety.
Over the next few months we are going to be hearing about a good number of churches that are looking to leave our denomination. On one hand this is sad, since some of the churches you know and have friends in will no longer be in the PCUSA. But for us this is a place where we can shine. As a congregation that is focused in Christ and is learning to listen and accept diverse people and theologies, we can become an example and live out being the Body in celebration of our life in Jesus Christ.
Last week during the sermon I looked at the link between Faith and Trust with an understanding that faith is foundational to our lives and trust is where we begin to see growth in faithfulness and our understanding of God. Trust is one of the essential tools when we think about faith, because it is only when we trust God that we can begin to allow God to transform us.
This week we expand on the tools God gives us to one that is similar to trust but also very different. This week we explore acceptance as a tool of faith. One of the great struggles, as well as the great strengths of our congregation is the fact that we are truly accepting. Regardless of age, sexuality, ethnicity, theological background, economic status, etc. there is a place for you within our community. However, this accepting culture has cost us over the years with people leaving because they did not care about this theology or that one or they just did not like this or that.
The problem with living out the accepting nature of Christ is that sometimes we have to struggle, and often we have to humble ourselves to realize where God is at work within our community.
The Sermon passage this week looks at a community of lepers. The thing about a leper colony at the time of Christ and before is the unifier in that community is leprosy. Once made an outcast, all within the community were equal within the disease and unwelcome. When Jesus himself asked to heal the men, he gives them orders to make their way to the ruler, along the way the Lepers realized that they were healed. Nine of the ten (the nine who were fully Hebrew) continued their journey as the one, the Samaritan man, an outsider, turned back to Christ, recognizing who healed him, and offered a word of thanks.
Who really knows what went through the minds of those who were in the Hebrew community, but Jesus responds boldly saying:
17b “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” 
When engaging the healing, Christ did not check for appropriate faithfulness or piety, he accepted the need of all the men and granted them health. However, it is through the action of being thankful that Christ knew the faith that was on the heart of the man who returned.
The lesson in ministry that we learn from Christ is to minister first, ask questions later! If Christ were to have asked and given a litmus test to the ten of who was worthy and who was not, the mere fact that the man was a Samaritan should have kept him from being healed, but because Jesus knew enough and healed all, the truly faithful one showed himself.
When we are quick to judge, we often turn away the people who might have the greatest faith.
In the first reading this coming Sunday we come across this saying :
11 The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. 
In other words, when we give ourselves over to God, we must do so in ways that are full and complete and that whenever we deny God, even that part of God that is within each of us, we deny Christ and His ability to work.
Learning to be accepting and to give grace is another essential tool in becoming more faithful, because when we are open to the way God is working, we can be open to the amazing way in which Christ can touch us.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 17:17–19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (2 Ti 2:11–13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
I remember my first time I received a perfect score on a paper in college. I remember it not because of a sense of accomplishment, but the strange lack of emotion this paper brought. I enjoyed the topic and was proud of the grade, but it was neither a hard paper to write, nor really challenged me to learn anything new. I did what was expected and the grade followed. I asked the teacher after the fact why he allowed us to write on something we knew about, and he responded “You’re complaining about an easy assignment?”
For years I have thought about that. I did well in that class, but I cannot say that I really ever learned anything. Everything he covered was review of other classes I had taken, and I wondered why I was wasting time for a good grade. I looked around the class and recognized that there were a lot of people that were just taking the class to boost their grades to make their transcripts look better, and I thought, WOW what is the point of that?
Well, I figured out the point, having a very high GPA opens some doors and can make life easy in some ways, but I would never pass up the amount of things I have learned through the struggles in education and life for the success just to pad my resume. Looking at churches and those which appear to be growing and those that are floundering come down to how they deal the situation that they find themselves in.
The relevant congregations (congregations that are having an impact on their community) are spending their time and resources learning and coming to know their community and needs. Instead of trying to seek out a simple solution or prescription for how to become successful, they embrace who they are within the context that they find themselves. The problem with this way is that it is hard.
Curiously, early in his ministry Jesus preaches this long sermon known as the Sermon on the Mount, found starting in the fifth chapter of Matthew. This sermon starts in an interesting way with the Beatitudes. The fascinating thing about the sermon starting this way is that it addresses every fear the new believer might have and instead of saying, “accept me and life will be easy!” They say, “Hey, follow me, the journey is hard, but when you follow God, your life will be blessed.”
This week in the Gathering we are going to explore the Beatitudes. This pericope is central to our understanding of how we are called to live out our faith. If we look deeply at the text, we come to see that the way to be a good Christian is not about having a checklist or proving to be the best, but struggling in the moment. More importantly, it is not just struggling in the moment, but struggling with a cheerful demeanor and great joy, knowing that we are living into a life that is truly fulfilled.
I think back to the classes that I took and the ones that I struggled in the most and was always thankful, because those were the classes that I enjoyed the most because they helped me to transform and grow. When I look at my life and where I am today, I can see that the constant for me is knowing that God has a plan, and though I only see a glimpse from time to time, I know without a doubt that God is doing something with me and that even in my most difficult time, God is bringing me to a new place. But it starts with a faithful understanding that God wants something more for me in my life.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen